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Thread: What It Takes To Sell Your Pitch, Part 3

  1. LeeNordling Guest

    What It Takes To Sell Your Pitch, Part 3

    Now we come to the Ugly Duckling of the three articles on pitching, the one that nobody talks about, the one left standing in the corner of the party that nobody wants to dance with.

    I guess you could also call it the tough love article.

    This is the common sense article, the one that says, “Don’t put your hand in the fire; it’ll hurt.”

    Then you say, “Of course not, I would never put my hand in the fire,” as your burnt hair curls and skin sizzles.

    Here’s a truth I’ve discovered since first writing this: we all put our hands in the fire.

    We all become so enamored with what we create that we’re just sure everybody else will love it, if they’d only give it a chance.

    Let’s repeat part of that last sentence, “…if they’d only give it a chance.”

    See whose responsibility it will be when the story’s rejected? Not yours, theirs.

    So let’s tell the ugly truth: every rejection is your responsibility.

    This doesn’t mean the editors are all saints and geniuses; far from it, in fact.

    Editors need to be made comfortable, and no matter what pains in your ass they may be, they hold the keys that allow to entre to the kingdom.

    They’re each different. They each have different preferences about what they do and don’t like, whom they do and don’t like, when they do and don’t like stuff, and it is your responsibility to figure this stuff out.

    They don’t have to be fair or reasonable, and you have to be as professional as possible…because they can always tell industry associates about you.

    They don’t have to be good at what they do; you simply need to ascertain whether you can or will work with them.

    This is a minefield, and the more you know it, the less it will hurt each time you die.

    Each time you die.

    Welcome to the videogame of life, where you learn everything possible from the last time you died so you may not die the next time.

    I’ve died many times, and will continue to do so.

    So will you.

    But that’s what we have to do to make stories come to life.


    NOTE: The following has been slightly edited to fit what I’m doing now, rather than where I was working when I first wrote it…the company that shall not be named.


    PART 3

    This is the third in a three-part series on various ways you can improve your hitting percentage with editors.

    The previous two columns have been about tailoring your pitch so that an editor/publisher/producer will become enamored with your story and want to see it developed further.

    Let’s presume that your pitch communicates exactly what your story is about, in content, character and tone…that it is beautifully written and at a comfortable length…that it hooks the reader at the beginning and reels him in like a trout. This constitutes as perfect pitch as you can hope to have created for your story.

    So, you submit your perfect pitch, and the asshol--um, editor/publisher/producer says, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

    How could this happen?

    Where did you fail?

    Did you fail?

    Yes, and no.

    You failed to sell the pitch, yes.

    But if the pitch perfectly communicates the story you hope to write (or have already written), then you’ve succeeded in getting the jerk--er, editor/publisher/producer to determine whether or not it would suit his or her needs.

    In short, he knows he doesn’t want it, no matter how well the finished piece will be executed, and that’s the silver lining of this cloudburst that momentarily doused your dream.

    This is your first step toward…


    Imagine all the stories that have been (or will ever be) written as existing in a gigantic metaphysical sandbox.

    What Marvel wants is in one corner, not too far from what the DC Universe is looking for. Vertigo is somewhere over on the other side. Image, Dark Horse, NBM, Oni, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Cyberosia and all the rest—no offense intended for any omissions—have their spots staked out, too.

    When an editor/publisher/producer says, “No thanks,” he’s also saying, “You’re not playing in our part of the sandbox.”

    We’ve already established that the pitch is well-written and that you’re not deluding yourself about this—which is not a bad thing to double check with a hyper-critical friend whose opinion you value—so the “no thanks” will more likely mean one or more of the following:

    “We don’t publish stories in that genre.”

    “We can’t sell your story.”

    “We have something—or many things—like your story, and we don’t need (or can’t sell) another one.”

    “We can’t embrace your story.”

    “We only work with published writers/creators who’ve established themselves in the marketplace, critically or commercially.”

    None of these explanations is inappropriate. Each is a signpost in the sandbox that would help you determine what you will or won’t be submitting to them in the future. Some signposts read, “stop,” “wrong turn,” or show you the detour route, (an example of which would be for you to establish yourself as a creator before coming back).

    All of these are shorthand for “We don’t like it,” or “We can’t sell it.”

    The problem is that most publishers don’t have the staff to get back to creators and plant any of these posts clearly in the sandbox for you to read, so you’re forced to speculate…which can be very frustrating.

    If you want to minimize the speculation, then you have to eliminate the obvious possibilities.

    You have to target the right material for the right publisher.

    How many of you just said, “Well, duh”?

    Yeah, that’s what I would’ve said a few years ago, too…but that was before I learned that it’s as important to become familiar with the culture of a publisher as well as what they publish.

    You may have the coolest idea for Batman in the world, one that could spin the franchise on its head and send it leaping in its most profitable direction in years…but DC Comics is careful about whom they’ll let play with their toys.

