Over at Story to Script I’ve got an article that breaks down the economics of comic production. In it, one of the things I touch on is the problem nearly every new or aspiring comic creator faces;
How do you actually afford the crew to make your comic?
Here is some further advice on this dilemma. I guarantee if you follow this advice, you’ll secure the best contracts possible.
1) Know the Value Each Artist Brings to the Table.
It doesn’t matter if you pay your artist $5 a page, or $500 a page, what matters is whether or not you know the actual value of the work you’re paying for (and in a broader sense, the value of different levels of work, in general).
If you have an artist on par with Sara Pichelli and they’re charging you $100 a page, you should know you’ve got the deal of a lifetime. You should also know that while you may have been budgeted a maximum $50/page for pencils, double that budget is far worth the expense and effort on your part, for that quality of work.
In contrast, if you’ve got an artist that looks like they didn’t make the cut on some B-budget adult swim animation, and they’re charging you $100, you should know you’re throwing away money that you could spend on other areas of production and otherwise could do better elsewhere.
You can not negotiate a good deal for yourself or your talent (always keep your talent’s interests at heart) if you don’t really know what the work is worth in the first place.
The best way to know what work is worth is to spend some time in the industry and community before hiring anyone.
Meet artists, online and in person, and ask them what their page rates are. (Make sure you get quotes for sequential pages, NOT pin-ups and covers.) Also, pay particular attention to the rates and quality of professionals. Even if you can’t afford someone at $250/page, it’s paramount to know what you’re able to get at that page rate. Professional level work is the benchmark all other work is measured by.
Another great way to know/learn the value of work is to hire someone to consult and advise, someone who’s been to the rodeo a few times before. Granted it will cost you a couple of bucks, but if you’re really green and don’t have the time to figure it out on your own, it will be money well spent.
2) Know the Value YOU Bring to the Table.
Assuming you’re the writer OR creator of the base concept, one way to induce flexibility in an artist’s rates and overall contract negotiations is to have a standout IP.
Writers with blinders on, who think all their work is the greatest thing to ever touch the page, have a much harder time gaining traction.
You can lie to me, you can lie to your mama, but when you lie to yourself, you’re the only one who gets screwed in the end.
Because most of us are bias on our own work, don’t compare the story you’re trying produce to everything else out there—compare it to the other work you’ve written. Experience has a tremendous influence on your value as a writer. Experience in what you’ve been able to accomplish as a writer so far, but also, experience merely as in your body of work.
When you decide to produce a comic, as a general rule, only produce the best story out of the last 12 you’ve outlined or written.
If you haven’t written 11 other projects, this should be a big red flag.
If you haven’t written a bunch of other work, how can you have the experience to know what you’re working on is really any good?
It’s amateur hour on your part to expect reduced rates from artists on anything less than your best work.
The less experience you have in honestly assessing a project’s potential, the less risk an artist should be expected to take.
Honestly assess the value of the story you bring to the table, then figure it a little less valuable.
If you are trying to produce a project that has lower value, realize you will have to offer better terms to attract a solid quality artist.
If you haven’t written enough material, or have trouble assessing your work honestly, bring in outside help.
It is far better to produce another project later on successfully, then the project you have in mind right now, as a dud. Sure it can be a great learning experience, but we’re talking about money and the ability to be sustainable to produce more books.
And if you are very green, take that as a sign to swim in shallow pools first.
Publish some anthology shorts, a web comic, go in partners with another writer to produce a two-story single shot issue, or maybe even a stand alone single shot. The point is, splash around in the water and take small bites before you take on the big important project.
Remember this isn’t just about your ability to navigate the waters, it’s about the respect and morale of the crew you’re trying to bring aboard.
3) Know your Numbers.
If you’re going to create comics, you need to know your numbers… all of em, but specifically, set realistic sales “expectations” for the following;
- 6 months – first year.
- End of year 2.
Why is this important?
Because you’re paying people to do stuff… and taking that stuff, and selling it.
Initial sales, sales within the first year, and sales by the end of year 2 is a long enough projection to show you have your eyes on the ball. While sales and a relationship beyond 2 years can be important for your artists, the further out on the timeline you go, the less attractive the opportunity is. Remember, most IPs don’t hit the big time, so waiting around for 3-5 years for an extra $500 is hardly a serious incentive.
