Stop, Collaborate – but Listen

I made a discovery. The collaboration is the new “do it for experience” work model. Or, at least, the trigger word that’s being disguised as unpaid work.

Don’t get me wrong. If you’re just starting out, and you’ve nothing in your portfolio to show, a collaboration with an artist (if you’re a writer) or a writer (if you’re an artist) is a great way to make something great to tuck into that portfolio. You’re given the opportunity to bounce ideas off someone new, and you’re out nothing but the time and effort – but you’re making something of your own. Even if you’re not just starting out: finding someone who’s just as passionate about a project as you are is rare and very special. Collaborations are great because everyone puts in the same passion, and I’ve seen some truly wonderful things come out of collaborations.

However, don’t ever try to dress up a collaboration as something else. Lately, I’ve run into a lot of people who are looking for writers or artists – for free work. I get it, believe me, artists are expensive. (Writers can get expensive, too, but industry pay is much lower in comparison.) So I can understand the desire for free or cheap art. But even free work is never actually free.

Everyone deserves to be paid for their time and effort. Does that mean everyone needs to be paid upfront? No. That’s where collaborations come in. Do people get paid when they collaborate? Actually, yes.

For myself, I’ve moved beyond the point where I’m willing to work just to fill my portfolio. I have established a small foundation for myself and have accrued enough paid work so I’ve a network of referrals. But do I ever write for someone without cash in hand? Yes. Because cash isn’t the only valuable commodity in the comics business. Intellectual property and property rights are – sometimes – just as valuable as getting paid upfront.

Collaborating means that I’m putting in as much work as anyone else involved on the project. Logically, it would follow that I’d own an equal piece of the completed project. This involves a split of any profits and a split of any copyright. So, in reality, it can be more expensive to buy out a collaboration partner than it’d have been to simply pay them upfront and maintain control of the project.

Now remember: giving credit is not the same as splitting ownership. You have to credit everyone who works on a project. If you don’t, you just look like a douche.

Where did this rant come from?

I was approached by a creator who was looking for writers to contribute to a series of short stories – as a sort of guest author. He offered a theme, but it was up to me to create a story and characters and write the script for the short comic. I made it clear that I was only working with two compensation models. Either I’m paid my usual page rate – which would have cost him about $100 for the short story he wanted – or I’m compensated with partial ownership of the completed comic short. I requested co-production credit (so the comic would be produced by his fledgling brand in association with Arledge Comics) and written rights to reproduce the finished comic. I’m working on building inventory for comic shows – so the ability to print and distribute comics is very valuable to me right now.

The creator balked when I insisted his tagline (saying TITLE was the sole property of his brand) also included Arledge Comics as co-owner of the comic.

After many emails back and forth, I was accused of not knowing how collaborations work. Well, turns out I do. Unpaid work is not the same as a collaboration. When you collaborate, you create and keep what you make. Joint work and joint ownership. Unpaid work is just that. You’re working for someone else, but you’re just not getting paid.

And a shout out to my writers: Getting credit as the writer on a production is not compensation. Having an artist draw what you write is not compensation. If you’re bored, or if you’re really into a project, or if you really need something for a portfolio – write for free. But don’t let anyone tell you that they’re doing you a favor by drawing it or receiving credit is your payment.

I credit Shakespeare a lot – but he owns none of my work nor am I paying him.

Don’t be Shakespeare.

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