A History of First Second Books: Interview With Senior Editor Calista Brill

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indexFirst Second Books is one of the best publishers of original graphic novels. Their books cross every genre and demographic. The variety of talent that has printed under their label would fill several wings in a museum. I knew First Second must have an interesting history and the best way to learn about it was speaking with Calista Brill. Calista is First Second’s senior editor and her personality is as marvelous as the books she publishes. If anyone asks, I do owe her a top hat.

Whitney Grace (WG): How and when did First Second come into being?

Calista Brill (CB): Mark Siegel, our editorial director, founded the imprint in 2005. Macmillan, which is our parent company, was interested in having a graphic novel imprint, and Mark already knew a lot about both book publishing and comics. Our first books were published in 2006.

WG: Why did the parent company decide to create a publishing house focused on graphic novels?

CB: There was a lot of interest in graphic novels on the parts of the major book publishers (Macmillan, Random House, etc) around that time. Graphic novels have historically been seen as sort of specialized, fringy, or genre-y by the mainstream publishing world, but around 2003-2005 a lot of folks in book publishing got excited about adding graphic novels to their list. Hence First Second – and Scholastic’s Graphix line, and Abrams’ ComicArts imprint – were born, among many others.

WG: Was First Second created with the intent to publish graphic novels for a specific age group or was it all ages?

CB: First Second has since day one been a publisher of graphic novels for every reader. By design, we try to publish a wide variety of books on a wide variety of subjects, in the hopes of reaching a wide variety of readers.

WG: What were some of the first titles First Second published and how were they selected?

CB: Many of the books in our first few years of publishing were imported from other countries. First Second aims to have a global list – we like to bring books in from all over the world. It was good timing for us, too, because creating a graphic novel from scratch takes a really long time! So launching the list with a handful of foreign titles helped get things going a little faster. After all, those books are done and are ready to publish.

WG: American Born Chinese was a big success for both Gene Luen Yang and First Second.  How did the nomination for the National Book Award, winning the Michael L. Printz Award, and other subsequent awards change First Second?

CB: It made a big difference in our general visibility in the book publishing landscape. It really was a lovely boost! We would have gotten there eventually, but the success of that book kind of speeded things up for us.

WG: Even though First Second does not publish manga, did the manga bubble burst affect it?

CB: I think all comics publishing was! But because we aim to reach such a wide variety of readers, I think we were a little cushioned by that.

WG: What makes First Second stand out from other independent publishers or subsidiaries, such as Fantgraphics, Oni Press, Top Shelf, and Boom?

CB: The same thing that makes Fantagraphics, Oni, Top Shelf, and Boom stand out! We each of us have our own sensibilities, tastes, and philosophies – and those things show! Every publishing house is a unique snowflake, just like every other publishing house.

WG: I’m sure First Second receives many solicitations from aspiring graphic novel writers and artists.  What types of stories does First Second look for?

CB: We love stories that feel like they come from a really personal place for their creator. Not necessarily because they’re memoir – but you can tell when someone has really put their heart into a piece of fiction, and that’s the quality that we’re looking for. That and it being awesome, obviously.

WG: Who makes the decision to publish the books? Is it a single person or a team decision?

CB: It’s SO COMPLICATED. So first, an editor has to like the project. Then the editor (me, say) becomes the project’s biggest advocate and defender within the company. This remains the case through the book’s entire life, by the way. I take a book I like to our publisher and pitch it to him. If I can make a convincing case – editorially and financially – in favor of the book, then I’m cleared to take it to the weekly acquisitions meeting. At this meeting, editors present books they want to acquire to a “board” made up of publishers, marketing people, publicity people, and sales people. If everyone at that meeting signs off, then I get to make an offer to the creator of the book and hope the creator of the book accepts my offer.

WG: Please explain the editing process and what goes into readying a book for publication at First Second.

CB: A LOT. It would take me a long time to go through it in any kind of detail, but suffice it to say it combines heavy-duty creative work, project management, budget-watching, schedule-watching, soul-searching, philosophizing, a lot of reading and re-reading and re-re-re-reading, and a certain amount of cat-herding. Meow.

WG: Once the books are published what does First Second do to promote its new graphic novels?

CB: A LOT. We try to line up as much publicity in as many different places as possible. We send the books out far and wide for reviews and journalistic coverage. We advertise them. And we work with their creators to make the creators of the books as visible and available as possible when the books come out – that makes a huge difference.

WG: Even though it is hard to define, what makes a good graphic novel?

CB: That it is good! Seriously, it’s really hard to define. One thing I really work on editorially is helping the books I edit have a good balance between the art and the text, and also have a good “shape” or structure, plot-and-character-wise. Good endings are really important to me.

WG: How does First Second want to be known to the public?

CB: As a bunch of amiable goofballs who work our asses off and put our whole hearts into the books we publish – wait, no, that’s just the boring truth of the matter. We’d like to be known to the public as a bunch of glamorous socialites who wear top hats in the bathtub. Can we work on making this happen? I know I can count on your help.

WG: What has First Second learned in its eight years of existence?

CB: SO MUCH – but not enough! We learn something new with every book.

WG: And for the last question I ask everyone, do you have anything to declare?

CB: A bottle of wine, a sweater I got in Scotland, and a nasty case of bird flu.




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