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'The Business of Freelance Comic Book Publishing' and You

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

We chat with comic book attorney and business consultant Gamal Hennessy about his new book and what it can offer you as an artist.

The Business of Freelance Comic Book Publishing

Welcome to our Creator Corner, our new reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the comics industry. In this entry, we're conversing with Gamal Hennessy about The Business of Comic Book Publishing. Listen to the unedited audio HERE.

 

The beautiful thing about comics is that you can make them if you have the will, talent, and persistence. There's little barrier to entry. Just start doing it. However, once you've made them, things can get tricky. Gamal Hennessy's new book, The Business of Freelance Comic Book Publishing, is the latest entry in a series of texts designed to help creators navigate the industry beyond the creative pursuit.

His Kickstarter campaign launches Tuesday (9/12). It's a sequel to last year's The Business of Independent Comic Book Publishing, and it offers support to those who often find themselves struggling suddenly right as they get their foot in the door. While many books are eager to help you create, few are eager to help you consider the contracts, taxes, and other not-so-fun legalities.


Gamal Hennessy lives in the trenches and saw a need for his wartime experience. Brad trapped him in our CBCC Zoom room and fired off a burst of questions. For anyone hoping to make their way into the field, these are the ideas they need to consider before their value is exploited and drained. Be a fly to their conversation and take notes. You won't regret it.

 

Brad: When you publish a book like this, it feels like a mission to me. Is that an appropriate word for you?

Gamal Hennessy: I think so, especially if you look at everybody who's doing entertainment, everybody who's trying to create stories, there's a lot of people who are willing to educate and support screenwriters, musicians, novelists and things like that. But I've been in comics for about 25 years and I think the one group of people that is probably neglected the most when you're talking about narrative art is probably the comic book artist because every other type of narrative art, there's an educational support system, especially on the business side. I mean, there's been dozens and dozens of really good books written about how to make comics, the actual arts and craft of creating comics. But if you're trying to teach people about marketing, distribution channels, how to get a gig or stuff like that, the amount of information is very limited. So I feel like a lot of the stuff that I'm doing is trying to fill that need that hasn't been filled before.

Brad: And you obviously know that there's a need and the people who have that need often struggle to find somebody who can lend any kind of assistance. As you say, there aren't many books like this one out there.

Gamal Hennessy: Nope. No, there are not. When I first did The Business of Independent Comic Book Publishing, it was also to address that need. I felt that book needed to be first because I wanted comic book creators to understand that if they couldn't get a deal with Image or they couldn't get Marvel to answer their submissions or anything else, we now live in a time where they can actually create their own publishing company, make their own books, get their books out into the world and run a business in the same way that a lot of other businesses run.

But as I was doing it, I realized that there's a lot of different ways that you can make comic books. With the end product is going to be a comic, whether it's a comic, graphic novel, webtoon, whatever. But making comics independently is a very different business than being a freelance comic creator, which is also very different than being a creator-owned comic creator. So I felt like this book had to be created because there's a lot more freelancers out there than people who want to run an entire comic book publishing company. So this book is specifically designed to address what they need to think about and look for and how they need to conceive what it is that they're doing so that they can, A, make some money and, B, not burn themselves out struggling to actually make ends meet.

Brad: And as somebody who has struggled and fought and drowned in the freelance market myself, and having jumped into that arena relatively recently, it's all terror, it's all scary, everything is scary, and I needed a lifeboat. And I feel like that could be this - a lifeboat for the terrified.

Gamal Hennessy: Well, a lifeboat makes it sound more apocalyptic and disastrous than it necessarily needs to be. If you're going into any business, a lot of times if you're looking outside of comics or outside of entertainment in general, most people when they start a business, they figure out what the business is, they figure out how they can make money, they figure out what the process is, and then they get started. With comic book creators, because the vast majority of people in comics are in comics because they love comics, they get excited about making comics, and then they just start making comics. And it's only after the costs start to pile up and they're not really sure what's happening, that's when they go, "Oh wait, this is actually a business. And there are things that I didn't consider whether it comes to contracts or taxes or marketing or actually even working with the client day-to-day."

Stuff they didn't actually think about and no one told them because one of the great things about comics is no one can stop you from making it, you can make comics right now, nobody can stop you. It's not like making a movie. You can't just go out and make a movie, you have to figure it out first, then make a movie which could help you avoid some issues. Comics is not like that, you can make a comic right now. But who you're making it for, why you're making it, how you're going to make money, all of these things, the book is designed to help you figure those pieces out.

So when you get into the market, you understand what a portfolio review is and what it is you're supposed to be looking for. You understand how you actually set a rate for your services. You understand how you make sure you get paid. All of these things that can be scary if people just throw you in and you don't know what exactly is going on, you don't even have the vocabulary to articulate what it is that you want. This book will help take all of that away so you can actually focus more on the creative side, which my book does not talk about. There's no creative help in that book whatsoever.

Brad: Again, there's lots of books on the creative side. Everyone's able to, willing to, and has advice to help somebody mold their ideas and shape their ideas and all that stuff, but no one takes you to the next step.

Gamal Hennessy: And one of the key things, especially if you're talking about freelance creators, I try to make a distinction between taking your client's ideas and making the best representation of that vision that you can and taking your idea and putting it into the client's idea to the point where now it's the client's idea. So let's say you create a character and you have this really great idea and then your client says, "Oh, we need this story."

