B&N Week 75: Publisher Responsibilities

| May 29, 2012 | 2 Comments

Welcome to yet another glorious Tuesday! I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire, both personally and professionally, and things are looking good. All the hard work I’ve been putting in seems to be bearing some fruit, and like the farmers of old, I’m fully looking forward to reaping what I’ve sown. [Farmers today don’t have to work as hard, due to machinery. I’m talking about going old-school, where you had a horse pulling the plow, and used to have the backbreaking work of hoeing rows. Long row to hoe? That’s where the expression comes from.]

What does my hard work have to do with you? Everything, if you’re looking to pitch work to indie and small-press labels.

This is what you’ve done: you’ve created Pen-Man. You listened to me, and in doing so, you were patient in the cultivating of your character and story. You were careful in the choosing of your artistic partner, as well as the rest of the creative team. You negotiated what you thought was fair, and you came up with a contract that put those negotiations in writing, in case things went wrong. You made sure you hired an editor to keep you and the work honest, as well as to bring out the best in the creative team. And you paid for all of that out of your own pocket.

That’s a lot of hard work. That’s a lot of time, effort, and money invested in Pen-Man, not to mention creativity.

Now, you’ve already decided you want to go the pitching route, and most companies want to see something. Image wants five pages and a cover mockup, lots of other places aren’t accepting pitches, and some places like Avatar only want to see pitches using their characters [due to their own legal concerns]. Marvel and DC are the big leagues, and they both say that if you want to work for them, they want to see published work elsewhere first. So, Pen-Man, while your baby, is also a stepping stone.

So, you’ve created your pitching pages, making them look as good as possible. You’re sending your pitches out to all the usual suspects: Image, Dark Horse, Markosia, Archaia, Arcana, and some off the beaten path, like Blue Water and the newly-resurrected Devil’s Due. You’ve gotten some nibbles, but no definite bites.

You go down the levels. You scratch off Marvel/DC as unattainable. You don’t get anything back from Image, you don’t want to use Avatar’s characters, you get something from Arcana saying they’d like to see more, and you get the same from Markosia. You don’t hear anything from Archaia, and after sending more to Arcana and Markosia, you get a lot of silence.


Now you’re off the beaten path. You start looking anywhere someone will take you. You even try Platinum Studios, despite hearing the horror stories from various sources.

You go even lower. You start looking at places with names you don’t recognize, and those companies are eager to sign you up. You feel validation. Someone wants you, right? It isn’t all just rejection letter after rejection letter.

I want you to stop. You’re not thinking of anything beyond the tip of your nose, if you’re thinking that far at all. (Huh? I don’t get it.)

Publishers have a job. That job is to get your story into as many hands of the buying public as possible. You have to ask yourself what it is they are doing, and what is it they want in return. Then you have to weigh that against what it is you want.

Remember this: you want more than just to tell a story. Your ego demands that you get recognition, however slight, of the work you’ve created. That’s why you go through the grueling and sometimes humiliating process of pitching: you want the validation of someone else that your story is worth sending out to the masses. Otherwise, you’d be Emily Dickinson, writing in your room, with no one to see your creations. You’d be writing for yourself.

It is very typical for publishers to want a significant portion of your property when you sign up with them. Asking for half is often standard. For half of your IP, the publishers should be doing a lot.

Most of these aren’t going to pay a page rate for the work done, so that’s out. The biggest expense, potentially even bigger than creating the book itself, is printing. Pen-Man is a full color comic, so black and white isn’t going to get it. Depending on the number of orders from Diamond [if you’re lucky enough to get signed with a publisher that has an account with them], printing can equal or exceed the cost of creation.

The publisher should be paying for the printing out of their own pocket first. ( First? What does that mean?) It means that it is possible that you could be paying for the print cost of your book yourself, either out of sales or out of your own pocket [or a combination of both]. It depends on the company.

Everyone wants to get into Image, right? The toughest indie nut to crack. Everyone has a notion of what they think the Image Deal is. Almost everyone knows Image takes $2500 off the top, and the rest goes to the creator. They have an idea of the formula for profit: submit the book to Image + Image accepting the book + ? = PROFIT!

There’s a lot of stuff going on in that question mark. A lot of stuff you’re not even asking yourself, although you should.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: publishing through Image is still self-publishing. You’re still having to pay for everything. You’re still going to end up paying for the printing of the book, either out of sales, or out of your own pocket. (Steven, that’s what the $2500 fee is for! Isn’t it?) Nope. That fee is to keep the lights on. Some of the things are connected to your book, but not all of them. And if you think it only costs $2500 to print your book, then you haven’t been paying attention.

What else should a publisher be doing? They should be promoting your book to retailers, reviewers, the media, and directly to readers through outlets such as social media. [The bigger the company, the smaller the push will be, unless you’re a big name creator, have a big name creator on your book, or have a world-smashing idea that was executed with Kirby-power and Lee-precision. Your book should be on a lot of lips, courtesy of your publisher.

The publisher should assign an editor for the work. (But Steven, I hired my own! Why hire my own if the publisher is going to assign one?) Publishing houses have their own mandates and way of doing things. They have their own company morals and editorial standards. While the editor you hired may have brought polish to your book to get it noticed, they ultimately work for you, and not the company you’re pitching to. By assigning their own editor, the publisher is ensuring that the book will live up to their editorial standards and publishing vision. If they don’t assign you an editor, ask why not. [Asking questions is always a good thing. Never be afraid to ask a question.]

