The Future of Children's Book and Graphic Novel Publishing in the Covid-19 Era

Kristen McLean Interview: The Future of Children's Book and Graphic Novel Publishing in the Covid-19 Era

Last week I interviewed Kristen McLean, publishing industry analyst and VP of business development for market research firm NPD Group.

The Future of Children's Book and Graphic Novel Publishing in the Coronavirus Era-kristen-mclean-interview for Kids Comics Meetup April 2020

She answered a lot of burning questions about what's happening in the children's book and graphic novel market right now, like:

  • What's happened to book sales overall since the coronavirus crisis began?
  • What's the biggest "white space" in the book market at this time?
  • How have comics and graphic novel sales been affected in 2020?
  • How might the comics distribution system in the US change in the near future?
  • What categories of books are selling best during this crisis? What's been negatively affected?
  • Which trends might be accelerated by this crisis?
  • How is the crisis causing innovation to happen, and which innovations might change the publishing landscape once the acute crisis abates?

It was a fascinating discussion. Click to view the full interview on YouTube.


Interview with Matt Loux

Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you decide to become an artist?

My name is Matt Loux. I’m from Eastern Connecticut originally, but I have been a New Yorker since 1997.

I wanted to become an artist at a pretty early age. In fact, there really wasn’t a decision to be made. My artistic interest and abilities have always been the most important part about me, if that makes sense. It’s the earliest thing I can remember doing and the earliest thing I remember being good at. There was really never any other option in my mind besides doing some sort of artistic career.

I think part of what formed this singular frame of mind (other than ignorance) was that I had very supportive parents in this department, particularly my dad. Both my mom and dad loved the arts (and still do) but my dad sketched and painted when he was younger, and all through my childhood, he carved wooden folk art pieces like whirligigs and bird and duck decoys.

At a very young age, I emulated this by making my own carvings in the basement workshop. When I was a bit older I started trying out Dad’s fine art materials like his old oil or acrylic paints, and began studying his many drawing instruction books. I even went to the same high school, which is famous in the area for having a comprehensive art major, and where he also took art classes as a teen.

Another seminal thing my parents always did was treat my artistic interest seriously. Even when I was young Dad would tell me that I was an artist. In retrospect I can’t tell you how important it was to be told that the thing you care about the most is valuable. Because it was the thing I cared most about myself.

How do you start your day?

I am a night owl and not really a morning person, so I begin my day late and slowly. When I get up I make coffee and sit and sip while catching up on social media and the news, and these days watching Andrew Cuomo’s daily Covid-19 updates. This can last over an hour normally.

Depending on if I’m hungry, I will either eat, then get ready, or just jump into my work day. How and when I start working also depends on which stage my art has been left from the previous night. If I am happy with how things are going, or I’m close to finishing a stage in the process (inking, painting, coloring etc.), then I am more motivated to get back to it. If I have to begin a stage, particularly inking, I’m less motivated and will take more time with my coffee.


What does your workspace/studio look like? What aspects of it are most important to you?

I am lucky to have a dedicated room in our Westchester apartment as my art studio. Not big enough to experiment with anything crazy like oil painting, woodworking or sculpting, unfortunately, but plenty big for illustration, comics and watercolors.

I have a nice big flat desk where I can spread out while staging my most frequently used materials, like ink, brushes and pens. When watercoloring, my paint sets sort of spread down onto a stool. Everything on my desk has it’s own zone, if not specific place. That’s my OCD way of managing things and it’s also why I don’t like working anywhere else.

To the left of my drawing desk is a flat file my Dad built me, housing my comic pages and paper. To the right I have a little drawer set with my extra materials and the less frequently used art stuff. On top is a papers organizer where I keep my current comic script and the thumbnails I work from, and above that I’ve been hanging recently finished pages for reference and work consistency.

Matt Loux studio space with works in progress on the wallsFurther to the right is a little shelf for all my sketchbooks, full and empty. I often need to revisit the original sketches of a project so it’s convenient to have them close by. I also have sketchbooks dedicated to future project ideas, and sometimes when taking breaks I’ll add some art to them. I also stage books here that I’m either trying to read, or am using as artistic inspiration. I don’t use them as something to work off of but it’s nice to look at someone else’s comics to get you feeling ready to make your own.

Matt Loux sketchbooks in studio space

Turn 180 degrees from my drawing desk and you have my computer station. It is a pretty old iMac where I still use a CS4 Photoshop to do all of my file prep and computer coloring, but I am set in my ways and would rather not have to reinvent my methods :). On either side are a pair of scanners. The left one is a large, basic-but-good-for-line art, oversized flat bed scanner. On the right is a normal-sized scanner, but it’s newer, faster, and much better for scanning color. This is what I use for my watercolor paintings.

