When I analyze contracts for my clients, I point out all the language in the agreement that has been written to favor the publisher. I point out all the ways that contract clauses are used to limit their control over their work and their ability to make money. I offer them suggestions on how to make the contracts more equal and level the playing field. But I am aware that the terms of most of these deals will never be changed. As a comic book creator, you often must deal with the reality that you have little or no negotiating power relative to a publisher. Taking this fact into account will help you make decisions about what deals you will or will not get into and help you understand how they will impact your career.
Scarcity Breeds Power
Publishers have to take the financial risk of releasing an unknown and unproven book. In order to mitigate this loss and to give themselves the potential for substantial revenue and control on the back end, many of them incorporate biased language into their contracts. Many creators sign those contracts because of their lack of influence.
It is easy to understand why comic creators normally have very little negotiating power. It boils down to supply and demand and market scarcity.
The publishers currently corner the market on supply. They control the means of production (printing) and direct distribution (comic shops, bookstores, online and digital) and often control secondary distribution (merchandise and media licensing)
The number of comic creators who want to gain access to the publishers supply is massive compared to the number of publishers. Who knows how many potential artists and writers are out there dreaming of getting their books in print, movies and games?
The scarcity of publishers relative to the abundance of creators produces a situation where publishers can afford to offer one sided deals. Every unknown creator who demands a superior deal can be rejected by the publisher because there are ten or twenty other creators willing to accept an inferior deal. Since the publisher is primarily looking for books to fill their publishing plan, one unknown book is just as valuable as any other from their perspective.
Options for Creators
In light of the reduced negotiating power that undiscovered creators have, does it make sense to push for a bigger deal for a creator owned project or page rate? Yes and no. While you might not be able to wrestle a six figure advance out of Marvel, there are options you can pursue to make the most of your work.
- Establish your reputation in the industry by taking on work for hire projects that will get you exposure for your skill without exposing the characters and story lines that you are saving for a creator owned work.
- Find a more flexible small press that will offer more reasonable terms for new creators.
- Explore self-publishing if only to increase your name recognition in the market.
- Accept the biased deal as a means of name recognition.
While none of these methods is a quick road to fame and fortune, they can boost your negotiating power over time. An unknown creator has almost no leverage with a publisher. A creator with a following who represents tens of thousands of copies sold per month can command lucrative exclusive contracts, back end participation deals and creator owned contracts that give them considerable revenue and control potential. The best analogy is the contract situation in professional football. As a player, you may not make very much on your first deal but once you prove yourself as a marquee player, your subsequent contracts can be huge.
Need to Understand Your Agreements
Whether you make the choice to accept a one sided deal, negotiate better term or walk away, you need to understand what the terms are for the deal you are being given. It might make sense to take a bad deal now if it will boost your career later. The key is making an informed decision about what you are doing. Whether you decide to use a service like mine or not, knowing what you are signing and why is key to building and leveraging your negotiating power.
Success in the comics industry requires an understanding of the business, creative, and legal aspects of the medium.
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