The Oni Press Editorial Team Talks Open Submissions, Diversity, and More
Oni Press is opening up for submissions as of May 1st, which is an excellent opportunity for up-and-coming creators. ComicsAlliance sat down with the entire Oni editorial team --- editor-in-chief James Lucas Jones, senior editor Charlie Chu, editor Robin Herrera, and associate editor Ari Yarwood --- to talk about what they're looking for and why they're doing open submissions. Here's a hint: it has a lot to do with getting diverse voices and diverse stories out into the world.
ComicsAlliance: To start, I'd love to know, what was the catalyst to opening up to submissions?
Robin Herrera: We’ve been talking about it for a while.
James Lucas Jones: It's something we discussed at length. The real deal is, while we've not had open submissions for a while, we still were getting a fair amount of pitches. But they were largely from the same fairly homogeneous group of people and seemed to "play it safe" with what they thought we wanted to see.
RH: We definitely want to branch out. People approaching us at shows usually have an “in" — they know one of our creators, they're vetted, but it has that "club" feel, and we wanted to be able to find people outside of that. Our closed submissions has always been a big barrier to people, but it's the biggest barrier to those who are most underrepresented in publishing. That's something we realized and wanted to change.
JLJ: I think for a long time Oni Press has been viewed as a "closed shop" or "cliquish," and while I think there's room to debate the validity of that perception, the perception itself was pretty prevalent.
Charlie Chu: There's also been a lot of frustration in feeling like when folks in comics talk about things like diversity or new books or innovation, it's mostly just marketing speak. Part of why we wanted to open up submissions was wanting to put our money where our mouths were, to an extent. You can talk about being progressive from an ideological standpoint, but ultimately, evolving the industry and changing the talent pool of who you're working with, comes from who you are scouting and want to hire.
Ari Yarwood: My background is in literary publishing, specifically in feminist pop culture analysis and in working with emerging writers, so when I came on board it was important to me to take a hard look at our publishing slate and see where we could improve.
CA: I think the perception for some people is that in order to diversify a publishing slate, you need to have "quotas" or something similar. How are you approaching this open submissions process in order to add diversity? Are you looking for specific kinds of people over specific kinds of stories?
CC: No. We're trying to do a delicate dance here, because the Oni Press library has been focused on quality books, no matter the source. We're definitely not looking for affirmative action by any means, but creators who aren't typically as well represented, specifically women, people of color, or LGBTQ creators, may tend to self-edit or self-censor in these situations, so our hope is that by making our desire for new voices from people who might not typically pitch us clear and direct, it'll act as a direct invitation. There's no quota for us here. And we're certainly not going to bar white guys from submitting, but we're ultimately hoping we're able to cast a much wider, and much more diverse net for viable projects.
JLJ: I also think it's important to note that open submissions is just one piece of the puzzle. It's not the only way we're looking to add different voices and content. We know that the odds against us finding something great via a blind send are not great, but even if it's a long shot, we feel strongly about giving more people that chance.
RH: I, for one, am welcoming the slush pile with open arms.
JLJ: Fast forward to six months from now when Robin is buried under a two-ton pile of vampire pitches.
RH: Oh no, not vampires!
AY: It's true, I also kind of love going through submissions. But like James said, open submissions is not the only way we're going about this. As the newest editor, I've got the most room for new projects, and for the last few months I have been actively asking creators that I admire if they'd like to pitch.
CC: At the end of the day, we're still looking for the same fun and accessible pop comics that have defined the Oni Press line. It's just that we're proactively going after a new cluster of creators and voices that will bolster the diversity we're hunting for just by dint of them coming from writers and artists with different perspectives. I love referring to the Fast and the Furious franchise as a great example of how to do diversity in a mainstream, blockbuster kind of way that just feels so effortless yet speaks to cosmopolitan nature of the world in 2015, especially Tokyo Drift and beyond. And that's in no small part due to the actors and filmmakers involved in the franchise being of various ethnicities.
RH: I knew Fast and the Furious would come up!
CC: Furious 7 just crossed $1.15 billion dollars in ticket sales worldwide.
RH: Fastest movie to cross a billion!
CA: I'm curious what you all want to see come out of the combined open submissions and invited pitches for Oni? Both in terms of what genres and styles and what kinds of creators you're individually really interested in publishing?
RH: There's a real push in the YA world --- including middle grade, picture books, chapter books, etc. --- to include more diversity across the board, so my secret hope is that we get some YA-targeted material from people in that market, who maybe want to try writing/illustrating graphic novels. I love YA as a market because I think it is improving steadily and taking diversity in publishing seriously. There's still a lot more work to be done, but it does feel like real progress is being made. (I also write YA/MG... so I'm very submersed in that world.)
One of our upcoming books, Booger Beard, is a perfect example of something I want to see more of. It's gross, it's fun, it has wide appeal, and it features a Latino family. It's somewhere in between the picture book/easy reader level, so definitely a younger audience, but I'm also lauding it as a great read-aloud. Books to bring parents and children together.
AY: A big reason that I was so excited to work at Oni Press is because I was already a fan of the books they were publishing — The Sixth Gun, Hopeless Savages, Wet Moon, Stumptown (which I'm working on now!). That Oni Press was putting out books like these made me feel confident that I would be a good fit here, and it turns out I was right. Now I'm working at building my own slate of projects that fit within our line, and I haven't needed to trim my expectations at all. I'm just building on what's already been established and branching out further.
What I'd like to see, personally, are quality projects from a wide variety of creators that can bring their own perspectives to storytelling. More specifically, I really love fantasy, and would be super happy to get a great fantasy pitch that doesn't hinge on colonialist tropes; I'd also love to see more sci-fi pitches along those lines. And romance! I love a good romance.