Matt Loux graphic novel artist studio space computer workstation

And in the other corner of the room, taking up probably half of my studio space, is my retro game themed lounge area. For years I’ve been building a modest collection of retro video game stuff (NES, SNES, famicom, Atari etc.) and I am happy to finally have a proper, usable place to display and enjoy them. It is definitely not as impressive a space as most hardcore collectors would have, but I’m glad I’ve got it.

Vintage video games in Matt Loux's studio lounge area

The art on the wall, toys, and objects of interest I’ve collected over the years are displayed all around me. It’s a creative person’s nest and it really helps me feel comfortable and motivated to keep working. The most important aspect of my studio is that I have one.


What’s your favorite medium, and why do you love it?

Watercolor is my favorite medium that I work in. I love it because of the organic and imperfect looks you can get with it, and how different your results can be from other watercolorists. It’s a tricky medium, but it has a classic beauty to it that digital, even now, can’t really recreate.

Prunella graphic novel illustration by Matt Loux in watercolor

My favorite artistic medium in general, honestly, might be pixel art video games or 2D animation, two things that formed me as an illustrator and cartoonist far more than any other art, I’d say.

3D animation usually bums me out these days, so whenever there is a quality 2D animated movie or show I am very happy. Same with pixel art video games, which are usually only done as indie games now. Despite the technology being far, far beyond that, I’m grateful they are still being made.


What tool has improved your workflow or creative process recently?

I’m pretty set in the way I do things, which is something a cartoonist in particular has to determine early on for consistency, I think, so there isn’t much new to add. But a few years ago, I did invest in expensive wireless noise canceling headphones that I practically live in now. They are great for focusing and especially good if you have tight living arrangements or are in a noisy city apartment situation. Since I live above the City in Westchester now, it works great for blocking out lawn care noise.


When you’re feeling “artist’s block,” what do you do to get “unblocked”?

Well, there are three ways of dealing with this for me.

The first is to force myself to work through it. I’ll try and do this no matter what, but I will usually afford myself more break times.

The second is, take a day off to play games, watch shows and have a treat dinner of some kind.

The third, and probably the most effective thing to do, is meet up with artist friends for drinks or dinner or something and talk about what we are working on. That really works the best as long as you combine it with step one and two.


What websites, social media accounts, podcasts, or books are particularly inspiring to you right now? Where do you go when you need a dose of creative inspiration?

I’ve tailored my Instagram so I mostly follow artists that I admire and it’s a good way to keep track of what projects they are working on or have released to the public.

I also watch the NHK World app very regularly. I am a lover of all things Japan and there are so many good shows to watch, with topics including traditional folk art, food, tourist locales, even trains. There is also a four-part documentary following ten years of acclaimed animation director Hayao Miyazaki as he works on his movies. I watch this one regularly for inspiration.

I think now, since travel is on hold for a while, these sort of international travel and culture shows can be very important to a creative person’s upkeep.


What’s a favorite project that you’ve worked on so far in your career? What did you love about it?

That would have to be the Yo Gabba Gabba board comic and anthology shorts I illustrated for Oni Press a few years back.

When I was still a teen in college I became a big, big fan of a band called The Aquabats. The Aquabats is a SKA band from SoCal who dress up like surfer superheroes and would often fight kaiju-style monsters on stage.

The band leader, Christian Jacobs, is the co creator of the hit Nick Jr. show Yo Gabba Gabba. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a super pop/stylish kids show with lots of music and it is so much fun to watch. When I found out Oni Press was planning on collaborating with them on comics I demanded to be a part of it (which is very unlike me), and I was so thrilled that they did decide to include me. It was a dream project which landed me on my first San Diego Comic Con panel with Christian and the rest of the Gabba team. It really was a wonderful experience!

Yo Gabba Gabba board comic cover by Matt Loux


What is your dream project in the future?

I’ve been very lucky in my career that almost every graphic novel I’ve illustrated has been my own story.

Salt Water Taffy kids graphic novel by Matt Loux

So, since that is my norm, I would say a dream project for me would be to do children’s book covers, or maybe my take on some of the classics like Treasure Island, Ivanhoe, maybe some of the Wizard of Oz series.

And though they are not kids books, I would love to try illustrating one of the P. G. Wodehouse Jeeves books. I think that would be great fun.

My other dream project would be to design my own video game. As you’re probably gathering from this interview, I love video games and have since I was a kid, and they are probably the biggest influence on my own storytelling. I would love to create a game with my art style and ideas under the guidance of talented people who actually know how to program games.


What advice do you wish you could give your younger self?

Value yourself more, realize that people take what you say and do more seriously than you think, and take business classes.


How do you balance work and art with personal life?

I don’t do this well enough, ha ha.

