Bluewater: finding new ways not to pay people

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hddd01 Bluewater: finding new ways not to pay peopleWhile Bluewater is often just thought of as that make-a-buck-quick company that puts out the funny bios, they’ve been getting a lot of heat lately for a business plan that asks for a huge investment by creators. The new round of controversy began when Newsarama ran a fairly benign interview with publisher Darren G. Davis. The comments to the article indicated an ongoing problem of creators not getting paid, which led to another story, called BLUEWATER Responds to Claims of Non-Payment by David Pepose:


Earlier this week, we ran a story on Bluewater Productions, and their expansion from political biocomics to series ranging from Logan’s Run to Lady Gaga to Jesus himself. Yet a number of commenters raised questions about Bluewater, particularly alleging that the company had not been paying creators. When readers raised questions, we got answers — here’s the formal statement from Bluewater president Darren G. Davis when asked if this was true:


While asking a publisher for a statement isn’t really investigating whether there was any wrongdoing, especially when the exact same statement ran four months ago even this defense was troubling:


Because Bluewater is a small company, our business model is such that artists, writers, and colorists are paid if and when a property (single issue or trade paperback) becomes profitable. When prospective creatives are engaged to work on a property, they are informed of this up front and are asked to review the terms in the written contract. There is no coercion; no strong-armed tactics, no manipulating industry novices. When a book reaches profitability, defined by a specific number of sales, the creatives are paid according to the percentages contained in their contract.


Come again? Doing work-for-hire for ROYALTIES? I know the comics publishing business is one that runs on tiny tiny margins, but this is such a crap deal I can’t believe anyone is desperate enough to take it. Davis’s next paragraph is even more astonishing:

It is unfortunate that not every book Bluewater publishes has reached the profitability threshold. Some, in fact, never sell more than 800 copies. Some are canceled by our national retail distributor Diamond. And some are not fit for publication because they do not meet a professional standard. But that is the risk Bluewater and the creative accepts. I respect the labor these artists, writers and colorists put into creating a title, and am more than willing to share in the profits. However, if a book does poorly, it is Bluewater that absorbs the overwhelming majority of the loss. Yes, there is a risk on behalf of the creatives as well, but they at least have a professional entry for their portfolio that can use to get other jobs in the industry.


So “hiring” untrained “creatives” to a horrible deal who make such horrible comics that you can’t even publish them is “taking a risk”? How is a crap comic that you won’t even publish a “portfolio piece?” And who are these “creatives” anyway? Are they anything like the Na’vi?

The comments are filled with people defending Davis’s business practices — obviously some people are willing to take this deal for whatever reason– but their defenses are still…about three enchiladas short of a combo plate:

We did have a BIG problem with creators flaking out and not finshing the books. That’s why many of the books had 2 or 3 different artists and sometimes fell way behind. It’s hard to get someone to committ to a back-end deal, and without upfront pay it’s hard to keep them motivated. I don’t blame them, but I do think if you commit to a job you should finish it. As far as I know Darren never coerced anyone. He found aspiring new talent who wanted to be published first and held pay as an afterthought.


Yeah, funny how people would have a hard time sticking to a plan that might never pay them anything except the professional credit or working for a company that doesn’t even make enough money to pay its creators.

While as Rich Johnston pointed out in his September Bluewater expose, Davis isn’t really doing anything illegal, what Bluewater offers isn’t really doing anyone but David any good, either. No established creator would work for such a deal, and there are lots and lots of ways to get established without paying anyone these days, as well. And you get to OWN YOUR OWN STUFF.

Simon Jones,
as usual, has a sensible overview for creators:

Most comic artists understand that work for hire means you’re working on property you don’t own, or you are commissioned to create something based on the publisher’s specifications. But they don’t understand that under work for hire, you’re guaranteed pay, because in theory a work-for-hire is either a contractor or an employee. A home repair contractor would not agree to a percentage from a future home sale, and a restaurant employee would not risk his weekly paycheck for a percentage of profit that may be non-existent at the end of the year (especially if that restaurant is named Applebee’s, no sir). A publisher who retains the copyright to the work, yet offers a back-end deal with no guarantee of pay, is really neither here nor there. Why a significant number of creators in comics seem almost eager to tolerate this kind of situation has always been somewhat baffling. And those that do, make the industry a worse place for everyone else.


