I spoke to the First Second staff about some of the most interesting parts of their jobs, and what goes on behind the scenes at the graphic novel publisher.
Cory: I've been amazed since early days by First Second's incredibly production chops. You have full-color finished books months ahead of publication, rather than low-quality Advance Review Copies. Can you talk me through the logistics of FS production, and how it differs from other Macmillan imprints and art book publishers?
Gina Gagliano, First Second Marketing & Publicity: First Second's production is a pretty complex process — and it's something that editorial, design, marketing, and sales all have a hand in! When our Editorial Director Mark Siegel founded First Second, he knew that high production quality was going to be key to our success — especially because of the rise of e-books. With graphic novels (unlike a lot of prose books), there's actually a qualitative difference between the printed page and the digital page, because art is such an integral part of them.
Graphic novels are always going to be different to design and produce than prose novels or picture books because in them, art and text are so heavily integrated. Rather than having a page with a single image, or a page full of text, every page is full of panels of art — and people tend to be talking in most of them! This means that all the pages have to be laid out and lettered individually, and therefore extensively designed, and that's a whole complicated process.
We print most of our books in China, which adds another whole dimension to our logistics, because China is pretty far away! So the files go to China (where we work to use environmentally friendly paper and inks, and plant trees where they're cut down for paper production, because that's important to us) and then we get the books back . . . months later on an extremely slow-moving container ship. Between the files going away and the books coming back, we get several rounds of proofs so that we can make any last changes, make sure the pages aren't printing upside-down and that all the book signatures are in order, and that we're happy with the way the colors are showing. The authors have a chance to weigh in on this front as well.
When the books are done, they go on that boat — but a box or two of them also get shipped to our office directly! Because the boats can take two-plus months to get to the US (depending on how stormy the seas are and also US Customs), that means we get those first books very early and have them to show off ahead of publication (and also to share with media contacts and our sales representatives who sell our books to stores around the country). Those early books stand in the place of galleys (also called ARCs) because we find that with full-color graphic novels, we have a better response to our high-quality final book than a lower-quality piece.
Then the boat comes in, the books go to our warehouse, and from there they go out to readers!
Cory: I was amazed by the matchmaking you did with me and Jen Wang for In Real Life. What does your process look like for finding illustrators/adapters to help us prose-idiots along?
Calista Brill, First Second Senior Editor: We have a whole process to pair authors and illustrators together! It's something that we do a lot — and it generally involves a lot of research. As an editor, I visit schools with comics programs throughout the year, meeting young cartoonists and generally keeping an eye on the talent pool. In addition, our staff and I attend a lot of shows, and at the end of every show we bring home mini-comics from people we'd like to work with one day. We also spend a lot of time on the internet, looking at cartoonists' work. And we read extensively to make sure we're aware of amazing authors and artists who are out there.
So when we get a final script from an author that doesn't already have an illustrator attached to it, the author and I will brainstorm some ideas of artists to ask about signing on for the project. We narrow down those lists to our top choices, and then either approach our top choice or reach out to a handful of artists for samples. It varies book by book what sensibility we look for, so it's hard to give you specific things we're on the hunt for — but an individual artistic style, great cartooning, and some experience tend to be always an asset.
Cory: What European comics do you love that you could never sell to an American audience in translation, and why?
Mark Siegel, First Second Editorial Director: I grew up in France, and French comics were how I first fell in love with the graphic novel medium. That said, there are definitely some things that can fly in France that won't work in the US! The biggest of those is nudity, which is more of a taboo here than it is in France. French children's books will frequently feature a lot of nakedness, and it's tough to translate that to the American audience without readers having a subliminal 'INAPPROPRIATE!' sign that flashes across their brains when they see it.
Besides that, there are just some cultural differences — mostly in kids comics — that don't always make sense to translate. For example, say you're telling a school story. The French school system is structured in a very different way than the US school system, and if knowing about exactly how that works is a major part of the book's plot, that book might not be the best for the US audience.