The first big lesson after art college that I and my serious-minded friends had to learn was to not go out and socialize as much, and to stay home and do the work. To make it in comics you simply have to make comics, and there were lots of classmates of mine who didn’t really learn that first simple, yet still challenging, lesson. The ones who did, would not see each other as often, and we lost friends because of this, but when we did get together we understood each other more and connected better for it.

I think the best relationships for artists, especially cartoonists, are those who understand this aspect of the business and are patient with it or who also experience it. Of course you obviously have to allow personal, non-work, times or else your brain will crack, but you need friends and loved ones who understand that comics and art comes first.


How do you maintain your art career? Either in terms of marketing yourself, or developing multiple income streams?

This is very much not my strong suit. I think most artists struggle with this too. We just want to be able to do our thing, be left alone and create, but the world of marketing and selling projects is a very different muscle to flex. This is something I think non-artists don’t totally understand, but it’s like asking them to paint a picture. They wouldn’t know how to even start without guidance.

It’s the same with creative people and marketing. That said, I’ve gotten better at it over the years and it’s easier to feel confident in promoting or shopping a project when you’ve successfully completed others before. Still, it’s an ongoing search for the right way to go about it. And of course it’s often advantageous for an artist to hire someone who can do these things better than them (if they can afford it of course).


What are you working on now?

I am currently doing my first fully watercolor painted graphic novel for First Second Books. It hasn’t formally been announced yet but it is a fantasy story for younger Middle Grade readers with lots of beautiful wooded nature and interesting monsters. It’s been a dream of mine ever since discovering Alex Ross’s gorgeously painted comics to make my own someday, and I can’t wait for it to be finished and ready to share with the world.

Prunella graphic novel by Matt Loux, to be published by First Second: monsters

Prunella graphic novel art by Matt Loux, to be published by First Second

And while I’m painting furiously, I am also plotting out the next volume of my Time Museum series, which will continue Delia and the Bean Team’s epic time travel adventure as they get to some pretty cool and unexpected plot points, some enticing relationship stuff and a bunch of fun new time periods to explore.


Connect with Matt Loux:

Read Matt Loux:


Salt Water Taffy Vol. 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4, Volume 5

Yo Gabba Gabba board book

Time Museum Volume 1, Volume 2

See more art by Matt Loux!

Contact Me About Matt

Remind Yourself of Your Mission

There's a lot of fear swirling around out there, and it's not irrational. We're facing a silent, deadly virus that is causing health systems to collapse, and the entire global economy is in a deep freeze from which it may be difficult to recover.

Even if you're a naturally optimistic person, you may still be feeling deeply uneasy right now.

When external events disorient you, it helps to have a North Star that gets you back on track.

Because one thing is eternally true: life is change. This crisis will pass. New problems will arise.

If you have a strong, clear sense of purpose, you will be able to navigate any set of circumstances more easily. Including really scary ones, like now.

So, during Office Hour, I'm going to lead an exercise in reminding you of your mission.

For me, there's something interesting about the difference between "a mission" versus "a mission statement."

"A mission statement" sounds like something a corporate committee would develop.

But "a mission" sounds like something Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo would undertake against all odds to save a beautiful planet from extinction.

I want you to figure out your mission.

What is the adventure that you are beginning right now?

Who are you trying to save?

What are the stakes?

Cue dramatic music....

You are the hero. Where are you going and why?




Getting Creative Work Done During a Time of Uncertainty and Stress

Creative work is hard.

Even in the best of circumstances, it’s hard work translating your imagination and raw emotions and jumbled ideas into something structured and tangible, and then sharing it with the world.

And right now, we’re not in the best of circumstances.

In fact, it’s easy to say that our current circumstances feel downright terrifying. The coronavirus pandemic is inexorably making its way into every corner of the world. The global economy has collapsed. Political views seem to have hardened into vicious polarization.

Scrolling headlines on the internet reminds me of Henny Penny, the little hen who ran screaming, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” and soon recruited a host of terrified followers… who all ran breathlessly straight into the fox’s den.

The moral of this story is: the herd mentality is very, very dangerous. It almost never leads to anything positive.

Creative work, on the other hand, almost always leads to positive things.

For you, the creator, it leads to feelings of accomplishment, confidence, and the joy of touching other people’s lives. For your audience, it leads to insight, camaraderie, and the thrill of experience.

Therefore, now more than ever, it is critically important for you to continue creating your work. Because you are a force for good in the world.

But how can you create your work when it feels like the sky is falling?

We all feel overwhelmed when we embark on ambitious projects, but it can feel especially impossible when the TV is blaring bad news and headlines are a non-stop barrage of dire predictions.

I have two simple pieces of advice:

  1. Break your work into manageable chunks
  2. Connect with your peers

1. Break your work into manageable chunks

This advice holds during extraordinary circumstances just as much as it does during normal ones.

