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Devourer of Words 031: Choosing Whom to Write For

Marc Bernardin

While the comic book marketplace isn’t quite as populous as it might have been maybe 10 years ago—when publishers were popping up trying to chase that sweet movie-option money—there are still enough in business to make choosing who to approach a complicated decision.

The first thing you need to figure out for yourself is the kind of work you want to be doing, creator-owned or work-for-hire. There are virtues and pitfalls with both, especially if you are not a superstar writer with a proven track record of hits.

Creator-owned comics will pay you less up front (and, in many cases, nothing) with potential riches coming on the backside. Depending on the publisher, you will pretty much be your own boss—you will be in charge of assembling your team of collaborators, keeping track of the production schedule, overseeing the delivery of files to the publisher, liaising with Diamond, and doing outreach to retailers and press. There may be some support from your publisher, depending on who it is, but not enough. It’s almost never enough. The upsides to creator-owned publishing can be vast, but for every Robert Kirkman or Brian K. Vaughan there are scores of creators just making ends meet. But in most cases, you will be telling your stories your way.

Working on characters that don’t belong to you will alleviate much of that administrative headache. That’s a good deal of what a bigger publisher will take off your plate. You’ll get a page rate and, depending on the publisher and the deal they offer, you might get royalties—after a certain sales threshold. You’ll probably never get rich, but you’ll know where your next paycheck is coming from. If the fans respond to your work, these companies will support you, get you out in front of the press, turn you into a brand that they can use to help sell more books. You’ll never own what you create, but you’ll get to play with the shiniest toys in the world—so long as you put them back the way you found them.

Once you decide which path to follow (and to be clear, you can bounce between the two; most writers do), here are some things to look for before getting into bed.

What Does the Publisher Have That Sells?

What works for them? What have they found success with? And how will what you want to do fit in there? Do they only do horror comics? Then maybe your superhero book isn’t their speed—and what’s more, maybe they don’t know how to sell superhero books. Know where you would fit into their production schedule and, consequently, if they would value your book.

How Much Do You Have to Give Up to Do A Book There?

No deal is perfect—and your first few deals will be far from it. But make sure that you’re getting something you want and will only give up what you can accept. Me, I want to split the IP and share rights of assignability—the right to have my agents sell the material to Hollywood—if I’m doing a creator-owned book. And that only if I’m getting something resembling a page rate. And you should absolutely have someone look at the contracts before you sign it—lawyer, agent, manager; someone—because there will absolutely be landmines you’ll have no idea to look for buried in them.

Do They Have Something You Want?

Is there a character you’ve always wanted to write? Do they have a license you’ve always wanted a chance to steer? Is there an editor or artist you’ve been dying to collaborate with? Is their creator-owned deal better than everyone else’s?

Ask Around.

Talk to other writers, writers who’ve been around. They’ll tell you the good and the bad. No publisher is perfect, but bonafides are easy to come by, as are horror stories. How do they treat their creators? How shoddy is the editorial process? How smooth is the payment system? Gather intelligence.

Making comics is like any other endeavor: Forewarned is forearmed. Do your research. Make an educated decision on who to sign with.

Or chuck it all and Kickstart that mutha. But that’s a whole other different ball of wax.

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!