If the publisher asks for changes, make them. (Editorial control!) No. (YES!) No. It isn’t. You signed away half your IP. If the changes aren’t too onerous by changing significant parts of the story so it is no longer recognizable, make the changes. Remember, we just talked about editorial standards and publishing vision. This isn’t editorial control. This is making your book fit more snugly within the other offerings of the publisher. [And remember, you came to them, typically it isn’t the other way around. Not right now, where you’re at in your career.]

The publisher should be willing to compromise. That contract you were offered? It’s boilerplate. Standard. They give it to everyone. That contract is a starting point. Read it over, make sure you understand it, and if you don’t, have them explain it. Once they explain it, have them put it that way in the contract. If something is onerous to you, the first thing you should do is consider if it is important enough to you that you’re willing to walk away. Because you may have to fight to get what you want. If it is, come up with an alternative to what it is you want before you start negotiating. Never negotiate with a murky notion of what you want. Have it crystal clear what it is you’re after. You may get all or some of it.

If there are things that rankle but aren’t really worth fighting over, try to negotiate for it, because it never hurts to try. But don’t push too hard for things that don’t matter that much to you. Pick your battles.

Suing. Everyone loves suing everyone else in America. A lady spills hot coffee in her lap at a McDonald’s drive through and gets millions. People trip and fall every day. If I knew someone whom was sue-happy, I wouldn’t let them in my house, for fear of them suing me over something stupid. Lots of contracts say that if you’re going to sue, you’re going to do it on the contract writer’s home turf. Let’s say you signed with Markosia. Well, guess what, bunky? You’re going to England if you want to sue them. You say that’s not cost effective? That’s part of the point. It lessens your stance on wanting to sue. That’s an extreme case, but the principle is the same. Kletus is in Maine and Graeme is in Oregon. Who wants to travel cross country to sue?

The final thing the publisher should do is make it possible to leave.

This part is rather sticky, and calls for some forethought on your part.

If you’ve signed over your IP and the contract has no clauses in it about reversion of rights under certain circumstances, then it will have a clause saying that the IP is now in the publisher’s hands forever. [Literally, forever.] There will also be language in the contract about severing the relationship with the publisher.

Sometimes, there will be language in there that states the rights will revert back to you after being out of print for a period of time. A couple of things to watch out for, here: in the digital age, there’s no such thing as out of print. There’s no print period with digital. A clarification would be needed. Along those same lines is print on demand. Through POD, there wouldn’t come a time when Pen-Man was out of print, since it would only be printed when it was asked for. The other thing you can’t really watch out for, but can be aware of: Watchmen. That book is wildly successful, having never gone out of print since it was first published, almost 30 years ago. You can’t watch out for success [and really, would you want to if you could?], but the possibility is something to be aware of. The book could be a runaway smash, a seminal work, never going out of print, and thus, never reverting back to you.

The contract should have language about leaving, and what needs to happen in order for you to do so. Usually, leaving means before the current issue or storyline you’re working on is complete. Some companies ask for storylines to be completed first, others the current issue. This is where you really need to pay attention.

If the contract says you need to complete the storyline, but you’re writing a limited series, then it doesn’t make sense to finish the storyline because you’d be completing the series. It would be much better for you to complete the issue, right? Well, if you’re lucky enough to be writing an ongoing, then asking to finish the storyline makes much more sense.

If it says storyline and you’re writing a mini, ask for the change. Remember, contracts are in place to let everyone know their responsibilities, and acts as a guide for what to do if things go bad. Asking for the change is protecting yourself. Think of it like sex: you’re not saying you or your partner isn’t clean, but a condom is being worn anyway. You both know you’re going to do it, and you both want it to be enjoyable, but you both want to be safe about it. The contract is the condom, and asking for changes is making sure the fit is correct.

This is the bare minimum of what publishers should be doing for you. Sure, they can do other things like go to conventions and give you comp copies of the work, but if they aren’t doing the above, ask what they are doing, and make your choice from there.

Remember, if they aren’t doing this, then you can do all of this on your own. You don’t need a publisher. There’s the web, there’s digital, print on demand, micro-distribution, and you can beat your own drum yourself. You can do it all, and reap all of the rewards that come with that, especially if the publisher isn’t doing much. If their only plan is to go digital but they want half your IP, then you’re better served in walking away.

Homework: Think about what’s really important to you for a publisher to do. Make a list. Post it for others to see. I’m quite sure there are things I didn’t cover that are important to you, or that could be important to others.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

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 (2)

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  1. Steve_Colle says:

    Excellent article, Steven. It makes a lot of sense and puts the ball in the creator’s court. It’s entirely true that the publisher better be doing more than you can do yourself. The publisher’s name recognition (the logo on their books and their reputation in the industry) are definite pluses, but in the end, the creator needs to think things through. In depth. And sometimes it’s best to learn from the experience of others instead of taking the risk yourself. This isn’t to say, however, that just because creator “A” had a bad experience doesn’t mean that creator “B” shouldn’t make that attempt. Learn the whole story before passing judgement on a publisher, then try to find out more. I know creators who have published through IMAGE and had an epic fail, then blamed the publisher, thus creating said “bad experience”. However, what made those other titles successful? In all cases, the creator needs to put in the effort beyond that printed page.

  2. Kyle Raios says:

    This was a pretty enlightening article, and helpful, as always. I signed my first contract 2 days after I turned 18, and luckily, it wasn’t one that screwed me. Only published one comic, and all rights went back to me, but man, it could have been bad. You really can’t emphasize enough the importance of leaving a contract if necessary.

    And of course, can’t downplay the importance of what exactly the publisher should be doing. That’s definitely something most don’t really think about.

    Thanks for another great article, Steven.

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