Monday, 28 September 2009

Insomnia Pitch and Portfolio Review FAQ

BICS 2009 is less than one week away. To say we are excited is something of an understatement, and one of the highlights of any show for us is the chance to talk to creators about new pitches or portfolios.

Knowing from experience how awful it is, unless you have superhuman confidence (or at least the ability to fake it!), to have to walk up to a publisher's table at a busy con, especially if it is your first time, and try and start a conversation you can steer around to "do you want to hear my pitch / see my portfolio" I thought I would dedicate this last post before the show to try and make it a bit easier for people to do just that.

Thanks to our creators who suggested a lot of these topics as being things they would have liked to know when they were starting out or approaching a new publisher for the first time.

Our full submission guidelines, details of our publishing model, and how our contracts work can be found over on the website, but hopefully this FAQ will cover things that are show specific.

Q: Can I submit as a "lone creator" or do I need to have a finished product or a full team ready to go?

A: You can submit as a "lone creator" in any discipline. We will put teams together, we consider that a key part of our role as publisher.

Writers need to make a submission for a creator owned book, we do not commission writers as freelancers that we assign to books.

Artists (including pencillers, colourists and inkers) and letterers, you need to let us know what kinds of project you are interested in working on in terms of subject matter, artist role, and length.

We also accept "team submissions" of course.

Q: Is there a certain way / time to approach you and start the conversation?

A: Apart from the the helpful answer provided by one of our writers (Christopher Barker) ,when asked about this, who said:

"I found that, when approaching Nic at a convention, moving quietly and approaching from the side is your best bet. Her eye-sight is based on movement and sudden actions tend to startle her. Bring some sugar and gently stroke her nose... wait that aint right! :/"

the short answer is no, there is no "proper way" to do it. There is no secret password or special handshake. There will be at least one of the Insomnia team on the stand at all times during the time the con is open (see list at the end for names).

Just tell whoever you speak to what it is you have come to talk about or show us, and if they are not the right person then they will either find the one of us you want, call us for you, or let you know when to come back.

Remember that finding new talent is one of the key reasons we come to shows, so we WANT to talk to you.

As it happens I did first talk to Christopher at BICS 2008.

I have set the times of 4-5.30pm on the Saturday and 11 - 1 on Sunday when I (Nic Wilkinson) am guaranteed to be on the stand to look at pitches and portfolios.

I need to go to Bryan Talbot's Grandville talk more than anything else in the world right now - so don't expect to find me anywhere but listening to the master in rapt attention from 2.30-3.30 on the Saturday!

However, if you do walk up to the stand at other times and I am there then I will be more than happy to talk to you. I'll be easy to identify, on the stand if you are looking for me in particular. I'm the only female one on the Insomnia team, I have very long blonde hair, and I'll be dressed all in black.

Q: Is it better to wait until after "show hours" and come and make a pitch in the bar?

The answer to this one is by all means come up, introduce yourself and let us know you have a story to pitch or art to show us (if you know who were are without the stand backdrop as a clue). We'll be pleased to meet you, and it's good to put faces to names, but mostly we'll ask you to drop by the stand the next day for a proper chat about your work.

The bars tend to be incredibly noisy, for one, with lots of people coming by and interrupting (and god forbid that anyone should spill drink on an art portfolio!). Unlike certain other events where is there is one central bar because the con is in a hotel, there is no bar in the city you could guarantee finding everyone.

Q: How can I be sure you won't steal my ideas?

A: Well, the short and flippant answer is that you either trust a publisher, based on what you have heard about them, or you don't.

I could say "trust me", but everyone will say that, right?

We could put up NDAs for us to sign for all creators, but that is not practical.

So, here is my case for why you can trust us, in particular, and it mainly comes down to our committment to all our books being creator owned:

1) We don't have on-going characters in long running series that have writers assigned to arcs. This means we couldn't take your idea for "character X" and just let someone else write it.

2) As our books are all creator owned we don't "commission" books (the closest we come to this is our "By Invitation" focal point series, but the stories still have to be submitted by the writers we invite) so we cannot take the core of your idea and just change something cosmetic like the location it is set in and say to someone "write me a story like this...but put it in space and with robots not vampires".