If you find yourself thinking, “OMG, I’ve got to finish writing, penciling, inking and coloring this entire graphic novel by the end of the year, and I was so distracted/freaked out I didn’t even finish one page last week!!!”...

Stop. Take a deep breath. Say to yourself, “Let’s focus on this week, not this year.”

I recommend that you spend 20 minutes or so every Friday afternoon, Sunday evening, or Monday morning deciding exactly what chunk of creative work you want to finish in the upcoming week.

Be realistic. It’s better to set smaller goals that you can definitely accomplish rather than consistently fall short.

Then, schedule it. Even if you’re on lockdown and have no other meetings and you’re thinking, “I have all the time in the world right now, why in the world do I need a schedule?”...

I’m telling you, make a schedule. Write it in your calendar: from 9 am to 11 am on Monday morning is Creative Work Time (for example). Tell your family or your housemates in advance and gently ask them to be respectful and not interrupt you during that time.

Come Monday at 9 am, you’ve already decided: you know what you need to do. You sit in your chair and start working.

Even if at first you feel distracted or unmotivated or worried about something else, you’ve pre-determined that this is work time, so you don’t even need to think about it. You only have one task: put pencil to paper (or stylus to tablet, or whatever your tools may be!).

If the work you do is crappy, so be it! You did your duty. If you continue to show up and work as planned, day in, day out, you will make progress.

2. Connect With Your Peers

During a time of enforced isolation like we’re experiencing now, it is imperative that you proactively reach out and connect with peers on a regular basis.

Social connection is a basic human need. It is also amazingly important for creative work -- even creative work that we typically think of as a solitary endeavor, like writing or drawing.

Talking with your peers is the gasoline that keeps your engine going. It’s what keeps you motivated and inspired.

And as most of you would probably agree, your mom or significant other or best friend usually isn’t the right type of person (unless you’re unusually lucky). You need to talk to people who understand what you’re trying to do, and who are trying to do similar things themselves.

For instance, when you say, “I’m trying to figure out this shading technique on Clip Studio Paint but having issues with XYZ,” it isn’t helpful if your conversation partner looks at you with a blank expression and says, “Huh?”

Instead, you want someone who leans forward enthusiastically and says, “Oh yeah, I know who you should ask about that!”

So, in addition to scheduling time for your creative work, make sure you schedule some Zoom calls or FaceTime with fellow artists/writers/creators you trust. Every single week.

Keep going. Keep creating your work.

The world needs it.

Looking for a place to meet your peers? Join Me for Office Hours

Office Hour is happening again this Monday, March 30th, and next Monday, April 6th. All are welcome.

Please join us Monday at 11:30 am EST:

How to Promote Your #Kidlitquarantine Event

The coronavirus pandemic is the first time in history that so many people, and so many children, have been quarantined at home. Millions of families are sheltering in place. That means millions of kids -- most of them normal, healthy schoolchildren -- are forced to sit at home all day long.

We aren’t used to thinking of authors and illustrators as “first responders,” but in this crisis, they have already started playing an important role. The children’s book community has stepped up to the plate in amazing ways, quickly organizing live-streamed readings, workshops, and activities to entertain young people stuck at home. (Search #kidlitquarantine to get a glimpse of the action.)

You can do it, too! Read your book on Facebook Live. Do a drawing demo on YouTube Live. Teach a poetry workshop on Instagram Live.

Do whatever lights you (and the kids) up.

But you want to make sure kids are actually watching, right? 

It’s important to get the word out in advance. Otherwise, you might be alone… and that wouldn’t be fun.

I've created a checklist to help you promote your #kidlitquarantine event effectively. Follow it step-by-step, and I guarantee you’ll have an eager audience waiting for you.

Download the checklist and get started.

Big, Big, VERY BIG News

2020 is going to be a BIG YEAR for three reasons:

Reason #1:

“2020” sounds awesome. It’s alliterative and stands for perfect vision. 

Reason #2:

According to the Chinese zodiac, 2020 is the year of the metal rat, which is supposed to be a particularly strong, prosperous, and lucky year. It’s an especially good year for new beginnings. (And I’m a rat, so it’s my double lucky year!)

Reason #3:

Today, I'm relaunching Janna Co. as a literary and illustration agency specializing in graphic novels and visual storytelling for kids!

It’s a totally new business and a huge new chapter in my career.

Please browse around my new website here and take a peek at the fabulous artists and authors I’m representing. You can also find me on Instagram (gasp!). Please connect with me there so I’m not all alone!

2020 will be a wild ride filled with lots of new adventures, new clients, new friends, new challenges… and my favorite things in the world, new books! I’m excited to be sharing this journey with you, and will keep you posted as it unfolds.

