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B&N Week 32: Being Wary

| August 2, 2011 | 6 Comments

 

It’s Tuesday, right? My days are starting to run together just a little. Ever lose track of days, and then wind up being very surprised that it’s a day or two ahead of or behind your guesstimate? Unsettling, isn’t it?

Since it’s Tuesday, it’s time for Bolts & Nuts! I’m thinking about making some wild claim there, like other internet sites. How about the best, most honest opinion for comic book writers on the ‘net? I dunno. I’ll work on it.

But, that claim ties directly into this week’s topic: being wary. I don’t know about you, but I no longer pay attention to claims like that. However, as a comic book writer, I urge you to be wary of things that aren’t going to help you in your career. I’m going to talk about that, and I’m also going to talk about turning things or projects that went bust into lessons learned. Let’s get started, huh?

Being wary means a lot of things to a lot of people. I’m noticing a trend lately at Digital Webbing that’s writer-centric. I can look right now, and see a few posts looking for writers and/or editors. (Steven, why aren’t you jumping at those chances, then? We’ll understand if you…{gulp!} leave…in order to pursue other things.) Well, some of them I heed, and others I don’t. And remember, comics is a small pond.

I don’t do this often, but I’m going to talk about me for a little bit. I’m going to talk about me, about the state of comics today, about the ads that are up at DW, and tie that all in to being wary.

Like I said a couple of times before, I was the assistant editor in chief of a small indie company. This was my second editing job, and my biggest one yet, and I thought I was on my way. (Names?) Affinity Storm Press. Lofty goals, but I’ve been gone from there for about seven years now, and they still have yet to produce a single comic, in either print or on the web. But, like I said, it was my biggest editing gig yet, and I had to hit the ground running, getting up to speed with how the company worked, with all of the titles and their various levels of completion, with all of the editors and creators, reading scripts, and just keeping a pulse on everything. It was a busy, exciting time. I honestly learned a lot while there.

Like I said, nothing came out. The owner was doing a lot of different types of comics, some creator owned, some shared universe, some comics that were non-USA based. Lots of different plates spinning, with no money to finance any of it. When it was discovered that the owner was going to cherry-pick creators and titles, and basically try to fold things into the shared universe, that’s when people started to jump ship.

Now, let’s look at this for a little bit. Sure, this was six or seven years ago, and the comics field has changed a little, but not that much. But, let’s look at it from today’s perspective, which really isn’t that much different from yesterday’s.

Let’s say you’re a writer with a decent idea. You go to a company that says they’ll produce the ongoing epic of Pen-Man. They’ll find you a creative team, and the only thing you’ll have to do is create your comic. This is a company that hasn’t produced anything as of yet, they have no track record—as a matter of fact, they’ve been trying to get a slew of things off the ground for years, with nothing to show for it as yet.

Alarms going off yet?

If a comic company tried to produce three different comics, they’re going to need, at the minimum, money enough for a print-run. That’s before paying anyone else for anything. That’s before advertising. As of right now, in the direct market, you need money to print your comics. It doesn’t get simpler than that. If a company doesn’t have money to print right now, they don’t have any money.

Let me say that again. If a company doesn’t have money to pay for a print run right now, they don’t have any money.

(But Steven, this is my chance!) No, it’s not. I’m not going to call it a scam, but I am going to say that it’s not going to go anywhere.

Back to me. I’m something of a snob. (You don’t say! Never would have guessed that!) I’m pretty picky with whom I choose to work when it comes to my writing, especially if I’m footing the bill. When I started with that company, after taking a look around and seeing who was working on what and how it was working out, I decided right then and there that I wouldn’t be participating as a writer. This company had a good ten [!] titles in the hopper, most of them creator owned, and the shared universe was not something I was really willing to commit a character to, even though it was asked.

As I looked around and asked some pointed questions, I didn’t get pointed answers. I like pointed answers. When dealing with a brand new publisher, there are some basic questions you should be asking. If you don’t like the answers, run the other way.

First off, understand that this is not about you getting paid a million dollars. You’re just starting out, so this is about you getting exposure. Exposure means getting published. So, while it’s nice to be paid for your time, as the writer, yours [time] is the easiest to get. It doesn’t take you as long to do your thing, and it’s really not a losing proposition on money for you to write things that aren’t going to pay you. You’ll be paid in exposure. It’s all about things on your resume.

What should you ask? The first is, do you have money to publish? [The strict caveat is that I’m talking about print. Digital is a different matter altogether.] If the answer is anything other than a confident yes, go the other way. The company isn’t going to go anywhere. If they say they’re looking for investors [called ‘angels’ in investment circles], just say thanks but no thanks. They’re trying to eat steak and champagne on a Dollar Menu budget, and that’s just not going to happen. (Steven, isn’t it a little…rude to ask about the money?) No. You want to know if they’re players, or are just playing. Notice the difference?

