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The Creator's Bill of Rights:
A Letter from Dave Sim 9

Below is a letter from Dave Sim to Erik Larsen concerning creator's rights and publishing. -Al Nickerson

31 August 05

Erik Ė

Well, clearly no one is saluting the Bill of Rights as it stands nor do I really expect them to. It came about because I wanted to know where my rights ended and Diamondís rights began when it came to selling books direct. Did I have the right to do that? It expanded from there into trying to draw lines of demarcation as to where a creator-publisher stood within the market in terms of decision making. The point that I missed at the time is that you can establish that you have the right to do something, but that doesnít mean that anyone has to like it andóvery definitelyóthe stores did not like me selling the book direct to my readers. So the issue wasnít actually whether I had the right to sell the books direct (of course I did: itís a free country) as it was "Was I prepared to take the consequences of doing so? Was I prepared to trade the good faith that I had in the market for a massive infusion of cash?" The answer at the time was "Definitely". I was really tired of living on dribs and drabs of cash that came in on a book that was considered somewhere between a fanzine and an underground that I was busting my ass to produce. In retrospect I shouldíve had more patience and realized that High Society would always sell and give the retailers time to figure that out: years, probably. Since then Iíve gone in the other direction relative to the initial question. Weíve taken the ads out of the back of the trade paperbacks and Following Cerebus so the stores are really the only place you can get the books today. We donít even sell to Amazon anymore. The stores arenít exactly falling all over themselves ordering the books but, again, I think thatís where patience comes in. Give them time to see that everyone else is abandoning them for on-line sales and the mainstream book store market and eventually they will recognize the value in supporting something that supports them.

Iím really only doing this because Al Nickerson asked me to comment on the Bill of Rights. For all I know, heís the only guy who reads these posts which would make it even more pathetic a situation than your example of eight guys on a street corner (and, actually, the original number was seventeen if I remember correctly). It seems obvious to me that Steve Bissette and I are the only two of the original participants who are interested in discussing it so I assume everyone else has decided that it was worthless and something to be ashamed of. Iím enough of an egoist that that pushes me in completely the other direction and I suspect the same is true of Steve. If weíre the only two who arenít ashamed of our past participation then weíll have to make up for the other fifteen who are. And if column inches are anything to go by, I think weíve been doing a pretty fair job so far.

As I said in my last go-round, I canít see that this dialogue is going to do me any good as a self-publisher. I had an opportunity to spend a fair amount of time with Neal Adams last week talking about just about everything under the sun. One of the things he suggested was that I should "go to the Frankfurt Book Fair and set up there and find a European publisher that I trustÖ" And there I had to interrupt him to save him a lot of wasted energy. "I donít trust anyone, so thatís a lot of the problem right there." One of the reasons that I am a self-publisher is so that I donít have to trust anyone. I have all the facts and figures in front of me. I donít have to wonder if Iím getting ripped off or being taken advantage of. I donít even necessarily trust Gerhard and I donít think he necessarily trusts me. We jointly own an intellectual property that weíve both invested two decades plus of blood sweat and tears into. Itís not something that either of us is likely to risk for the sake of a handful of magic beans. You donít sign agreements for 6,000 page graphic novels the way you sign agreements for 100-page graphic novels. I think that does put me in a situation where I have a little better overview of inherent problems with contracts than your average freelancer is going to have, and that overview leads me to believe that a template contract would be the most helpful thing for the average freelancer so he is at least able to ask more intelligent questions in coming to an agreement with a publisher.

I mean, there is always a large question mark over my head whenever Iím dealing with freelancers and I realize just how much they take on faith. Theyíre getting paid a royalty on number of copies sold. How do you know that your publisher didnít print more copies than he told you that he did? How do you know that he sold the number of copies that he said he did? Their publisher pays them late. How do they know that he couldnít afford to pay them six months ago? In my experience freelancers just go blank when you ask them questions like that. In my negotiations with Vertigo, Shelly Bond made a great point of the fact that the Fables volume was intended to be next summerís big book, along the lines of the Sandman:Endless Nights volume. I asked how many copies of Endless Nights they printed, hardcover and softcover, if theyíve sold through the first printing, if they intend to go back to press when the first printing sells out. I mean, if this is the template book that is supposed to persuade me that working on the Fables volume is a cagey career move, well, what are the hard numbers? What is Vertigo policy on second printings? And sheís very polite of course but the impression that I came away with is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. Well, fine, then the conclusion that I come to as a self-publisher is that all Iím really being offered is the advance against royalties and everything else is just moonbeams and pixy dust.

