Agent Spotlight: Janna Morishima
Nov. 19, 2021
We are excited to feature Janna Morishima, an agent specializing in graphic novels and visual storytelling and founder of the community, Kids Comics Unite. Be sure to enter to win a 15-minute portfolio review and coaching session on Zoom.
Tell us about your background and how you came to agenting.
I started in publishing in 2002. My first job was as assistant to the creative director at Scholastic, David Saylor. While I was working for him, I happened to read a Publishers Weekly review of a new book called Blankets by Craig Thompson. It sounded intriguing, so I went out and bought it… and I can honestly say that it changed the trajectory of my life!
Blankets was a “graphic novel,” which back in 2002 was still a little-known concept. It’s an incredibly powerful coming of age story (not aimed at kids, I should add!). Reading Blankets reminded me of how much I loved reading comics like Asterix and Tintin when I was a kid, and as an adult, it struck me really forcefully how the experience of reading a graphic novel feels different than reading prose. It’s not that one is better or worse than another; they’re both wonderful ways to tell stories. But they’re different.
And it suddenly struck me as bizarre that there weren’t more stories for kids told in comics format. It seems like such a natural format for kids to read, and to fall in love with books.
So I talked to David about it, and he agreed with me! The two of us ended up writing a proposal that Scholastic launch a graphic novel imprint for kids, and soon thereafter, another editor at Scholastic, Sheila Keenan, joined the team. David and Jean Feiwel, who was publisher at the time, shepherded Graphix into existence.
I was an editor at Graphix until 2007, when my friend Kuo-yu Liang recruited me to head the Kids Group at Diamond Book Distributors. That was essentially a business development role; I was acting as a consultant for their comics publishing clients like Marvel, Dark Horse, Oni Press, IDW, etc, helping them understand the children’s book market. I also helped launch a brand new publisher, Toon Books, founded by Francoise Mouly.
But around 2010 I was feeling burnt out and decided to take a break from the corporate world. My husband is an independent photographer and really needed help building his business. I was intensely curious about entrepreneurship, so I decided this was the perfect opportunity for me to give it a try.
Anyone who’s started a business can attest that it’s almost inevitably a trial by fire. The things that make you successful in the corporate world don’t always carry over into success as a business owner. I learned a LOT of lessons the hard way! Things like understanding how to pick a good business model; differentiating yourself in a competitive market; building trust with customers; and staying on top of the administrative and financial tasks when you’re a creative type, just to name a few!
In 2015, another friend, Melissa Jacobs of the NYC School Library System, recruited me to help launch and run a literacy initiative called NYC Reads 365. That’s the domino that knocked me back into the children’s book world. Once I started working with librarians and publishers again, I felt like I came alive in a new way. I realized that my heart lies 100% in making kids books.
I wanted to start working in publishing full-time again, but I had a hard time figuring out how to “get back into the game,” so to speak. I was way too experienced for an entry level position, but had been out of publishing for quite a while, so I understood why publishers might not be jumping at the chance to hire me. It looked like I was going to have to do my own thing.
I flirted with the idea of starting a publishing company, but honestly, I didn’t have the capital to do that. Many people had suggested to me in the past that I would make a good literary agent, and I started to warm up to it. I love working with artists and writers and getting projects off the ground, and now I had entrepreneurial experience, so it seemed like a good fit.
I officially launched my agency in January 2020, and it feels like it’s been a rocket ride ever since!
You've started a great community for graphic novel creators, Kids Comics Unite. Tell us about it and what you offer.
I started Kids Comics Unite as a small, in-person meetup in New York City. I thought it would be fun to get together with some local comics creators, editors, and agents just to “talk shop” once a month or so. We had our first meeting at a cafe in December 2019, but less than three months later… you know what happened: the COVID lockdown.
Luckily, I had stumbled across a platform called MightyNetworks and already created an account for Kids Comics Unite. So when everything went virtual, we shifted our meetings online. And because everyone (including me) was so freaked out in those early days, I decided to start having weekly meetings on Zoom.
Moving everything online and hosting these weekly get-togethers ended up supercharging Kids Comics Unite. We really bonded. People started recommending KCU to fellow creators, and more and more people started joining the community and participating.
It’s not something I expected or planned, but once I realized what was happening, I also realized that the momentum must mean something. People loved the community we were building!
