Shane W Smith on How to Write and Publish Graphic Novels
Post contains affiliate links, read my disclosure here
Running a successful creative business is hard work, especially if your creative business is a side gig or side hustle. To be a success you have to balance promoting your work, finding time to be creative, and maintain family and day job commitments. Those that pull it off are are masters of productivity and I'm always inspired by their hustle, determination, and time management hacks.
Today, we speak with graphic novelist Shane W Smith, who shares some insight on how to write and publish graphic novels, up your social media game, and gives us a peek at his super cool Undad trilogy. Whether, you are a freelancer, aspiring author, side hustler, blogger, or sci-fi fan, I think you will enjoy Shane's perspective.
My questions are in bold, Shane's follow in plain text
Please tell me a little bit about yourself.
My name is Shane W Smith, and I'm a graphic novelist based in Canberra, Australia. I've got a number of full-length books under my belt, in genres as diverse as epic-fantasy, sci-fi-political-thrillers, zombie-family-drama, and post-apocalyptic-musical-adventure-romance, and have been shortlisted five times for various awards. I have a Bachelor Degree in Creative Writing, I’m the first Australian from any creative discipline to be invited to Kickstarter’s Drip program, and I might be the only person in the entire world to get a comic published in a refereed academic journal.
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Ever since I could hold a pencil, I’ve been writing stories. I got my first rejection letter when I was seven and accumulated something like a dozen more for my first novel.
I guess it probably all started when my parents encouraged a deep love of books when I was little, and that’s never left me. I learned everything I ever needed to know from fiction – it’s the prism through which I understand the world. To me, it seems natural that writing stories would help me to understand myself and grow as a person.
I’m happily married with four young children, and my proudest achievement and greatest passion is my family.
Tips to Write and Publish a Graphic Novel
What have you learned from being a successful writer and graphic novelist?
I don't approach my business and creativity in the usual way. I like to design and develop systems and processes before I begin and iterate along the way. There's a certain kind of creativity in that kind of approach because often you're doing something radically different from your peers. And I'm pretty confident that I'm the only comics creator in the world who creates art in exactly the way I do it because the process is one that I developed on my own.
And I like to automate. If I can set up a batch command in Photoshop to apply similar filters or changes to my images, I'll do it. I onboard new email subscribers with a detailed and branching automation process that covers a range of different contingencies. I recognized from the start that the only way to scale a business like mine is to hand over a lot of the repetitive tasks to a machine that can do those tasks much faster than I possibly could.
After my full-time job and family time, I have only about three hours a day to run my creative business. That's making the books, managing my email list, marketing my business, planning launches and engaging with my audience. Streamlining my processes and automating wherever possible has been absolutely crucial for the growth of my business.
NB: To be candid, though, I don’t really see myself as successful. My wife accuses me of moving the goalposts constantly, and I guess she’s right because there are days I don’t feel any closer to success than I did a decade ago before I’d signed my first publication deal. In some ways, success feels like a full stop – so I’m happy to keep seeing it as a distant goal, to keep building and growing and creating.
In terms of the act of writing itself, there are only three measures for success that I can think of:
- Measurable improvement in quality over time.
Using these scales, I suppose I could say that I consider myself to be writing successfully. But at the same time, I can feel a tremendous amount of untapped potential inside of me, lying just out of reach. Until I am able to devote enough time and energy to exercising that potential and writing in a way that truly satisfies me, I would qualify my current level of success as limited.
Is there a mistake you have made when you started publishing or writing that you wish you could change?
I believe that there are no mistakes or failures, just experiments, and results. It’s a mindset that I’ve been cultivating since 2014 when I had what seemed at the time like a pretty big public failure. Here’s what happened.
Kickstarter has been a big game-changer for my career, but my first experience with the platform in early 2014 was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. I went in underprepared and overconfident and didn’t even get close to reaching the funding target I set for the campaign.
It was a little humiliating and very disappointing to have to abandon my plans to collaborate with the awesome creative team I'd assembled. I do regret not getting to work with Tini Howard on the cusp of her meteoric rise to comics stardom – that's probably what I regret most about the debacle.
But do I wish it hadn't happened? On balance, no. I learned the value of preparation. I learned where to focus my attention in the future. And I wrote a blog post about the mistakes I made that got me a ton of extra traffic, a handful of sales, and a guest spot on several crowdfunding podcasts.
Further, this defeat helped me identify a gap in my knowledge, and because of this I discovered the ComixLaunch podcast and made some great friends inside the incredibly supportive community of indie creators that has risen around this brand.