Happy New Year!

P.S. Special shout out to Abby Denson and Matt Loux for being the people who set the wheels in motion for this to happen.

P.P.S. If you want a copy of the official press release, you can download it here:

Janna Co. Agency Launch press release (1)

Where to find Janna: Anime NYC, Kids Comics meetup, Insider Secrets webinar

Where you can find me

Over the next 3 weeks, I'll be in many public places. I would love it if you could join me!

Anime NYC

Friday, Nov. 15-Sunday, Nov. 17
The Javits Center

Visit me at Table G13 in Artist Alley, where I'll be hanging out with Misako Rocks! Get your tickets here:

The US versus Japan:

Making Manga in Two Very Different Publishing Environments (panel discussion)

Saturday November 16
3 pm
Room 1E02, The Javits Center

I'll be moderating this panel discussion at Anime NYC with Misako Rocks, Gina Gagliano (Random House Graphic), and Erik Ko (Udon Entertainment). We'll discuss how Japan and the U.S.'s comics publishing industries have evolved differently -- and what best practices we should “steal” from each other!

Insider Secrets LIVE workshop

How to Build a Successful Career as a Creator

Sunday November 17
10:30 am
Room 1E15, The Javits Center

In this workshop, get the scoop on how how agents and editors choose creators to work with. I'll offer lots of tips on how to find mentors, improve your work, and build a following so you have the best chance for success as a published creator.

Kids Comics Meetup NYC

The Influence of Studio Ghibli on Kids Comics Creators

December 4th
7 pm - 9 pm
Resobox East Village, 91 East 3rd Street ($5 cover charge)

Join professionals in kids comics for this presentation and informal networking event. We will start with a short conversation with creator Matt Loux about how Studio Ghibli has influenced his work, and how he sees its influence impacting a younger generation of artists.

Then we’ll hang out and talk comics together while enjoying Resobox’s tea and Japanese snacks. Anyone who works in children’s graphic novel publishing is invited to attend, including artists, writers, editors, librarians, agents, book designers, booksellers, reviewers, etc!

RSVP here:

Insider Secrets ONLINE workshop

How to Build a Successful Career as a Creator

Friday December 6th
12:00 pm

I'll be repeating this workshop as an online webinar! Yay -- that means you can join me no matter where you live. If you're interested in attending, please register at this link:

After you register, I'll send an email with login instructions for the webinar.

See you soon!


What happened at Baltimore Comic-con with Misako Rocks

What Happened at Baltimore Comic-con

Last week I said I'd be at Baltimore Comic-con, exhibiting with Misako Rocks, and presenting a new workshop.

Here are my takeaways from the show:

1. Community matters.

The explicit purpose of a convention is to sell products and raise awareness about your brand. But for many of the artists and writers at the show, seeing their friends and exchanging ideas with peers is just as important.

I saw lots of old friends and met new people whom I'm sure I'll see again.

It's like fuel in the tank. It keeps you going.

2. People will sign up for your mailing list if you ask them.

Misako and I set up a mailing list signup on her website, and brought a laptop where people could sign up at her table. We also printed out a hard copy sign-up form as a backup.

Misako Rocks at Baltimore Comic-con 2019

Whenever someone would stop at Misako's booth and admire her artwork, we'd explain her upcoming book project and who the target audience is. Then we would ask, "Do you want to join the mailing list?"

I was pretty surprised by how successful we were. Everyone's email inbox is overloaded these days, and we were certainly not a "known quantity" at the show.

But almost everyone we asked said, "Sure!" and cheerfully gave us their name and email address.

This is incredibly valuable. I'll do an article soon explaining how effective your email newsletter list can be.

3. You need to experiment to find the shows that work for you.

Baltimore Comic-con calls itself "America's Greatest Comics Convention!"

Imagine a convention hall jam-packed full of vintage comics dealers and indie "action-adventure" publishers. That's Baltimore.

Translation: it's an awesome show for old-school superhero comics fans.

Misako, on the other hand, specializes in manga art aimed at middle school girls.

Not exactly the same audience.

Middle grade manga art by Misako Rocks versus variant cover by Jim Calefiore, Valiant Comics

The juxtaposition of these two pieces of art makes me smile. A bit of contrast, right?

So I knew Baltimore wouldn't be full of our target audience. But I also knew that Baltimore has a long-running and vibrant kids comics section, and that it has a "family friendly" reputation. When my friend (the ridiculously awesome kids cartoonist) John Gallagher offered us a space at the show, I figured, "Why not give it a try?"

I'd say my expectations were fairly accurate. We weren't inundated with potential fans, but every time a mom or dad passed by with a girl in tow, they invariably tugged at their parent's hand and said, "Hey, look at this!"

