Joe Sergi lives outside of Washington, DC with his wife and daughter. Joe is an attorney and a Haller Award winning author who has written articles, novels, short stories, and comic books in the horror, scifi, and young adult genres. Joe is the creator of the Sky Girl series of novels and the editor of Great Zombies in History. His first novel, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy was selected Best of 2010 by the New PODler Review. Joe is a life-long comic fan who regularly writes on the history of comics and censorship for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. A complete list of Joe’s titles is available at www.JoeSergi.net. When not writing, Joe works as a Senior Litigation Counsel in an unnamed US government agency and is a member of the adjunct faculty at George Mason University School of Law.
Thanks for letting us
interrogate interview you! Can you give us a go-for-the-gut answer as to why
you wanted to be an author?
There really wasn’t a light bulb moment. I have always been a story teller (much to my parents' and teachers' chagrin). I always smile when people ask me how long I’ve been writing. I think the real answer is forever. Some of my earliest memories include laying in the back seat of my parents’ car during long road trips creating comic books based on my favorite Saturday morning cartoons or writing the screenplay for a Star Wars inspired opus, complete with the marriage of Luke and Leah (I had even cast the movie with neighborhood kids when we finally realized that none of us owned a movie camera.) In high school, I often annoyed teachers by taking the most mundane assignment and giving it a unique twist. (For a career fair assignment on employment advancement, I outlined the steps that could be employed by the President to manipulate the Constitution to create a monarchy.) In college, I was once accused of plagiarism because “a business major could not possibly be this creative.” In law school, I wrote articles and edited scholarly journals and magazines. Currently, I work as a senior litigation counsel for a government agency. As a litigator, you could say I have been a professional non-fiction writer for decades (and quite frankly earn much more per word than I will probably ever make writing fiction.)
As for my career as an author, my first real fiction publication was in an issue of Trail of Indiscretion Magazine that came out in 2009. I met the publishers at the Baltimore ComicCon and was so impressed with their magazine that I wrote the first draft of Death Imitates Art on the train on the way home. Death Imitates Art is about an author who is promoting his novel about a Cult at a science fiction convention. He meets a group of warriors who think the cult is real and madness ensues. I submitted it and, although they liked the concept, a lot of rewriting was necessary. I learned a lot through that story—especially what not to do. That same year, I became a semi-finalist in the Who Wants to Create a Superheroine contest sponsored by the Shadowline Imprint of Image Comics. That experience taught me that comics have their own language. Afterwards, I enrolled in all of Andy Schmidt’s Comics Experience classes to help learn all facts of the craft.
Since then, I have learned a lot about writing and comics. I have written articles, novels, short stories, and comic books in the horror, sci-fi, and young adult genres. My first novel, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy, was selected Best of 2010 by the New PODler Review. In addition to appearing in a few comics anthologies (Indie Horror Magazine, Aliens Among Us, and Don’t be Afraid), this year I released the sequel to Sky Girl (Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures) through Martin Sisters Publishing and edited a comic anthology, Great Zombies in History through McFarland Press. I also write a regular column on the history of comics and censorship for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF.org).
When I don’t write about zombies, aliens, and superheroes, I work as a Senior Litigation Counsel in an unnamed government agency and am also a member of the adjunct faculty at George Mason University School of Law where I taught Unincorporated Entities.
Tell us (we won’t tell promise!) is it all it’s cracked up to be? I mean what are the perks and what are the demands?
I would have to say that, hands down, to me the worst part is the editing. I write because I have stories to tell. Far too frequently, I get the story on paper and that satisfies the need to get it out. So, I have to force myself to edit and then edit and then edit. If this occurs, I have to put it aside until the muse calls me back to it. Of course, that’s easier to do when you aren’t on deadline. However, if something is due, I just struggle through it and hope for the best. The other thing that occurs when you put your work aside for months is that you may lose the connection to the characters. This happened in a recent story I did called “The Tube” (in Indie Comics Horror #2 available in comic shops now) by the time I got back to the story, I had to rework the main character (from a school girl to a secretary) because I didn’t feel her anymore. I liked the way it turned out, but the original version was very different.
I should also admit that I’m also notoriously bad at proofreading my own work (although surprisingly good at copyediting other people’s work). So if I ever become a world famous author, the second thing I am going to do is hire three separate full time copyeditors to read everything I write. The first thing I will do if I ever become a world famous author will be to buy a Disney Haunted Mansion Doom Buggy, in case you were curious.