(And the book eventually got made too, albeit with a different creative team, some two years later.)
What is the best advice you have received?
When I was in high school, one of my teachers told me about a creative writing degree somewhere in Europe. Students were marked on a single metric: whether or not they got published. If they got a story published, they passed; if not, they failed. Even if they were the greatest writer the world had ever known, if they couldn’t pitch a story well enough to get it through the gatekeepers, they couldn’t graduate.
That one stayed with me for years. I realized, perhaps for the first time, that the creative work – although crucial – is only part of the equation for being a professional writer.
It took me many more years to really understand what that meant, but that’s where it started.
What advice would you give to new writers looking to write a graphic novel or book?
First: don’t self-publish your first book. Just don’t do it. Get it past some gatekeepers (editors, agents, etc) first, and then you’ll know you’re ready to go pro. I can’t even begin to describe the myriad horrors of my Unpublished drawer (and there must be at least a million terrible words in there), but I don’t regret any of it. Nor do I regret now not having any of that published. There are nearly fifteen years of heartbreak and anxiety in between my first rejection and my first commercial publication, but there’s also fifteen years of improvement there too. That means my first published work is still something I’m pretty proud of a few years later (some niggles notwithstanding).
Second: start building your audience today, even if you’re still working on your first book. Learn how to build a landing page and an email list, and start talking process with people. Share your main character, send out brief previews of your work-in-progress. Get folks invested in you, so you can launch strongly when you’re ready. Formal writing studies so rarely include any marketing training, so take a course or two if you need to.
Three: go after your dreams with dedication and great passion. No one will understand how much you want it unless you back it up with hard work.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
There are a few things, really, and it’s hard to isolate just one.
Getting a comic into a refereed academic journal in 2007 was a heck of a way to kickstart my comics career. Even now, some twelve years later, it’s still a talking point among folks interested in comics academia, and having a comic with that kind of long tail is a pretty awesome feeling.
Two of my books have been short-listed in the Aurealis Awards, annual awards which celebrate Australian science fiction. Having books considered among the best produced in a year is a tremendous thrill, a nice ego stroke, and powerful validation for my decision to spend all of my leisure time over the course of many years devoted to this creative obsession.
But there are a bunch of other highlights, too. Making friends in the comics scene. Conducting a public reading at my kid’s pre-school. Collaborating with incredibly talented artists. Learning about myself and what I believe, through my work. Experimenting with the logic and flow of other creative forms like teleplays and video games. Growing my business year on year. Posting out books to fifteen different countries. Collaborating with writers and artists all over the world. Undad being the first graphic novel ever to be shortlisted in local publishing awards. Giving a dozen or so other creatives their first paid gig. Getting a musical track dedicated to my first graphic novel (The Lesser Evil, music by James Flamestar).
If you’d told seven-year-old me that one day, this crazy creative dream would lead to any of these outcomes, he would have flipped his lid in excitement. So I’m proud of it all.
Is there something you learned about graphic novels that you found surprising?
Until I got into comics as an adult, I assumed the same things that many people do: that it’s dominated by one genre of storytelling (namely superheroes). And for folks outside the industry, that common perception has been reinforced quite strongly by the success of the Marvel and DC movie universes of the last decade.
I was surprised, therefore, to find a market for my long-form sci-fi graphic novels, and equally surprised to find one for my zombie-family-drama. And I’m really impressed by the strength and passion of the indie comics resurgence that platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon and Web 2.0 have made possible.
There’s a fascinating creative and financial boom in comics (and publishing in general) that’s taking place almost entirely outside the traditional retail channels, and it’s a really exciting time to be in the industry.
Are there any upcoming projects you are working on?
On May 13, my amazing team and I are launching the Undad trilogy on Kickstarter – that’s nearly 650 pages of zombie-family-drama graphic novels. Undad is a book about being a husband and father while wrestling with your own (literal) demons.
It’s my most popular book, and also the most personal. Undad wears its heart on its sleeve… and its other sleeve… and down the front of its shirt.
And I’m happy to offer you a free copy of Volume One right here: https://undad.shanewsmith.com
Advice, Personal Strategies, and Tips
Do have a book you recommend a book to help people with their Writing?
Stephen King’s On Writing was the first book they gave us at university, and I think that’s definitely a good place to start. King reminds us that writing and life experience are so intrinsically linked, that the best way to be a good writer is to have a full, rich life. And, because he’s a good writer himself, he doesn’t come right out and say that – instead, he lets the narrative carry that message.