    Let’s say you’ve never worked with DC Comics before, but you’ve written some well-received books by other publishers, nothing measuring a 7.0 on the Richter scale, but material that was respected enough to give you a shot.

    In your pitch, you reveal that Bruce has a twin brother who was kidnapped at birth. Through a sequence of events—probably something involving a deathbed confession by the nurse who stole the child and raised him as her own—Robert Cain, a local thug in the organized crime community, discovers that he is really David Wayne Jr., the elder twin of Bruce Wayne…and he becomes obsessed about the brother who stole his childhood, and sets out to claim his inheritance.

    That might be an interesting premise, but nobody’s going to let you write that story as anything other than an Elseworlds.

    This is what’s called, in TV land, a staff-written show, in other words, something they’d only let you write if you worked on staff. This story changes the Batman mythology in a significant manner, and only people in power—whether they’re editors or writers of influence who may or may not be Frank Miller—make these changes.

    Nearly ten years ago—ancient history in comic book industry terms—when I was Group Editor of Creative Services at DC Comics, I was responsible for the Submissions Department.

    I remember culling through proposal after proposal…reached one by an unknown writer, and laughed out loud, because it was terrific, as was the next one and the next one. Great stuff. Inspired. I showed them to Dean Motter, who worked in my department, and he loved them, too. Dean then spent the next week showing them to editors…and nobody wanted to see more. Nobody.


    Because this writer was previously unpublished, and he hadn’t earned enough stripes to get the editors’ attention and be able to play with the DC Comics toys.

    It’s not my intent to criticize the DC Comics editorial staff for not pursuing these pitches. My goal is for you, as a creator, to realize that companies have different barometers for whom they will and won’t hire, and it is incumbent on you to determine the nature of these barometers.

    If it is your goal to write for DC Comics or Marvel, then you should realize it’s nearly impossible to do so without a body of work behind you…unless you work within the company or have somehow established a relationship with an editor. Failing the latter, your next rung on the ladder is to find somebody whom is more interested in publishing your story than your publishing history.

    So, if you’re charting your career path towards DC or Marvel, what kind of stories should you be writing?

    Well, you could try publishing a brilliant body of work in crime fiction comics, like Brian Michael Bendis, and hope that a top editor will be inspired to extend his search for new voices beyond the superhero/heroic fantasy genre.

    But is that the exception or the rule? Let me tell you a different story.

    The writer of an independently published comic once submitted his superhero book as a writing sample to a top editor at DC or Marvel. (That’s right, I’m not telling whom or which). The editor said, in effect, “I really enjoyed it…but we don’t do comedy.”

    The late Peter Ledger once told me about a conversation Richard Hescox (a talented painter and mutual friend) had in an advertising art director’s office. The art director skimmed through Richard’s portfolio as though he was at the dentist’s office flipping through an Entertainment Weekly, when he suddenly stopped and peered closely at a page with a new discrimination. He looked up from the illustration of a Halloween pumpkin, and said, “You can draw pumpkins. I have a project that requires somebody who can draw pumpkins.” Richard got the assignment, knowing full well he wouldn’t have without an illustration of exactly what the art director required.

    Peter and his then-wife, Christy Marx, called this the Pumpkin Syndrome.

    You should keep this in mind when creating a body of material or stories for specific locations in the sandbox. I’m not suggesting you write for anybody other than yourself. I’m just saying that you can’t control who’s sitting on the other side of a desk, and even if what you’ve written or want to write is spot on…you may only be able to walk away from an encounter saying, “Inspired thinker” or “Pumpkin Syndrome.”

    So, when you’re in a position to create something for the publisher of your choice, you should become very familiar with the type of material they publish.

    For DC or Marvel, it’s incumbent on you to understand their respective character universes and not try to affect core mythological changes, like the one about Bruce Wayne’s evil twin, until after you’ve earned a measure of trust and been given a green light to do so.

    “Yeah, yeah,” you say, “That’s DC and Marvel. What about the others.”

    Where you’re not concerned with fitting into an established mythology, you still have to fit into an established sensibility and publishing history.

    You should probably anticipate that a proposed series about topless, large-breasted she-male demons that…um…seduce their victims to death is not going to play too well at Oni Press.

    Yep, I’m being obvious, but I’ve seen hundreds of pitches that may be just fine for Oni, Avatar or Cyberosia that aren’t anywhere close to what we’ve expressed our interest for at The Pack.

    For example, at The Pack we’re interested in material that only makes sense for trade book publishing, in short, books that publishers can sell in tens of thousands of units at bookstores, in categories ranging from nonfiction to children’s picture books, as well as for tweens, teens, and young adults. We’re very specific about these markets on our site, and that we’re not interested in seeing material that only makes sense for the direct market, yet I continue to see submissions that are similar in tone to those with topless, large-breasted she-male demons.


