Comics Are Not Normal: Poor Publishing Practices Standard for the Industry
Sometimes, those of us paying close attention to the comic industry forget that the way things are done may not be normal. The comic business is unusual in a lot of ways: the huge number of SKUs (product items) released every week, the way self-publishing isn’t looked down on, the preponderance of work-for-hire so that popular creators may not share in the benefits from properties they created. These practices may not always be positive or ethical, but they are perpetuated because “we’ve always done it that way” or because no one challenges them. Until recently, no one was paying enough attention to comics as a business for them to draw attention.
The specific example I’m going to talk about here took place last summer, but I think it’s important to note. The publisher involved is no longer in comics.
Janelle Asselin created Rosy Press via Kickstarter funding to digitally publish a romance anthology, Fresh Romance. Eight issues were released, with a print collection from Oni Press. Then Asselin announced she was leaving comics, in part for health reasons. Seven of the issues are again available from Emet Comics, who acquired the property and are running another Kickstarter to continue the series. There have been rumors about payment problems from Rosy, which I understand Emet is trying to remedy, and a shutdown is always difficult to manage. But that’s not the aspect of what I want to talk about.
While Asselin was still publishing, she was trying to find ways to promote the book, and she wanted to attend the yearly conference of the Romance Writers of America. She reached out to find out about doing workshops and making sure comics were ok as a format. It turns out that the RWA, rightly, has a prohibition against “predatory publishing companies” exhibiting.
RWA defines predatory publishing as a business model based on selling products or services to authors rather than selling books to readers…. This definition includes, but is not limited to, publishing programs that withhold or seek full or partial payment or reimbursement of publication or distribution costs before paying royalties.
That’s unfortunately a pretty common practice among some smaller comic publishers. They’ll publish you, but they want to get all their money back before they give any profits to the creators. That way, they never risk taking a loss (particularly if they cancel the book before release if preorders are low) — but the people actually creating the work may wind up with nothing but some comp copies, if they’re lucky.
This is so common that I didn’t even realize how unfavorably the model would be looked at by a publishing guild. Asselin tried to defend this practice as “but lots of comic publishers do this”:
I’m a small press comic book publisher, and the bit of the contract that allows me to recoup costs is pretty standard in the comics industry.
The answer came back from the RWA:
Specifically your company is withholding or seeking reimbursement for what we consider normal publication and distribution costs carried by the publisher, which should be deducted from the Publisher’s portion, not the author’s portion of earnings.
In other words, we don’t care if it’s standard for comics, it’s still wrong. Asselin didn’t get it, though, assuming that the RWA was biased against comics. I think the correct lesson is that comic publishers, particularly in this age of Kickstarters and web distribution, need to make sure that they’re operating ethically; providing something to creators that is truly of value; and compensating creators from day one. Setups where the publisher takes very little risk, leaving the author with potentially nothing, are not viewed kindly by the “real” publishing world.
Others have said that Asselin didn’t do enough research, particularly when it came to scheduling, research, and planning ahead.
Carol Ritter gave you the best possible advice she could have given you: come to the conference as a non-member. See what it’s like. Find out what the community thinks and talks about. It sounds like you know your industry really well but that knowledge set doesn’t transfer & there’s no better way to get up to speed fast.
If you’d come to the conference as a non-member and started up a conversation, asked someone, “Why all this paranoia about predatory publishers?” then you’d get an earful…. Without going in to all the drama, I’ll say that I’m deeply grateful for the work RWA does to protect its authors from predatory publishers. I’d rather they be too strict than too lenient.
It’s easy to assume “oh, people still have the wrong idea about comics” or are looking down on the medium, but if we truly want to fight that stereotype, we need to make sure that we’re not behaving in ways that give them evidence that comics aren’t truly a mature audience yet.
Here’s another, more current example: Rogue Science, an anthology with the best intentions, about “heroic scientists who changed the world by preserving knowledge in difficult times”. They have pages and pages of detail on how to submit and who qualifies, but you have to go through all of it to find out that they want all this work done as a gamble.
They’ll only pay contributors if their Kickstarter covers all the costs first. “Any funds from the Kickstarter beyond project’s final costs (printing, shipping, and extras) will be passed on to participants as a bonus page rate” (starting at $10 a page). But in the meantime, they want “exclusive first worldwide rights to the story for a full calendar year from the date of publication and non-exclusive worldwide reprint rights in perpetuity.” And they want volunteers to vet the science, too.
This is so unprofessional. It’s the publisher’s job to arrange funding, pay for work, then try to make a profit. Demanding free labor and making out like it’s a privilege to be selected to submit is tacky.
What is also interesting is in ‘real’ publishing the books are returnable. So those publishers are taking a risk not only that their portion will pay for their costs, but that the books will sell through if bookstores order them. In comics the direct market the books are non-returnable, I suspect the same is true for kickstarter unless the product doesn’t match the description.
“Bonus” Page Rate makes it sound like they are getting something up front.
And while I am glad to see the RWA standing up for its members, I do wonder how long it will last in the current economic trends of “worker as contractor”.
Really interesting article. I knew creators got screwed over royalties, but had no idea they had to pay everything up front!