How You're Sabotaging Your Collaborations

Like it or not, there's a high chance you've been sabotaging your own creative projects without even knowing it.

It's a struggle to start any creative endeavor. You need an idea, first, then the discipline to execute on it, and an audience to share it with - or the dedication to grow that audience. And, more often than not, you need collaborators to actually be able to build whatever it is you had in mind - whether it's a movie, a comic - even prose has its share of collaborators in a designer, editor, and first readers.

Finding these collaborators can be very difficult. Sometimes it's a question of money and other times it's dependent on relationships you've already built over time.

In the end, many of us often end up clawing just to get someone to collaborate with, as opposed to the more difficult, often longer, task of finding the right person. And even if we do find the right person (or people) may of us are unwittingly hamstringing our collaborations with the agreements we make.

This is because we're often too focused on what either party wants, as opposed to how the terms of an agreement affect the actual collaboration - or working relationship. Hence, sabotage.


Common Ground

More often than not finding the common ground necessary to agree is a discussion limited to what each party believes they deserve or are owed.

Unfortunately, this type of discussion is inherently flawed. It should instead be replaced by a search for common ground among the goals each party has, both individually and for the shared project. This should also include a conversation about the duties and responsibilities each party is able to and interested in taking on beyond the actual production of the work - this includes creating promotional materials, doing interviews, bringing books to conventions, and more.

It is from this place and understanding that both parties can make informed, aware decisions regarding the rates and split that is fair for their agreement and is fitting, within the context. Otherwise, both parties are coming into the agreement with a contextually bankrupt perspective on what they should get out of it.

No collaboration is like any other, so why should any agreement be the same without the proper discussion beforehand?


The Devil in the Details

Now, I'm not trying to poke the beast of online outrage, by saying what's objectively right or wrong with regard to agreements. Rather, this is about how each agreement has its place, in a certain context, and how their use may influence the spirit of your collaboration.

I feel like the best way to go about this is to tackle the pillars of collaboration agreements one at a time.

The first, is Direct Payment.

Direct Payment

Right off the bat, direct payments - most often in the form of page rates - are key in collaboration agreements, though especially so in Work For Hire (WFH) situation.

WFH agreements, despite what you may expect, are not solely found in relationships with The Big Two or jobs creating licensed properties. There are many examples of creator-owned comics where the writer, as an employing party, employs an artist under Work For Hire terms, while maintaining ownership of their property.

Typically the expectation with Direct Payment is that if the rate is sizable enough then it is not necessary to share the profits or any of the property & ancillary rights.

The standard uses of WFH agreements has unfortunately led to the portrayal of this kind of collaboration as the bane of collaborative spirit, since the employing party holds all of the deciding power. However, this doesn't have to be the case.

WFH agreements can nurture healthy, interesting collaborations. For this to be true, though, the employing party has to not only be willing, but also make an active effort to treat the WFH collaborators as partners, even if they - legally - are not.

This does not always happen, though, hence the established perception. Evidence of the negative potential of a WFH agreement is easy to see in, for example, the agreements often made with colorists and letterers. These critical roles are often not major considerations of the creative process for the employing labor and seen more as labor instead of applications of craft.

This same perspective extends to all the other roles involved with the creation of a comic including to the penciller & inker, though typically to a lesser degree there.

What's key here, though, is not the degree of perception, but the way the employing party interacts with the collaborators. Good coloring and lettering are integral to any [color] comic, just like the art & writing. Most accept this, but to act on it means to defer to the judgment of your artist, colorist, letterer, editor, and designer when you bring them onboard. Obviously there are cases in which it makes sense to disagree and have the conversation, but there are too many instances of needless interference from the employing party.

If you're spending your money to employ your collaborators the rates you've agreed on, then hopefully it's because you've found the right people, whose skills and experience are valuable to your project and who will enhance the final product by their contributions beyond what you would've been able to pull off alone.

So if they've made a suggestion then, when in doubt, you should defer to their judgment. If you hired the right person - as opposed to whomever you could find - it is likely they are right.

For this to even be possible, though the employing party needs to communicate that this creative flexibility is available and then "walk the walk" in the ensuing discussions. It is only by doing so that the team - which is what any group of collaborators on a comic is or should be - you've brought together can create a product with the kind of life, creativity, and collaborative spirit most find missing from WFH scenarios.

Now, obviously the spirit simulated by a WFH agreement will never match the true spirit present in other more 'partnered' agreements, where the relevant collaborators all have an actual stake in the project, but treating WFH collaborations in this way would be a massive step forward for a category of agreements which are often unimaginatively broached. The obvious benefit for the employing party here is a superior final product and maintaining ownership of the property.