In the future, we'll be looking for opportunities at book and comics shows directly aimed at kids, like the Princeton Children's Book Festival or the Comic-con for Kids in Philadelphia.

So when you're picking a show to promote your work, think carefully about your target audience. Choose the shows that are most appealing to the type of people who love what you do.

4. I'm taking the "Insider Secrets: How to Build a Successful Career as a Creator" workshop online!

Baltimore was the first place I presented a new workshop, basically "Getting Started 101" for artists and writers. If it went well, I promised myself, I'd do it again as an online webinar.

One of the best ways to judge the effectiveness of a presentation is by how many people come up to the podium after it's over and hang around to ask questions and keep talking.

By that measure, I'd say the Insider Secrets workshop was a success.

So that means I'm doing an online webinar. Stay tuned!


Pssst... want to know some insider secrets?

Before dawn tomorrow morning, I'll be on a train with Misako Rocks, heading to Baltimore Comic-con. This will be the first comics show where she reveals art and merchandise for her upcoming graphic novel, BOUNCE BACK.

And it'll be my first show where I present a new workshop which I'm very excited about, entitled...

Insider Secrets on How to Build a Successful Career as a Creator

Woohoo! It's going to be fun. I'll be explaining things like...

  • the four factors that matter most to agents and editors when they're deciding whether or not they want to work with you
  • the three foundational pieces you need in order to grow a powerful "author platform"
  • my favorite ninja trick on how to research the children's book and graphic novel market
  • why creative work requires greater emotional strength and resilience than other types of professions, and how to build your own emotional strength and resilience

And of course, I'll be answering any and all questions you might have on this topic.

The live workshop is happening at 2:45 pm this Sunday, October 20th, in room 339-342 at the Baltimore Convention Center.

I will see you there!!!! Right?


Hm, maybe you're not attending Baltimore Comic-con. Sadly! I wish I could see you in person.

If you can't make a special trip to Baltimore on Sunday, but you're still interested in the Insider Secrets workshop, I have good news.

I'd be happy to do the workshop online. For free. But I need to know how many people are interested.

If you'd like to join a live workshop on this topic, could you just email me and let me know?

Nine Things You Need to Break Into Children's Book Publishing as an Author, Illustrator, or Graphic Novelist

9 Things You Need to Break Into Children's Publishing

A little while ago, I read a new picture book, The Dreamer, by Korean artist Il Sung Na. It tells the story of a wistful, inventive pig who loves to watch birds soaring through the air.

The Dreamer by Il Sung Na, a children's book about following your dreams“If only I could fly, too,” he thinks.

Before long, his dream turns into an actual goal: he’s determined to figure out how to fly.

He starts clumsily. His first ramshackle contraptions do nothing but break. He gets discouraged, but some friends come to his aid and give him new ideas.

He tries again. And again. Each time getting better and better.

Then one day, with a crowd of friends watching, he straps himself into his latest invention, a hang glider-like machine with big red wings. This time, he runs down a hill and then ascends magnificently into the air.

And that first flight is just the beginning. He continues perfecting his vision, devising new vehicles of various sorts, and soon inspires other animals to take to the air.

I was just about to close the book when the author bio on the back flap caught my eye:

“As a kid [Il Sung Na] loved to draw, but it wasn’t until he visited a London bookstore in college that he discovered picture books were his calling. The real-life trial-and-error pursuit of that calling was the inspiration behind this book.”

That’s one of the things I love most about kids books and comics -- they offer all the life lessons you’ll ever need, in just a few illustrated pages!

In its own allegorical way, The Dreamer encapsulates many of the necessary elements you need in order to succeed as a writer or artist. Things like a long-term vision; a willingness to fail; a community of friends to keep you going. Although soft skills and mindset might seem secondary to talent and technical skills, they are actually extremely important. 

I talk to a lot of people who are just getting started in their careers, or trying to “relaunch” themselves. A lot of times, their questions for me are about narrow, methodological details like:

  • “How do you land a literary agent?” 
  • “How do you write a good book proposal?” 
  • “How do you promote yourself on social media effectively?”

I’ll let you in on a secret: although I answer those questions as helpfully as possible, I subtly try to steer them toward different questions -- better questions. These are questions like: 

  • “How can I develop a positive mindset?”
  • “How can I be more giving in my interactions with other people, both in person and online?” 
  • “How can I be more focused and intentional in my work?”

Building your dream career as an author or artist is totally possible. But one problem with creative people is that they have very good imaginations… which can lead them to build elaborate castles in the air before they’ve even built a solid foundation. 

It’s not the elaborate daydreams that will help you succeed; it’s the fundamentals. Those fundamentals are like magic; they enable you to turn dreams into reality. 