But a lot of that stems from the fact that Iíve always had twenty-six years of my life at stake anytime that I think of negotiating anything. Neal Adams recommended that I hire a writer to do a translation of Cerebus. Itís very difficult to get people to understand the huge difference between translating a 100-page graphic novel and a 6,000 page graphic novel. Translating a 100-page graphic novel can take a few months depending on the complexities. Multiply that by 60 and you are looking at a ten to fifteen-year project. I canít think of any quality writer who is going to commit to doing ten to fifteen years worth of work on someone elseís work. The compromise situation that Iím in right now is suggesting that French readers and German readers and Spanish readers start websites and translate Cerebus as a community project that no one owns. Someone can work on it for three years, get two books or four books done and then quit, but their work remains at the website and others take over when theyíre gone.

Of course even Nealís experience with foreign translations has more to do with his sketchbooks which is not exactly the core of his business as an artist. That was when I realized that the colour volumeówhich neither Ger nor I are especially interested in doing through Aardvark-Vanaheimówould make a good test case, a good way to see what itís like to actually trust a publisher because for the first time the whole 6,000 page enchilada isnít whatís at stake. Itís all outside stuff Iím not really inclined to deal with anyway so itís as close as Ger and I can come to a situation of "found money". Unless you and Bob Chapman are prepared to do the book, the book is never going to exist as far as I can see. Once it does exist, it can be translated without having to tie up ten to fifteen years of a personís life. So, yes, we are definitely interested in moving ahead with it.

That doesnít mean that Iím not interested in covering all the bases. For example, would Image have any problem with our getting the paperwork from Diamond on the initial orderóthe TRU Reportóthe final orders, any order increases and any reorders on the colour volume? Anything they e-mail to Image, they fax to Aardvark-Vanaheim? Also is it possible to limit sales of the book just to the direct market? I realize that Diamond just has a brokerage arrangement with Image. Does that mean Image can limit who Diamond sells to? It would be kind of a trade-off since we wouldnít be able to sell to FM or Cold Cut on a book published by Image because of your Diamond exclusive. We wonít squawk about that if you guys limit the sales to comic-book stores only. Likewise do you have any problem with us getting copies of the printing bills on the book, just to make sure that all the numbers add up? For most publishers that would be a real problem area in the NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS category. Is that the case with Image?

Oddly enough Bob Chapman at Graphitti just called me today to find out what was going on with the book. I guess he got a call from Larry Marder which prompted him to call me. As Iím picturing it right now, Bobís been attached to the project since the early 90s, at least, so it seems only right to make him part of the deal andóunless you have any objectionsóit seems to me that he would fit doing what he does best: the prestige limited hardcover edition. He has his own price points and page counts and package in mind, Iím sure. So it seems to me that if Image was willing to do the mass trade paperback version it would be a matter of getting what you picture together with what Bob pictures until theyíre one package. I donít really have a preference when it comes to the package because I donít picture myself doing a lot of the work and I donít have any experience with those kinds of grades of paper, stitched binding and so on. You tell me what makes the most sense. This many pages, this cover price, this print-run. About all that Ger and I can provide in the way of guidance is that for most of the Cerebus trade paperbacks, if we print 6,000 copies those will last two or three years depending on how the market is going. Four years if itís really in the doldrums.

As an example, if you want to do all 300 covers using a combination of what we have originals for, negatives for, colour proofs for, and CGC file copies for, well, that sounds like quite a headache to me. But as long as the captions just read "issue 120 March 1989" it isnít going to be my headache, so Iím all in favour of it. Iíll write an introduction for each section of the bookóthe covers, the Epic stories (Bob has negatives for everything except "A Friendly Reminder"), the Animated Cerebus, assorted colour pieces, Spawn 10 if Todd is willing, Turtles 8 from the First Comics colour version if Peter is willingóand provide all the raw materials that we have here and you and Bob are going to make a book. Or Bob is going to make a book that you and he are going to publish. Or youíre going to make a book that you and Bob are going to publish. If you arenít going to do all 300 covers, then you have to decide which covers you want to do. If thereís something I really have to participate in, Iíll be glad to participate, but I think Bob made the very good point that because youíre already a fan of the material, it does make things a lot easier. The fact that you really just want a copy of the book for yourself means that youíre going to make sure that itís the book a Cerebus fan would want to own to the extent that thatís possibleówhich probably means as complete as possible. I told Bob about you doing all of the heavy lifting on American Flagg, and told him that I might have made a mistake in suggesting too early that you learn how to delegate. First give the Cerebus colour volume the same care you did the Flagg bookóafter that you can delegate.

