I’m by no means a financially successful writer that should be giving any sort of contract advice to other comic book creators (though not for lack of trying), but I think it’s important for us all to share our experiences with these things and there’s far too little of it in the community (if you want great legal info on contracts from a creator-POV, check out Charles Soule’s posts on the subject; the man is a talented writer as well as a lawyer).
So, I’ve done a few things here and there: some work-for-hire for publishers I love, some work-for-hire that I wish would disappear forever and burn in Creative Hell, creator-owned books with indie publishers and creator-owned books self-published with the help of Kickstarter. I’ve done work I’m proud of (except for the aforementioned stuff burning in Creative Hell) and have plenty more in the works.
More recently I’ve been collaborating with the amazing Joe Badon on a science-fiction project that I’ve been pitching as CHEERS meets BLADE RUNNER, called SPEAKEASY. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, Joe’s art is stunning and weird, and pretty much every publisher has passed on it. And that’s totally okay. The style is definitely outside of the mainstream wheelhouse, and coming from two no-names, I get it. We did, however, have a long (year-long, in fact) conversation with a smaller publisher about getting it out there, possibly this summer/fall. I’m not going to say who because it really doesn’t matter. They put out books that I really like and I would’ve been happy to work with them.
However, where the conversation began was not where the conversation ended. It was nobody’s fault, really; plans/priorities for both sides changed. We went from being a 6-issue print release with a possibility of a Free Comic Book Day promotional comic to being a digital-only release with a trade, maybe. From their standpoint, I get it — digital releases cost significantly less, and if the book does well and creates buzz, the direct market might respond well to the physical trade paperback.
For a multitude of reasons, I wasn’t confident in this publisher’s ability to effectively market a digital-first book in a way that went above and beyond something we could accomplish ourselves. This meant we’d likely be doing a bulk of the promotion on our own, as most indie creators expect to, but it put me in a spot I’ve been in before. Why are we sharing profits with a publisher that isn’t really doing anything for us that we couldn’t do on our own through the channels available to us in 2015 — Comixology Submit, Kickstarter, Noisetrade, etc. — and keep the would-be publisher percentage to boot?
So with this in mind, Joe and I decided to just handle it ourselves — release the single issues digitally later this year and then maybe have a Kickstarter for a trade paperback. While I would be more than happy to hand the nitty-gritty details of publishing and managing money to someone else, I also want the final product to be something that reflects the hard work I put into it, both as a story and financial investment. When I look back on it I don’t want to be resentful of it because X or Y didn’t happen the way we had hoped or the way we had been promised it would. I’ve been down that road and have no desire to do so again.
For comparison, I recently negotiated a contract for a different project that the publisher was incredibly amenable to. As creators, particularly on the bottom rung of a very tall ladder, it’s easy to forget that we have this power of negotiation. Publishers aren’t interested in you as much as they are interested in making money off the things you create. That alone gives you a firm foundation for negotiation; add to that the fact that it’s 2015 and it’s easier than ever to self-publish, and it all leads to one point: ask for what you want. If they can’t deliver what you’re looking for and you can’t find a middle ground that both sides are happy with, it’s okay to walk away, they’ll have to make their money someplace else. Your vision and your creativity is worth it. Don’t compromise to the point of discomfort just to “get it out there.”
Whether that means you seek out a different publisher or just do it yourself is up to you, but all that matters down the line is if you have a product that you look back on fondly. Creative satisfaction and financial satisfaction are two very different things and I’m speaking strictly of the former. But part of getting there means keeping the publishing process as free of drama as possible, which means nipping in the bud — like knowing when a contract isn’t for you.
It also means remembering that this project isn’t your masterpiece. SPEAKEASY is a fun story that I thought was perfect for Joe (we met doing a one-off story starring Shawn Aldridge’s VIC BOONE), but I don’t think it’s the greatest thing I will ever write and I’m sure Joe feels the same, art-wise. Because we always want to be better.
But I’ll be damned if we don’t look back at it fondly when all is said and done.