Let's say Marvel hires you to do, I don't know, Daredevil. So you're making Daredevil and then you realize, "Oh, I have this really cool idea about this female assassin who basically has Batman's origin, but it's not Batman's origin, and I'm going to put it into this comic that I'm doing for Marvel." Marvel goes, "That's great. Now that's our character. Congratulations, you have Elektra." What? Now, if that's the goal, if you wanted to actually introduce new characters into your client's catalog, that's great, but if you don't, then don't and work with what your client is giving you. That is one of the many distinctions of working freelance with being an independent is you have to try to decide what ideas you're going to put into your client's work and what ideas you're going to hold maybe for your own work later if in fact you aspire to make your own stuff at a later date.


Brad: Well, could we drill into that a little bit? For the listeners that may not know the difference between independent comic book publishing and then freelance comic book publishing, which book is right for them?

Gamal Hennessy: Okay. Well, in the broad definition of the comic book industry, there are two types of ways to make money. There's direct, where you're actually making comics and there's indirect where you're making money from comics but you're not making comics. Let's ignore the indirect for a second and just focus on the direct. Indirect comic book publishing, there's three types, independent, freelance and creator-owned. Each one of them is defined by your relationship to the story and the characters, the underlying intellectual property. So in independent publishing, you own everything. It's your characters, it's your story, it's your company and if everything goes well, all the profits go to you. If things don't go well, then you lose everything because it's your responsibility.

In freelance publishing, it's exactly the opposite. You're making stories for characters and intellectual property that you don't own. So if you're working for Marvel, if you're working for DC, if you're working for Valiant, even if you're working for independent companies, but you're being paid on a freelance basis, you don't own anything. So you're creating the work, the artwork, the script, the lettering, the coloring, whatever, and you get paid for that. You should be getting paid for that, you should not be working for free. But then what happens after that, you have no control over and you don't get paid for it because you got paid upfront.

Creator-owned is in the middle where you come up with an idea and then you go to a publisher and say, "I want to work with you to get this book published." The publisher then takes some or all of the ownership of that idea and then theoretically they are splitting money with you. So you have independent, you have creator-owned, and you have freelance. The decision that you make for any particular book depends on what it is your goals are and what kind of resources that you have available and what happens to be right for that book.

So if you look at somebody like, let's look at Frank Miller again. He started out doing freelance work. He did Daredevil, he did Batman, he did a lot of other things. Then he moved into creator-owned spaces where he was doing Ronin and 300 and things like that. And then he, a couple of years ago, started Frank Miller Presents, which is an independent company. So in that one career, he has gone from one stage to the next. And you can do that as part of your entire career or you could do that for each individual book. You could have one book, it's freelance, you're just doing it for the cash. There's another book that's creator-owned, that's more of a long-term media bet. And then there's one, could be that's your baby, you want to make sure that that comes out the way you want it to come out. That's independent. You could do all of them at the same time, which is what we call hybrid publishing. As long as you could actually juggle all of that and still have a life.

Brad: Yeah, good luck on that. For the young creator who is entering the world of freelance, I think one of the biggest challenges is the power dynamic or the imbalance of the power dynamic. And you often, one, you don't know what your value is, and two, you'll often accept an undervalued position just to get access to creating. Does your book delve into that in any way?

Gamal Hennessy: Absolutely. We talk a lot about the leverage that you may have relative to your client when you're looking for gigs, but we also expand the potential playing field of where you can get gigs from. A lot of people when they think, "Okay, I want to do freelance," is because the want to draw Spider-Man or they want to write Batman. Okay, that's one type of freelance work, but there's a lot of other companies out there that you could do freelance work for that they're just starting out in the same way you're just starting out. Which means you'll have more leverage with them and you'll have more creative control because they're not one of the world's largest mega corporations and you're not trying to get a page rate out of them. And as you start to do work for, there's a lot of independent creators who their business model is basically crowdfunding in Kickstarter.

If you start to work for them, then your reputation grows. You could actually start to work with some of the larger publishers like your IDWs or your Mad Caves or things like that, work your way up to your getting to your Dark Horse. And then by the time you get to the point where you're talking, because the comic book industry is not that big, if you've gone through several cycles of working for books or for a lot of different people, you have proven that you can complete a project, you have a reputation in the industry, you are more of a known quantity. So when you get to that editor at that lower tiered Marvel book, because that's where you'll probably start out, you're going to, A, know a lot more about what your value is because you've been in the game for a while. You're going to, B, know what it is that you can ask for, what it is you can't ask for.

And you'll know how that work fits into your larger plan of being a freelancer. Because to be a freelancer and do it full time, you have to generate a certain amount of gigs which generate a certain amount of revenue every single month. And while there might be a certain amount of prestige and maybe a little bit more revenue coming from certain publishers, at a certain point you are going to want the job. Whoever's paying the job, it becomes at that point very merciful. You pick the jobs that feel good, you pick the jobs that you want to work at, but ultimately, whether it's Squirrel Girl or whether it's some web comic coming out of Korea, if the page rate gets paid, whatever, you know what I mean? And at that point, you're much more comfortable talking to the editors over at Marvel because you're like, "Okay, you know what you're offering, you know what I'm offering, let me know how many pages you want, give me the deadline. Let's do it."

 

Be sure to follow Gamal Hennessy on Twitter and Instagram. You can also visit his Creative Contracting Consulting website.

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