Strange Animals 27jun2020: Money Matters

This time, I mainly to talk about two things about money in comics that I’ve already posted on Twitter, but that I figured could use being put down a bit more concretely and extensively.

Also, a little about things happening in the comics industry before we continue. Content warning: Sexual predation. If you’d rather not read about it, you can skip to #1 below.

Last week, Cameron Stewart and Warren Ellis were accused of sexual predation and grooming by a number of women (including, in Stewart’s case, someone who was a minor at the time). These were just two cases among many more that came out over the last few days, but I’m mentioning these because I have worked with Stewart in the past (needless to say, I will not be doing so in the future) and Ellis’s writing both in and about comics has shaped a lot of my own interest in comics.

The fact that there are “missing stairs” is horrifying. It is appalling that men don’t call out other men on their behaviour until it gets to this kind of moment. It is horrifying that men in positions of power will use that power to target women. And that while men mostly don’t have to worry about the intentions and actions of someone helping them out in artistic careers, women have to do this all the time – some of my female friends have lost years of their careers either being blacklisted for calling someone out or because of the kind of self-doubt that can land on you when someone you thought was your friend turned out to be helping you only because they thought they’d get sexual gratification out of you. People deserve to be able to do what they love without having to wonder – “Was I ever actually good or was it all a lie?” And that’s not even talking about the abuse within the resultant relationships. There are a lot of conversations happening about what networking can look like in comics without the BarCon culture, and the kind of mentor-protege relationships that dominate it right now. In the meantime, we owe the younger generations of women the ability to do what they love without having any reason to be scared of us. It should not be a hazard to work in comics.

(I wrote the above earlier in the week, and since then, there have been a lot more allegations of misbehaviour against prominent comics people. You can read a summary of these here.)

1. Notes

May and June have been busy months. May was largely about making up for the lockdown-induced slack I experienced in April, and the comics industry started back up in June, so projects that I would otherwise have been working on over four months (April-July) arrived at my desk this month.

I was whining about this on Twitter, and fellow letterer Jim Campbell gave me one of the most useful tools of my career – his project tracking sheet. He explains it in the tweets below the one I linked, but basically it’s a rather lovely formulation which lets you know at a glance how many books you’re doing this month, how many pages you’ve completed, how many are remaining, and, crucially, how many pages per day you’d need to hit for the rest of the month.

This sheet has been a game-changer for me, and was the only thing keeping me on track in one of my heaviest months in a few years.

In other news, the Eisner Awards nominations were announced recently, and I was lucky to be involved in some of the projects nominated. Little Bird was nominated for Best Limited Series, and Ian Bertram and Matt Hollingsworth were nominated for their work on it. Afterlift was nominated for Best Digital Series, and Chip Zdarsky was nominated for his work on that, The White Trees, and his excellent books at Marvel.

Finally, as you can imagine, the writing has been slow because of the workload, but I did manage to write 4 pages of a 12-page short comic. I have dense notes on the rest of it, and this might be the beginning of a series of short comics, if all goes well. It’s also the first thing I’m writing that’s in unrestricted, undiluted Indian English, with all the character that goes with it. I don’t know how it’ll fly outside India, but I have people who’ve said they’d be happy to take a look, and I might either rescript it to mostly hint at the flavour, or I might just go with it, accessibility be damned. Anyway, I’m hoping to finish that sometime this month. Crossing fingers left and right here, at this point.

Oh, and one more thing – weekly comics are releasing again. John Constantine: Hellblazer #6 came out last month, by Si Spurrier, Aaron Campbell, Jordie Bellaire and me, from DC Comics, followed by John Constantine: Hellblazer #7 this week. Last week saw the release of Wynd #1, by James Tynion IV, Michael Dialynas and me, from Boom Studios.

Okay, I lied – there’s another one more thing. As I was writing this, the announcement dropped for a new comic I’m working on: The Department of Truth, written by the aforementioned James Tynion IV, with art and colours by Martin Simmonds (my old mucker from Punks Not Dead), design by Dylan Todd, edited by Steve Foxe. You can read what it’s about, along with a preview of Issue 1, at Entertainment Weekly.

