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May 28, 2008

More On Terrible Tokyopop Contract

If you haven't yet, I'd encourage you to read Bryan Lee O'Malley's pulping of a new Tokyopop publishing initiative contract. Unlike other awful contracts that exist in comics, including some from Tokyopop, this one manages to combine the worst aspects of all those contracts with a rhetorical style that sounds like a guy in a van trying to talk some poor soul into taking nudie pictures. Among other folks pointing out the awfulness of this contract are Chris Butcher and Lea Hernandez, who has been criticizing Tokyopop contractual malfeasance for a few years now.

Contracts like this one that secure all rights to a property* in exchange for some modest amount of cash do so by pushing two lines of argumentation that should be dragged behind a truck and then set on fire at every opportunity.

The first argument that such publishers make or that is made on their behalf is that this is a standard deal for first-time authors. This is almost always a huge lie. While the argument against it need go no further than that, it's worth pointing out that "it happens all the time" doesn't really speak to the fairness of the contract. Further, this argument is finessed by various corporate rip-off artists in that many contracts with some language advantageous to the publisher -- although never this bad that I've seen -- tend to be the first step in a back and forth negotiation, not a take-it-or-leave-it option dangled in front of first-time authors.

The second argument that such publishers make or that is made on their behalf is that you should sign a shitty contract in order to get your foot in the door. Again, this doesn't speak to the issue of whether or not the contract is fair, and is sort of an admission that it's not. But mostly there's no evidence of which I'm aware to show that signing a terrible contract gives anyone a leg up when it comes to their publishing career. Let's be honest, because otherwise this gets used as an argument with a "let's be real" appeal: there certainly is evidence to show that signing contracts that aren't 100 percent optimal in terms of creators rights has been advantageous for some creators. This is true in comics and outside of comics. The key thing to remember is that such agreements tend to involve two things: 1) the company bringing something of value to the table, like access to a valuable property such as James Bond or Spider-Man, or a team of sales agents that are experienced in the newspaper strip market, and 2) non-shitty financial compensation. This contract has neither. Tokyopop brings nothing but a brand that has dubious merit, especially on books like these. They're poor stewards of content. And they're not paying well: about $20 a page.

All contracts bring with them a warning; bad contracts like this one brings you being warned away.

Additionally, the notion that you can give a company a sub-standard creation and save your real stuff for when you're in a better position to protect it is exactly what a company that offers such contracts hopes you'll believe. To repeat the caveat a third time: an end-around strategy doesn't justify an unfair circumstance, either. More importantly, and much more to the point, the truth is no one controls what creation will hit with audiences or even work best to facilitate a creator's career. No one does. The late Steve Gerber created a number of characters in his long career, many of which were owned by him. I think we all know that the one that worked best as a voice for his particular talents, the one that hit with the most people, he didn't own. Besides, the difference between creating a walk-on character in an issue of New Mutants and doing a full graphic novel with a bunch of characters seems enormous to me. Even if you were to decide to support an awful system by faking it, thinking you could take advantage, it seems to me there's an important difference between taking someone out to dinner versus marrying them for two years.

Just because creators occasionally sign contracts with which they're not 100 percent happy doesn't mean that the worst contract out there, and this sounds like just about the worst contract out there, is justified in any way, shape or form. Always remember that the most successful and admirable creators have become so almost uniformly by not signing contracts like this one. There are so many options today for a lot of what they're promising you, there are a ton of great publishers and many viable self-publishing options. If your work doesn't click so that it can find purchase with a company that's not ripping you off, or it fails to make a name for itself on its own, that's a strong sign that the company's interest in you is dependent not on the awesomeness of your talent and ideas but on their ability to screw you over. Please, don't let them do it.


Update: John Jakala believes that "all rights" as used here is a misstatement because future projects involving that property will be subject to separate negotiations. Leaving aside the issue of what I'm actually talking about there, I disagree; I think that acknowledging you won't retain rights to certain supplementary projects (well, in certain ways, after a certain point) isn't really the same as as affording them to people on the original one. I also think there are plenty of complications to a truly unfettered walking-away, both short and long-term, and there are all sorts of reason I'm not willing to afford the publisher the benefit of the doubt given how easily that could have been made explicit in a contract they're presenting as a major initiative.
posted 8:26 am PST | Permalink

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