Notes from a First-Time Picture Book Publisher

This is a repost of a guest piece MAX & CHARLIE's author made for Foreword Reviews — one of the most prominent reviewers of independent books. We were incredibly thankful to offer a few of our own insights on independent publishing and how we tried to make its difficulties work for us.

“So much data.” That’s how Zack Lieberman, author and publisher of Max & Charlie describes his 136-page graphic-novel-by-way-of-picture-book debut, which he published through his existing media company, Exit Strategy. A digital creator who has won an Emmy and a Webby for his work, Zack originally conceived Max & Charlie as a feature film, but pivoted when he saw its potential as a printed, formatted, physical book.
The book—for which an e-book version will be launching soon, and will be the first piece of content on Exit Strategy’s original and proprietary e-book platform—is Zack’s first foray into book publishing. As an author, an artist, and—newly and officially–a publisher, Zack gave us his perspective on creating independent art, working on a book for the first time, and the particular challenges of debuting in the world of publishing with a picture book.
Why a picture book?

One of the best things about illustration in general (and picture books and comics and graphic novels in particular) is that anything is possible. The medium empowers such a broad range of voices and stories and styles—there are obviously some conventions to generally follow, but even those standards are constantly challenged by artists and creators. There’s a pretty long leash for what you can say and how you can say it.

I knew Max & Charlie would be kind of a weird book, and that it wouldn’t quite fit into an particular age range—it’s for kids, but it’s also for someone like me (a big kid!)––but I wanted to embrace that weirdness and create something that space cadets of all ages could enjoy and be inspired by. I also wanted it to feel modern yet classic, vibrant yet dark, silly yet inspirational. I think graphic novels are one of the few mediums that can genuinely be all of those things at once.

I’m proud of what we created with Max & Charlie‘s book,, but we’ve got some tricks up our sleeve, so the jury’s still out on whether it was/is the best medium to tell the story.

Does the task of finding an illustrator differ when you wear your author hat vs. when you wear your publisher hat?

I’d say they complement each other in some nice ways.

As an author, you’re looking for someone who can step into that voice you were trying to create, and can hopefully raise the stakes with their interpretation. But then of course you’re this “proud writer” and need an illustrator who can “stick to the script” so to speak. I wrote Max & Charlie to make a set of open-ended points and was taking a quasi-philosophical stance, and so I also really wanted to find someone who “got it”—or would at least be willing to go there.

As a publisher, you want to support both the writer and illustrator as best you can, but I’d maintain that the art is fundamentally what sells. There are other, more nuanced considerations in picking an illustrator obviously (everything from their artistic tone, to their medium, to work ethic and general stability, etc), but the marketplace needs to be on your mind.

We’re very indie and we’re down for the cause, but we still want to sell some books. The world is full of so much amazing art and design right now, especially in the digital space, and finding a fresh talent that can stand out enough to pique marketable interest is one of the hardest and most nuanced things you have to do as a publisher.

Publishing a picture book comes with a lot of considerations, particularly for Max & Charlie’s finer details. What advice would you give to someone looking to publish their first picture book?

1. This isn’t easy, and you shouldn’t expect it to be.

2. Trust your instincts

3. Go do it. No one else will.

4. Double––nay, triple!—how long you think it’s going to take.

And, especially for artists: 5) forget the established model. Business is business and you need to keep your eye on that ball, but we’re in a crazy world of burgeoning opportunity for independent creators, and you might as well experiment. Learn as much as you can from the community and the people who have done it well, but find ways to make it work for you. There are no “right” ways.

I made infinite semi-naive decisions that only someone coming from outside the publishing industry would make—like holographic foil logos on a spot gloss/velvet matte dustjacket, inlayed a holographic foil starscape on the case, printing and distributing hardbacks and paperbacks at launch, etc.—none of which made for cheap or easy endeavors. Each phase of the project has gone over budget and took two-to-three times longer than I thought they would. But at the end of the day, we were only really focused on quality, an amorphous thing no doubt, but nevertheless our guiding principle.

Max & Charlie is the first book published through your media company, Exit Strategy. How does book publishing in general differ from film and the digital media Exit Strategy has previously worked in?

Book publishing takes a long time. In digital, you can have an idea, prototype it, and push it live tomorrow, then track real-world, real-time data and use it to refine, iterate, refine, iterate. You obviously can’t do that in publishing, where even just distribution and review timelines are so comparatively slow.

It’s not a bad thing per se, just takes some getting used to.

I’ve produced dozens of projects across basically every form of media, and this book was hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever produced. Which is weird to me, for whatever reason. Book publishing is hard, willful, nerve-wracking work and the physical world is just so unforgiving. But I can’t wait to make the next one!

Seth Dellon

Seth Dellon is director of audience development at Foreword Reviews. You can meet him or hear him speak at most of the events Foreword attends, and contact him at [email protected].
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