Cartoonist Jimmy Gownley started with a doodle of a little girl and ended up with Amelia Rules, a popular kids’ comic that eventually became a self-published graphic novel and then an eight-volume series, now published by Simon & Schuster. As Gownley wraps up the last book in the S&S deal, he is looking forward to two new comics projects—and looking back on the lessons learned in ten years of publishing Amelia Rules, first on his own and then with a major publisher.
Amelia came to Gownley in a single flash of inspiration: He was working on another comic, and it wasn’t going well. Then, he said, "I took the page I was working on, flipped it over, and started doodling this character, a little girl. I showed it to the woman sitting next to me, my long suffering girlfriend at the time—now my long-suffering wife—and I said 'What should we call her?' At the same second we said 'Amelia.' I took this as a cosmic sign."
Gownley sent his first Amelia story, "Freeze Tag," to his friend Dave Roman, then an editor at Nickelodeon Magazine. "He called me back a few weeks later and said 'You should self publish this,'" Gownley said. Most comics are 32 pages, and "Freeze Tag" was only ten, so Gownley wrote a few more short stories but couldn't quite fill the gap. Then he had an inspiration: He would have Amelia talk to the audience between stories. "It was an accident, but it was brilliant," he said, "because it gave me the whole hook of the series: I can deal with anything in these stories because they are told from Amelia's point of view. I went on to talk about the Iraq war, divorce and poverty, but it was all filtered through Amelia's sensibilities."
Initially, Gownley self-published Amelia Rules in 2001 as single-issue comics that were sold in comics shops with his wife Karen handling marketing and promotion. "I was under no illusions that the comic book marketplace was dying for a comic book about a little girl," he said. To get retailers' attention, the Gownleys printed 3,100 extra copies of the first issue and sent them out with the catalog in which they were solicited. "Our sales for that first issue were in the thousands, which is pretty good," Gownley said. "There is this natural dropoff. If we were going to start off at 1,000 or 800, [like] most self published books, we would be done by issue 2. We had to start off knowing there would be that natural dropoff and be able to weather it."
Gownley was encouraged when local newsstand distributor Harrisburg News picked up 500 copies and sold about 75% of them, a huge percentage. "I thought, if I can just hang in there, there will be an audience there," he said.
By issue #5, Amelia was selling "a few thousand copies," Gownley said, and Harold Buchholz, then a print broker and now executive director of publishing and operations at Archie Comics, prodded him to publish it as a trade paperback. Since Gownley didn't have the money for a new printing, Buchholz shaved the staples of the single issues and bound them together. "He took all our stock and made it instantly our most popular thing," Gownley said. "I brought 200 copies to San Diego that year and sold them all. I had new stock, new fans, and we were able to continue."
The late publisher and comics evangelist Byron Priess, who had a publishing firm called iBooks (no relation to the Apple product), liked the Amelia trade paperback and asked if he could re-publish it, along with a second volume. "The whole idea of the kids' graphic novel section didn’t exist," Gownley said. "The whole idea of what a format for kids' graphic novels would look like didn't exist. So they put them out priced too high, $15, shaped like comic books—that 6 x 9 trim size Scholastic came up with for Bone didn’t exist—and they put them in bookstores. It was us and Tintin." Still, they started to sell, and when Amelia Rules was nominated for Eisner and Harvey awards, the books started getting more attention.
Preiss died in a traffic accident in 2005, and Gownley, who had continued to self-publish the single periodical issues of Amelia, took over the trade paperbacks as well, hiring Buchholz as director of publishing. By now, there were precedents for what he was doing. "We repackaged it in 6 x 9 format, and we were one of the first graphic novels carried in Barnes & Noble and Borders kids' sections," he said. Gownley started visiting library shows, which is where he really found Amelia's audience. Using Worldcat, an online database of library catalogs and title circulation from libraries around the world, Buchholz monitored library checkout rates nationwide and found that Amelia was tied for third as most checked out kids' graphic novel. "You had to go to number 13 before you found a superhero book, Ultimate Spider-Man—this was 2006," Gownley said. "The top four were American Born Chinese, Babymouse, and the number one was The Babysitters Club."