    Because creators will send anything to anybody in the hope that somebody will embrace their vision. I sympathize with this, but when you send in material that’s completely inappropriate to the publisher’s professed needs, the quality of your pitch becomes less relevant, and you greatly reduce the chance of setting up the project.

    Red Skelton did a weekly skit on his ‘50s/‘60s TV show about a mean little kid. The kid often encountered situations that were too tempting for him to ignore, even though he knew he would be punished for what he contemplated. At the moment of decision, he inevitably grinned—it was a wide, toothy, devilish smirk—and said, “If I dood it, I get a whippin’—I dood it anyway.”

    And then he dood—er, did it.


    …if you dood it…

    …if you send your pitch to editors/publishers/producers, even when they’ve stated they’re looking for something different than what you’re sending, or if they don’t have a history of publishing that type of material, that’s fine.

    Go for it.

    Dood it.

    But should the pitch be rejected, it’s equally important to know that it’s because you weren’t playing in the right part of the sandbox for the editor/publisher/producer. It’s not because he’s an asshol—er, jerk—er, unrepentant lout.

    From here, there are two options.

    Keep doing whatever it is your doing, and that’s fine. Ultimately, you may become a self-publisher, and there are numerous success stories here.

    Or see if you can’t find someplace closer in the sandbox to where the editor/publisher/producer is playing, someplace that allows for your areas of interest to overlap their areas of interest. There’s a history of success here, too.

    Ultimately, what matters is that you’re creating stories that hit exactly where you want them to in the sandbox…and if somebody happens to be there to pick them up, all the better.


    Lee Nordling is the owner and founding partner of The Pack (, a comics-related content provider for the publishing industry. He is also author of “Your Career In the Comics,” an overview of the newspaper comics syndication profession and industry.

    If you wish to contact Lee separately from Comics Pro Prep, please write to him at lee@projectfanboy.

  2. BarriLang Guest

    I've been working on a a story for a couple of years. After some hicups with artists and off the back of some Steve Forbes and Calvin Camp help, I've re-written the story for the better (I feel).

    When I knew where I wanted to go with it I made further adjustments based on the policy of the publisher I'm planning to approach. They have a policy to publish 3-4 part mini series only and so I have cut my 12 issue and focused on the the 1st four parts with the scope to expand it.

    I'm hoping by making the pitch and product bespoke I will stand a better chance. I read that it was easier to pitch a mini as the publisher sees it as a low risk option. I also read that stories should be kept (when possible) in self contained (yet linked) part. So that if the series is ongoing it will be easier to split the run and re sell as TPB's.
    Last edited by BarriLang; Tuesday, December 08, 2009 at 01:34 PM.

  3. StevenForbes Guest

    Ah. Playing in the sandbox...

    And I'm up damned early.


    When I was first starting out, I had dreams of getting in to Marvel and doing decent things there. All I wanted to do was superheroes, and nothing was going to stop me. I even got a few rejection letters. I think they were actually signed by Joe, but I'm not sure.

    When I calmed down and started looking at the larger comics world, I was sending in all types of stories all over the place. It was horrible.

    I didn't know where I wanted to play in the sandbox. What's worse, I didn't understand where the companies were playing in the sandbox, either.

    Hey, I never claimed to be intelligent.

    Learning where to play in the sandbox is THE most important lesson you can learn, in my opinion. Having a perfect pitch is good and nice and helps, but unnecessary if you have a relationship with an editor. If you're friends with the managing editor of Oni, you'd probably only need to run a quick idea by him or show some artwork to either be accepted or rejected--if you weren't coached as to what to send him in the first place.

    "Kletus, I'm looking for a story about thimble-sized napkins, doing their best to soak up all the water in the world. I think it'll be fun!" So you run out and write something up really quickly and show it to him, and he takes it. Simple. And it doesn't take a pitch that you agonized over for days in order to get it just right.

    I've had a few conversations with Lee, and he's said "Yep, that'll work as a story for The Pack," or "No, that won't work for trade book publishing," and even one "I like it, I think it'll work, but I have to develop a contact for it to work, so send it back to me in a little while."

    I've been through a decent amount of rejections, and it really wasn't until I ran across these articles many moons ago that the friggin light bulb went off and I said, "I'm STUPID!" (Well, actually, I called myself an asshole, but that's me.)

    Let's bring this a little closer to home.

    You have an all-ages book you want to do about ten thimble-sized napkins trying to sop up the world's water supply. So, you head on over to Digital Webbing, and write up a post saying you're willing to pay an artist to do the work for some submission pages. You're going to send this over to Villard and knock their socks off! (Villard?) [Yep! Now, go research...]

