Robot 6

The fair pay for creators conundrum

peterparkerFor as long as I’ve been following the comics industry I’ve heard creators say things along the lines of, “I’m not in it for the money,” and, “I’d be doing this even if I wasn’t getting paid.” Those are statements of passion that drive deep into the heart of a conversation that’s receiving more and more attention lately, and not just in comics. The question that’s been raised is: Should creators have to make comics for free just because they would? And if so, for how long?

When an unknown writer or artist is trying to make a name for herself in the comics industry, one way of doing that is to create work for free. Give away a webcomic. Contribute to an anthology that won’t make any money but may get seen by the right people (especially if you put it into their hands). Work for a small publisher who only pays if the project makes a profit. These are all accepted practices. What’s going on lately, however, is that people are starting to question how accepted they should be.

In response to that line of questioning, defenders of the current system argue from tradition. Alexis C. Madrigal, senior editor of The Atlantic, wrote a long piece on the realities of digital journalism and why it’s often tough to pay journalists anything, much less a fair wage. His basic argument is that funds are limited, even for a digital magazine that’s doing pretty well. “The economics of our business are terrible in some ways,” he writes. “And like everything else, the worst of it falls on the workers, the people making the widgets, doing the journalism, making the beds. The money gets sucked upwards and the work gets pushed down.” He continues, “[E]ven when you have a generous owner who is not trying to make a gazillion dollars and skim the cream, this game is still really, really hard. You still have limited funds. You still can’t pay freelancers a living wage.”

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I know there are comics publishers in the same position, because I’ve talked with them. It’s not that they’re greedily rubbing their hands over a crooked contract, slobbering all over their desk as unwitting artists sign their names. I guess that might be the case some of the time, but the people I’ve talked to are all folks just trying to make cool comics in a marketplace that doesn’t always support a comic just because it’s cool. If the publisher has no money, then there’s nothing to pay the creators with. I get that. When it’s time to draw the line between Art and Commerce, we like to draw it with the creators on the Art side and the publishers on the Commerce side, but it’s not always that simple. Especially with super small publishers, the “I’d still do this for free” mentality is just as strong as it is with the creators. ‘Cause sometimes, the publisher is doing it for free. Or at a loss.

On the other hand, the publisher is the business. There’s no getting around that at the end of the day. And if the publisher is making any amount of money, then some of that needs to get passed on to the people making the comics. Understanding that not every publisher can pay a fair page rate (not that that’s standard from creator to creator in the first place), every publisher should be able to pay something for any project it made money on.

ragmanHaving said that, creators should understand two things. First, that this is a tiered system. It should be obvious that everyone can’t pay what Marvel pays, but back in the journalism world, Wonkette drew some criticism (or at least some raised eyebrows) for calling out The Atlantic when Wonkette doesn’t pay a bunch of money either. As I see it, the difference is that Wonkette pays something where – at least in the case they were calling out – The Atlantic paid nothing. It’s silly to suggest that Wonkette should pay Atlantic rates, nor should it pay more than it can actually afford. Whether in journalism or comics, the trick in a tiered system is for the creator to figure out how to climb those tiers: using this gig to get that one, etc.

Of course, what a company can afford is always going to be a difficult amount to know for sure. Companies like to be seen as doing well enough to be considered successful, but not so well that their employees should expect more than they’re getting. That brings us to the second thing that creators need to understand, which is that the responsibility for getting the best deal is on them. As artists, storytellers have to be able to assess how much they’ve put into a project and what those resources are worth. Maybe it’s strictly cash; bills have to be paid. If I’m new and trying to build my brand, though, maybe I’ll take some exposure as part of my compensation (understanding that market exposure is just as much a tiered system as financial payment). The point is that what creators are willing to take hinges on a variety of factors from the artist’s marketability to how much financial support he’s able to pull from other sources.

But yes, yes, a thousand times yes: Creators need to get paid for their work. “How much?” is a complicated question with as many different answers as there are artists in the system, but that that doesn’t mean that the default should be working for free until you earn your chops. The default should be a fair wage based on what the publisher can afford to pay, and transparency about what that amount is.

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Just my experience:

Artist: I don’t get paid enough!! I need money!!
Me: Hey, I have some money, will you draw me a picture of Batman?
Artist: Don’t bother me fanboy!

or

Artist: I don’t get paid enough!! I need money!!
Me: Can I have the picture of Batman I paid you for six months ago?
Artist: Screw you, I’ll get around to it!!

Doing what you love and saying things like “I don’t care. I’d do this for free!” is damaging. If you want to do what you love for nothing, as well as maintain a regular job so you can, ya know, eat and stuff, eventually you’re going to burn out or end up in a mental institution.

Yeah, anyone can be an artist, but being a professional artist means “I’d do it for free!” shouldn’t even enter the equation.

As a counterpoint to Chap’s commission woes (which sucks, amn. I’m slow on commissions too, but I don’t take payment til I’ve started.) Here’s a common experience I get regularly, too, as an artist.

Small business: We need a logo and a caricature, how much is that?
Me/Artist: $100 (lowballing.)
Small business: [No reply]

I recently signed up for an online freelance pool, and the amount of jobs I see posted there from people looking for a 22 page comic, or worse, an entire graphic novel, for the measly pay of $200 (or less) is ridiculous. Made even more so when they have over 100 replies to their ad.

