The Zudadeal is both very, very good and very, very bad.
On the good side, it’s out in the open, completely above-board, fully-disclosed, and they even encourage you to take legal advice from an actual lawyer (that would not be me) prior to entering, because just entering requires you to sign the Submission Agreement.
There are even some bits in the contract that can only be seen as progress from what comics contracts used to look like:
- retaining copyright
- having the theoretical ability to recover other rights
- defined payment schedule
- audit rights
- return of originals
These were all unheard of in years gone by.
But while the contracts may be better than what has historically passed for a comics contract, it remains explicitly work-for-hire and falls far short of what were identified as fundamental rights for comics creators nearly twenty years ago.
And that’s where all the bad comes in. If the Zudainitiative were all about finding “traditional” comics concepts, artists, and writers for the future, and it were positioned as, “Show us a good enough idea, and maybe you can come work for us”, I think I would honestly have no problem with it.
But it’s positioned in two very different ways:
- Show us a good enough idea and you WIN!
- Yay, webomics!
The first of these is less worrying — if you’re reading the contracts like they tell you to, and you’re getting legal advice like they tell you to, you should understand that this isn’t a case of “you’ve got the best stuff, we’re going to make all your dreams come true”. It clearly is a case of “you’ve got the best stuff, we’re going to buy it from you for what sounds like a decent chunk of money, and maybe you’ll make it big, but we will absolutely make more money off it than you will.”
This is not a knock on Zuda — it’s a fact. Royalty rates top out at 40%, and what strikes me as the most likely royalties to be paid (for print editions) are 1%. That’s what publishers do, and you’ve contracted to work for a publisher. You have not contracted to be partners and grow rich together; see the Rights Agreement, paragraph 24, and Services Agreement, paragraph 25:
INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR. Nothing herein contained shall constitute a partnership or joint venture by and between the parties hereto or constitute either party the agent of the other. (emphasis original)
The second item concerns me more. The prolific Mr T is of the opinion that the contract is pretty good, and it may be as far as the comics industry goes.
But Zuda has been specifically pitched as webcomics, and that’s a place with a decade-long history of not doing work-for-hire. Those making their livings from webcomics do it on their own, not by partnering with a corporation and giving away the rights to their creation (exception: Penny Arcade, who managed to do exactly that twice, and bought themselves a five-year legal struggle; you won’t be that lucky).
How much does the Zudamodel stand in contrast with the Webcomics So Far model? Let’s just take one thing that Zuda will do for you: print your webcomic. If you work with them:
- they bear the costs of printing, publication, and promotion, but are under no obligation to do so (cf: Rights Agreement, paragraph 21 and Services Agreement, paragraph 22)
- they could get your book into the Diamond catalog or regular bookstores, but probably the bulk of purchasers will come from Zuda readers on the web
- they keep 99% of cover price for the book, you get 1%
- they own trademark on your webcomic for as long as they want
If you do things on your own:
- you have to produce the book, sinking money up front into printing books you hope you can sell
- you have to handle orders and fulfillment
- you probably won’t get into the Diamond catalog or regular bookstores, but the bulk of purchases would have come from your readers online anyway
- you’ll keep about 90% of cover price, but must assume the risk of unsold inventory
- alternately, you could use a print-on-demand service, which drops the risk and fulfillment from the equation, but you’ll only keep on the order of 40% of cover price
- even 40% >> 1%, and it’s still your property
Put these two points together, and Zuda is equating You Win! with We Own Your Stuff. Yes, they’re a publisher and that’s what publishers do. Yes, they do all the things that you don’t want to do because you’re a creator and dealing with the business aspects gives you a migraine. But the cost/benefit ratio is all out balance here — this is not 1942, when the only way for a kid with a head full of dreams to tell that comics story was to partner with a corporation that had figured out the very expensive disciplines of printing, distribution, promotion, and sales.
We’re talking about webcomics here; the barriers to entry are as low as human ingenuity can make them, and the only bar to success is the quality of your work. If you truly have a meltdown when considering all those business-related aspects, or if you’re honest and decide that you have no talent for them, and if you do them on your own you’ll only screw things up, then the Zudadeal is still not what you need. You need to hire somebody to handle the business instead of a business hiring you to handle the creative.
Let’s play What If for a moment.
What If the winner was given the opportunity to have Aduz represent them and handle the business aspects of promoting and exploiting the webcomic.
What If the winner kept all rights and Aduz instead got a 50-50 split because it assumed the risk, and it’s going to have to balance the duds off against the winners.
What If this deal was entirely governed by the Comics Creator’s Bill of Rights (big thanks to Scott Kurtz for pointing out to me that the CCBOR as written applies beautifully to webcomics).
Is it not possible for a company to make money off that deal? Of course it is. Aduz just won’t make as much as Zuda, and Zuda is interested in maximizing its return while paying out as little as possible while still attracting talent.
All that business stuff that gives you a headache? Zuda’s got people that eat it up, and they’ve precisely calculated the point that maximizes their return and minimizes their payout, and enshrined it in these contracts. If it’s your dream to work in comics and this looks like your best way in, if you can honestly look at everything described here and say you’d be happy to exist under these terms, then enter the contest and I hope you win and prove me wrong in every possible way.
But as written, the Zudadeal stands in opposition to the creator ownership that has been one of the core strengths of webcomics since Day One. Webcomics can do better, and so can you.