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September 30, 2022
By Milan Gagnon
A self-published author finds support with a small press.

In his self-published comics, Johnny Parker II has frequently used the futuristic, fantastical, and supernatural to explore more ethereal themes. Broken, a 2016 comic set in a world where the real and virtual are merging, examines friendship through the alliance of two gamers. Elvish, from 2015, follows a nerdy American teen alienated from his English peers while studying abroad, who finds solace and purpose in the company of an endangered race of elves. With Ewoks Are Better Than Hobbits in 2019, Parker definitively answered the burning fanfolk question of how Wicket, Chief Chirpa, and C-3PO might fare after crash-landing an Imperial shuttle on Middle Earth.

Set on regular Earth, The Black Man’s Guide to Getting Pulled Over is Parker’s most personal project yet. The idea came out of a series of encounters with police that he experienced shortly after buying a seven-year-old Ford 500 in his early 30s—and merely driving it. “It was like the nicest, newest car I’d ever had before, and I bought it, and I was really excited, but it was just crazy—like, the first night I drove it home I got pulled over in Manhattan Beach,” Parker says from his home in Los Angeles, where he works as a high school English teacher. “And then proceeding from there I got pulled over again and again and again, and it just became so frustrating. It was a newish car, I was at the time a younger Black guy driving around, and I just kept getting stopped. It was because I was Black and I was driving in areas that were quote-unquote not my own.... It was like a form of harassment, and so I was angry, but I was like: I just can’t be angry, I’ve got to do something about this.”

Parker self-published The Black Man’s Guide to Getting Pulled Over as a foldover zine in 2015 and continued to revise it after. Microcosm Publishing released the current 22-page edition, illustrated this time by Felipe Horas, in winter 2022.

“When we saw it, we were like, this is in no way edgy, but it’s really unique,” Microcosm founder and CEO Joe Biel says. “It’s funny to me that it would be kept down on the ground of content, rather than on the ground of storytelling.”

After over half a decade of figuring out his own art, design, print runs, and distribution, in addition to selling his work at shows and conventions, Parker was grateful to turn over some of those responsibilities to a publisher. “When you’re on your own, it’s a lot of self-control and you’re meeting your own deadlines, so you have to be a lot more self-motivated and on top of yourself to kind of get things done,” Parker says. “It also gets very hectic because then I’m thinking about: Who am I going to print with? What are the numbers gonna be? How much am I going to price the book for? What’s the best cover? All of these things are going through my mind, because when you’re an independent creator, you’re doing everything yourself. Working with a publisher, it’s almost like a relief in a lot of ways because, all of a sudden, it’s like there’s a team of people you can kind of bounce ideas off of.” With a publisher to handle “printing, the cost of paper, things like that,” he says, “I can just focus on telling the story.”

Microcosm has frequently worked with DIY and indie authors, including on books that have already been printed in some form. “Our job is to make the work reach its proper audience and to make the work more valuable than it is on its own—you know, without that, it’s like, why would we need to exist? So the fact that something’s been previously published, it’s not a negative in how we see it,” Biel says. “We take a look at whatever they have, and sometimes that’s a concept, and sometimes that’s a book that’s finished, and we take a look at it from both a marketing lens and editorial lens. And then we say, what would it take for stores to put this on their shelves?”

The press, which began as a record label and distributor in 1996 and quickly expanded to publishing, has made its name with mostly nonfiction books on topics ranging from cycling to self-care and social justice. In the early years, Biel says, many of Microcosm’s authors had previous experience with DIY self-publishing, though he says the press is now printing more debut writers as well. He says authors will generally have more success if they know their works are finished before taking them to publishers.

“Encapsulate your book, describe how it’s unique and what it’s about, and tell it to me in five seconds,” Biel says. “When you can do that, you’re kind of ready to pitch. When you are asking a publisher to read your entire manuscript to get a sense of it, you’ve sort of already failed—because the people that are willing to do that aren’t necessarily the ones that have an audience for it, and the people that have an audience for it aren’t probably going to put the time into reading it for figuring out what it’s about.”

Parker is working on his next projects, including shorter comics and long-form graphic novels. And he knows what they’re about. His next steps are familiar ones: reaching out to potential collaborators, setting up a crowdfunding campaign, and, of course, sitting down to write.

“We’ll be doing a Kickstarter for this new book I have called Die Cute,” Parker says. “It tells the story of this kid named Elvis, who’s a hopeless romantic searching for love and doesn’t discover what love is until he dies and meets this ghost named Maria. It’s a love story that takes place in a graveyard.” And he’s got even bigger plans for a graphic novel he’s just finished the script for, as well as another in the works: “I’ve sent some queries to agents—I’m looking for that representation so I can look for a publisher to get them out.”

Milan Gagnon is a freelance writer and copyeditor based in San Diego.