I used to feel pretty strange about looking in someone else’s wallet. It still kinda bothers me, but not as much. If they’re on the up and up, they won’t mind. Actually, they should be impressed that you have the presence of mind to ask the questions. And of course, it’s all in how you ask the question.

Next, ask how many titles they’re looking to publish to start with. This will let you know the minimum amount of money they have. (How?) Read the Expectationscolumn. If they’re looking to publish an outrageous amount of comics in a year [say, five limited series, an ongoing, and a graphic novel or two], and they’re not paying any of the talent, go the other way. (Why is that?) Because the money they’re spending on printing could be spent paying decent talent to work on one or two comics. This is not about throwing shit against the wall and seeing what sticks. This is about a realistic goal of publishing comics. Putting out that amount of comics without paying talent just isn’t going to work.

Have you posted an ad looking for an artist yet? Did you get what I said, either crap or things that were way out of your price range? Imagine that, but for a line of comics. Yeah, not a pretty sight.

The next question to ask is what their production schedule looks like. Are they planning to publish in the winter or the summer? This will tell you a lot about how long it will take the process to happen. Remember, the book needs to be written, edited, drawn, edited, inked, edited, colored/grayscaled, edited, lettered, and edited. That’s a long process, and doesn’t include printing. You also want to know how many times per year they plan to publish. [Part of this depends on the project you’re trying to get done through the company. Ongoing, limited, or graphic novel? For ongoing or limited, are we talking quarterly, bi-monthly, or monthly? These are questions to ask, which are dependent on your project.]

(What about the contract?) Good question. Is it a creator owned contract, or is it work for hire? If it’s creator owned, how much of the pie do they want? More and more, companies are getting away from the Image model and wanting a piece of the creator owned properties. This is both good and bad. It’s good because the company now has a stake in the book doing well, and it’s bad because this means less money for the creative team, and possibly being unable to get out of the contract later. Go in with your eyes open.

You should also ask about royalties. These should be at a reasonable rate. Look at the ICV2 numbers for any non-Marvel/DC book, and you’ll get a sense of what your comic could sell. Notice the operative word “could.” Now, if the company says they’ll pay royalties once sales reach something like 100k, go the other way. 100K is unreasonable. It won’t be made. Why be happy at a royalty rate that’s unreachable? Look at most Marvel/DC books that do not start with X- or Spider- or Bat, and see how they do. Generally, if it’s not a Bendis book [and to some extent, Brubaker], it’s not selling in those numbers. However, they’re closer to reaching 100k than your new indie startup. Please note that this is not a deal-breaker. This can and should be negotiated. If they don’t come to something reasonable, walk. You’ll thank me later.

Ask about distribution. Everyone wants to get into Diamond, but what’s the backup plan if that doesn’t happen? This is an important question, and if they don’t have a plan, you should pass.

Next is about advertising. You’re not going to care about the amount of money spent. What you are going to care about is when advertising starts, where the advertising will be, and how long before the comic comes out will the advertising be done.

(Steven, I gotta say, you’re making me cynical.) If cynicism will stop you from getting taken or wasting your time, then I’ve done my job. I can live with that.

Now, let’s say you don’t run away, and you embrace something with your eyes wide open. First, I hope it turns out well. But if [really, when] it doesn’t, the thing you mustn’t do is get bitter. Bitterness won’t help you and the situation you’re in. Just do your best to get out of it. That may be easier said than done, but that’s what you want to do.

The next thing that you shouldn’t do is start a smear campaign. I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face: comics is a small pond, and a smear campaign hurts you more than it hurts the company or individual you worked with/for. It tells others that you’re not professional, that you don’t know how to conduct yourself in public, and that if something goes wrong, you’ll go around “telling” on them. This is NOT to say that you shouldn’t tell someone, but there are ways to go about it.

The bad thing about comics is that there’s no oversight. There’s nothing like the Better Business Bureau for comics. We can come and go, changing names as we flit around the comic-verse, and generally getting away with being underhanded. One of the worst cases of this in recent memory was with TightLip Enterainment. The owner of said “company” would go around making promises he knowingly wouldn’t keep, promising the sky and giving absolutely nothing in return. As a matter of fact, there was [and probably still is] an entire thread dedicated to this one individual and company. It’s huge, but great reading, almost like a soap opera.

