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Indie Insights: On Spec Work

Ken returns to look at the do's and don'ts of hiring artists for spec work.


I don't have much of a reputation for anything yet.  Only a few people know anything about Nix Comics and even fewer have stopped to to look long enough at what I'm doing to get a rep.  One thing I am known for, however, is paying a decent rate for the stories that appear in Nix Comics Quarterly.  

I'm pretty happy about that.  In this day and age where creator rights and creator pay are front and center in everybody's mind, I definitely want to turn left where Marvel and DC turn right.  I have the capability in my own small way to treat my artists well with prompt and fair payment for their services. "Hey! This guy pays!!!" is an OK place to start for a rep.  

So of course, stupid me, I ask the artists for the two new Nix Titles to work on spec.  Good reputations are for suckers.

Why would I risk that iota of cred I do possess by paying the artists for Nix Comics for Kids and Nix Western Comics on Spec?  (As opposed to working for Speck, which is delicious...)

The Easy answer is because I don't have the cash to pay Brian and Bob what they deserve upfront, but I trust the quality of their work enough to roll the dice and, more importantly, they trust me to treat them fairly.  

The shitty answer is that I wanted to get the work done, and I'm just of a loose enough moral character to gamble on my friendships and professional reputation to get it done.  I'm not what you'd call a fast talker, but I knew going in that I could get both Brian and Bob on board with a fairly risky proposition.  A proposition that flies in the face of my stated "pay artists what they're worth" philosophy.

If you find yourself asking artists to work on spec, here are some tips to reconcile that easy answer with the hard one:

Don't Talk To Strangers:

You got this great script and you need the right artist to make it happen?  Well, stay the heck away from the bulletin boards.  Within minutes of posting your request, because you'll receive no less than ten irate artists responding with all sorts of "Hey, this is my job! You wouldn't ask another professional like a  doctor or lawyer to work on spec, would you?"  

Putting aside that I just might ask a doctor or lawyer to work on spec, and further putting aside that a bunch of the artists will post clumsy and ugly photoshopped graphics that serve only to drag down their own credibility, the angry mob will have a valid point.  Who are you to ask a stranger to take a risk on your project.  Its a big jump to ask some guy on the other end of the internet to trust you like that.

Asking friends on the other hand?  Friends are fair game.  They can base their decision on what they know about how you've already treated them.  (And hey... If the turn you down based on your current relationship, maybe it's time to look at how you're treating your friends...)

Be Transparent:

Not an exact analogy, but not long ago The Dead Kennedys were all embroiled in a legal argument over unpaid royalties and publishing rights from Alternative Tentacles records.  Alternative Tentacles is of course run by former DK frontman Jello Biafra.  Ugh.  The kings of west coast anti-establishment litigating each other over what's basically bad accounting.  A situation made particularly ugly by the members of both sides of the argument shamelessly pandering to the fans for support.

Don't let it happen to you.

Before you even ask someone to work on Spec you need to have your business plan for the comic lined out and ready to present.  You need to know how many copies you plan on printing and how much that will cost.  You need to show your artist that have the money in the bank to get printing and distribution done.  You need to have retail and wholesale pricing figured out along with what the artist's cut of each of those amounts will be.  Most importantly, you need to be able to show the artist how often and in what manner you plan on paying him.

After you've figured that out, you need to have a system for the artist to know how the project is proceeding.  I have each comic set up as a google doc listing all expenses, quantities in stock and sales on a monthly basis for Bob and Brian to access whenever they need to.  This is in addition to a monthly statement that I send to them regardless of whether or not any books have sold.

Take Financial Risks:

I give Bob and Brian some money for every copy of their books that I sell.  I take the cost of printing that individual book back first, but the artist always gets at least part of the incoming cash.  Every time. What's more, I take the marketing expenses out of my cut of any single sale.

That may seem like a an obvious way to conduct business, but you'd be surprised how many Spec Deals are reliant on the publisher making all or most of their investment back before an artist ever sees a red cent.  Its a common way of operating for DIYers like me and even for moderately large operations like Image, with their infamous $2,500 hold back.  

You know what?  I think its a chicken-shit way to do business.  Money is power, right?  And all of us comic nerds should know by know that with power comes responsibility.  (Great or not.)  As an indie publisher, which is what you become the second you hire someone on to work on your comic, you have a responsibility to your artists.  Fulfill that responsibility first.

Spec work has become a dirty term to artists.  It's synonymous with then to doing work for free. There are of course no guarantees that you'll make everybody happy with the money involved in indie comics publishing and if history is any indicator, that just may not be possible.  But if you take some basic steps, spec work can be made tolerable.

Written or Contributed by: Ken Eppstein
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About the Author - Christian Hoffer


Christian Hoffer is the exasperated Abbott to the Outhouse's Costello. When he's not yelling at the Newsroom for upsetting readers or complaining to his wife about why the Internet is stupid, he sits in his dingy business office trying to find new ways to make the site earn money. Hoffer is also the only person in history stupid enough to moderate two comic book forums at once.

 


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