Thursday, February 28, 2013

Freelancing in Publishing, or Why Royalties Don't Make Artists Rich

Why do freelance artists get all those wonderful royalties while other professionals get paid only a flat fee? After all, a plumber doesn't get a royalty for his contract work, and artist's who do freelance work are, like plumbers and construction workers, essentially independent contractors.

But artists for mass media aren't treated the same as other independent contractors because the product they're making hasn't been sold yet, and the people they're making it for don't make a profit until that product is sold. So many of us work for deferred payment. The payment we get initially is an advance. We don't get compensated for the complete value of our work until sales exceed the advance and we begin to accrue a royalty. And there are many many projects that don't sell past the artist's initial advance, or that sell in such small numbers that the royalty amounts to very little. Most of them in fact.

Imagine it this way: I pour the concrete for the foundation to a house and am given an advance that is well below the value of the work done. In exchange, you promise me a percentage of future rentals of the home. How much this will ultimately amount to is based on a number of factors that include fluctuations in the market, the potential that the house will go for long periods unrented, or worse, become abandoned.

 Some artists will sacrifice royalty for a work-for-hire arrangement. They get paid a flat fee for work completed, no royalties or reprint rights beyond the initial contract. The publisher may use their work in any way they wish. The publisher could sell a million copies of a work-for-hire project and the artist will never see a penny more than what they were initially paid. The advantage for the artist is that they do get a guaranteed amount, but it can be llower than what the work may be potentially worth to the publisher.
To extend the metaphor: the contractor doesn't get paid for the true cost of what laying a foundation is worth, but they take the job because it's what is available to them. In this way, artists as independent contractors do no receive anywhere near the equivalent of what other contractors get paid. The average freelance artist does not make the equivalent of what other professionals--like housing contractors--make for their professional work.

So one of the best scenarios for freelancers in the publishing field is the royalty system. Deferred payment. It's a risky way to work, but it's the best option for most of us. We depend on those future potential sales--and they are POTENTIAL sales--nothing guaranteed--to make a reasonable income. 

Yes there are rare occasions when  book is hugely successful and the artist or writer makes royalties that far exceed expectations. Or maybe they become known enough to receive a regular flow of royalties from books that have become steady sellers. Again, this is a small percentage of freelancers and authors, and most of them still aren't getting rich. We can't all be Dr. Seuss or Stephen King. Typical royalties are quite modest. 

But the integrity and quality of the work isn't the same as the success and popularity of the work. You can put the same effort into one project that doesn't receive the same reward as another. This is the same in most professional fields. The best work does not always result in the best pay. Unfortunately, in publishing, the discrepancy can be be much greater. A popular book can outsell a steady seller or modestly successful book by very big numbers. An unsuccessful book can fail at the publisher's expense. And there are far more unsuccessful books than successful ones. It's a risky, unpredictable business all around. 

 Successful publishers are successful for a reason: they know how to stay in that middle range, publish more steady sellers, or at least, more books that make back their initial investment than books that fail, and those rare big sellers help considerably to buoy the rest of their catalog. They base their choices on precedent, professional instinct, magic tricks and blind luck. There's no way to determine for sure just what it was that made that hugely successful book so popular in the first place. 

Getting published by a major publisher is no guarantee of success. You're still at the mercy of a mercurial market, but advances tend to be higher than smaller presses, and your chances are just a little better of getting future royalties. But don't expect a windfall. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Captain Marvel and Plastic Man, or DC Comics: What the Hell?

There was once a great series back in the 40s called Captain Marvel by Otto Binder and  C.C. Beck Whimsical, funny, and beautifully drawn, it featured characters like Tawny the talking tiger and Captain Marvel Junior. It was  a great series, never condescending to it's audience, great Children's lit.

Then DC Comics acquired the property. For legal reasons--somehow Marvel Comics had gotten the rights to the name--the character was called "Shazam" after the magic word that changed Billy Batson, mild mannered kid reporter, into a superhero. But even with its original artist C.C. Beck, it never quite regained its tone or quality. Not even Beck was satisfied with the scripts he had to illustrate.

Then about a year ago, this happened,

Shazam, Shizazzled

Another favorite character of mine is Plastic Man created by Jack Cole, a series that was genuinely fun and funny and entertaining. With his sidekick Woozie Winks, Plastic Man was a superhero who could stretch into any shape.

 He could disguise himself as anything from a table lamp to a car, but these disguises were always the same color as his costume, red with telltale yellow and black stripes.

DC acquired Plastic Man as well, and after years of sincere but misguided attempts to update the character by a variety of artists, around 2005, Kyle Baker finally got it right:

An all ages comic that was genuinely funny and captured the spirit of the original.

But more recently, this happened:

Rapey Plastic Man?

These updated versions are meant to appeal to a mostly male audience in their 20s and 30s who prefer their superheroes grim and gritty or, well, like this. This is either because of a complete lack of understanding or respect for what made the original comics great, or because they just don't get it, or don't want to get it. But I'm not telling them how to run their show. If this is what their audience wants, so be it.

But There Is Hope

The original comics still exist in pricy reprint editions, sometimes as much as 50 bucks or more, but these collections are directed at the adult collector's market. DC comics has entirely neglected the potential kid audience for these characters. They don't even have to produce new material. They just need to release the reprints at more reasonable prices and do that thing they've long forgotten how to do, market comic books to kids.