“If you didn’t want to sell shoes then you shouldn’t have become a shoe salesman.”-Bart Simpson to ol’ Gil.

Kudos to Michael on writing a very well balanced review of this information! As someone who works both as a commercial illustrator, and with a VERY small publisher, I really appreciated what you said.

To CHAP – I’m sorry to hear about your woes over commissions. I’ve been guilting of taking longer than a client would have perhaps preferred on a commission, but I can’t imagine turning away a good one or not getting them completed. (Especially a Batman one).

I work a full time job to make ends meet, and then work another 30-40 hours per week on my comic book/ illustration work, often at no guaranteed payment. In the hopes that the effort will lead to work that will support me doing my craft as my full time career.

So if anyone reading this would like a commission, just head to my website and order yours today! http://anthonyhary.com

To CAANAN you are right on with your post. I’ve had the same experience and the same thoughts. I’ve not joined a freelance site yet, though I am considering it.

Marc: if most of us in comics took your advice, the industry you spend your free time reading about would virtually disappear overnight. Believe it, champ. Shoe salesmen make a hell of a lot more money than most of us.

Caanan, I can second (third?) your experience.

I’m a freelance designer, but it’s much the same deal. (Particularly when it comes to logos, which I almost actively try to avoid these days!) My reality, these days, is that I earn my living doing professional but anonymous, corporate work-to-spec for two big corporate clients. I do cool, creative stuff on my own time, and very little of it ever produces income.

I can live with this because, honestly, it’s 2013 and the demand to spend time producing cool, creative stuff seems to grow larger and ever larger compared with the paying market for consuming cool, creative stuff, i.e. there are countless people much like me who will just DO cool, creative stuff so long as they are alive and have the time, and will then share it online for no or negligible cost. (And, of course, this also reinforces the old dynamic of those few people paid to do cool, creative stuff having minimal leverage in negotiations because there are countless people lined up behind them, and at least some of them are even good.)

This is tough on those trying to make their actual living on cool, creative stuff, of course. But I’m not sure that any alternative (short of a fundamentally reordered economy) is actually better; should all of the people making and sharing stuff for free stop and just passively consume, instead, to firm up the market for paid creative work? That seems a hard sell.

It seems we’re in kind of a weird situation where, in some sense, it’s easier than ever to make a living AND make and share creative work, BUT it’s not much easier to make a living directly and predominantly FROM making and sharing creative work. Half a loaf, anyone…?

When I self published my first comic way back in 1994 I attracted the attention of a comics publisher who was sort of notorious at the time. I was skeptical about publishing with him because I didn’t really care for any of the titles he published but was eager to get published and so I entertained the idea of a possible offer. He read through my pages and after he got to the end he said he really liked it and wanted to publish my work..
“Great. How much are we talking for payment?” I asked.
“I can do $100.’ he replied.
“Per page?”
“$100 for all of it.”
He offered me $100 for 22 pages of comic book pages which boiled down to $4.50 per page. He said that was all he could afford as he didn’t make any money on his books. (Years later I saw in an interview he revealed that he usually made about $5000 profit on each book. ) When I turned him down he gave me this spiel that this could be my only chance at getting my work published etc…
“No, it won’t,” I answered.
He is no longer in the industry. I still am.

Something I left out of the article, but was reminded of by a reader’s email: another element of negotiating compensation is rights. Are you willing to take less money to hold on to more rights?

You have to work for free when you start out, which is frustrating as hell, but you need to put your work out there and prove yourself.

Should a small press magazine or a writer seeking an artist need to hand over money? I say no. Because they don’t have any money.

Should a publisher of indie comics or professional comics pay an artist (or a writer)? Always. It might not be much but they are an actual publisher who makes money.

I’m an aspiring writer so I can see both sides of the argument. I have to work for free to put small press stuff out there and not making any money sucks.

But if an artist says they’re only willing to work with me if I give them a ton of money up front, then my answer has to be no because I don’t make any money from writing.

I don’t hold anything against those people, I’d love to get paid too, but until you’ve actually proven your ability to both draw and meet deadlines, no one in the industry is actually going to hire you.

It’s all about slowly climbing the ladder toward a point where you will get paid for your work. It is in no way a perfect system, but it’s what we have and if you’re determined enough you can succeed.

You start out in the small press, making no money. You move onto indie press comic books where you usually earn a percentage of whatever your book makes. And then, once you have enough work out there, you try approaching a major publisher… and if you’re talented and very lucky, they might even give you a job.

As an aspiring comics artist I have to say what I’ve seen makes me blame the artists for undervaluing themselves. Too many of us are insecure or unsure so they give their product away because they’ve been told that any exposure is good exposure. It’s the same in the music scene. Many artists just don’t have good business sense. There are plenty who deserve (nay, should be required for the benefit of society and culture!) to make a good wage on their artistic endeavors.

If the majority of good creators started valuing themselves and their work properly then you’d see the value attributed to them by publishers go up. Realistically, I don’t think that’s going to happen, though. Not in this current business climate where workers’ rights are losing ground in favor of the quarterly bottom line. It’s tough to be a producer of just about anything these days.

I can tell you one thing, though. If the artists giving away their cool stuff for free or cheap were all to stop for a few months the ripples through popular culture would be staggering!

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