RH: I AM ALSO A FAN OF ROMANCE.
CC: I'm old and jaded, so I'm just tired of seeing the same hackneyed pitches over and over again. It's kind of a cop-out, but I've never been able to springboard good pitches by telling people genres we're "looking for.” For example, I never would've been super into kaiju pitches until Zander Cannon showed us Kaijumax. When you work in editorial, you just want to work on cool books, and you know them when you see them.
As far as what kinds of creators we're interested in, I'm really hoping to be surprised by someone new coming at a story from a different angle. It's exhausting feeling like the bulk of comics is engaged in an arms race of going after Marvel or DC creators and then acting like they discovered life on Mars for creator-owned books. It can be effective, but it can also foster an echo chamber of talent and stories. I love rock star creators as much as the next reader, and I certainly love playing comics industry moneyball, but I'm hoping the open submissions yield new, uniquely original books by new creators with a new perspective.
All of that said, I want fun books that are accessible and character-driven. I actually care less about genre than I do compelling characters. Those tend to be the signature mark of memorable titles.
RH: Charlie raises a good point. Creators should definitely not try and pitch us what they think we'll want. They need to pitch what they want to pitch. That pitch will 99% of the time be leagues better than anything they've "crafted" for us. Of course, having some familiarity with what we publish will give you a good idea of whether we'd dig your pitch or not.
JLJ: I'm even older and more jaded than Charlie. For me it's never been about slick log lines or genre twists — it’s always been about how those stories are executed, how the characters are portrayed and what kind of feelings they evoke for me as a reader. A well-defined, relatable character means so much more to me than a clever plot twist. Projects that allow us to experience life through a different lens, a different POV, are what I've been chasing since I walked in the door here 15 years ago.
CC: Yeah, as an editorial trait, we really like character above concept.
CA: To switch gears a bit, are you looking for complete teams to submit or are you looking for individual creators as well?
JLJ: We're looking at both individual creators and complete teams. Pitching with a complete team can be a double-edged sword. In many ways, it can be a big help because putting together the right creative team for a project can be a time-intensive and frustrating process. On the other hand, if part of the project isn't clicking for us…
CC: Yeah, an artist who isn't quite up to snuff can kill a pitch dead. But to underscore the thing that will likely get the biggest reaction, we are looking at submissions from writers who do not have artists attached. Beyond pitches, we are also looking for portfolios from artists, including illustrators and colorists.
CA: Which is great, as I know that's something a lot of writers looking to break in struggle with. What will the submissions process look like for creators who submit — and when should people start looking at Oni's site and whatnot for more information on submission guidelines?
AY: We're using Submittable for the submissions process. People will submit their work through Submittable, and we'll review all the pitches as an editorial team, and then follow up with everyone. We won't be able to personalize every email, but people won't be left hanging.
RH: There are separate guidelines for artists, writers, and colorists, and for teams of writers/artists or cartoonists. Janelle, your pitch tips were pretty on the money with what we were planning to ask for. Glad we had that resource to give people before we could run our guidelines.
CA: Oh, I'm so glad they helped! Sometimes you never know, as all editors are different.
One last question — and I know this is sort of a difficult one, so if you have to pass, I understand — I generally advise that creators understand if they can financially handle working for a particular publisher before they pitch - i.e. if they get page rates or not, what the rights are, etc. and if not is that okay for them — and if they have the time to complete the project realistically given other obligations (particularly if they need to work a day job to make ends meet). Do you have any advice or commentary for potential Oni creators on that front?
CC: Well first of all, working in creator-owned comics is not the same as work-for-hire. Nobody is getting rich from the get-go on original IP, so I would dissuade anyone who expects to get a payout or a huge page rate doing creator-owned books, especially if they're new and have no pre-awareness or previous work under their belt.
But that said, different books have different budgets, and its a case-by-case basis. It all ultimately comes down to us being able to crunch numbers based on who is involved with the books, how well they can show they can or can't use social media or in-real-life marketing to promote themselves and their work, and figuring out whether or not we think we can succeed with a given project in the direct market and the bookstore/library markets.
However, a pitch, and hopefully approval, is a start of a conversation. The nice thing about the books that Oni Press publishes is that we operate on a long tail and have a history of working around schedules, and we love calendaring projects far out so creators can juggle things like life and day jobs to pay the bills while they're working on books that might not see the light of day for a year or two.
We definitely like working with people who reek of being stone cold professionals. I'm fond of telling people that we're not in the business of making comics; we're in the business of releasing comics.
RH: I'm sure there are creators out there who could say, "Well, I could make more if I just put the comic up on Kickstarter or Patreon." Which might be true! There are a lot of very successful cartoonists who self-publish. In my opinion, self-publishing makes sense for comics because it's such a visual medium. It works in a way that wouldn't for books.
But you know what? Self-publishing is a TON of work. And that's what we offer. We offer editing, and we make your book the best that it can be. We offer design, and our production department will make your book look beautiful. We offer marketing and distribution, and we'll get your book in front of retailers and reviewers and the public. We have storage solutions, so you aren't keeping your 2,000 copy print run in your garage. We offer support and years of experience and so much more. Also, we're pretty great to work with.
CA: Awesome! Do you guys have anything else you'd like to add about the submissions process or what you're looking for?
RH: Yes: pay attention to the guidelines! We spent a long time coming up with them and typing them out, the least you can do is read and follow them.
CC: For people interested in pitching us, I would highly recommend familiarizing themselves with the Oni Press library to get a sense of the kinds of books we do and more importantly, don't publish. Beyond that, I would steer people towards self-contained stories that are either OGN length or the equivalent of 5-issue mini-series. It is highly unlikely we would be committing to a long-form series by a new creative team as their first work.