2. Pay Gaps

A couple of weeks ago, the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe made the rounds on Twitter, and many folk in publishing found out that they or others got paid way less than they should’ve. Being a part of some private letterer groups, I know that a lot of letterers get paid quite terribly.

The problem with being a freelancer often is that when starting out, you don’t have a baseline for what you’re worth, and by the time you find out, you’ve already inadvertently contributed to lowering the floor of your chosen profession. So I tweeted a quick summary of my rates over the years, but I wanted to expand on that because they don’t paint a complete picture.

In 2010, when I worked on my first ever professional lettering project, I got paid Rs. 250 per page (or $4, as I think it was back then). Lettering wasn’t my full-time job then, and to be fair, I later found out that I got paid more than the writer on the same comic, so you’ll understand that this wasn’t about earning money for anybody, but more about making comics.

My first international project paid me $10 per page. This, I think, is the absolute floor of what any letterer should be getting paid as a newcomer. Other letterers chimed in to my tweet, and some said the minimum should be $15, which I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with. But any employer who pays less than $10 either doesn’t know better, or knows better but doesn’t care. And I’ll emphasise that we’re talking about newcomers here. Experienced letterers should be getting more than that, always.

My current rates range between $20-30, depending on multiple things – are they offering me a backend percentage, what the timeline looks like, how badly I want to work with a particular writer or artist, and the project volume.

(Let me quickly explain backend percentages here. What this means is that you either co-own, or earn royalties, amounting to a percentage of the total creator ownership – some “creator-owned” companies in fact own 50% of the project, so that’s a factor too. This can either be just on the money earned from print sales, or it can include all kinds of exploitation – e.g. film and tv options and other kinds of profits. You can get this either in addition to or in lieu of whatever page rate you’re being paid upfront. This can sometimes be a great idea – one particular project that originally paid me $12 per page has now effectively paid me at $22 per page from royalties, and I might continue to get more. On the other hand, an early graphic novel has so far only paid me a total of $100, and I don’t expect any more. For a letterer, depending on the accompanying page rate, the percentage ranges from 5-15%, in my experience. Do make sure you know whether you only get print royalties or a full percentage.)

My lowest rate at the current moment is $12 for a couple of collaborators, but 1) those come with attached percentages, including for exploitation, and 2) those creators make sure I get excellent rates when we’re working with third-party clients.

My highest rate so far has been $35. I quoted them $25 (this was a couple of years ago), but they came back and said that they had enough money budgeted that they could pay me $35, and would I be okay with that. I really enjoyed that project, I can tell you – only client so far who’s paid me more than I asked for. I’ll take any more people who want to do that. Come at me.

There were two reasons I felt compelled to share these rates, even at the risk that no one else might share theirs.

One: I had heard from too many letterers that they got paid or offered $5 or even $3 per page on occasion. Not only are these terrible practices, this also compels letterers to do subpar work because they are not able to take the time to do good work. And that can collectively devalue a profession. In lettering’s case, this has already happened to a degree – people aren’t paid enough to provide rich, artistic lettering, and over the years, people have come to see lettering as mostly a copy-paste job. You only have to look at how flavourful hand-lettering used to be vs. current digital lettering – and the problem is not of talent, because none of that is unachievable. The problem is the value attached to lettering in the first place, and the practices that engenders in terms of timelines and payments.

Two: I know multiple veteran letterers – people with decades of experience, people who have innovated in the field – who are currently being paid $20 per page. This just feels wrong to me. When you don’t know what other people are getting paid, it’s easy to feel like what you’re getting paid is standard. And some of these folks were there when the floor fell out of the comics lettering gig (hand-lettering rates used to be as high as $40), and they have been under the impression that those rates never rose back up.

Which is why I want to share mine. If everyone is paid better, we get paid to be the artists we know we are, not undercut each other even unintentionally, and we can avoid both our youngest and oldest from being exploited. And let’s face it, other people getting paid better doesn’t get me paid less.