3) As our contracts are essentially "licences to exploit" (I won't go into the specifics of what that means here) it basically means we do not own the intellectual properties as publisher, the rights stay with the creator, so there would be no direct advantage to us in "stealing the idea" - even if both the above points did not apply.

4) All our Contracts have a clause where the creator must state that the rights for the idea belong only to them. This is a statement made in law, on a witnessed contract, so if it were proven not to be the case it would be a very serious matter.

5) All submissions that we do not sign are deleted so there is no danger of old files hanging around and being seen by anyone who would have no business getting hold of them in any way.

Of course, it must be said, that there is such a thing as "parallel evolution" and sometimes we do get submissions for stories which are very similar as the idea has occured to multiple people who have never met.

Q: Do I need to do any specific preparation or send you anything beforehand?

A: It's not necessary, but for writers in particular it can be useful to have done so, and you can email us at if you would like to.

I will be making sure I check the submission box every hour or so between now and Friday am.

If we have seen an initial email about your idea or a sample of script, when you come to talk to us we can ask you intelligent questions about it, and make the best use of your time when we get to meet face to face rather than just using that time to tell us the outline idea.

By being able to jump straight to this point you we both get a lot more out of the chat. If we like the idea then we are bound to ask you to send more detail on it anyway.

Q: Will I get a decision on the day?

A: It's very, very, unlikely.

If you are an artist then we will be able to tell you whether we think we could have work for you now or in the future. If we think we have a book that would work with your art style and we are looking to sign up an artist to the creative team right now we will still need to send you a script to look at to see what you really think of the story as written, not just as we describe it to you, ask you to do some characters sketches or test pages specific to the book, and we will need to show your samples and sketches to the writer who may not be there on the day.

If you are a writer who we are talking to for the first time about your idea we will be able to tell you if we think the concept sounds like something of interest to us, but we will need to review your pitch document, and no doubt come back to you with questions.

In both cases the work will likely need to be reviewed by other members of the Insomnia Team as well as the individual you speak to as part of our submissions process .

Having said all that it does sometimes happen (and it has with a couple of books, but always when we have already seen a pitch and been in conversation by email, so it was really more of finalising a contract offer), but even so it is still more likely to be at the end of the weekend once the team have had a chance to chat, rather than in the first conversation.

Q: If I am very nervous / don't like pitching face to face / am very short of time and need to catch my train home / feel I express myself better on paper etc can I just leave a pitch package with you?

Yes you can.

This sounds obvious, but make sure it has your name and email contact details clearly marked on it.

Q: What format should I bring my work in?

A: It doesn't really matter as we will not refuse to look at something because it is not in the "right format" or on the "right media".

A great story to illustrate this comes from the last Bristol Con where I met the incredibly talented Jennie Gyllblad, who is now working on the Graphic Novel Butterflies and Moths. She wasn't even intending to show a portfolio that day, but talent will out. I wrote up the full story a few months back when we signed her.

Having said that, the team that does the submissions reviewing is split between London and Scotland so putting it on a CD or DVD so we can all get an electronic copy of the files is probably easiest. If you do bring a disc please can you write your name and contact email on the disc itself as well as the documents inside, just in case there is any problem with opening anything? Technology is not always our friend!

Of course paper submissions can be scanned in by us for sharing after the show, so don't worry if you need to bring a paper submission.

For artists - if you are bringing a portfolio of orginal work then please could you bring some copies that you can leave with us.

Don't leave precious originals with us, as we are unfortunately not able to return submissions.

Q: Do you have a "House Style" I should be aware of?

A: Not at all.

We do not have an "Insomnia Style" for writing or artwork, in fact we are always on the look out for creators who want to use the medium in new and innovative ways.

In terms of art we do colour, black and white and greyscale books, so there is no need to think that if you don't work in a "mainstream style" that we would not be interested. In fact we are likely to be more interested if you don't.

Q: How long should my pitch be?

