In the Brian Hibbs column I quoted in my previous post, he also wrote this:
We also live in an industry where a significant number of comics being published today are probably not making a living wage for anyone involved — comics that sell just five thousand copies into a national market are probably netting the creators something less than $50/page — but I generally think that economic Darwinism really does work well in the comics industry, and that most of those poor-selling titles are a result of market rejection of the work itself, not a symptom of dysfunction of market as a whole.
And on his blog, Steve Bissette gets into this a lot more. This is also a period where creators’ rights at many publishers have been chipped away at to a remarkable degree. Again I’ll offer a longer quote than usual to get to the salient points:
The DC/Vertigo contracts which followed in the early 1990s were actually worse than the 1988 “creator friendly” contracts we saw, introducing a creative “options” clause (in which the creators would have to buy out the option, whether the accepted/paid for work was published or not, rather than benefit from traditional book publishing rights reversion clauses) that I have since seen more mainstream book publishers adopt, much to my chagrin. [snip]
But seriously, the so-called “comics industry” is otherwise in a new dark age. The major players are in Hollywood-la-la-land, and locking down anything that movies—uh, moves, for as little as possible: Silver Age terms for Post-Millennial Media Golden Age non-shares in the bountiful riches.
Page rates are in the toilet; “independent publishers” (i.e., not Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, etc., which is stretching the definition of mainstream, but there you go) are offering rates for work-for-hire gigs that are less than freelancers were earning work-for-hire in the late 1960s-1980s.
What’s worse than the low page rates are the contracts offered (“take it or leave it,” most often) at those rates—I’m now seeing retro-retroactive contracts (don’t get me going). I’ve turned down cover gigs that offered less than I was paid for covers in the 1980s (and those were for “lucrative, prestige” licensed character gigs—you bet your ass the licensor earns more than the freelancers ever will).
The gaming industry has had a further negative impact on these matters; I’d be hard-pressed to cite the worst work-for-hire contracts I’ve laid eyes on, and I’m not in a position to share the many stories I’ve encountered (usually from freelancers terrified to tell those stories, their experiences, for fear of retribution or black-balling—how little times have changed).
With precious few exceptions (and there are, thankfully, exceptions): Self-publishing and creator-ownership is the only way to go, unless servitude and impoverishment is the goal.
This is accompanied by the above cartoon from 1988 that’s every bit as relevant today.
Despite the sales and creative boom for the industry, making a living at making comics is a precarious matter. The top gigs that guarantee a mortgage payment are as highly competed for as ever, but offer less and less creative freedom. At a talk the other night, former DC and Archaia editor Joe Illidge put it quite succinctly: Batman isn’t a character, he’s an intellectual property. That goes for all the top characters and brands. Page rates at the majors that I hear quoted are about the same as when I was editing comics over a decade ago. And below that, at smaller publishers, the rates are as low as Bissette quotes.
And that’s not even counting the vast, vast market of great work that’s being done for free on the internet with some hope of monetization down the road.
Now, the good part of where we’re at is that there are more options than ever and gatekeepers are fairly powerless. I disagree with Hibbs in that not everything selling 5000 copies “deserves” a low payout due to low quality. We’re also at the “1000 true fans” moment and some of those comics are among the best being published.
It’s also true that comics often serve as a “portfolio” piece for creators to get a more lucrative job in animation or illustration or film or design where there is a higher economy. But those industries are also seeing a decline, not an increase in wages, and making a living as an art director or designer isn’t any easier than it was 10 years ago, either.
What does it all mean?
I have no idea.
We’re at a point where no one knows anything. Every creative industry is in total flux right now. Ten years ago, creators figured out how to promote themselves on the web to build an audience but everyone does that now. The new tools are crowdfunding and merchandising and prints. In the era of self publishing, you always had to know how to run a business and do marketing to be successful, and now the elements of publishing and marketing to be mastered are more complicated and time consuming.
A lot of people are going to have bigger dreams than they can ever live up to. Not everyone is a Kirkman or Mignola or Ware or even a Noelle Stevenson.
I would suggest, however, that the crappy contracts being offered will become more of a conscious choice and less the only game in town. That’s already happening, to some degree. But it’s an important thing to point out, and as more creators become aware of what their rights can and should be, maybe the pendulum will swing back a little here and there.
In the end, I still remain optimistic. For the people with true talent, there are more tools than ever available to find an audience. And that’s the path we all need to keep searching for.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.