While it’s true that some people with actual talent have passed through Bluewater’s portals — like Sean Murphy, currently on Joe the Barbarian, who complains he never got paid– Bluewater isn’t really in the business of promoting their creators, either — their website and PR barely mentions the creatives on their books. So it’s still up to you to go out there and get that next job that PAYS and there are better ways.

It’s tempting to agree with all the folks in the comments at the various threads who say “Read your contract!” it’s also fairly incumbent on those of us who have seen this all before to point out that this is a crappy deal, and no matter how you rationalize it not being crappy, the more young, ignorant, and desperate for a break creators who sign it, the more young, ignorant and desperate they look and the harder it is for people who have more artistic talent for business savvy — a large number of them.

It could be a form of Darwinism for “the creatives”, but as Jones says, this makes it all the harder for everyone who believes in their work.

More reaction: Johanna Draper Carlson one and two, Tom Spurgeon, Chris Butcher. Also this thread where actual “creatives” discuss their payment issues is edifying reading.

Finally, in the comment thread at Johanna’s posts, there’s this gem of common sense:

Did the publisher at Bluewater get paid?
Did the printer get paid?
Did the guy putting together the book get paid?
In short, did everyone else get paid but you?
That makes you the sucker.


Sucker.

 Bluewater: finding new ways not to pay people

Comments

  1. “it’s also fairly incumbent on those of us who have seen this all before to point out that this is a crappy deal, and no matter how you rationalize it not being crappy,”

    Probably also incumbent on y’all not to act as a conduit for Bluewater’s hype if you find their behavior so scummy.

  2. Well stated.

  3. Royalties… Who accounts for the accountants? There are many Hollywood blockbusters which have not been profitable (See: Buchwald v. Paramount). This system seems to remind me of a company town. The company pays you a wage, then takes back money for rent, groceries, etc.

    This is an interesting model… it’s the reverse of book royalties, where an author gets an advance, and then the publisher hopes to sell enough copies to cover the advance already paid the author. Here, the creative staff does the work for free, and then hopes the publisher will sell enough copies to guarantee payment via royalties.

    Question: Given the risk involved, are the royalties a higher percentage than normal industry rates?

    “And some are not fit for publication because they do not meet a professional standard.”

    Isn’t it the responsibility of the editor to hire creative staff who will produce professional material? (And what does this say about the stuff which actually hits the stands?)

    Now, since we do not have access to Bluewater’s PNL records, let’s assume the following:
    A comic gets published. It then gets collected. Should we assume that the original work sold well enough to guarantee payment to the creative staff?

    Here’s two ways to run this model without the torches, pitchforks, tar, and feathers:
    1) Outsource the comics to Asia, just as the animation industry does. Have the artists follow model sheets. Maybe even find some doujinshi circles to do the work.
    2) Partner with an art school. The editor is the course instructor. Students pay the usual tuition, get course credit, portfolio pieces, and professional experience.

  4. Jess Lemon says:

    Sam, surely you’re not expecting to find something resembling standards here?

  5. The Beat says:

    I will no longer be running Bluewater’s pr here.

  6. This situation reminds me of a recent dust up in SF writing circles over a new magazine publisher’s announcement to pay 1/5 of a cent per word for short stories. Author John Scalzi took them to task for it, and a newbie writer responded on another blog defending the pay rate and like markets. The comments got way more involved than that, but the point is there are publishers who suck across the board, and creators who are willing to put up with it to get the credits/notice. Reading the Black Matrix issue made me rethink my submissions strategy as a writer. hopefully this will do the same for writers and artists with Bluewater.

  7. It looks like basically nothing has changed since that BC story in September. And nor would I expect it to.

    I’m getting closer and closer to the view that if there are enough signs saying There Are Crocodiles, that people who lose their heads might have to start taking some responsibility for it.

  8. Nate Horn says:

    The Jess Lemon take above is classic.

    I found this line funny: “I don’t blame them, but I do think if you commit to a job you should finish it.”

    I think if you commit to a “job,” there should be payment. That’s how “jobs” work – you do some work, you get some jack.

