Editorial: Comics And The Not-So-Subtle Art Of Getting Paid

by Hannah Means Shannon

I wish this was a concise “guide to” article that would help all the comic creators in various capacities out there who operate on a freelance basis, and so, for the most part, feel anxiety from month to month about whether they are actually going to get paid in a timely manner, as dictated by their contract, for the work they have handed in.

This is not that article. All I can do is talk about the different scenarios one might face, scenarios I’ve observed, and give a general feel for just how embattled a topic this is. I leave it to creators older and wiser than me to get into the nitty gritty (I recommend both Steve Lieber and Dean Haspiel as agony aunts in this department, though they may not thank me for it).

Firstly, though, why is this article even necessary? If one has a contract that clearly states when one is to be paid for work in comics (and you very much should always have a contract, even when working on a joint-venture with friends), then how can there be a problem? For instance, most contracts, whether work-for-hire or creator-owned, stipulate how much a creator or employee is to receive, and what term of time is permitted in order to remit the payment.

To step back for one moment, do yourself a big favor and do not work without a contract. If a publisher or creator is hiring you for work on a work-for-hire basis (you do not own the project) or a creator-owned basis (you own part or all of the project), then you need a contract. What if a group of friends is making a book together, and you’re part of that team? You’ll need a contract to determine degrees of ownership of that project anyway, so there you go. If others pressure you to just keep it “among friends” without contracts, they are either not very aware of legal issues, or they are trying to keep control of the project themselves in some way. Contracts protect friendships rather than destroying them, because they establish trust.

If a publisher, small or large, is asking you to work without a contract because “you know they’re good for it”, that is a huge warning sign. Reasons a publisher might do this include an awareness that they are not usually able to pay on time, and so want things to remain fluid, or they prefer to rely upon a verbal agreement to prevent you asserting legal rights in future for some unknown reason. A reason that is probably not going to work out in your favor.

So, assuming you have a contract (get one!), generally, the standard format for a freelancer is to be paid “net 30”. That means payment should be cut and remitted to you within 30 days of you handing in your work and completed invoice. If you’re not organized about sending in your invoices in on time, you’re outta luck, so start with that. Have your invoices pre-filled out and ready to go the morning you are legally allowed to hand them in. Then send them, creating a paper trail or e-mail chain showing the date that your invoice was submitted.

But assuming you’ve done that, it may take 30 days for the company to cut that check. Then that check may be “processed” for a couple of days getting it ready to mail out. Then that check actually gets put in the physical mail, and it’s up to the vagaries of the postal system to bring it to you. This means that in a positive scenario, you get paid about 6 weeks after submitting an invoice. If you want it to be faster than that, for instance if this freelance gig has rendered you “exclusive” to a company and this project is your full-time job, discuss that with your employer and make sure they understand that it’s your expectation to be paid once a month, not every 6 weeks, to keep you exclusive to them.

But those who have been reading thus far thinking “but, but…” have been rather patient. This brings us to the fact that though a contract is legally binding on you, the creator, and though you may complete your work and submit your invoice for payment, and even though your contract may stipulate “net 30”, a company may fail to pay you within the legally stipulated time period. And the sad thing is, they won’t think this is a big deal, and they will encourage you to not think this is a big deal, either.

After all, the Devil’s Advocate says, “You’ve chosen to work in comics, and you know what a freelance lifestyle is like. You just can’t count on being paid on time.” Why? Who actually says that out loud these days? Not many people, but it’s the underlying tone and assumption of working in comics.

I actually started writing this piece a couple of weeks ago, but set it aside out of a sense of frustration about how difficult it is to say anything definitive on this subject. What follows is suggested advice to prepare for and try to prevent difficulties in getting paid in comics, but I’m well aware this doesn’t solve the endemic problem at hand. At least if you set up a system for yourself and evaluate your experiences month to month, you will know for certain when you are ready to take action about not being paid on time.

Here’s a check-list based discussion that I use, provided as an example:

WHO: Who’s your actual point person for corresponding about pay? E-mail lists that include multiple people can be like quicksand, since everyone else on that chain thinks someone else is responsible for making sure your check or transfer goes out. Establish that point person, and ask that question, at the very beginning of a project. Who is set to receive your pay slip and who is responsible for answering your questions if you fail to receive pay on time? It’s also not a terrible idea to establish who their supervisor is, so you can contact “above” them if they fail to do their job adequately.

WHAT: How much pay are you due, and in what increments? In comics, this varies widely between getting paid at the individual “stages” of a project, or all at once at the end. For a creator, it’s probably best-case scenario to get paid when you hand in each stage of production, though many publishers will prefer to wait until they have an end-product to make sure they don’t end up financing a project that is never completed and never sees print. Try to make sure that the increments at which you will be paid are not in any way dependent on the tasks of others, since that’s beyond your control. For instance, if a writer is only paid once the line art is done, the writer may never get paid. If a colorist is only paid when the lettering is complete, the colorist may never get paid. This is the easiest part of this process to determine, but many people think it’s the only agreement that’s important, when there’s far more.

HOW: What is the format in which you will you receive pay? Are you expecting to be paid partly in comp copies of your book? How many and when? When you get your pay, are taxes being withheld, or are you responsible for setting aside your own tax money? Either scenario is workable, as long as you know which action to take. Will the company be sending you tax documents? That also helps determine your financial records later. Lastly, are there any fees pertaining to the way you’re being paid, and who is going to absorb those fees? Many electronic transfer formats have fees that may seem small, but add up. Ideally, get your employer to cover those fees, or it’s a reduction in your actual pay.