Yes, you make a good point about what a nightmare it can become to police ideas and even to keep track of where an idea came from. Your own experience with the contest would seem to indicate very clearly that you canít just leave the whole thing wide open. But, really, thatís not what Iím suggesting. What Iím suggesting is for those guys who actually show their work to others with the idea of getting feedback or a significant creative contribution. That is, the obligation is on the part of the artist and/or writer to be aware of what theyíre doing if they show their work to other people to get contributions/advice/amendments. As Iíve said itís just not something that I would do, personally. I showed my work in advance to Gerhard because he was the one who was going to do the backgrounds on it and, if I was to come up with a new concept, I think I would owe it to him to offer him the chance to do the backgrounds or to pass on doing the backgrounds. Itís part of being a team for this long. You donít just announce your "solo album" as a fait accompli. But I never asked him for contributions to Cerebus, never asked him what he thought of the story or what I could do to make it better or what he thought of this or that character. So, again, I end up having to give advice in an environment that is completely foreign to me conceptually. But working with the givensóand in the case one of the givens is that the person weíre discussing is interested in getting advice on how to change his workóthen I start thinking about compensation for that. But definitely I think it has to be declared ahead of time. A) Iím showing this work to you to get your input and I will compensate you for anything that I useóthat is, Iím open to collaboration or B) Iím just showing this to you because I want to know what you think of itóI have no interest in collaborating. In the case of A) then you have to write down and sign anything that youíre going to use so that thereís a record for both parties. Again, this is not something that I would do. I just gave Chester Brown my best suggestion for the title of his next graphic novel when we were having lunch on Saturday and he pulled out his notebook and wrote it down as a possibility. Itís not in my nature to say "I want you to sign this piece of paper specifying that that was my title and I get a 1% royalty on every copy sold if you end up using it." But, as I say, Iím not in the situation of having to make my living that way or being limited to just a paycheque to put a roof over my head and food on the table. For others who arenít as fortunateóand particularly for publishers who have ended up not owning a stake in anything that theyíve invested a lot of time and money in (like Chris Staros with Craig Thompsonís Goodbye, Chunky Rice) I think it at least makes sense as a talking point. It seems to me that a graphic novelís first publisher is probably entitled to a minimal royalty just for being the first publisher of that graphic novel. I think that would be a valid element in any kind of template agreement we could come up with that would center primarily on fairness. Not legality, but fairness.

I also think that whether you chalk it up as a failure of the American judicial system a bad faith negotiation on Toddís part excessive greed on Neilís part or any combination or permutation of all three, I think we can at least agree that the way that Spawn 9 happened and what happened with it is "no way to run a railroad". And with all due respect, I think that a template contract would be the way to avoid future disasters like Spawn 9 from taking place.

You do make a good point that most self-published or indy books are barely going to make enough money to pay for the macaroni and cheese the artist is going to be living off of and that cutting a collaborator or collaborators in for a slice too early on could probably sink a book and its creator. In that case, I think you could probably incorporate dollar thresholds. When each issue becomes profitable or when the collected version becomes profitable in a pure "total revenue minus printing bill" constructóin order to avoid the "artistic bookkeeping" problemóthen the collaborator royalties kick in ($1,000 net profit or more?) Or you could even say that it only kicks in in the event of a movie sale or only on the merchandizing. But, yes, I think that revenue thresholds would be a good element to incorporate. And obviously, that would be on an honour system for self-publishers to be honest about a book generating sufficient revenues for royalties to kick in. It wouldnít be 100%. A dishonest greedy guy is always going to be able to get away with ripping other creators off. But at least there would be a certain amount of pressure if the movie deal gets signed. This is the royalty he agreed to and hereís what the movie deal was worth.