Getting Amelia into the Scholastic book fairs, which was nearly unheard of for a self-published book, was another important step; the best-of anthology that Gownley produced for Scholastic sold 83,000 copies. But with bigger sales came bigger headaches. Big book orders can completely paralyze small publishers who may not have the man power to deliver the order on time. "Six months or so after the Scholastic deal, when we could sell that book ourselves, we got an order for 4,000 copies," Gownley said. "My father helped [get the order fulfilled], and he was really sweating, and I said, 'Can you imagine how strong J. K. Rowling must be?'" Gownley realized that the logistics of printing and shipping the books were taking up too much time. And there was another factor: "I also felt that I was getting a lot better as a creator," he said. "I was reaching a point that I didn’t know I was able to reach, and I didn’t want to miss that opportunity because I was fulfilling orders or something like that." So with the help of his agent, Judith Hansen, he signed at 8-book deal with Simon & Schuster in 2008.
At Simon & Schuster, Gownley works with editor Namrata Tripathi, whom he credits with improving his work by making small changes. One of those changes was coming up with a new title for the sixth book, which Gownley had titled Tanner Rocks. "I said 'But it's in my notebook' and she said 'Can you come up with other suggestions?'" Gownley recalled. "So I said, 'I will give her really bad suggestions,' but she didn’t fall for that. She was the one who said 'How about 'True Things,' because that is what Tanner [Amelia's aunt] has always said to Amelia from the beginning?' That was way better than 'Tanner Rocks,' but also it was something that was in my work, so when she gave it back to me it was a lot easier to accept than a random jumble of words."
Simon & Schuster re-released the first four Amelia books in a new edition, both hardcover and softcover. "What's cool about working with Simon & Schuster is that isn’t something I would have said, put it in hardcover," he said. "I think they did it because they liked the book and wanted to put it out the best way they can." Gownley had to take his original books out of circulation while the new ones were being prepared, but, he said, "that was fine, because it introduced a whole new bunch of readers to Amelia."
The eighth book, Her Permanent Record, is the last Amelia book that Gownley plans for a while. "I have done Amelia for so long that I needed to do something else," he said. "There's a million 'how to do comics' books, but this is the first 'why to.' Amelia was a huge learning experience for me. I came out the other side a very different person and artist. I want to take all those lessons and put them into one book that combines all of that. It's not a how-to book in terms of 'Here is your pencil, here is your pen,' but it' s a book about making books." Gownley has not settled on a publisher for the new project yet.
He has also launched a webcomic, Gracieland, a humor strip about children at a Catholic school, which he is co-writing with Ellen Toole Austin, a friend since high school. "She was a Catholic educator in Catholic schools, she has two kids in Catholic schools, I have two kids in Catholic schools, I went to Catholic schools for 12 years," Gownley said. They are working on a book, but they decided to go ahead and put the characters on the web now, rather than waiting for the project to be finished.
"One of the things we were looking at was the materials our kids were getting in Catholic schools," Gownley said. "Some were the same ones we had 30 years ago, and some were stuffy. We thought there was a lot of humor and a lot of fun in it. I think we are the only Catholic-themed web strip that used the word 'Fallopian' that wasn't about natural family planning."
What Gownley takes away from ten years of writing, drawing, publishing, and marketing Amelia, is this: "If you have something that is important enough to you that you want to say, in today's world you have an outlet for it. I happened to have my outlet in comic book stores, and when they started failing me I was lucky enough to find Harold Buchholz, and when he took me as far as I could, I was lucky enough to find Judy Hansen and Simon & Schuster.
"If you are willing to put yourself out there, mighty forces will come to your aid. Cartooning got me everything I ever wanted and nothing that I expected. If I could go back and tell myself that someday I would publish a comic book with Simon & Schuster, I would say it was an impossibility— but that is what happened."