Graphic novel publisher First Second Books, founded five years ago, has risen alongside the internet, growing from promising rookie to respected purveyor of award-winning material. As an imprint of children’s book publisher Roaring Brook Press, First Second operates mainly as a traditional print publisher, but the imprint has recently boosted its internet presence with a new line of webcomics.
Last year, First Second launched its To Be Continued... imprint. Rather than a traditional book publishing imprint with a specific focus or theme connecting its line, To Be Continued... features four comics that are being serialized page by page on the First Second website to be printed at a later date.
"First Second is a book publisher," says editorial director Mark Siegel, "so right now, we’re seeing books as the end goal for our web projects 100% of the time." But their top priority is "bringing great work to plenty of great readers." To Be Continued... is another attempt at just that purpose.
Editor Callista Brill agrees. "Our TBC project is an experiment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that you don’t lose anything—and can gain a lot—by getting content out on the web ahead of publication and building your audience in advance. If a book can have a life on the web and a life in print, why not give it both?"
Up until now, First Second has acted very much as a traditional print publisher. They do not accept unsolicited submissions, but they do keep tabs on creators, work with agents, and rely on old-fashioned word of mouth to find new talent. Siegel strongly believes in the idea of editors. "Ideally a good editor brings an author a dose of healthy distance from their own work at times, or a peek into their own blindspots—and we all have them at various stages of our endeavors," says Siegel. "Good books can often be great books, and sometimes a little coaching from an outside voice can help an author reach for the difference."
"We are not in the business of picking things up and passing them on to the printer,” says Brill. “First Second is known for high quality books across the board, and that isn’t an accident. It’s a result of dedicated attention at all stages: acquisition, editorial, design, and production."
The attention shows in First Second's catalog. They've published work as varied as Eddie Campbell's The Fate of the Artist and Jean P. Stassen's Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda, and they've amassed a stock of well-received all-ages material like Nick Abadzis’s Laika, Danica Novgorodoff's Slow Storm, and Gene Yang's American Born Chinese. This diverse collection of talent has allowed First Second to publish books for every demographic out there, without sacrificing quality in the process.
So far the To Be Continued… line includes Zahra’s Paradise by Amir and Khalil, the fictional story of the search for a young Iranian blogger who goes missing after a fraudulent election; Tune by the award-winning Derek Kirk Kim, a tale of disaffected youth; Americus by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill about a teenager’s quest to save his favorite book from being banned from his library( It's being serialized as "Save Apathea"0; and Siegel’s own Sailor Twain, a lyrical fantasy set on a 1887 Hudson River riverboat.
Serializing a work intended for print on the web introduces a number of new storytelling challenges. Each page much be a satisfying experience when read alone, but still make sense within the context of the completed work. "For some of the First Second serials, there is little or no editorial input once it launches, because it’s finished before then," said Siegel. "In other cases we have some dialogue with the author beforehand and along the way, and perhaps just the right question, or just the right challenge will help enhance the project in the end. In the case of Zahra’s Paradise, which will be the first of our serials to be published in print, and the first one I signed up, there were editorial discussion at every stage, and a whole set of refinements being made between serializing and publication."
Brill explains that "the TBC titles are not projects we signed up solely for the web. They were acquired as print projects first, and evaluated second for their merits as potential webcomics. These books have lives already—in our production process and, soon, in print. We’re just giving them another space to play in." Rather than being an entirely new initiative, it's an offshoot of business as usual.
Obviously, if a new imprint doesn't make any money, it isn't a success. Siegel explained that while they don't have a full accounting of the financial success of To Be Continued..., certain books have already proven themselves to be profitable endeavors. "Zahra’s Paradise is already a success on this front. Before the third chapter was even drawn, we had sold nearly a dozen languages and recovered the initial author advance." Serializing a strip gives people a chance to sample the product before purchasing or investing in it, rather than going in blind and hoping for the best. On top of that, serialization allows for praise prior to the print publication. Zahra's Paradise has already been nominated for the Eisner award for Best Digital Comics, in addition to getting favorable worldwide press.
To Be Continued... is an ongoing experiment and more titles are planned. Coming soon is Faith Erin Hicks's Friends With Boys, a graphic novel that Siegel describes as "a very different teen fiction project" and "irresistible." Every release has to be appropriate for the web serialization format before it is brought under the "To Be Continued..." umbrella.
Although they seem to have web publishing down, First Second has yet to release digital comics, downloadable or streamable versions of printed materials. Siegel says "we want to make our books the best e-books possible, and that means considering seriously the problem of turning print books that are works of art into equally attractive digital books. It’s a challenge, but one that we’re hoping to have the answer to soon."
For a publishing veteran like Siegel, the shift to digital is a work in progress. "The internet often changes the nature of connection between author and readers," he says. "The web gives us a platform to talk to and present our projects to people directly, and the feedback we get is invaluable to us. I’m curious to see how that will evolve. As for doing things differently—essentially we’re always trying to adapt and change, while making sure our dedication to quality on every front never changes."