Planning and strategy is the foreshadow of success.
This is not to say that if you plan and strategize and make expectations you will reach them. Hardly. But it IS to say, if you do not plan and strategize, and at least try and steer the ship, you’re virtually guaranteed to crash and sink.
Expecting to sell 1000 books at $5, at release, bringing in $5000 is a much different situation than selling 50 books a month for a year, bringing in $600.
Realize, whether you’re producing your comic as a serious business venture or not, you’re managing money… and nobody who manages money, does it with their eyes closed.
So how do you get your numbers together if you’ve never produced comics before? Don’t worry, I’m not gonna say hire someone…
Look at what other people are doing… a lot of them.
You can start your search at ComicChron. If you think your indie comic is gonna come out of the gates selling 10,000 copies, go look at the top 200 titles across the nation @ ComicChron. Look at the numbers at the bottom of the scale. Track down and buy some of those books.
Ask yourself some questions:
- Is your production team creating quality on par with those books?
- Do you have a marketing budget on par with those publishers?
- Is your fanbase as large as those publishers?
No, no, no? Then don’t count on those sales numbers.
Talk to other indie publishers, get to know them. People don’t give up sales figures easy, but you can find out.
So, find out.
Set your goals realistically, based on what other folks who have been doing it a while are doing.
Sure, you could release a book, have a break out hit and become rich overnight… but in that case, it still doesn’t hurt to properly prep in the beginning.
A dire warning of encouragement: 90% of the indie creators I work with never bother to really investigate market numbers. A the sad scary truth is, once you do, you see how difficult it is to pull profits in comics. I tell people all the time; comics are a numbers game–it’s all about your fanbase. Marvel and DC would not be anything close to what they are in today’s culture if their audience back in the day wasn’t hundreds of thousands of regular buyers.
When you start crunching numbers, don’t get completely discouraged. While it’s near impossible to pull massive sales numbers without divine intervention today, in reality all you need is a few thousand fans. At the beginning, a few thousand is a big number, but over time, a few thousand is just a tiny sliver of all the people still reading comics.
It can be done.
4) Advance against Royalties.
Probably the most common pay arrangement for comic production is a Work for Hire page rate.
You pay the artist X amount of dollars, get the art, and own the copyright to it (usually original art is returned to the artist after it’s been scanned). Paid their flat rate, the artist has no other considerations in the project.
This is really simple for all the parties involved and a great method when you have the means to pay the artist their standard rate. Most artist’s don’t expect your story to be the next Walking Dead, what they expect is to be able to pay their rent and work on their own personal projects.
A different way to think and structure payment, is as an advance against royalties.
As the name implies, royalties are paid out on a continuing basis, establishing an ongoing relationship between the project and artist. Here’s how it works;
You decide to give the artist a $1 per book royalty. That is for every single copy of the issue/book sold, they will get $1.
If you were Robert Kirkman or Frank Miller, you could probably get a great crew to sign on to your project with only a promise of royalty payment. After all, big names like that would surely sell a ton of books. But for the rest of us mere mortals, most folks wouldn’t take the risk of investing their time and energy on a project that could potentially sell NO BOOKS.
For this reason, most folks demand upfront money.
An advance against royalties is like giving the artist a loan at the beginning of the project, where the money is paid back through the initial sales of the book.
Artist gets $1 per book royalty.
You advance the artist $3,000.
That means for the first 3000 books sold, the artist gets no additional money, it all goes back to you.
If the book goes on to sell a total of 5000 copies, the artist gets an additional $2,000.
The main upside for the artist is that the loan is not paid back by the artist if the book falls short in sales. (And if we’re being honest, most indie comics don’t hit their sales mark.)
Of course in comic land, we figure and assign rates based on pages–but the reality is, page rates, flat rates, hourly rates, it’s all different ways of looking at the same math. If you didn’t square away step #1 at the beginning of this article, you’re gonna have a lot of troubles.
At this point you may be wondering how an Advance against Royalties structure can help you get a better artist for less money?
Let’s do some math.
Our artist, let’s call him, Noodles, has a page rate of $200/page. That’s $4400 per 22 page issue.