And for a better understanding of comics and graphic novels, I think every aspiring creator needs to read at least one Scott McCloud book, starting with Understanding Comics. It might be twenty-five years old now, but it’s still one of the most important books out there about the visual language of comics.
Do have any apps or tips that you use to be more productive?
In terms of creative productivity, I’ve been using Poser Pro for about a dozen years. Although using 3D software to generate graphic novel artwork (especially to do it well) is a steep learning curve, I found it to be a much quicker learning curve than learning to draw by hand at a comparable skill level. With this software, I can produce hundreds of pages of artwork in a year, even with the very limited daily time window I have to work on my books.
On the business side, I use a range of apps to streamline and scale my ability to reach my growing audience. I’m finding MailerLite particularly effective as an email service provider because their automation is robust and intuitive, and their landing pages can incorporate the Facebook pixel for retargeting ads.
I’m also really appreciating the power of Prove Source at the moment, which is a pop-up social proof app that allows you to redirect any site visitors to a particular page, promotion or event that you want to highlight.
How do you manage time?
I have four children and a full-time job. It dawned on me pretty quickly after having our first kid that I would need to actively schedule time for my writing, and build an ironclad routine around that time to ensure that it happened.
My creative business has my undivided attention between 10 pm and 1 am every day. That’s pretty much all the time I get to write, produce art, manage social media and my email list, schedule and devise promotions, and plan for events.
For the first few years, this time was devoted almost entirely to creativity; now, more and more, the ‘shadow’ work, the marketing and business tasks, are dominating the timetable. Finding balance in such a small window of time is probably the biggest challenge I’m facing at the moment.
Has fitness factored into your success?
When I’m listening to a podcast or taking a webinar or online course, I like to be moving as I listen. Taking a midnight walk around my neighborhood is not an uncommon thing for me to do. Beyond that, the only fitness I do is keeping up with my kids.
I’m not sure how crucial fitness is to my success, but if I don’t walk reasonably regularly I get restless and I’m more easily distracted.
Has Social Media factored into your success?
Social media is a crucial part of my business. As I’m based in Australia, which is a reasonably small and geographically isolated country, reaching an international audience depends to a great extent upon internet-based marketing and social media.
A lot of my peers have dipped their toe into Facebook Ads, gotten no result, and written it off as a waste of money. My top tip would be to really learn the system, figure out targeting, experiment widely, and if all else fails, take a course that’ll teach you the ins and outs of social media advertising.
And when you’re not advertising, be personable. Don’t just sell things on social media – be social. Celebrate successes (others’ success as well as yours). Share challenges. Reach out to your audience and invite them to tell you about themselves.
Any mistakes you see people routinely make with social media?
Social media is a poor channel for making direct sales. Its purpose in the sales funnel is to make people like you, know you, and maybe trust you as well. Then they’ll be more likely to sign up for your email list.
Where can people connect with you online?
Getting on my email list is probably the best way to keep track of me. I love to get into email conversations with my subscribers, and I find myself regularly geeking out over the interests I share with so many of them. I send out two emails a month, on the 1st and 15th, and I like to start out by giving my readers free books to check out. You can get started here:
If you're not an email list fan, my Facebook page is also pretty active.
Do you have any cool projects in the works?
Undad is more than just another zombie tale. It's the story of one man who struggles to keep his own darker nature at bay and his family together while being (literally) dead inside.
On May 13, I’m launching the 600+ page Undad trilogy on Kickstarter, with a tiny pre-order window of just seventeen days. And we’re offering additional early bird content and exclusive bonuses, just for backers.
To be the first in the world notified when we launch, and to take advantage of a huge range of exclusive offers and freebies, sign up at https://undad.shanewsmith.com/
What is the one thing you wish everyone knew?
It’s not that I don’t like you; I really am just that bad at small talk. If we ever meet in person, it’s important that you know this.
Anything I should ask you that I have not?
What has this journey taught you about yourself?
In most real-life respects, I’m not really good at dealing with difficulties and setbacks. I have a preference for things to be easy, to coast. But my writing career has caused me to discover (and forced me to cultivate) a huge reservoir of determination and resolve within myself, to have the patience to deal with disappointments and the drive to persevere in the face of improbable odds.
And what I learned is that when things really matter, I’m capable of fighting for them, and I’ve been able to bring that kind of commitment into my personal life as well. I’ve seen enough people (including plenty of people with considerably more talent than me) quit out of the creative arts to be aware that this kind of unwavering determination isn’t all that common.
Thank you for interviewing with Your Money Geek!
Thank you. It’s been fun