This is a modified excerpt from a book I’m working on called Independent Comic Book Publishing. It’s designed to walk you through the basics of contract negotiation. The post is geared towards comic book creators, but the information is also applicable to independent entertainers and small business owners of all types. While this can’t be used as legal advice, I hope you’ll find it helpful.
Getting a contract signed for your independent comic book can be a complex process. First, you need to understand what a contract is and what elements go into an agreement (See A Simple Guide to Understanding Creative Contracts). Then, you have to figure out if the particular deal you’re working on requires an artist collaboration agreement (See A Simple Guide to Artist Collaboration Agreements), or a work for hire agreement (See A Simple Guide to Work for Hire Agreements). Finally, you have to agree on the terms of the specific agreement with each creator.
Achieving this consensus isn’t always easy. Both sides could have competing interests, agendas and levels of leverage. This post offers some guidance on how to negotiate a contract that everyone is happy with, instead of one that someone (or no one) is excited about signing.
How Do You Reach an Agreement Everyone Is Happy With?
Creating a mutually beneficial contract requires balancing relationships and interests. Because you’re going to be working with the other person for weeks or months, you don’t want that interaction tainted by negative feelings related to the contract. At the same time, you might not be able to give the other side everything they want for the sake of the working relationship.
What you can offer any potential business or creative talent will be based on:
1. Your goals
2. Your budget
3. Your timetable
4. Your level of interest in the skills and abilities of the individual.
The offer your potential talent wants to accept is based on:
1. Their professional goals
2. Their financial needs
3. Their available time
4. Their level of interest in your project and you as a publisher.
Because your interests are different and in some cases in direct opposition to each other, there is a tendency for each side to try and negotiate a compromise between the two positions. This is known as positional bargaining. The problem with positional bargaining is that neither side really gets what they want. Depending on the negotiating power of one side over the other, someone might feel they are signing a contract out of duress or with a certain amount of resentment. This isn’t the best way to start a creative relationship.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to positional bargaining. Roger Fisher, William Ury and other members of the Harvard Negotiation Project developed an alternative negotiation theory known as interest based negotiation in their bestselling books Getting Past No and Getting to Yes. While it is not a perfect solution to the negotiation process, it does strive to create solutions both sides want, instead of forced concessions.
How Does Interest Negotiation Work?
Ironically, understanding when it is time to walk away can help bring parties together. One of the primary concepts of interest negotiation is the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Settlement (BATNA), or what I like to refer to as options. A BATNA is “the most advantageous course of action someone can take if the contract negotiations fail”. For example, if a publisher wanted to hire you as an artist for their comic and your demands were more than they were willing to agree to, their option would be to hire someone else.
Most options are not that straight forward. In many instances, options have to be developed. Some negotiators begin by compiling a list of alternatives to the current proposal. At this stage, no alternative is rejected. This is a creative exercise to explore all possibilities to figure out what you actually want to accomplish with this deal. The most promising opportunities are then singled out and improved upon if possible until the best option to a contract is found. In our example, the publisher might have a list of other artists, or they could learn to do the work themselves, or they could create a novel instead of a comic, or they could try to sell the idea to another publisher. In the best case scenario, you have several different alternatives to achieve your interests.
The next step in the process involves trying to understand the other side’s options in specific detail so you can identify their interests. As an artist, you might want a combination of money, ownership, creative freedom, credit or other factors that are important to you.
When the time comes for all sides to negotiate the terms of a contract, the underlying interests of both sides are used to reach a consensus. Each side understands the interests of the other side and expresses their interests with the goal of seeking a flexible solution. If the goal of the publisher is to keep costs down and the goal of the artist is money, then a possible solution is for the artist to handle the art, inks, lettering and colors at a reduced page rate than the publisher would have to pay for four different people.
What Are Interest Negotiation Techniques?
While every negotiation scenario is different, there are some basic principles that apply from the perspective of writing the contract.
1. Look for a favorable agreement on all sides, not just an acceptable one.
2. Create language in the contract on an ongoing basis to record areas of agreement
3. Move towards commitments gradually on both sides
4. Offer tentative commitments until you see the total package
5. Be rigid in your pursuit of your interests, but flexible in terms of solutions
6. Do not allow a “bottom line” to blind you from creative solutions.
7. Consider being generous near the end but stick to your interests
How Does Leverage Impact Interest Negotiation?
Different sides have different levels of power and control in contract negotiations. Leverage is defined as the power one side has over the other side in the pursuit of their interests. Depending on the disparity between the parties, the leverage one side has over the other can undermine the interest negotiation process. For example, if the publisher in our example was Marvel or DC and you were an aspiring artist looking for their first major gig, their options would outweigh your options so much that you might sign whatever deal they put in front of you (See my post on Negotiating Power in Creative Contracts).
The concept of leverage might not strike you as fair, but as attorney and author David Tollen states in his book The Tech Contracts Handbook, “If you focus on what is fair, you might walk away from deals that make economic sense. But that is a poor choice if you can’t get better terms from anyone else, and if accepting the terms would be more profitable than dropping the project.” It makes more sense to focus on the best option available, rather than fairness.
Keep in mind that leverage can be abused to the detriment of the more powerful side. The comic book industry is small. Reputations, good and bad, travel quickly. Power and influence are relative. Positions shift all the time. Keep the following ideas in mind, especially if you have the leverage:
1. Don’t damage the relationship
2. Don’t damage your reputation
3. Don’t overstate your value.
4. Don’t agree to things that won’t work for either side.
Drafting, negotiating, and signing the contracts for your creative project might take some time and cost you some money, but if you sign the right contracts up front, you'll save money in the long-term and put both you and your book in a better position to succeed.
If you have had contract negotiation issues in the past, feel free to share them in the comments below and tell us how you dealt with the problem.
Have fun with your comic.
If you have questions about the business or legal aspects of your comic book publishing and you'd like a free consultation, please contact me and we can set something up that fits in with your schedule.
PLEASE NOTE: THIS BLOG POST IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR LEGAL ADVICE. IF YOU HAVE AN ISSUE WITH YOUR COMIC PROPERTY, DISCUSS IT WITH A QUALIFIED CONTRACT ATTORNEY OR CONTACT C3 FOR A FREE CONSULTATION