A: This is one of those "how long is a piece of string?" questions really. It's related to the "do you need me to give you the 2 line Idiot Pitch" question that has come up a lot as well.

This might be quite an involved answer - so stay with me:

Firstly, I always say - "tell me all you think I need to know to understand your story, your skills, and to make a decision".

Many publishers do have very "on rails" instructions for how you should pitch. It has been suggested to me in the past that we do this, but I think all this achieves is to exclude creators and stories that the specified pitch format does not suit.

For me, my way does mean (hopefully) that I learn quite a lot about your creative style and working style (which is important when putting team together) through the pitch itself as well - and like any other first impression you are trying to make with anything make sure it presents you in the light you want to be viewed.

Secondly, as regards the "idiot / high concept / elevator pitch" as it is variously called I think this is one of those "editor preference" things.

There are pros and cons. Of course a short snappy pitch may catch an editor's attention and get you into a conversation, but the danger is the X meets Y format as a shorthand description carries the danger of making your work sound derivative or generic.

I have said to people in the past- by all means sum it up if for me like that if you want to, but if I have a positive reaction the first thing you will have to do is be prepared to go into a deeper level of detail based on the questions that will follow in quick sucession. Me, for example, I am likely to ask you about themes and character development and interaction, providing I like the idea of the basic plot. Without getting all "russian formalist" about it - the "what happens" is just the starting point for me

Bascially, though, being able to devise a snappy "elevator pitch" tells me you are very good at devising snappy elevator pitches. That might tell me you would be a great marketing or advertising copywriter, or even that you have the ability to think up great ideas for books - but won't tell me anything about your ability to write comics.

Another reason I like to get as much detail as possible is that some stories that sound superficially similar can in fact be very different in terms of execution, and you don't want to be turned down because "X meets Y" sounds too much the same at that level as something we already have signed, or is out there already.

No publisher is going to sign a book before they have seen some of your actual script writing, anyway, so really all of this is about "selling the concept" to get to that stage.

Q: Does it matter if I don't have previously published work to show you?

A: No.

We will need to get an idea of your style, whether writer or artist, but it is your talent that is important to us.

The fact that your work may not have been published in the past may be more to do with timing, marketing climate (eg What's hot!), what else a publisher had on, how full publication schedules were, that you are just starting out etc and we are aware of all of that.

Q: Is there anything you aren't looking for:

A: This is tricky as there are no real hard and fast rules, but in general:

  • We are not looking for on-going series

  • Our graphic novels are a minimum of 90 pages and a maximum of 180, so not comic sized "one shots" and not thousand page epics.

  • We aren't looking to develop an "Insomnia Universe" so you cannot pitch stories that involve characters from other Insomnia books. The creators own the rights to those characters, not us.

  • A graphic novel can be written such that it has scope for sequels, but volume one will need to be a complete and satisfying story in its own right. Sequels are usually signed based on the reception of the first book, but we do sometimes sign multi-volume stories. If you pitch a multi-volume book, though, we will need a synopsis for the full thing. We aren't looking for open ended maxi series.

  • In terms of content we are unlikely to sign the following: straight ahead Superhero books, autobiography (historical biographies may be suitable for Vigil though), romance, light comedy or slapstick, big space opera, illustrated novels.

However - if we saw a pitch outside of our usual territory we may consider it if it is has something really different to say.

Q: Who will be on the stand?

A: From Insomnia there will be (at various times):

1) Crawford Coutts, MD and publisher
2) Nic Wilkinson, Creative Director
3) Alasdair Duncan, Sales Manager
4) Martin Conaghan, Vigil Editor (and writer of Burke and Hare)

There will also be a lot of our creators around, sketching, signing and happy to talk about their work, and how they came to be signed by Insomnia, including:
WIth several more to confirm.

Of course I won't be able to give anything to stop the butterflies, or the shakes, or your mouth going dry, or the ability to stop your tongue suddenly developing a mind of its own - but hopefully at least people will know that we know that's what they're going through - and to be honest, your work SHOULD mean enough to you that it is nerve-wracking to offer it up.

See you at the weekend!

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