Thursday, August 11, 2011

Womanthology: Good Idea, Bad Execution?

[Disclosure: I am a financial backer of the Womanthology project, albeit a small one.]

I have to admit, the last thing I expected to see on the internet today was controversy about the Womanthology project. When it debuted on Kickstarter and met (and exceeded) its goal in one day, then went on to hit just a shade over $100,000 (or four times the original goal), I figured with the exception of a few folks, we could be happy in the knowledge that lots of people had come out to support the idea that women were valued as creators.

The truth, it appears, is a lot more complicated.

Womanthology had the good fortune of being timed just as DC was getting hit over the head for their lack of female creators. I think a lot of people--though I'm completely speculating here--contributed to send a message to Marvel and DC, namely that they should think about hiring more female creators. That appears to also be the impression of the folks at the Comics Beat, given their title for the news of the 24 hour funding. Though the husband of one of the creators of the project denies that this project was reactionary in tone in the comments of that same Comic Beat article, sometimes things are taken outside the control of those who start them.

All in all, it's hard to argue with the positives of a project with female creators getting a lot of love and support. The problem is that sometimes unintended success can have unintended consequences. While no one seemingly wondered where the original $25,000 was going to do, the bump up to six figures raised several questions.

I first became aware of this when someone re-tweeted comments by Warren Ellis, and soon others in my twitter feed began to start talking about the project, both pro and con. I'm not going to try to cover the same ground as Bleeding Cool and The Beat, so go ahead and read their summaries to catch up if you are so inclined. The short version is that there are some serious questions being raised, primarily in relation to paying the artists, whether or not it's kosher to use Kickstarter to possibly begin a venture that might make a profit, and how the whole donation to charity issue is going to settle out.

Naturally, folks are pretty divided on the issue. It's hard because while I obviously support the project, I do think some mistakes were made as things exploded in terms of success. Do I think that could have been helped? Honestly, I don't know. Here is a list of things that I think went wrong along the way. Keep in mind, I have no first hand knowledge and am only offering some conjecture for the sake of discussion and to offer my opinion.

  1. The fact that the creators were not getting paid should have been clearer. I don't think I am the only person who assumed the artists were getting paid. While I personally would have still contributed, I wonder how many might have thought twice had this been part of the Kickstarter text. It is not anywhere on the Kickstarter page that I can find, please correct me if I am wrong. The founder of the project, Renae De Liz, states in a follow-up blog post that this was clearly designed to be a volunteer project, but I think she could have saved herself a lot of grief by noting this better from the beginning.
  2. Once the project took on so much money, the policy of volunteer work should have been reconsidered. This is obviously between De Liz and the several score folks working on the project, but I think it would have made for a goodwill gesture that could have staved off quite a bit of the bad feelings going on right now. Just offering a comp copy seems like a weak response, though I think it was genuinely intended to be nice.
  3. Claiming to be surprised is a bit hard to swallow because of the "unlocked" rewards. Either folks got together on those in a hurry, or they were planned all along. This is definitely a bit troubling. If you had a feeling you might make it big, I think it's okay to admit it, especially since you had rewards planned accordingly. This goes hand in hand with...
  4. Talking about grand plans and imprints was a really, really bad idea. This is the one that seems to irk people, when combined with the non-payment of the creators involved. It's obvious that De Liz had grand ideas for what Womanthology could turn into, and while yes, they are all there on the website and updates, it does seem to fly in the face of the whole "profits go to charity" thing. One is giving money away, the other is starting yet another project, one that the original backers might not have wanted. The discussion of pairing with IDW or DC on trial runs of books seems like an ill-thought out idea. Why open yourself up to that when there are simpler solutions, like giving money to creators or just donating it along with the profits?
  5. Pairing with a publisher that's not doing anything but distribution doesn't make any sense. Seriously, what does Womanthology get out of this deal with IDW, other than distribution? I hope they looked around, but it kinda seems like they took the first "major" player they could find. Personally, this is the one that bothers me the most. IDW looks like they support women, but they risk nothing on the success or failure of this book and have a lot of goodwill to gain. Did De Liz talk to Top Shelf, Drawn and Quarterly, or hell, maybe Boom! about whether or not they'd take on a bit of the risk? Alex de Campi suggested Image, which worked on the Flight series for a bit. Seems like the anthology gets distributed but no other name-publisher perks.
  6. It seems like this was a good idea that maybe didn't have all the kinks worked out. I'm not inclined to think that any of this is a plan for De Liz to get rich via a Kickstarter campaign aimed to draw on the politics of gender in comics. Anyone saying that is stupid. What I do think is that this was a really good idea that maybe needed some fine-tuning before it became a final project. Could De Liz or anyone else figure out all the angles before beginning? Of course not. But there are definitely some miscues along the way, and now that the dust has settled, we're seeing them.
So what now?