Still, being a writer is great. And that is because of the readers. Readers are awesomely dedicated to books. I mean sure, as a writer, I have to be dedicated to creating the story and provide entertainment. But at the end of the day, I write for me—because I have a story to tell. I would write if no one ever read it. (For evidence of this, you should look at the sales figures for some of my earlier work). Readers on the other hand, have no such compulsion. They spend their valuable time and money on someone else’s work. There are a lot of great books out there by some amazing authors (living and dead). As a result, these people don’t need to take a chance on me (or any other unknown), but they do. I really appreciate that. And nothing is more rewarding than someone coming up to me at a show and telling me that they really loved my book, or that it is their daughter’s favorite book, or that they made (or had someone make them) a Sky Girl costume for Halloween or a ComicCon. If you want to know a secret, book festivals and comic conventions aren’t that lucrative for me (I rarely ever make my table cost). But, writing is pretty solitary, so the chance to meet people is priceless.
To these people, I say “Thank you!”
Which route did you take – traditional or self-published – and can you give us the nitty gritty low down on what’s that like?
This is a very different answer for my prose and comics work. In prose work, self publishing is frowned upon by many people. In the comics industry, it is viewed as a badge of honor. I previously described how I “broke in” to my prose work into the short story market. But, when it came time to shop around Sky Girl I knew I wanted to go with an outside publisher. The decision to choose a publisher can be very difficult. With the first book, I had the choice between the subsidiary of a large publishing house and a small press start up. The large press wanted me to sign away all rights, including the ability to write my own sequels. So, I went with the start up. It was a decision I would come to regret. Not only was I responsible for most of the upfront costs and for promoting the books, but the start up did not make royalty payments on sales before going out of business. Worse than that, the company did not offer any discounts to bookstores or bulk purchasers, which limited sales. It was a very expensive lesson that could have been avoided with some upfront research.
I think that I made the right choice with the second book, which is with Martin Sisters Publishing. Martin Sisters Publishing is very focused on supporting their authors. There is even a community of published authors that share ideas on marketing and promotion. And while small presses are more limited in their mainstream brick and mortar distribution, the internet has made the small press model more viable. Sky Girl is available at all online booksellers and can be ordered in brick and mortar shops and chains. Given the fact that the first book sold primarily at comic conventions and book festivals, a small press author discount, which in my experience is much bigger than the ones offered by large and midsize publishers, is essential. Finally, with the small presses, authors have more control over their intellectual property and the marketing of the material.
Now, comics are completely different. In comics, doing a creator owned book (self-published) is the best way to break in. I dipped my foot into the market by writing for a few anthologies, but didn’t know what I was doing. After I was a finalist in the “who wants to create a superheroine” contest from Image Comics, I decided to take it more seriously and focused on my craft. I did this by enrolling in all of the classes offered by Comics Experience. Through Comics Experience I learned all aspects of comics creation from writing to art (They aren’t miracle workers--I still can’t draw, but now I can look at drawings and see if they work), to lettering, to coloring, to editing and to final production. They also have a creator forum that provides valuable critiques. But, Comics Experience not only gave me skill, I also got partners out of it.
A bunch of great guys who met in Andy Schmidt’s Comics Experience writing class formed a company called Elevator Pitch Press. We do an anthology each year and have done books in several genres including: horror (Don’t Be Afraid); SciFi (Aliens Among Us); Grind House (Girls With Guns) and Zombies (Great Zombies in History). I’m always looking forward to the next one.
Tell us for real what your family feels about you spending so much time getting your book written, polished, edited, formatted, published, what have you?
My family is supportive on the time front. Because I do most of my writing in the wee hours of the morning, it doesn’t really interfere with my family obligations. My daughter also loves the attention she gets at book festivals. But, since you want unbridled honesty, I think it frustrates my family as to just how little money there is writing, especially in creator owned comics. I think Stan Lee once said that the best way to go into comics and end up with a million dollars is to start with two million. Every time I start a project, it’s with the goal of not losing too much money. I’m pretty sure the same has been true for my prose work (although, to be fair, I would be in better shape if I had actually received royalties from the first Sky Girl book). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I write because I love writing. Thankfully, my family understands this.
This is for pet lovers. If you don’t own a pet, skip this question, but do your pets actually get their food on time or do they have to wait until you type just one more word?
Sorry, no pets. Who has time? J
This is for plant lovers. If you don’t own a plant, skip this question, but if you do, are they actually still alive?