After it came to light that this single individual/company owed an astronomical amount of money to creators, those that are the activists among us took it upon themselves to start a non-profit group to help those creators that are in dire straights due to unscrupulous practices. The organization is called Unscrewed!, and they’re doing great, needed work. Best of all, they’ve also started keeping track of companies—not just those that are less than savory with their practices, but also those that are doing their jobs. I urge every one of you to at least go to the site, look around, and tell your stories if necessary. [You can also give to the cause. They’re non-profit, so it’s tax deductible. I honestly believe in their cause, as well as the Hero Initiative and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Give to those who’ve been taken for a ride, give to those who have come before us and given us the gift of comics that we now enjoy, and give to those who defend our right of freedom of speech. You’ll be glad you did.]

Like I said before, don’t let it make you bitter. It’s a learning experience, and treat it as such. Sometimes, that experience is necessary to become a wiser creator. Notice I didn’t say better, I said wiser. That wisdom is something you’ll need to acquire throughout your career, and the sooner you start, the more ahead of the curve you’ll be.

Now, before that big editing job, I was also part of another, smaller “company”. I had been looking for a place to be creative, and landed at a place that was trying to emulate Image. Kinda like Ronin Studios is now, except these people in general had less of a clue. I joined up, looked around, and saw they needed leadership. The leader that was there wasn’t really much of one. So, rabble rouser that I am, I started something of a mutiny, and ended up being an editor. Someone else was EiC, a job that was almost mine, but I pulled back from it because the person who got it seemed to know more of what he was doing. Easy enough.

Well, we had a few titles we were trying to get off the ground, and the EiC was going around looking for investors. This was the middle 90s, after the bubble burst, and investors were pulling away from comics. Anyway, we weren’t going anywhere. The EiC was scaring away artists, my writing was crappy [and hasn’t gotten much better in the interim!], and I was learning how to edit. I know what I wanted in a comic, but not how to express it or get it out of people.

The EiC and I hammered out some ideas for my characters, hammered out some other stuff, and he then wanted to be listed as co-creator of the characters. Crazy. I wanted things to move forward after a while, and I gave him an ultimatum: we had to have something published by the new year, or I was going to walk. So he called himself putting my script online being published in an effort to keep me. (Really? No artwork or anything like that? Just the script?) Yup. So I walked, taking my toys with me, and only look back on it as a learning experience.

We’re creative people. We talk to each other all the time. You hear stories about pro’s talking to one another, getting over story humps or characterization problems. They talk, they say thanks, and incorporate the new ideas. What they don’t do is try to horn in on someone else’s story when it comes to credit. When you get a chance, talk to a pro writer and ask them about talking to other pro’s when it comes to writing or story problems. If they’re friends, no credit is necessary. If they’re not friends, they won’t talk story particulars. That’s just the way it works.

Now, I’ve heard stories of some writers being thieves. It happens. It may not be intentional, but it happens. And yes, I’m talking about well-known writers. They hear something, it goes through their mental filter, and then comes out as similar to the story you were going to tell, but with their own stamp on it. I’ve heard it happens with some comedians, too. I heard a story of a popular comic walking off the stage because they saw Robin Williams walk in. It seems Williams is something of a joke thief. So, yes, it happens. You’ll know who they are when you reach that level.

(Steven, I’ve heard that most writers are too busy working on their own stories to worry about stealing yours. Now you’re telling me I have to worry? Isn’t writing lonely enough as it is?)

It’s like this, folks: if you get a group of trusted people around you, you won’t have to worry about it. I’ve surrounded myself with people who aren’t afraid to tell me like it is when it comes to my stories, and to give me a hand when I’m having a problem with a story. I’m not worried about them stealing my stories, and they’re not worried about me stealing theirs. It’s the reason we came together: to help one another out, and to have a safe place to talk shop.

That’s not to say you don’t have to worry. Be discerning about what you put up, and where you post it. I have stories that I’ll be telling that I haven’t posted on Digital Webbing or anything like that. Not because I’m worried about the stories being stolen, but because they’re in some sort of active development. Generally, new writers are too busy with their own stuff to steal yours. And again, comics is a small pool.

See you next week!

 

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (6)

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  1. Thank you, Steven, for another very enlightening column.

    I’m glad you brought up the topic of communities at the end because I was thinking a lot lately about where I could go to share ideas with people that are as interested in comics as I am, creatively speaking.

    You see, I’ve practically given up looking for people around me in the “meat world”. I live in the French-speaking province of Quebec. Most people here, when they hear the word “comic”, they immediately think about Tintin and Asterix. These titles have their merits and I used to eat those up when I was young, but it’s somewhat removed from the format and vibe you get off Batman Incorporated, Scalped or Green Wake. Oh sure, I have my local comic store, but people there are consumers rather than creators. And don’t even get me started about the language barrier! You’d almost think it was a crime to read and/or write in English around these parts sometimes.

    So I was looking towards the Web to hook up with interesting people and so far I’ve been… wary, if you’ll permit the recycling of that term. Perhaps too wary. Wary and weary in fact – weary of being wary all the time. In fact, ComixTribe has proven to be the only place where I can find information and exchanges that are as honest as they are valuable.