Well, the interesting thing is that it may be somewhat academic. Depending on costs, it's entirely possible that the Womanthology project may not have much of a surplus at all. I do think De Liz is wrong in planning to use any overage to fund further projects, at least in the model she's planned. The money should either go to the named charity, go to paying the list of contributors, or, perhaps better yet, go to funding kickstarter comics projects by female creators. That would not only accomplish De Liz's stated goal (helping give exposure to new voices in the field), it would eliminate accusations that she's gaining anything out of the deal and also be given away in the same spirit in which it was given in the first place. How De Liz handles the extra funds will be the key to this project's legacy, I think, even beyond total sales figures.

I also think it's important to keep in mind that while it's okay to be upset that the creators are not getting paid, and to encourage them to do only paid work, this is not a bait and switch situation. At least one creator from the project has confirmed she knew it was pro bono, giving me no reason to suspect that anyone else thinks otherwise. While one can argue the payment vs exposure argument, and perhaps use this project as a later case study, to say it's wrong because it doesn't pay is not a valid knock on it to me, nor should it be used as leverage to force De Liz to pay the contributors.

Finally, De Liz has stated that she is doing everything possible to help these creators get other, paying gigs, using the work in Womanthology as a portfolio of sorts. I have no idea how that is going to work, or if it is working, but I think that's a quality thing for her to do, and if it helps any of the creators involved, then so much the better. I'm guessing it was part of her solicitation for contributors, and if it was good enough for them, we should really not be questioning it in this case. It's between them and De Liz, and this is not a case of trying to wriggle out of payment or use the art to make a profit, at least that I can tell.

That being said, I do think that artists should be paid when they work as a general rule, and I would encourage any creator to think hard about it before taking unpaid work. I don't get paid for blogging, and I put a lot of effort into Panel Patter. But I also don't have any money changing hands. If there's money involved, the writer-artist-letterer-whoever should, more often than not, get paid. Ultimately, though, it's up to them, and I think it's a bit odd that people are questioning why they opted to work for free. They must have a good reason, so why not trust that?

At the end of the day, I think Womanthology is a great idea, which is why I supported it. It is not, however, an idea without some flaws. This is definitely a case where the execution was a bit lacking. However, as long as De Liz keeps to the promises she's made so far and makes a good faith effort to use the $100,000 responsibly, I think we all still win in the end.

The world, however, is watching. 2,000 donors and 140 contributors deserve this to be done right. I'm going to give De Liz the benefit of the doubt here and say that she will until we are given evidence to the contrary. You should, too.

2 comments:

  1. A few things bother me about De Liz's response.

    1) The contributors were expected to buy a copy at list price ($50) up until recently. It was only after people spoke up that one comp copy was given. It's unfortunate she didn't come to this decision on her own.

    2) De Liz states on the website, "I have been trying hard to find other ways to show them how much they are appreciated." It's not that hard. Pay them. Though they agreed to work pro bono, I doubt they'd resent a little something. $50/pg rate for a 300 page anthology would cost them $15k. Cut that from the budget to print books, and you have $25k left. Currently their books cost $7.27 each to print. Assuming a lower print ups the cost to $9, that still enables them to print 2,700+ books. That's a good run. If that's a bad idea, rather than "IF there ends up being $20,000 left I'd like to... extend Womanthology's purpose," they could use any excess to pay the creators.

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  2. All good points. I feel so much really good conversation got drowned out in a lot of offensiveness and defensiveness. And I hope we can come back to it later and talk with more level heads, because I think there's a lot to be learned.

    I'm a contributor and I'm still donating to the project, because I don't think anything fishy was/is going on. But that is not to say I won't use what happened as a learning experience should I deal with something like Kickstarter, or another anthology, in the future.

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