3. Creator Splits

The other conversation on Twitter that was begun with the same hashtag was about writer-artist splits in creator-owned books. This is a far more complicated discussion, because this depends on lots of things like who came up with the idea, who’s taking care of the original financing, whether the writer’s doing the bulk of promotion, and, of course, whether you’re giving your other collaborators a stake in the proceedings, but I wanted to share a basic idea you can start from, mainly because I struggled for a fairly long time on figuring out what an equitable divide between the writer and artist would be.

If you want a TL:DR, the original tweet is here. But let’s be a bit more expansive here, and first ask why this can’t just be a straight 50/50 split? After all, the idea is to make the writer and artist equal owners.

The problem with that is that drawing a comic takes a lot longer than writing a comic. Generally speaking, a writer can write a 22-page script in a week, while an artist will take a month to draw that script. You might say, but a-ha! The writer spends a lot of time thinking about the story before they write the script – sure, but somehow, a writer can write 4 scripts a month (or more, in some cases), but artists (unless they’re Jack Kirby or Charlie Adlard) don’t seem to draw 4 comics a month.

However, it would not seem equitable to make it a straight 25/75 split either, because after the initial labour differential is recouped, the artist would continue getting paid more for the story than the writer would, and at that point, they’re both doing the same amount of work on the book, i.e. nothing. (There’s a divergent opinion on this below.)

So, based on talking to various creators over the years, here’s what I’ve come up with:

Being co-creators, you start by owning the intellectual property 50/50 – equally. (As I said, obviously this changes based on you cutting in your collaborators, like your colourist, letterer, designer, and editor.)

Then, you set a page rate for the writer and for the artist. So for a 100-page graphic novel, let’s say you set $80/page for the writer, and $200/page for the artist.

Then, you begin by paying out these page rates for both of you –

The writer gets $80 x 100 = $8,000.

The artist gets $200 x 100 = $20,000.

That’s both your labour costs recovered. After that, you split all the profits equally.

Your specifics might differ on this, but it’s a good place to start from, and, especially if you’re new, it’s a good way to see if your collaborator might be ripping you off (one would like to think that doesn’t happen, but sadly it does). After I posted this, I had a few artists reach out and tell me either that they would be happy with this, or that they wish they’d got this kind of deal when they were starting out.

Some big writers, in my hearing, do a straight 50/50 split, their reasoning being that they pull much of the audience. Obviously, in this case, it’s up to the artist to accept that, but I suppose there must be some writers who command the same page rate as an artist. (*Exaggerated shrug*.)

Kieron Gillen (who has way more experience on this than I do, and is far smarter) said that he recommends more-or-less the same thing to people, but added that the way he does it, it’s a bit more like subtracting his rate from the artist’s rate, and having the publisher pay the artist that as an advance.

So in our example above, that would mean the publisher would pay the writer nothing, and pay the artist $12,000 ($20,000 – $8,000), and the two of you would share the profits after the publisher recoups the advance, which works out to the same thing.

Kieron’s thread is tremendously useful even otherwise, because he breaks down some things according to his experience, and adds a lot of nuance to my original thread.

Kurt Busiek replied to Kieron that for his books, the artist gets a bigger print royalty share because the writer can write 30 issues a year and the artist can only draw 8. He splits exploitation 50/50, but the artist gets a higher backend for “sweat equity”, which is a great phrasing that I’ll be using myself.

So there you have it, advice from three levels of experience.

4. Recommended Reading

Comics as an industry has been anger-inducing and depressing for a little while, so I wanted to post something positive to do with comics. I’m stealing this recommendation from David Harper’s newsletter. Here’s Jillian Tamaki, one of today’s finest comics artists, with ‘Ned’, a short comic about age, loss, and pain.

5. From the Commonplace Book

I came across this Tennessee Williams quote (from 27 Wagons Full of Cotton) some years ago, and, in its simple clarity, it laid the foundation for every piece of fiction I’ve written since:

Don’t you think there is always something unspoken between two people?

Filed under #writing.