Here are the 9 foundational elements every author or artist needs to succeed in their publishing careers:

1. Start with baby steps.

Everyone starts as a beginner, just like Il Sung Na’s visionary pig. In the beginning, our ambitions almost always far outstrip our abilities. You may aspire to write a multi-volume epic, but you’ll need to start with something simple. Maybe a mini-comic, a zine, or a short webcomic.

I remember the first time I saw Raina Telgemeier’s work. It was a 12-page comic in a group show sponsored by Friends of Lulu. It hinted at the elements that eventually helped make Raina a blockbuster success: the emotional sincerity; the down-to-earth, wry sense of humor; the simple and inviting visual style with obvious inspiration from Lynn Johnstone’s For Better or Worse.

And yet, it was just a 12-page comic. Raina didn’t start by writing Smile; she started with little xeroxed mini-comics.

2. Be part of a creative community.

The Dreamer begins with a lone pig staring into the sky, but it doesn’t take long before the pig has enlisted a whole group of animals to help him gain traction with his flying project.

That’s no accident. It’s absolutely essential that you make connections with fellow writers and artists. Trying to figure out everything on your own is a dead end street.

After all, being a creative is already a lonely endeavor -- in order to create, you must spend many hours alone with your thoughts, doing the hard work of translating your imagination onto the page. Spending time with other people who understand what you’re trying to do is critical to keeping yourself motivated and inspired.

Just as important, connecting with your peers is also a way to avoid “reinventing the wheel.” Perhaps you’re struggling with a particular plot twist in your script; or figuring out how to promote yourself with limited time and money. By talking these sorts of problems over with other artists, you’ll get fresh ideas and learn from people who’ve already done what you’re trying to do.

3. Put yourself out there.

The first few times The Dreamer’s pig attempts to build a flying machine, he does it by himself -- and always ends in a heap of twisted mechanical parts. It’s only after he starts showing his work to a few friendly observers that he starts making progress.

When you’re just getting started, sharing your work publicly can be scary. That’s because your brain instinctively tries to protect you from unknown situations, which it interprets as “dangerous.” And it easily comes up with rationalizations that seem totally logical. Things like:

  • “I’m not ready. My work isn’t polished enough to share publicly yet.”
  • “I don’t want someone to steal my ideas. People can take your idea off the internet and sell it as their own.”
  • “If I post my work online, publishers aren’t going to be interested in publishing it as a book.”

All of these reasons for keeping your work under wraps until “the right time” are elaborate justifications to avoid the real reason to avoid sharing it: FEAR.

Putting your work out there, inviting public scrutiny and critiques, is undeniably scary. Your creative work is a reflection of your innermost thoughts, your imagination, your artistic talent. Who wouldn’t feel vulnerable offering that up to the world?

However, your biggest challenge, when you’re getting started, is not your amateurishness, or getting your ideas poached, or ruining your chances for a publishing deal.

Your biggest problem is being invisible.

You’ve got to make yourself part of the conversation, to invite feedback, to share your creative journey.

4. Build your online presence.

OK, I’ll admit we never see the pig in Il Sung Na’s book build a website or open a social media account. But in the case of breaking into kids comics publishing today, you absolutely must have some sort of online presence.

As Austin Kleon says, “It sounds a little extreme, but in this day and age, if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.”

That doesn’t mean you must have a fancy website and thousands of followers on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, DeviantArt, and Pinterest. A simple website and one social media account is enough to get started.

Here’s what you need, at a minimum:

  • A website.
    It can be simple, but you must have this “homebase” on the Internet. It’s your own little piece of real estate over which you have total and complete control. (Never forget, you have NO control over Instagram or Twitter or any other social media platforms! If they change their algorithms and suddenly you can’t reach 95% of your followers, that's your problem, not theirs.)
  • A “keep in touch” strategy.
    You must have a way that you’re keeping in touch with the people who already know and support you. In the beginning, this might be a simple email to 20 friends and family members. It doesn’t matter; what does matter is that you have a consistent routine of sharing your ideas, your work-in-progress, and your inspiration with people who care.
  • An “outreach” strategy.
    This means you’ve thought about how to find and reach MORE people who might like your work. I’m a big fan of the “slow and steady” approach ("The Tortoise and the Hare" is my favorite Aesop’s fable for a reason!). Maybe you have a table at a local comics festival every year, and slowly add to your mailing list. Maybe you organize a happy hour for artists, and grow your own circle by helping others. Maybe you teach comics in schools, and grow a fan base of teachers and librarians through word of mouth.

Any of these strategies is legitimate and effective. Notice that they all involve one-to-one, personal, genuine connections. These are the connections that make a difference when you’re running a Kickstarter campaign or launching your first book.

5. Understand your audience.

This is a truism in any industry: in order to succeed, you must have a very clear, specific, visceral sense of the audience you’re speaking to.