I think I have killed very one of my wife’s plants at one time or another.
Out of all the people involved in getting your book published, which one would you say did the most for you?
There is a list that would fill up several notebooks of people who helped make me the writer I am today. I think the dedication to the first Sky Girl book, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy, says it all:
This book is for my parents.
For my mother, Agnes, who bought me my first comic.
For my father, Marty, who never made me throw it away.
I would be nowhere without them.
In writing your book, how did you deal with the phone ringing, your family needing dinner or your boss calling you saying you’re late?
I try to write when no one is awake. I’m one of those people that doesn’t sleep very much. I get a couple of hours a night. That leaves a lot of time when no one is awake. I used to watch a lot of television infomercials. Now, I use that time more productively and write. At the very least, I have to write creatively every day (I also write for my day job, but it is very different). I don’t hold myself to minimum page limits or time limits when I write. I try to set aside 5 am to 7 am to write every day.
How about the social networks? Which ones do you believe help and which ones do you wish you could avoid?
I’m on Twitter and Facebook. While it is useful to keep up with pop culture, comics, movie, and TV news (but not real news since it appears that everyone has an angle or agenda), I don’t think I’ve seen a noticeable effect on sales despite the numerous amount of followers I have on both. Maybe I’m not doing it right.
Book sales. Don’t you just love them (or lack of?)? How are you making the sales happen for you?
Book sales are a necessary evil. Still, there is something satisfying to know that people paid with real money to buy your book. As for my strategy, with the first book, I did something unique. I created Sky Girl’s Superheroic Tutorial, which I performed for schools, libraries, and at conventions. Basically, this was a tongue-in-cheek interactive skit where I lectured how to become a costumed adventurer. There were a lot of inside jokes about the tropes and conventions in comics, so a lot of the adult audience members enjoyed the show as much as the kids. Eventually, I added a crafts segment where kids could create masks and capes. At the end of the tutorial, a model dressed as Sky Girl showed up, posed for pictures, and presented every child (and some of the adults) a Certificate of Superheroicness (listing a superheroic name and one good deed). I found that most participants bought a copy of the book after. I probably will continue doing (and expand) the tutorial now that the second book is out.
I also will talk to any group that is willing to hear about the book for free: libraries, book clubs, school groups, girl scouts, home schools. If they are within driving distance, I’ll go to them. If they are too far away, there is Skype or a conference call. I just ask that people buy the book.
What is one thing you’d like to jump on the rooftop and scream about?
I am a huge Disney fan. In fact, I got married in Disney World thirteen years ago in the shadow of Cinderella's Castle. Wedding guests included Belle and the Beast, Lumiere, and, of course, Mickey and Minnie. When I need to recharge, I go to the Disney parks, or take a Disney Cruise. When traveling to California for work, I have annual passes try to visit the Disneyland Park at least once (although I also admit to owning season passes to Universal Studios Hollywood and Kings Dominion as well). Now, I love experiencing Disney movies and parks through my daughter’s eight-year-old eyes. There is a lot of magic in the world. Kids see it and, if they are not paying attention, adults miss it. There is a magical escapism that Disney creates that cannot be duplicated anywhere else. (Although Universal Studio Island of Adventures comes really close.). Plus, the Disney customer service is the best on the planet. As a matter of fact, I just got back from a one week vacation to Disneyland and I am ready to head back, if only for an hour.
Okay, too much sugar for you today! Here’s a nice cup of Chamomile tea and come on over and sit under the cabana and watch the waves roll in. Now…can you tell us what you love about being a published author and how all those things above don’t matter because it’s all part of the whole scheme of things and you wouldn’t have it any other way?
Being a published author is awesome. While it is true that a writer is anyone who writes, it’s pretty cool that I can look at my shelf and see all the books I’ve written and say, “I made those.” To know that after I am gone future generations will have the ability to see my imagination. But, by far, the best thing about being a writer would have to be the readers.
Thanks for having me. For those interested, Sky Girl is available at all online booksellers and can be ordered in brick and mortar shops and chains. It is also available directly from the publisher at www.martinsisterspublishing.com. I will also have copies and be signing the book at some upcoming show appearances, some of which include: Baltimore ComicCon (September 7-8); The Collingswood Book Festival (October 5), New York ComicCon (October 10-13), and the Festival of the Book (October 19). These shows are great fun and a wonderful place to connect with readers. I’ve even had a few old and young cosplayers come up to my booth to show me their Sky Girl costumes, which was extremely flattering.