    As it is, I’m not sure the people involved are actually signing a contract. If you agree to do a job for payment that will be paid only if the employer hits an arbitrary goal, then I fail to see how not doing the work is defaulting on anything. What can the publisher sue you for?

  9. “If you commit to do a job”??? This is the craziest quote in this whole thing. Nate said it all – it’s not a “job”, OK? It’s a FAVOR, a GIFT you’ve given to the publisher. Damn, artists can be some of the most self-destructive people sometimes. (And I speak as one myself, of course).

  10. Bluewater has licensed titles from William Shatner, Ray Harryhausen, and Roger Corman. I wonder if those people are offered the same deal.

    If Bluewater makes money from TekWar, they’ll happily pay Shatner at some later date. If they don’t turn a “profit,” though, Shatner will get nothing, but at least he’ll know that TekWar got some exposure.

  11. As an artist myself,

    I would never sign on to a backend payment deal, but I can understand aspiring artists looking for ANY kind of experience taking this up.

    If you’ve approached editors and you keep getting ” you’re almost there, show me more pages”, and you sign on with Bluewater with complete knowledge of the contract. It can help. You get some experience..

    The overall problem lies with expectations of the artist and publisher:

    If an artist expects that they will ever get paid after signing this kind of contract, they need to have a terse Talking-To. And they need to realize they’ve been suckered!

    And BlueWater is responsible for their own bad press because they DO have a contract and they DO suggest that there COULD be pay on the back end.. They give hope and expectation to the artists. And if most of their books get nowhere close to breaking past even, they should be upfront and just say, “you won’t get paid, but in the unlikely event this book sells, here is your pay breakdown.

    Otherwise, aspring artists would need to produce their own books, post them on the web, or print their own books. Requiring them to either learn basic web design or a layout program like InDesign. Or asking a friend or budding professional designer to help them with their comic pro bono, but promising exposure and experience once the site is up( or the book printed), and maybe some backend pay if it makes any money…..WAITAMINIT?!?

    riq..

  12. Alexa says:

    That explains the “quality” of the art in the Stephenie Meyer comic.

  13. God Bless Rich Johnston, but I did beat him to the punch:

    http://comicnews.info/?p=9014

    And the current number of creators who’ve approached me concerning non-payment or worse from Davis is 23. Not all were rookies or foreigners either, mind you. Davis is a liar to the Nth.

  14. Alan Coil says:

    Bluewater takes investments from the creators (their time and talent), but doesn’t pay them any dividends or interest. That’s not a business. In my opinion, it may be approaching dishonesty.

  15. Army of Dorkness says:

    This amazes me. An entire company built around a concept that every artist I have ever contacted to work with me on a creator-owned book has refused to ever consider despite offering co-ownership of the property which Bluewater doesn’t.

    Guess all I had to do was write a cleverly-worded contract and a create a publishing company to make it look official and people would have been lining up to work for nothing.

  16. StinkyCheese says:

    So here is a question I would love to know the answer to:

    What about all of the books Bluewater sells to the book market retailers of the world? I’m betting they shipped roughly 10,000 of their Stephenie Meyer ‘biggest book ever’ and I have it on good authority that the sales in the book market have been pretty abysmal. Are they going to pay creators because they shipped 10,000 and THEN ask them for the money back when they get back 7,000 returns because all of those book stores can return whatever they want?

    I give them a year, tops, because none of their books have ‘sold’ well. I don’t mean what book stores or comic shops have bought, I mean what they ‘sold’.

  17. James Van Hise says:

    Any artist that would do all that work for free would be better off creating their own book to self publish. Even if Diamond won’t carry it due to low orders, they could still sell it on line in various venues, including Amazon and Ebay.

  18. Yeah, they’d be better off putting the work on a webpage and a link to a POD where it can be purchased.

  19. michael says:

    well that’s a stinky way to treat people. Even if I have lauded Bluewater’s comics in the past.

