My comic book lawyer colleague Gamal Hennessy has been writing about leverage on his blog recently. He is using Dave Chappelle’s recent pressuring of Netflix to remove old Chappelle’s Show episodes from its service as an example of how to acquire and exert leverage. His series of posts are worthwhile reading. Leverage is an important concept, and I’d like to expand on Gamal’s thoughts a bit.
When writing my Comics Startup 101book and blog posts, I briefly discussed leverage. In short, leverage is who holds the most power in a negotiation. If one party has more leverage in a negotiation, then they are more likely to obtain the contractual and financial terms they desire.
Who holds the most leverage in comic book publishing? Most people will default to saying the publisher holds the most leverage. To some extent, they are correct. A publisher decides what books they will publish, and most comic book creators aspire to have their books printed and distributed by a publisher. Comic book publishing contracts heavily favor the publisher and not the creator. Even so, a creator, even an inexperienced creator, does have one piece of leverage they can always exercise—saying no.
Creators need to carefully evaluate any deal a publisher offers. By doing so, you might find the publisher’s leverage to be flimsy. Is the publisher paying you an advance? If they are, then that works to the publisher’s advantage. If they are not, then you need to analyze how the deal benefits you. Most comic book publishing deals, particularly from smaller publishers, require the creator to front the costs of creating the book by paying for the art, lettering, coloring, etc. The publisher pays to print and distribute the book, recoups those costs, and then splits the remaining profits with the creators (often 50/50). Other questions to consider: How big is the publisher? Do they have the ability to promote and distribute your book in relevant quantities? Does working with them further your agenda or career? What other rights are you giving up? Creators should evaluate all of these points and decide if the deal makes sense for them.
In most cases, when presented with a publishing contract, or contract of any kind, the comic book creator’s only leverage is to say no. Most creators are afraid to do so. There is always the fear that another deal might not come along or that this is your only shot. Saying no and losing a deal might seem like a bad idea, but protecting yourself from bad deals or exploitative contracts is important as well. It is challenging to balance these conflicting scenarios.
It’s scary to say no, but it can also be empowering. By saying no to a bad deal, you are valuing yourself and your work. Instead of giving up profits and control over your work, you are keeping it for yourself. More creators should be willing to do so.
Why is saying no important? Publishers need your works. They need new content to stay relevant. If publishers do not continue to print new, interesting works, then it is hard to remain profitable and grow. It is not a secret that far too many publishers offer poor contract terms. Some will negotiate. Some won’t. Most rely on a creator’s fear of not being published to get leverage and tilt the balance of negotiating power to their side. But, if their deal terms are bad, and you and others are willing to reject them, then it is a small step toward obtaining better deals for everyone.
In today’s age of self-publishing and Kickstarter, creators should seriously consider whether agreeing to a contract with a publisher is in their best financial interest. In addition to the above, when you factor in that most publishers want 50% of any media deals you might receive, and will not pay you any additional compensation for these rights, then the deal is even less favorable to you. Saying no is powerful.