If you approach Noodles as say, “Hey man, I’d love you to pencil my comic. I can offer you $150/page. (that’s $3,300 for you guys in the back.)”
Most of the time, Noodles is going to say no, especially if he’s a busy fellow. Why should he take a 25% pay cut for your goofy zombie dinosaur book?
Now let’s ask Noodles again, “Hey man, I’d love you to pencil my comic. I can offer you $1/book royalty with a $3,300 advance. “
Noodles is stuck with the same cash, but wait a second, he notices the word royalty. He knows that means, possibly more money later on. Specifically, if your book sells more than 3300 copies, he’s getting paid again. Suddenly Noodles is wondering just how put together your project really is and what kind of chance it has to pay off additional cash.
This is where it pays to know what you’re doing. Because if all your ducks are in a row, there’s a good chance someone will take the risk. Especially if you’re a nice fellow.
Hang on, we’re not done yet.
Even though we read this article and took the time to get everything in order, Noodles turned us down. He’s just too busy and can’t justify the page rate decrease for our project. Ohhhh, Noodles;
“Hey man, I’d really love you to pencil my comic. I can offer you $2/book royalty with a $3,300 advance.”
While the initial upfront money stayed the same, the higher royalty rate means Noodles will start getting additional money once 1650 books are sold through. Not only is he more likely to get paid additional money, but if the book sells through to 3,300 copies, the same figure as the previous example, he gets; “$3,300 advance + $3,300 in royalties = total, $6,600 for a 22 page book.”
That’s $300/page, a time and a half his standard rate!
Advance on Royalties isn’t the only way. Get creative on the back-end.
Advance on royalties is really another way of saying “more money on the back-end.” When it comes to deferring payment until a round of capital investment or post sales, don’t be afraid to get creative.
Long shots are better than no shots.
You can offer flat bonuses based on sales plateaus, subsidiary rights acquisition (optioned for a movie for example), you could even tie in a sequel project at a guaranteed rate increase.
The key to working back-end payments is to make them legitimate opportunities for your artists. Take care of them, make it worth their while to take a chance the IP hits.
When artists have skin in the game, and IPs gain traction, you’re on the fast track to sustainability.
Quick note: When you give an Advance against Royalties it isn’t paid all upfront. Don’t do that. People can disappear on you. Break it up over production of the issue in 3 or 4 milestones.
5) Rights to the IP.
Even when you offer royalties, bonuses, and other back-end incentives, your artists don’t own the IP. They can’t go use the IP on their own, and can’t make decisions on how the IP will be used.
The ultimate way to grant artists skin in the game, is to give them an ownership percentage of the IP itself.
In short, owning part of the IP permanently ties the artist to the property and cuts them in to any and all profits the IP generates.
Holding IP rights is the stuff that actually makes people rich if a story takes off. But don’t venture into these waters lightly. Ownership of the property comes with responsibilities for all parties involved. Too many bad stewards of an IP can act like leeches, quickly sucking the life down to nothing. Too many voices and conflicting visions can break the machine. ‘
If you do decide to split IP rights make sure you’re solid on step 1. If someone is bringing a monetary value of 10% the total project budget, it doesn’t make sense to give them 50% of the IP.
Of course, there are other factors besides the core deliverables an artist is contributing that define their value.
- Maybe an artist has a 100k follower fanbase on social media.
- Maybe they’ve published some killer comics themselves and are willing to guide and advise during the process.
- Maybe their dad is Brian Bendis.
I’m not related to any famous comic people, but I always make it my business to go above and beyond what I’m asked to do. This increases my value compared to the other guy with similar skillsets and it doesn’t take long for word to get around exactly how much an artist brings to the table.
At the end of the day, how you value an artists contribution to a project in exchange for a piece of the pie is up to you. Keep in mind, besides the potential monetary value, it is also perhaps the highest level of respect and acknowledgment of the artist’s contribution.
Take these tips to heart. Don’t think of the artists on your project as hired guns–a means to an end. Think of them as allies in a war.
Karma may be king in real life, but in the business of comics, it is divine law: Always take care of your artists as best you can, and the right ones will come along and take care of your book. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.