  20. how is it that blue water is able to operate by saying if the book sells then we pay those who work on it .for any other business that tried that would be in deep legal trouble . and then saying some of the stuff they could not publish did not meet ciriteria thats the job of an editor to help do. not t mention are creators wanting to break into the business that deseparte to sigh such a contract like paid only if the work sells

  21. I’m really at a loss as to why creators think doing free work on material that Bluewater [or someone else] owns somehow makes a better showcase of their work than doing a webcomic of something they would own. Mainstream[paying] Publishers are looking for professional quality material that can be produced on deadline.

    If you can post your webcomic on a regular schedule and do it to a quality standard then you’ve reached your “showcase” goal – plus – you OWN the material, you have full rights to any profit the material might generate, and, based on the numbers Bluewater are mentioning, your material will probably be seen by more people, and publishers, anyway.

    That said, most of the Bluewater Creators who have defended the model seem to be writers. Writers who can’t draw are at an extreme disadvantage if they want to break into comics – no art = not a comic. As has been mentioned here, artists aren’t very inspired to do free work for writers even when offered an ownership deal. So, I CAN see the Bluewater model working for a writer who can now get his script illustrated and published for free.

    The Bluewater model is certified insane for an artist.

    On a side note: It’s just my opinion, but I think aspiring comic book writers need to consider giving up asking artists to illustrate their work in exchange for co-owership and try just offering a straight [minimal] page rate. The hard reality is that drawing is usually more time consuming than writing, the chances of the first things you write turning into a property worth co-owning are very small, and artists can be hired based on unscripted samples.

  22. Richard, if it helps, the piece I wrote contradicted yours – you were saying thet people weren’t being paid the money they were owed, I was pointing out Bluewater’s specific contracts which didn’t guarantee they would be.

    It took quite a bit, ferreting out contracts, but in the end I concluded that Bluewater were offering one of the shittest deals in comics. But that people were taking that deal, not understanding it, then complaining afterwards.

  23. I have picked up a couple of Bluewater comics for different reasons, and the quality has been all over the map. One of the creators in Johanna’s comments cites creative freedom as a plus, which I take to mean that they don’t edit the work. That is a BAD thing.

    Also, the reason their comics sell in abysmal numbers may indeed be related to the quality of the work, but I also am puzzled as to who they think will be buying it. Libraries and schools, the logical market, don’t generally like pamphlet comics because they don’t stand up well, and I don’t see too many kids—or adults—picking these up for their sheer entertainment value. I’m not thirsty for more information about Sarah Palin or Stephenie Meyer, I’m trying to avoid them.

    I was at the ALA Midwinter two weeks ago, and one thing that impressed me was the quality of educational comics that are produced strictly for the school and library trade. IMHO, as a casual reader, the quality has gone way up over the past few years. The art and writing are better and the subject matter is more varied; a lot of these actually are books a kid would read without prodding. It’s a competitive market out there, and undercompensated, unedited work is not going to cut it.

    I can envision a set of circumstances in which someone would sign that contract—if you’re really good, and if you want to make your first comic from beginning to end and see it published, and if you don’t care about ever getting paid. But I don’t see these comics getting a lot of good press, so associating yourself with the brand may be a hidden cost.

  24. Army of Dorkness says:

    “On a side note: It’s just my opinion, but I think aspiring comic book writers need to consider giving up asking artists to illustrate their work in exchange for co-owership and try just offering a straight [minimal] page rate.”

    Why offer a page rate when Bluewater proves that you don’t have to pay anything at all as long as you claim it hasn’t made a profit? In fact, it proves we should stop offering co-ownership too.

    I think any artist that hasn’t been paid by Bluewater is getting screwed and this type of thing shouldn’t happen in the first place, and I don’t actually advocate the cessation of offering co-ownership nor am I against offering a modest page rate if it’s possible. What I am saying is that Bluewater has just circumvented everything a lot of people have assumed to be the right and true way of doing things when you’re not Marvel/DC/Dark Horse/IDW/etc. At least we now have Bluewater as a current cautionary tale to scare the art students with.

  25. Al™ says:

    This type of deal reminds me of the motion picture industry. I worked on the crew of one feature where the paychecks bounced, even when cashed with minutes of being received (in person).

    I did script breakdowns and storyboarded the action sequences for another feature, with the agreement of being paid half upon completion and the other half if the feature made money.The feature did get made, and released, but I never saw another cent from it. It irritated me, but I had used the opportunity to do the work, kept copies of all of it, and leveraged it to get future work from paying customers.