WHEN: What is the exact language of when you’ll be paid in your contract or contract draft your are reviewing? Is there any room for ambiguity in that language? What phrasing would you be more comfortable with? What is your plan for if those dates slip and the company or person does not pay you within the established time period?

The real-life scenarios of “WHEN” that I’ve experienced or come across from friends have been the following:

-The contact person or company fails to reply at all to any contact you are making about late pay. This could go on for weeks or months despite multiple attempts to get paid, and increasing emotion and stress. The project may even come out on time, or fail to come out at all, and yet you don’t hear back from your contact about pay. Solutions? Keep trying other contacts in that company or who work with that person. Seek legal advice or consider hiring an agent who might be able to resolve this issue.

-The contact person or company responds, and keeps reassuring you that you will be paid soon, perhaps even giving specific units of time “in two week”, “next month”, etc. but those times come and go and you still haven’t been paid. Months drag on. Solutions? Make it clear that this is not acceptable to you in some way that doesn’t compromise your own professionalism. They may be asking you to be “patient” and perhaps even apologizing, but decide how long you are prepared to endure this before reminding them of contractual obligation on their part and mentioning that you are near a point of seeking legal counsel.

-The contact person or company responds, apologizes, gives an idea of a date when you can expect to be paid, and they keep their promise. This could happen! Companies are fallible. Paperwork piles up. Sometimes it’s a mistake on their part, albeit a painful one for you. Does this start happening every paycheck, though, rendering your life chaotic? Maybe if it happens a lot, express your frustration so they understand you’re not okay with this pattern.

The Pros and Cons of Being Loud

I can tell you definitively that in the majority of cases, the loudest person will get paid if there is money owed. But that comes with some drawbacks that you should consider and work out in your own mind.

To explain my statement more fully, if there are 5 people, or even 10 or 20 people on a pay list for a publisher, and there’s a crunch on money that month, the people who are known as “complainers” will be paid first. The ones who are easy about payment dates and don’t complain will be paid last. It’s sad that the really polite, understanding people are the ones who will suffer financially, but this is the case. The reasons make sense. A publisher or employer doesn’t want the “loud” person sending them multiple e-mails, or even going on social media to complain about not being paid.Many retiring, polite people in comics have had to become “louder” in order to survive in comics, financially. They’ve had to reach a point where they stand up for their needs and the legal agreements they’ve made.

But there are cons. Depending on the kind of language you use in your communication, and how you handle yourself in being “loud”, you could engender distrust and even dislike from an employer and they may not want to work with you again. In fear of this scenario, many creators hold their tongues. They want to work in comics in the future, and they make that sacrifice. It’s totally understandable and it’s their call to make. If you feel the need to become “loud”, consider your tone, language, and approach carefully, and try to keep your emotions in check, or else it will become just as exhausting for you as for the employer and may even make you burn out and leave comics.

Unfortunately, even if you are politely “loud” about getting paid, unless your work is absolutely top notch, or even if it is, employers may consider this a reason not to rehire you in future. They may justify this in many ways, saying “That person just isn’t a team player”, or “That person has unrealistic expectations”. If you suffer from this reaction, just keep in mind that you have the law on your side. It may be cold comfort if the work dries up for you, but hopefully that won’t happen.

The Promised Land

It may seem cruel of me to wait to the end to say anything positive about this subject, but at least I’m saying it. NOT ALL PUBLISHERS WILL DO THIS TO YOU. SOME PUBLISHERS WILL PAY YOU ON TIME OR EVEN AHEAD OF SCHEDULE. It’s shocking, but it’s true. In feedback from peers on this subject, the consensus seemed to be that big companies are actually your best bet.

Marvel Comics and Disney were both name-checked as publishers who have an adamantine system for getting people paid on time. They may need 30 days to process those forms due to their complicated internal workings, but once they do, it’s payday, baby. The other entities most likely to pay you on time are those that have dealings with or ties outside of comics to other types of industry. If you’re also someone who works in an arts-based commercial fields like design, you may be thinking, “Hah! Nope!”, since you also don’t get paid on time. Sorry.

But if there are ties to other fields, whether in entertainment, marketing, or IP that’s being licensed, your chances are better that the company will have higher standards of paying people on time. If you manage to find that gig, don’t be ashamed of your success. Spread the word and get your friends in on a good thing.

Why Does This Happen?

The Eternal Question about the comics field seems to be “Why?” Why are there so many idiosyncratic problems that make it a survivalist field to work in? There are many answers to this question, I’m sure, but one very relevant current one is this: the direct market sales of single issue comics are not doing well, and most publishers are in a state of transition onto the book sales market.

Why does that matter? Most companies have been around long enough to have built their financial structure around the cash that comes in from the sale of single issue comics on a monthly basis. They are now facing a situation where, increasingly, their money is coming from book sales instead. The money from book sales takes longer to come in, harness, and deploy. Companies have not yet created a system where steady cash is moving into accounts they use to pay comic creators. This is an oversimplification, but on a very basic level, it’s happening right now.

A company that has plenty of money on paper may be failing to pay its freelancers on time because they haven’t corrected their structure to fit the way the book market finances are affecting them. But related to this, they also might be losing a lot of money on single issue sales and trying to correct for that as more challenges come in each month.

None of these reasons are good enough. A contract that states you should be paid at a certain time is one that employers are legally bound to honor. To what degree you can accept flexibility in this regard is up to you.

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