To be able to employ a team on a WFH basis, though, money is necessary. Now, what makes a fair rate for a penciller & inker - two roles that are often fulfilled by one individual when speaking of independent comics - is a topic of much debate for a different time. Assuming you were just to pay the U.S. Federal minimum wage for an artist spending an assumed average 8-10 hours on a page then you would need to pay, at the very least, $60 /page. For many employers (who are in many cases the writers of the project being hired for), though, even this rate is unachievable.

I won't go on a diatribe about saving and sacrifice, but if you can only afford a rate that's below what your potential collaborator would typically charge (often much higher than the above-cited $60 /page) sometimes the employing parties lean towards just offering back-end pay or a share of the property. Before diving into either of those, pillars, I want to say that just offering any rate - even if it is that smaller rate - is a good way of communicating your seriousness as the employing party and demonstrating that you understand the value of your collaborator's work, despite your inability to meet the full rate.

In these cases it is typical that the low-rate would be substantiated with back-end profits.

Back-End Profits

It's an unfortunate reality that just like how Work For Hire agreements are often seen as uninspired, terms like back-end are seen as taboo, and, in the "up-and -coming" community - reserved for the exploiters and exploited who respectively tout or are lured by notions of "exposure."

However, if you're serious about your projects and are able to have the collaboration discussion I elaborated upon in the beginning, then perhaps you can come to an understanding where both parties can treat the division of back-end profits as a serious part of the agreement.

In order for this to be possible, there must be an expectation that profits will at least be pursued.

This means working to market the comic and putting effort into the sales side - all things I'm going to try to help you with on this blog. Many creators and potential employers do not consider the marketing at all. They're resigned to the fact that comics are a losing game, are uninterested in exploring the options, and/or are unequipped to do so.

While I agree that it's definitely an uphill battle to drive sales and grow an audience not trying at all will obviously never bear results. If you're solely approaching comics as a hobby, then this oversight is acceptable, but if you're serious about building your career, you should have an overall strategy and a business model or be prepared to develop one if you intend to offer anything beyond or in place of direct payment.

If more employing parties put time and effort into developing a sound marketing or sales plan then the industry would see more agreements that are less dependent on a heavy capital investment or the use of crowdfunding platforms (not to decry that avenue since it's one I have used, am an adamant supporter of, and am generally excited about).

With this kind of plan in hand or in mind then the discussion at the beginning of any potential collaboration could include and factor in the responsibilities associated with the marketing and sales tasks. The key, though, is to demonstrate that the back-end profits offered are substantiated. You might do this by showing a track record of sales or successful crowdfunding campaigns, or asserting that you plan to meaningfully pursue the profits whether by a written commitment in the agreement, actually doing the work, or setting aside funds to form a marketing budget. Obviously, there's still a risk involved for any collaborator, but making comics is a business, and risk is a factor in any business.

You're not just a writer, or a creator, but a business owner managing your writing career or self-publishing efforts. Failure to recognize this or act on this is widespread and understandable. But the potential rewards you could reap by developing a sound business strategy and putting it to use over the long term as you grow an audience and take the reigns to your future as a creator are invaluable.

Now, there are other factors to consider in back-end agreements. Heavier reliance on back-end usually directly correlates to how long it takes for the project to be completed. The money spent paying a page rate is used to keep your collaborators alive and eating and [mostly] healthy. If you're not able to provide a page rate then you might have to content yourself with a longer timeline.

There's also an issue of motivation. Projects are more likely to fall off, especially as they get longer, when payment isn't provided along the way since there's no tangible incentive - besides progress for progresses sake. And when the comic is finished and fully produced, when the back-end profit split starts actually factoring in, the consequences of the decision you've made continue.

A 50/50 profit split is equitable, but may not adequately represent the division of labor, and providing a higher split to any one party may be fair, in the right circumstances, but how do you then keep the party with the lower split incentivized to continue to drive sales of the comic?

These are the considerations that should be in your mind when discussing the terms of an agreement with any potential collaborator.

There is a third important pillar, though: Intellectual Property.

Intellectual Property

This is the bread and butter of creator owned and "true" collaborations. There's nothing more substantial of a property to share than ownership of the property itself. If profit splits are uncommon, sharing of the property are even less common (though not as much as you might expect since the expectation of profit is so rare among independent creators / employers).

In cases where collaborators conceptualize the project together from the start, it's only natural for the property to be split. And if there is intent to adapt it to other media, often through the employer's connections, then there's an inherent value in sharing the property (or, at least, the media rights).

So, why bother splitting the IP with your collaborators if neither of these applies?

To show that you both appreciate and recognize the value of their contribution. Thanking your collaborators for all they've contributed and telling them that the book wouldn't be what it is - or is going to be -without them is nice, but actions speak louder than words.