But in the case of creating work for children -- whether it’s a toy or a book or a comic -- you’re not only creating for a specific audience (ie, kids who like scatalogical humor, or dark fantasy, or monster trucks, or anything with the color pink, etc.), you’re also creating for a specific age level.

This is a huge difference between the adult book market and the kids market. Because, when it comes to children's books, there is no such thing as All Ages.

As adults, our brains are fully developed. Children, on the other hand, have brains that are still developing. This means that their cognition, reading level, vocabulary, experiences, and sensibilities are constantly evolving. A book that is enthralling for a 5 year old will not be enthralling to that same child when she is 14 -- or even when she is 8 or 9!

Most good children’s book and kids comics creators have a deep empathy for the kids they’re writing for. Mo Willems can get on the level of 4 and 5 year olds who are just beginning to grasp the mechanics of reading (and making jokes). Dav Pilkey can still inhabit the world from the perspective of a 7 year old boy. And Raina Telgemeier definitely remembers in vivid detail what it feels like to be a middle school girl.

So when you’re writing books for kids, some part of your brain has to be accessing your story from a specific stage of development, and relating it in a verbal and visual language that is ideal for that age level. For many writers and artists, that comes intuitively.

Regardless of whether it’s intuitive or a skill that you have to work at, the following tip will help you hone that ability even better.

6. Know the market.

Read widely and deeply, as much as you can. Just like the pig who studies blueprints and equations and the latest in aeronautical engineering, you’ve got to become an expert in what’s currently being published in the genres and age levels that you’re most interested in writing for.

Once you’re ready to look for an agent or publisher, having a strong knowledge of recently published books will help you pinpoint the specific agents and specific editors who might be most likely to appreciate your work. You can narrow down a shortlist of books you like, and then google the author and title with the word “editor” or “agent.” You’ll almost always be able to find who edited and agented those books.

That way, when you approach those agents and editors, you won’t be one of the dreaded “spray and pray” creators who send their proposals indiscriminately to every industry email they can scrape up. Instead, you can write an intelligent query letter that explains why you are interested in that particular agent or editor.

As an added bonus, once you have a meeting with an editor or publisher -- or further along in your career, once you’re appearing on panels and podcasts -- having a solid understanding of how your work fits into the wider publishing landscape will help you contribute more meaningfully to the conversation. Which, in turn, makes you a more credible, appealing candidate for publishing, and a more sought-after panelist or podcast guest.

7. Invest in yourself.

Most children's book creators don’t have a degree in “Children's Book Creatorship,” but that doesn’t mean they haven’t invested in learning as much as they can about the field.

If you want to build a long-term career as a kids comics creator, it isn’t any different than any other profession: spending money is often the fastest and most effective way to make progress and increase your opportunities. You’ve got to develop your skills, attend networking events, promote your work, and get professional feedback and advice.

Here are some of the specific ways you should be investing in yourself:

Or, if you really want to, get an advanced degree! Get your MFA at the Center for Cartoon Studies, or an art school like SVA, CalArts, or SCAD, or a creative writing program like the Vermont College of Fine Arts or Simmons University Writing for Children.

8. Learn to Handle Rejection.

The publishing industry is crammed with best-selling authors who experienced years of discouragement and rejection before finally getting their work published. I remember hearing a keynote speech by Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Bryan Collier at an SCBWI conference a few years ago, where he recounted having spent SEVEN YEARS carting his portfolio to every publishing house in NYC, over and over again, before finally getting his first book deal.

Publishing is competitive and it is highly likely that you’ll face your share of rejection. Rather than hope for the best, I think it’s wise to prepare yourself for it, and develop conscious, deliberate ways to recover from it.

Most importantly, remember that one agent’s or editor’s rejection is not a final reckoning on your talent. It could be that they didn’t have room on their list for another book in your specific genre. Or they don’t have time to offer you the developmental editing that your project requires (sadly, this is the norm nowadays.) Or they simply don’t see your vision.

Facing rejection is another reason why having a community of peers is so important -- you need friends to cheer you up when external forces get you down.

Finally, remind yourself that it takes time to succeed in any craft. You’ve got to put in the hours, get critiqued, confront rejection, and just keep going back to the drawing board again and again.

In fact, you really only need to do one thing….

9. Persist.

When I was young, I thought that the most important factor in success was talent. Many battle-scarred years later, I now understand that the most important factor in success is definitely not talent.


Keep writing, keep drawing, keep imagining, keep sharing, again and again. It’s a simple recipe, but it isn’t easy.

As Dr. Seuss said,

“And will you succeed? Yes! You will indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed!)”

And he should know….

After all, his first book was rejected 28 times before being published by Random House.

Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.