I disagree with you that the template agreement canít be institutedóI think it can on a case-by-case basisóbut I agree that it canít be enforced. Thatís why Iím describing it as a template contract and not a collective bargaining agreement. You could walk into Joe Quesadaís office and he could tear the whole thing up in front of you. Well, all right, that tells you where you stand. "We donít need no stinking template agreement at Marvel." But at least in that case you would know that every right thatís contained in the template agreement is being taken away from you when you sign with Marvel. Or half of them are or three quarters of them are. And maybe Dan Vado at Slave Labor likes your book enough that he wonít take any of your rights away. Well, that at least gives you something sensible to look at and consider and mull over before you sign. I canít get most of these things at Marvel, but I can get all of these things at Slave Labor. At least you have a clearer sense of what is potentially at stake.

When you ask "How do you judge whatís fair?" I think it depends on whether you mean me specifically or "you" in a general sense. I think at that point it comes down to "How much of the project can you do on your own?" If you can write, pencil, ink, letter and do the logo for your own comic book then nothing in the template contract applies in terms of paying royalties to others. You make all of the money. But, if there are things that you donít know how to do or things you want someone else to do either because they donít interest you creatively (doing the backgrounds on Cerebus) or because someone else can do them a lot better than you can (doing the backgrounds on Cerebus) then there should be template guidelines for what each of those contributions is worth. Lettering is worth 5%, inking is worth 15%, a logo is worth 2%. None of them is carved in stone. If I want Todd Klein to letter my next book and he wonít do it for 5% but he will do it for 12% then thatís the decision that Iím faced with. How badly do I want Todd Klein? No, I donít go and get the Comic Book Police to arrest Todd and fine him for saying he wants 12% and thatís 10% over the template contract guideline. They would just be basic guidelines as to what each discipline is worth so that a creator knows what is reasonable and doesnít either dramatically undervalue or dramatically overvalue his own work. Far more, itís to keep them from undervaluing their work. I think a good letterer is worth his weight in gold and that letterers should see themselves as people who contribute to the success of a book and should get royalties if the book becomes a multi-million dollar movie. Again, you are completely free to disagree with that and say that all letterersóeven Todd Kleinóare only worth $5 a page, flat rate, and no letterer deserves to have any stake in any book that he letters. Period. If the free market agrees with you then thereís a level playing field and letterers will just get $5 a page or $3 a page if they arenít Todd Klein. If the free market doesnít agree with you, youíre going to have a tough job finding a good letterer and youíll probably have to change your mind and give in, ultimately. Your example of a logo is a good one. There was a period there where Don Simpson was doing the logo for just about every indy book that came on the market. Thereís a reason for that. Heís one of the bestóif not THE bestólogo guys around. Why shouldnít he get a royalty for his logos? Again, same free market dynamic. You declare that logo guys are a dime a dozen and no logo is worth more than $10, flat rate, no royalty. Period. Meanwhile this guy over here is offering $200 for a logo and a 1% royalty on anything where the logo is used. Which guy do you think Dandy Don is going to do his logo for?

Oh, Iím sure, just as you say, that the template contract would be largely ignored or dismissed. No doubt about it. Thatís what we have, time and time again, proved to be best at it the comic book field for the last seventy years: ignoring and dismissing good ideas (not to mention vilifying anyone who has the nerve to come up with a good idea). But, the same as participating in this discussion of the Bill of Rights, if I think it has value thatís where Iím going to devoting several days a monthóor more!ówhich is what Iíve been doing for the last while. I think a template contract is definitely more than worthwhile. It might take five years to put one together and once we put it together, yes, everyone will just ignore it. And then maybe fifteen years after that someone will say, "Hey what about that template contract that Dave Sim and Al Nickerson and Steve Bissette and Erik Larsen came up with?" And twenty years after that every editor, publisher and creator might very well have a copy of it in their top drawer and they have most of it memorized because it makes everything work better and far fewer people get seriously screwed when you use it than get seriously screwed when you donít use it.

Anyway, hope you e-mailed your portion to Al Nickersonís website. Iím going to burn this onto a disk and fire it out to him in the mail.

I think weíre really getting somewhere, both with discussions of a template agreement and with the negotiation on the Cerebus colour volume and I look forward to your response when you get the time.


Next: A Letter from Dave Sim 10 Dave addresses posts from the forum.

The Creatorís Bill of Rights main webpage