A pilot’s life

Well, Tokyopop introduced their Manga Pilot program this week, and the internet lost no time in opening up a can of whoopass on it. First blood goes to Lea Hernandez, who points to a major problem with the contract: It requires creators to sign away their droit moral, the crazy notion that creators can retain control of their works. Lea has been critical of Tokyopop’s global manga contracts in the past, but Tokyopop really left themselves open to this by not only posting their contract online but also attempting to put it in user-friendly language, while retaining several blatantly user-unfriendly clauses. At his LJ, Bryan Lee O’Malley picks up the cudgels and pretty much finishes this contract off. At Comics Worth Reading, Johanna Draper Carlson wonders if she’ll even bother with Tokyopop books from now on. Also weighing in: Christopher Butcher, Niki Smith (who was considering sending in a story and has reconsidered), Gia Manry, Jen Wang, and Hope Larson.

All these people are looking at it as comics creators. I used to be a book editor before I became a freelance writer, so my perspective is a bit different.

To me, Lea nailed it—signing away the droit moral is bad. When you read about people having long-term snarling matches with their publishers, it’s usually about that sort of thing.

Also, one of the big points people are making about the contract is that it allows Tokyopop to use the manga without giving credit to the creators. O’Malley:

I’ve seen this. Tokyopop ads that don’t specify creators. You know, all their comics come from the same hive mind. All their creators are replaceable cogs in a giant machine.

Here’s exhibit one: The Manga Pilots themselves, in which the creators aren’t listed on the catalog page. They are on the title page of each manga, yes, but you don’t see that until you open up the manga viewer. Now, this is dumb on Tokyopop’s part because some of these people are published creators who have fans, like George Alexopoulos and Dany&Dany (whose name is on the catalog page, but only as part of the cover image, so it’s not Google-able). There’s not much to grab the casual viewer.

However, some of the points O’Malley picks up on don’t seem unreasonable to me. The clause stating that Tokyopop will pay the creator once the story is approved, for instance, is pretty standard for freelance writers, and everyone else, for that matter. I’m thinking of getting a new floor and countertops for my kitchen; should I pay the contractor before he does the work to my satisfaction? I think not. Yes, the creator will have to go back and forth with the editor over stuff. Usually it’s not that big a deal. Sometimes things don’t work out and the work isn’t approved. It’s a risk. But Tokyopop didn’t invent that “pay on approval” thing; it’s in freelance contracts all over the world.

O’Malley also disapproves of turning over adaptation rights to Tokyopop. That bugged me at first, but then I read the entire contract and realized that they do in fact plan to pay royalties for things like T-shirts.
Here’s what O’Malley didn’t like:

You give us the right to reformat, adapt, and modify the Manga Pilot for iManga, our motion graphics video format, as well as for other ways that we may change it in order to display, print, and exhibit it.

This could include, for example, breaking apart or resizing panels for display on a mobile phone screen, retoning panels to fix those nasty moiré patterns, adding colors, transforming the Manga Pilot into an iManga with a soundtrack, and more.

But further down, there’s this:

Finally, you give us and us alone the right to negotiate with you during the Exclusive Period for the rights listed below. Remember, by signing this pact, you’re not actually giving us these rights. You’re just agreeing to discuss giving them to us later if we choose to make you an offer for them. By “exclusive”, we mean that if you agree to our offer, we and we alone will have all the rights listed above.

The exclusive rights to create and exploit—including the rights to give others (including all our related companies) rights to create and exploit—other works based on the Project (like movies, TV series, videogames, and T-shirts), for which we would pay you customary royalties and give you a portion of income from third party licenses

The exclusive right to manage all ancillary rights in the Project (these includes things like foreign language versions, spin-offs, and sequels), for which we would pay you customary royalties and give you a portion of income from third party licenses

So, having watched Tokyopop for a while, and having talked at length with their director of project development at NYAF last December, here’s what I think: They want the unfettered right to chop up the manga into bits and reformat it for cell phone presentation and to make those little films on their website. I seriously doubt they are making any money off this; if they are, it’s not a lot. That’s not to say that can’t change, if, say, cell phone manga catches on, but most of these things are marketing tools. Again, that’s a clause I’d try to renegotiate if the project goes to the next level, but at this moment in the industry, it wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for me.

Look at it this way: Many writers complain that publishers do little to market their books. What Tokyopop is doing with these things is basically making ads at their expense.

The issues with the Tokyopop contract are ownership and control. The creator shares ownership of the copyright with Tokyopop, which I believe was standard in their earlier global manga contracts as well. This is not good for the creator, but it should be weighed against the alternatives. Someone who has been working for hire for a while may be willing to share copyright rather than give it away altogether, especialy because a Tokyopop deal does offer the possibility of wider exposure. On the other hand, as Ross Campbell discovered, it can be problematic if you want to reuse a character you created for a Tokyopop series in another book.

O’Malley is pretty emphatic that this is a terrible deal for creators, and he urges people to look elsewhere. That’s fine if you’re Bryan Lee O’Malley and the world is beating a path to your door. I think that a creator who is considering doing a pilot needs to make a very cold-blooded calculation: You are trading creative control for exposure. I suspect the typical pilot creator will be someone who has been doing comics for a while and is trying to move up to the next level, and this is one way to accomplish that.

That’s a strategy that has worked for a couple of Tokyopop’s freshman class: Svetlana Chmakova, Queenie Chan, and Amy Hadley have all gotten a major career boost from their Tokyopop manga. It hasn’t worked as well for other creators.

The bottom line is this: I agree with Lea that signing away moral rights is serious business. However, I can see how someone who is already making comics professionally could create a property specifically for Tokyopop and stay detached enough that they would be willing to allow that exploitation in exchange for the exposure it would bring. It’s a tightrope that some creators are walking already (under a different set of agreements) for Zuda. Lea, Bryan, and the other commentators have done creators a considerable service by pointing out the flaws in the contract; now it’s up to the creators to decide whether they can live with a deal like that or not.


1 thought on “A pilot’s life

  1. I could write a bit rant about how I think this whole contoversy is stupid and people need to take a big cleansing breathe, but I’ll just give a little advice instead.

    If you’re worried about a certain creations of yours getting screwed over by the publisher, don’t publish that one. Instead put together something else. Take a chance to step away from your baby and push yourself to do something new. Also make sure you don’t get too attached. Pretend you’re one of those 4H kids raising a calf. All the while you’re hand feeding it with a bottle remember that some one is going to cut it up and eat it, but you’ll have a new ten-speed.

    Now send you’re new creation that you aren’t as attached to to the publishers, let it build up your name. If you’re good enough to deserve attention, it’ll come. Once you’re established you can get a better contract with what you really care about.

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