It's not as though kids aren't reading both contemporary and classic comics. Tintin, a popular Belgian character that began in 1929 (please try to forget the movie if you can) is still popular in the U.S. and all over the world, read in his original form by the great artist Herge. Great comics like Tintin, Captain Marvel and Plastic Man hold up surprisingly well. They're both good comics and good children's lit. And frankly DC, your contemporary versions of Captain Marvel and Plastic Man are not only poorly conceived, but just plain weird.

So DC, could you please do us a favor and give us reprints that we can afford and put them on the graphic novel shelf next to Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Tintin? I think there's a very receptive new kid audience out there just waiting to discover these great comics if they only knew they existed.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Why Tracking in Contemporary Children's Lit Makes it Harder For Good Books to See Print

Recently I wrote what I'm confident is a good book. When my agent submitted it I got the most glowing rejections I've ever received. It's not over yet, I'm still waiting to hear from a number of publishers, but it's a frustrating situation made all the more frustrating because of the praise its been receiving.

The principal reason the book was rejected? It didn't fit within their catalog. Too long for an early reader book, too short for a middle grade, they didn't know where to place it. Despite the fact that the format, vocabulary and length is no different than the perennially popular Beatrix Potter books that inspired it, they didn't know what to do with it.

I don't mean to sound bitter. It's not the editor's fault. This is the reality of the marketplace. It's how they sell books, and it's worked well for them. Adults use this system to find age appropriate books for their kids. And in the end, publishers need to sell books that parents want to buy.

These terms, "early reader" and "middle grade" are not arbitrary. They relate specifically to something called The Flesch-Kincade Reading Level Scale. It was a system first developed in 1975 to determine the readability of military technical manuals. The scale rates readability by grade level. It's been used in education for decades, and more recently, in marketing books for young readers. There's even a setting on Microsoft Word for determining a Flesch-Kincade score. It can be a great tool to determine the clarity of your writing if you're communicating to a specific audience.

Dr Seuss and Dick and Jane

Before Flesch-Kincade, Dr. Seuss created a book especially for beginning readers as a response to an article written by John Hersey in Life Magazine in criticism of beginning reader primers like Dick and Jane, a series of books that were notoriously bland. The Cat in the Hat used a vocabulary that involved the same repetition and single syllable words that the Dick and Jane books employed, but was anything but bland. The Cat in the Hat was released in 1957 and was an overwhelming success. It spawned not only a sequel but an entire series of beginning reader books from Random House by different authors overseen by Seuss. It was a groundbreaking idea.

The great P.D. Eastman did a number of them. Here's my favorite non-Seuss beginning reader, Go, Dog, Go!:

At the same time, Harper and Row introduced their I Can Read series with books like Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad are Friends and Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak's Little Bear series. These books were longer, had chapters and had vocabulary that was a little more sophisticated. They were what would now be referred to as early reader chapter books, books designed for young children to read by themselves without an adult.

Both series resulted in a generation of enthusiastic readers.

Tracked Books

More recently publishers have created whole lines with the intention of further honing in on the developmental advantages of books tracked by age group and reading level. Some of them are great books. Some of them aren't. But in all of them, the word count and vocabulary are dictated by a strict set of guidelines established by Flesch-Kincade.

Here are a couple of examples:

There's a good deal of pressure in education to have kids advance from picture books to chapter books as soon as possible. Even older books like Frog and Toad have been given a developmental category.

So this:

Becomes this:

Over the years, many classic books have been abridged or altered or given new formats or new illustrations to appeal to younger readers. Beatrix Potter is no exception. Now even her books are subjected to this method of tracking. So this:

Becomes this:

Altering the text of a classic book like The Tale of Peter Rabbit to fit into a given track category not only compromises the quality of the original prose and the experience of the book as it was meant to be read, it's pointlessly doctrinaire. Since the original text is written in very simple prose the abridgment  for track purposes is about as hairsplitting as it gets. Up to a certain point, these kinds of changes don't amount to anything useful even for educational purposes.

A testament to the fact that quality lit can exist in this system is that the classic Frog and Toad Are Friends fits into this structure without abridgment. I'm sure there are many well written and illustrated contemporary originals that fit well within this track system. I'm not saying that the track system prevents any good books from being published, but it can, in many ways, tie an author's hands. Authors are forced to contrive their stories to fit within these standards if they want their books to see print.

This tracking method and vocabulary standard has permeated the entire industry. In children's lit, the Flesch-Kincade standard reigns all the way up to middle grade books like Amelia Bedelia and beyond, though less so the further you move up the food chain. Young adult books are immune, but there are still vocabulary lists on the lower end of the middle grade spectrum.

Tracking Doesn't Work

The principal flaw in the track system is that vocabulary and sentence length do not dictate quality or depth. You can fill a book with compound sentences and advanced vocabulary but this does not guarantee that the book will be more intellectually complex than a book with a simpler vocabulary and sentence structure. The focus is on reading level alone. To some degree  this makes sense, since you can't objectively measure the quality or complexity of story, but you can't make kids better readers by advancing them from one reading level to the next in the same way you would advance them from multiplication tables to fractions. Literature just doesn't work that way. If kids are discouraged from choosing books that are considered to be at a lower reading level than their tracked reading level they could potentially miss out on a lot of great books. 

But this is now the contemporary thinking. Now kids aren't only discouraged but shamed for wanting to read books that don't have the right number on them. If the number isn't high enough, it makes them feel as though they're not achieving. But just because your kindergartener has the vocabulary and reading comprehension of a third grader does not mean you should discourage them from reading great picture books. 

 The best way for kids to become great readers is to allow them to choose their own books based on what interests them. The number of compound sentences or multi-syllabilic words has nothing to do with what makes a book great. Great literature, whether intended for children or adults, will always remain great literature.