    So you write up the ad, and your inbox gets flooded with artists from all walks of life, trying to get that shot. You get a LOT of superhero stuff, some erotica, a lot of horror, some anthropomorphic tricycle riding zebras, and pinups that don't do anything to tell you if the artist knows how to tell a story.

    (Sound familiar?) In short, you don't get much of anything you can use to further your story The Sops. And it's all the fault of the artists who submit.

    Take that and apply it to your own projects, and you can see where you start to fall down.

    It about knowing where to play in the sandbox.

    This lesson is IMPORTANT, and while it needed to come last, it should be something that's taught first. It's a no brainer and damned simple--and because of that, it is too easily overlooked by many.

    If you have a story you want to tell, do yourselves a favor and GO BUY some books that your target publisher puts out. No, I didn't say peruse their website to see the kind of titles they put out. Buy their books. Study them. (You may even like them--you should, because it should be near the same vein that your proposal is in.) Looking at the website isn't enough. It helps, but it doesn't go as deep as you need to go when looking to get published.

    Anything and everything you can do to give yourself a leg up should be done when pitching. Studying the terrain is part of that. It's something I didn't think/know to do when I was starting out.

    Thank you for this, Lee. We all have "duh" moments, and this was a big one of mine. It was something I didn't know to do, but now am pretty conscious of when I have a new idea. I know where it could fit, and some options of how it could/should look.

    (OH! And as an aside, folks, if you haven't already done so, or hadn't thought to do so, go get yourself a six inch d-ring or 3-ring binder, a hole punch, and start printing these out! If you want the conversations too, that's up to you, but I strongly suggest printing out the articles and keeping them. You have NO IDEA how invaluable this information is going to be to you in a few years time. I already have mine, have already printed these articles, but I will be printing future installments of CPP. Bookmarks are nice, but hard copies are forever!)

  4. LeeNordling Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by StevenForbes View Post
    (OH! And as an aside, folks, if you haven't already done so, or hadn't thought to do so, go get yourself a six inch d-ring or 3-ring binder, a hole punch, and start printing these out! If you want the conversations too, that's up to you, but I strongly suggest printing out the articles and keeping them. You have NO IDEA how invaluable this information is going to be to you in a few years time. I already have mine, have already printed these articles, but I will be printing future installments of CPP. Bookmarks are nice, but hard copies are forever!)

    There go my future book sales.


    Thanks for adding to this discussion, Steven.

    I remember reading an early review of my book, "Your Career In the Comics." The guy thought the book was okay, but complained that a lot of the people in the book were saying the same stuff about things; it bored him, and he implied that I should've left one quote on a topic and let that cover it.

    Now, I used several quotes saying different versions of the same sentiments for a reason: I wanted to make sure the reader understood that these were consensus assessments, so there'd be no mistaking the point: they HAD to be accepted as truisms, they couldn't be discounted as simply one person's opinion.

    Thanks for helping make this most-obvious of topics another truism.


  5. StevenForbes Guest

    Always happy to help, Lee.

    And trust me, if you put out another book entitled Comics Pro Prep, people are going to buy it. You know it, I know it, they know it.

    I'll just have to try like hell to make sure that sales of Bolts & Nuts can match the flood of demand that CPP will have.


    What are your thoughts on the placement of this topic? The first/last thing? I can see an argument for having it be last, but I can see one for having it first, as well. I'm sure you had a very logical reason for putting it last. I'm curious as to what it was.

  6. LeeNordling Guest

    Somebody once asked Steven Spielberg why he chose to shoot Jurassic Park in 1.85:1, rather than his traditional 2.35:1.

    He said, "Because dinosaurs are tall."

    My reason is because that's how it goes: 1) hook; 2) short pitch; 3) submission.

    Now, where this would go in a BOOK is something I'm still mulling over.

    Since CPP won't be chronological through the process--I expect to jump around a lot--I haven't really figured out a book-structure version of it yet; I'm sure it'll come to me.


  7. Matt Guest

    Excellent blog so far, Lee.

  8. danialworks Guest

    I can honestly say that the idea of big-breasted she-male demons on a rampage would never occur to me...
    ...then again I tend to paint bisexuals in a good light...

    Anyway, I just wanted to suggest that word choices are important.

    Never, ever use the word 'brutal' in a pitch to describe a fight between female characters.

    It invokes the wrong imagery.

    While maybe twenty young women of various ages around the globe saw what I intended, a fight for survival between two characters of whatever gender-- they are audience, though... and not editors or publishers--

    And Lee pointed out the word 'brutal' invoked the wrong intellectual and emotional response--

    Certain editor types wanted to see women brutalize each other. They wanted that women in prison vibe. Big-breasted cat fights.

    Lee was right in how certain folks would... interpret.

    This kid backed away quickly. No one wanting that kind of work knows the whole ending of the piece.

    So be careful to use the words that build the editorial response you want...

    or someone will see things you never intended to write about.

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