    Comic Book Resoures is geared more towards readers and critics. deviantART has that aroma of superficiality and immaturity (not to mention the obvious bias towards the visual aspect of the medium). And Digital Webbing? Honestly, after a look into the Writing Showcase section of the forums… I don’t want to sound snobbish but I see there more look-at-me than effort.

    So for now, I continue doing my thing in my corner over here. Commenting here when I feel I have something pertinent to add (and sometimes not!), filling my little notebook with ideas and script pages and poring over research material when I’m not writing.

    In short – since brevity is the soul of misused Shakespeare quotes – where should I go to find like-minded comic creators who are serious about their craft even if they’re not necessarily professionals who make their living out of it?

    • Hey, Yannick.

      There aren’t a lot of places on the web for creators to share ideas and talk about the business. That is a sad state of affairs, and Tyler and I will be adding a forum here relatively soon. I think it will be before summer’s out. A safe haven is needed.

      No, CBR isn’t geared for it. It happens from time to time, but that’s not the main focus of the site. Neither is DA.

      DW…

      I’ve been there for about 10 years. Maybe closer to 12. I don’t honestly remember. Anyway, I have a very soft spot for DW, because for a while, it was THE place for creators to go. However, I feel it is not living up to its potential.

      I know for a while, Warren Ellis had a forum at his Whitechapel site. I also remember something called Panels & Pixels, or something like that. Neither site was overly user friendly, and neither site was geared toward helping or collaborating, but both were filled with creators who knew what they were doing.

      There’s also Jinxworld and Millarworld, but again, they aren’t geared for what you’re looking for. The closest will be DW.

      A few words:

      Just like any board, there are people with strong personalities. It can be said that I’m one of them. As a matter of fact, it may be time for a ‘speriment. We’ll see. Anyway, don’t let the strong personalities get you down, and if you post a script, don’t let the lack of replies get you down, either.

      Don’t just stay in the Writer’s Showcase. There is a LOT of information to be had in Creator Community. Remember that bad information also tells you something.

      Until we get our forum up and running, DW is the place.

  2. Lance Boone says:

    As a writer, I’ve found getting feedback for my various comic book scripts to be nearly impossible. I feel that I can, for the most part, read someone else’s work and formulate a pretty clear assessment of the quality level. I don’t trust my filter for my own work, so without a decent artist to draw it(equally as difficult), I need to find someone willing to read my script and offer an opinion…not an easy task.

    It’s validation I’m looking for I guess but not validation in the form of people falling over me and saying I’m awesome just to boost my own ego. Validation in the sense that someone who knows what they’re talking about can objectively look at my work and say, “keep working at your scripts, you’ve got a shot” or “go away, you shouldn’t even scrawl graffiti on a bathroom wall”.

    So, I guess in that sense it’s not even validation I’m interested in; I’m just looking for an opinion…good or bad.

    On August 19th, I’ve got a date with a bloody ax. Will it be the “most unkindest cut of all”? Maybe, but at this point I just want to know either way.

    ComixTribe is helping.

    Another informative article Steven. Thanks.

  3. Conner MacDonald says:

    Talking creatively with others is something I miss about the Toronto Comedy scene. Comedy jams not only are fun as hell, but are huge help. And since I’ve started on this direction of comic book writing, I’ve been seriously missing having someone aid me in the creative process when I need it. Cause not only am I the only writer of my friends, I’m the only one that reads comics.

    “They talk, they say thanks, and incorporate the new ideas. What they don’t do is try to horn in on someone else’s story when it comes to credit.”

    On the flip side of this, if someone helps you heavily, and your helpful “new ideas” change the whole direction of the project then you DO deserve some credit. I’ve written sketches with people, and 70% of the content was from me, and I’ve received zero credit.

    One the worst situations I’ve had is, I was writing a sketch with someone, we developed the premise, the characters and dialogue together. We wrote a first draft, then set it to rest for a little while. Then I found out that they went behind my back, and did a second draft with someone else in our troupe, and some how, I lost all credit for the project (Beyond making a homemade dildo out of a bicycle tube, and toilet scrub.)
    These same troupe members, spent all their time practising this sketch, instead of the one I wrote alone. And to my delight and disappointment, their second draft of the sketch bombed, and mine succeeded… until they botched their lines, and the sketch got cut in half for a rushed ending…

    • Connor, what I suggest is this: find a group of like-minded writers who bring different skill sets to the table. This is something I did when I created my own very loose-knit writing group. We do it all online, having never met in person.

      What do we do? We not only give each other encouragement and support, we also look over each others stuff when requested. We each have our own levels of success, and we’re there for one another.

      Hm. Sounds like I have another B&N article on my hands. Thanks, Connor!

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