Comics are a visual medium. And while your script may lay the groundwork, the artists' contribution (the artists being the penciller, inker, colorist, letterer, and designer), are integral to the realization of the final product.

If you treat this with the due importance, and if you've carefully considered and discussed the previous factors, then you will see the value in sharing the ownership. Not only are you sharing the weight of what you're trying to build (remember, when in doubt go together), but also the "buy in" of your team will be on a different level and the work you produce, collectively, will be elevated by the sense of ownership each collaborator feels.

That said, owning a piece of something the initiator has no plans to grow or develop, is not as valuable as owning something with either potential or energy behind it - though it is still worthwhile. Therefore, the same considerations applied to the division of profits apply here.

Other Terms

If you more carefully consider how and why you provide direct payment, divide the profits from your project, and/or share the intellectual property you're already that much further ahead.

However, there are many other potential factors to discuss. You can decide to split solely the media rights as opposed to the property itself, consider merchandising, or share revenue, as opposed to direct profits, and much, much, more. Each of these factors have their own consequences and hopefully the breakdown of the three pillars above is enough to get you thinking about the way you collaborate differently. If so, then you're well on your way to applying this thinking to all other aspects of your collaboration.

We're not done yet, though. There's one more thing I want to mention.


The Publisher as Collaborator

Throughout this post I have been careful to call the initiator of the agreement the employing party - though that term may be inaccurate when you start to split the property. The reason I have done this, as opposed to calling them the writer, is because I want to encourage the notion of the publisher as collaborator.

A publishing agreement is, or should be, as much a collaboration agreement as whatever you've signed with your teammates.

It is just as serious of a deal as the initial collaboration agreements, because it is here where you & your team may choose cede all or some of your collective control of what you've built or are building. And, unfortunately, for a long, long time the publisher has held all the power in these discussions.

However, if you adopt the mentality I discuss on this blog and employ the methods I'm trying to share with you, then you'll have a career built on your own terms, and you'll be able to enter these agreements on a more level playing field. This will enable you to discuss the expectations and goals of your collaboration with a publisher, just like you would've with your initial collaborator(s).

All the terms discussed above apply here, but with minor variations since your concerns are ancillary to the product itself and regard printing, distribution, sales, marketing, and potentially more.

Where a publisher may allow you to maintain your ownership, they then might not provide you with the marketing & sales infrastructure or editing assistance you desire (lately, it's also become relevant, or perhaps important, to consider the multimedia potential for your property and your desires in that regard). Where there's a sales threshold, past which all the profits are yours, you might find that you need to be able to drive sales independent of the publisher, since they have little incentive to spend resources past the threshold, just to generate more profits for you.

Conversely, in places where the marketing infrastructure is present or where you'll find editorial assistance you may be asked to cede your property.

You should always understand what your trading your rights for and, just as with your team it's important that you both communicate your goals and desires while understanding the other party's.

With common ground and a better understanding of the often-subtle effects of some of the central pillars of an agreement, I hope you can make your collaborations healthier and reduce the risk that they'll fall apart along the way.

So, think about your current collaboration agreements, or the ones you're in the process of making. Better yet, consider the way in which you approach the agreements in general. Are you sabotaging your creative efforts, or do the agreements you strike accurately reflect your collaborative relationships and the goals of your team?

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Direct Payment

One thing I neglected to mention in the course of the post is that when discussing direct payment it is also important to consider the ramifications of how & when a payment is delivered. While a page rate motivates collaborators throughout the duration of the project, you should consider how paying upfront versus on delivery might affect a collaborator's motivation.

There are many other options available, too, like paying in stages or providing an incentive for completing work early, to also affect the collaboration. Apply the same thinking we established above here and figure out both what is necessary and what desired outcome you'd like to reach.

The Artist as Employer

In the course of this article I often referred to the employing party, typically characterizing them as the writer or publisher. However, I did not mean to imply that these are the only two parties that can initiate an agreement. Because this is a writer-focused blog and the 'writer as producer' standard is most common in the industry, I felt it made sense to label the employing party as a writer (or publisher) where I did. That said, I see no reason why an artist couldn't play the role of employing party and put together a team - in fact, I wish this happened more often. To that end, I feel that what I've explained above is easily applicable to a mirrored circumstance.

Individual Tendencies

As a final note, I want to mention that I think, as collaborators we should endeavor to give our all to every agreement, whether or not we have skin in the game. But, I think the influence of the factors expressed here are largely subconscious and therefore more difficult to counteract. Not everything I've stated will apply to everyone but there can only be gains from being more considerate of what I've mentioned here.