    This (arts/creative) can be a tough business. if you agree to work for “intern” or “newbie-student” or “spec” rates, then be sure you are doing it with your eyes open, and that YOU are getting something out of it.

    If they are using you? You use them.

  26. Those really are the worst WFH terms in the universe.

    That said, I don’t necessarily fault the writers and artists working on these books because they may just not have known any better. Not everyone has had the benefit of hearing endless contract horror stories or having classes that teach this kind of thing – though this kind of thing is all over the internet. Remember that awesome Tokyopop contract?

    Also, you have to get those 10,000 hours in somewhere, so it might as well be on a (likely) published book with the at least the tentative promise of pay. Any port in a storm. If I had a dime for every spec page I did that no one has ever seen, I could buy myself a small island.

    I think Davis is being truthful when he says he was forthright about the terms, but the caveat venditor excuse doesn’t absolve him of responsibility for peddling a bad-faith contract.

  27. Yeah, I used to be one of them *sucker* writers, but for a different company. In Germany, we now have a sociological scientific term for it, no kidding, since the “work for free” mentality has spread from creative industries through to pretty much everything.

    It’s called “management by mohrrübe” (management by carrot), in which the elusive reward will always, with mathematical certainty, be just outside your reach. 1 +0.5 + 0.25 + 0,125 + 0,00625….

  28. Simon Jones says:

    “management by mohrrübe”

    What an awesome phrase. I must remember it…

  29. Ernie Stiner says:

    “Why offer a page rate when Bluewater proves that you don’t have to pay anything at all as long as you claim it hasn’t made a profit? In fact, it proves we should stop offering co-ownership too. ”

    I say “TRY IT” if you’re aspiring comic book writer. If you can find a willing artist, it’s certainly much better than writing something you’ll never have any ownership in. I do think that Bluewater has a considerable edge over an individual writer, in that they have a track record of actually PUBLISHING something. An artist’s fear that his free work MAY NOT EVEN APPEAR is probably much greater toward an unknown individual than it might be to a producing publisher – even with Bluewater stating there is no guarantee of publication through them either. I still think an aspiring writer – who wants to retain ownership of his wok – has a better shot offering a minimal page rate to attract an artist.

    Is it known if Bluewater offers any type of Creator-Owned option? Do they even do any self-owned material? Most of their publications seem to be either biographies or properties licensed from other sources.

  30. Bluewater Productions: Puttin’ the “Free” in Freelance!

  31. I know an artist who has worked for Bluewater in the past. He knew the deal was crap but he did it to get his name ‘out’ by working on some titles the press should be interested in… so he thought his name will get out and this way he can get a real paid job at another company.
    He told me he did a lot of stuff for Bluewater for free and helped out here and there with pitch art, cover work and such stuff.
    He knew the work wasn’t paid but he asked Bluewater to use his name whenever the work is mentioned in news articles and other press releases. They told him they will and they did NOTHING! His art was shown, but his name NEVER was mentioned in a text about the books. He also asked for a book where his art was printed in and was told they will send him a copy… needless to say he never got it.

    I think when someone is working for free and he knows it and still is doing it for the publisher he deserves to get his name mentioned in the press and get a free copy of printed stuff.

  32. Not defending Bluewater… BUT… as many of you know, all too well… this industry puts new talent through the ringer, sometimes horrifically so. And some of us love it (the industry) SOOOOOO much, we’ll do whatever deal with the devil is needed to get our foot in the door. It’s really not surprising that people take the Bluewater deal. It’s more surprising that people are shocked when it goes bad for them.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Publishing | Criticism of Bluewater Productions’ work-for-hire agreements — creators get paid when, and if, a comic turns a profit — continues to mount in the blogosphere, where Heidi MacDonald pledges to no longer run the company’s press releases. More commentary from Simon Jones, Tom Spurgeon and Johanna Draper Carlson. [Bluewater Productions] [...]

  2. [...] For more on Bluewater Comics, check out Simon Jones, Tom Spurgeon, Johanna Draper Carlson (2), and Heidi MacDonald. [...]

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