In June 2020 I launched a course called Kids Comics Intensive. The course is a 3-month bootcamp on how to build your career as a kids graphic novel creator. We cover craft, audience-building, and how to make money from your work. It’s now an annual course -- I taught it again in early 2021, and I’ll offer it next in spring 2022.
In September 2020, when the original course finished, I launched Kids Comics Studio, which is a paid membership inside Kids Comics Unite. (KCU is still totally free to join, by the way!)
In Kids Comics Studio, we have weekly live events on topics like storytelling, comics technique, marketing, publishing, etc. I also curate critique groups for members, and we have an amazing archive of past lessons and interviews.
We’re currently working on a website for Kids Comics Unite, which should go live before the end of 2021. And we have a booth and are hosting a happy hour at AnimeNYC this coming weekend, Nov. 19th to 21st! The happy hour is on Saturday afternoon, Nov 20th, at a bar close to the Javits Center. Any creators are welcome to come (you don’t have to be attending AnimeNYC). If you want to join us, the info is listed in the Events section inside Kids Comics Unite.
What type of books are you looking for these days?
My specialty is kids and YA graphic novels. It’s hard for me to get specific about the type of book I’m looking for, other than “great storytelling.” I represent a pretty wide range of styles.
How would you describe your agenting style?
Haha, I think most people who know me will nod their heads at that. I get very excited by projects and ideas that I believe in, and bubble over with enthusiasm.
I would also say “dogged.” Things don’t always work out exactly the way you hope in the beginning, but I’ve learned that persistence is one of the most important qualities you can have in our creative field. So learning how to roll with the punches and not give up is really key.
And finally, I’d say “strategic.” I can get into the weeds with editorial development when necessary, but I really love zooming out and looking at the big picture. When I work with creators, I like to ask them what their 3- to 5-year goals are, and what types of activities they most enjoy -- their “happy place,” so to speak. Once we’re clear on where they want to go, we can be very thoughtful and deliberate about the decisions we make to move forward with their work.
What are some common mistakes you see in queries and submission packages? What advice would you give to querying graphic novel creators?
Well, the first thing I’d like to say is that I see a lot of great work. There are way more talented people out there than I could ever work with as an individual agent. (That’s probably another reason why I put a lot of energy into Kids Comics Unite, because it allows me to help more people than I can as an agent.)
So one piece of advice I’d give people is to do everything they can to bolster their confidence in themselves. Seek out mentors, find a supportive community of peers, take care of your mental health, etc. There are so many reasons why agents and publishers reject people’s work that has nothing to do with its inherent worth.
And there are so many roads to success as a creator these days. You can follow the beaten path, but there are also now many other paths to get where you want to go.
In terms of common mistakes I see, one of the most important would be not having a strong sense of “the market.” In other words, you should always be immersing yourself in the work that’s getting published and that’s most successful in your particular area of focus.
My guess is that this advice would be less applicable to KidLit411 members. In my world, there are a lot of people coming from outside children’s books -- people from the comics industry or animation industry. They are often great artists, but don’t know very much about the current children’s book industry.
What excites you most about a project?
When it makes me laugh, or have a visceral emotional reaction!
I also get really excited by the person behind the project. I love meeting artists and storytellers. They tend to be a special breed of human being: people who think deeply about things, who look at the world from an unconventional angle, and who don’t always accept truisms about the way things “should” be. I love brainstorming and exchanging ideas with writers and artists.
What is something most people don't know about you?
I love to cook and bake. That is my relaxation activity. If I’m really stressed, I’ll bake a cake. ;)
Are you open to queries?
Currently I’m not open to queries because I’m maxed out with my current clients.
But it’s easy to get in touch and hang out with me. I host events in Kids Comics Unite quite frequently (and I meet with creators every week in Kids Comics Studio). And I love to teach, so I’m often offering workshops either through Kids Comics Unite or other organizations.
Janna Morishima is a literary agent specializing in graphic novels and visual storytelling. She currently represents a diverse range of comics creators, including Misako Rocks, Shauna Grant, Andi Watson, and Black Sands Entertainment.
Janna started her career at Scholastic, where she co-founded the Graphix imprint. Later, she was the director of the Kids Group for Diamond Book Distributors, and launched and ran the NYC Department of Education’s “NYC Reads 365” literacy initiative.
She is the founder of Kids Comics Unite, an online community for kids and YA graphic novel professionals. Find out more at http://jannaco.co and https://www.kidscomicsunite.com/.