08 June 2010

Reasons to Smile

Today Roger Sutton announced that Raina Telgemeier’s memoir Smile is an Honor Book in the Nonfiction category of the 2010 Boston Globe/Horn Book Awards.

Even before that news, the book’s first printing sold out—despite the fact that it’s still possible to read Smile on the web. Like Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid (discussed here), Telgemeier’s book took a path to publication that seems paradoxical yet worked.

Both Kinney and Telgemeier shared their stories on the web before finding publishers. That exposure helped them to build a following as they developed their vision. Lots of people liked the result. Some of those people probably still see no need to buy the books, but many more did buy, and told their friends as well.

Since I ended my SCBWI New England conference workshop on comics scripting by suggesting that this model looked like the best route to publication, I’m delighted to have a new example of success to point to.

Jason Green interviewed Telgemeier for Playback:stl about her choice to display finished pages on the web as she created them, starting in 2004. Telgemeier explained:

I really love the print medium, and so [that] was always what I wanted to do, was to make books. And the webcomics thing happened because people kept saying, “Put your stuff on the web! Put your stuff on the web!” I didn’t know how to do that! I didn’t know what an FTP program was, I didn’t know how to get comics from my page to a screen. I had to have it all explained to me, over and over again, in detail, before I sort of figured it out.

And once I did, it was like, “Oh, I get it, you can get a much bigger audience this way, and you can really do a lot of interesting things with page layouts,” and stuff like that. But, because I came from print, I was still not stretching my wings too far as far as the format of the story, and I knew that I wanted to print it someday. So, I think it was like I was making a print graphic novel, but I was serializing it on the web on a weekly basis.
Before then, Telgemeier had self-published her mini-comic Takeout, another way of developing an audience. That route was easier years ago, given the economics of comics distribution, but today the web is clearly more affordable and powerful. Of course, you’ve gotta have appealing content and the energy to promote it.

In the same year that Telgemeier started to share Smile, Scholastic’s David Saylor announced that the firm had commissioned her to adapt Ann S. Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club into comics form. The success of those books helped put her name on booksellers’ computers.

Telgemeier could probably have published Smile herself, based on that success, but the effort would have taken a lot of her time. Instead, she signed with Scholastic. That firm has a powerful distribution arm, including those school book fairs. It has the capital to invest in color printing, as with Jeff Smith’s Bone, which sets the print edition of Smile off from the web pages. And there’s still cachet in coming out through a major publisher—but that’s not as valuable as an already established readership.

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