When it comes to the publishing industry, my background is largely in fiction prose. I’ve spent years reading and researching fiction publishing contracts, learning what the terms mean and what the red flags are. I’ve seen all sorts of rights and royalties fuckery attempts from the incompetent and the outright scammy, sometimes with tragic, “Here’s an example of why you don’t sign that,” results. In fiction, anyone, from the micropress (here’s an example) to the Big 5 (here’s an example; I think the comics folk will appreciate that the bad guy in this is named Hydra) can screw a creator over, wittingly or no.
So when I shift over into comics industry talk… it’s not that I’m surprised that there’s chicanery going on. What does get me miffed is that so much of the same nonsense that will get your ass called to the carpet in fiction publishing is tolerated or even held as industry standard in comics. In a world where self-publishing is a viable option, let’s stop tolerating corporations grabbing everything they can get their hammy fists on.
Which leads us to Tapas. I’d heard of them before, namely during their last blowup where they tried to weasel in a right of first refusal into their TOS, as reported by Bleeding Cool in 2017. In May, they revealed the return of their Incubator program, a sort of internship for comic creators (writer/artists or just artists) which got called out by Melanie Gillman on Twitter:
Hey, we all know to avoid Tapas (the webcomic platform, not the delicious finger foods) by now, right?
They’re going after young creators again with a new “incubator program”, so just as an FYI, let’s examine some information from their call for submissions.
— Melanie Gill Man (@melgillman) May 25, 2018
IMNSHO, this callout is completely deserved and I wish comics would call out more of their shitty contracts. Melanie’s thread points out several red flags, complete with screenshots, that I was able to source from their official FAQ.
Tapas, how do you screw me? Let me count the ways:
In my experience with contracts and the wider world of job interviews, if someone is not willing to give you even a range of pay, the answer is very likely “not nearly enough.” This would be fine if this was a side hustle or hobby someone is looking to get a few extra bucks out of. It is not so fine for a several-month job that states it will require a significant amount of time to complete.
(That they offer no benefits like health insurance doesn’t surprise me. Many comic corps hire their creators as freelancers — it’s shitty, but at least it’s an expected kind of shitty.)
Do not do this. Do not give your copyright up to any corp that asks for it. This is your work, your characters and world, your idea. Tapas’s “joint ownership” is a complete fucking bullshit overreach from someone that wants to take your hard work and farm it out to others for as little as possible. Whatever they are paying you, I 100% guarantee it is not enough.
“But Auntie Tia,” I hear you say, “I’m getting something out of it!” Okay, and what is that? “Well… they don’t say exactly what they’re doing, but they’re doing a lot!” Y’all, if I had an IP for every time I heard a press say, “we put LOTS of time and effort and money into your work but won’t specify exactly how!” I could start my own damn IP farm. “We’re putting our marketing team at your disposal!” is empty rhetoric that promises nothing (and will likely produce nothing). This is the exact hook and line vanity presses use to justify fleecing would-be fiction authors out of literal thousands of dollars. There is no relying solely on goodwill and trust when there’s contracts and business involved. Bring your receipts, Tapas, or sit back down.
A current Tapas author, Ratique, mentions that in exchange for joint ownership, Tapas is acting as an IP manager: trying to get Tapas webcomics as TV series, movies, etc. I have two problems with this: 1. A good agent can do this for you, without taking joint ownership, and 2. Tapas has no history of successfully getting any of their properties licensed to studios, etc., let alone made into TV series and whatnot. She also mentions that the joint copyright claim ends after a set amount of time, which is much more positive than I initially thought, because that means even if Tapas were to vanish off the face of the earth tomorrow, you’d still get your rights back eventually. But I’m still not seeing anything worth justifying a partial claim on a creator’s IP.
Now, speaking of not bringing their receipts…
First off, their reasoning of the “confidential nature” of their contract is complete horseshit — the only thing that would be worthy of being confidential on a contract would be the specifics to each deal, which wouldn’t be on, you know, a sample contract. So why not release a boilerplate contract, especially as it sounds like there’s not going to be any negotiating (I’ll come back to that in a bit)? There’s no good reason, but there’s one bad one: they don’t want people that know anything about contracts to go, “hey, this is a bad idea” and, I dunno, write up an article about how terrible it is on a comics criticism website or something. This also shows in the fact that they are giving you an unspecified (but less than a month, as Gillman points out) amount of time to sign the contract and get started. Just like the “act now, act NOW!” ads on TV, they’re trying to rush you into a decision.
Y’all, as someone who isn’t published but very much would like to be, I know how it feels to finally be on the edge of being published. They like you! They want you! All of your dreams are about to come true! Just got to get this pesky business out of the way! But breezing through this part could have some very bad consequences: you could lose the publishing rights to your work (here’s an example) with no recourse to ever get it back. Think about that series you’ve been cooking up — is it really worth losing any chance of publishing in the future for this one deal? Please, don’t let your dream become a nightmare.
Tapas makes a point of telling you on several pages that if you don’t like the deal they’ve laid out in vague and unflattering terms, you can leave.
“I don’t like this, I don’t like that: We understand that this program might not be a good fit for everyone. If there is an aspect of the program that doesn’t sit well with you, you don’t have to apply.”
– Tapas Team
This seems to indicate at least an unwillingness to negotiate, if not an outright “nope.” Creators: when presses refuse to negotiate, that is to your disadvantage. A contract written by a company is going to be on their most favorable terms — why should they give up anything? — so it’s up to you to be your own advocate.
Note: As of 5/31, Tapas has edited the title of this FAQ to say “I still have concerns…” instead of “I don’t like this, I don’t like that,” and has invited people to give feedback via email, which is an improvement. But, while the tone is better, their FAQs still fail to provide concrete data or fix the very real problems this has.
But… Surely it’s Not All Bad, Right?
Contracts and FAQs like these are usually a solid indicator of how presses treat their creators, but hearing from current creators like Ratique is also highly valuable. There are some things mentioned that definitely give me pause — I am very leery of profit-sharing contracts. According to Ratique, Tapas defines profit as the gross proceeds less the take from a third party vendor (e.g., Amazon), which is standard (the good kind of standard, not the shitty kind). And the fact that Ratique has a good relationship with her editor and is paid on time are two big positives to me.
I don’t think Tapas is a scam — they’re not out primarily to bilk people. That said, I think they are testing the fences, much like Random House did with Hydra, and much like they did in 2017 with their right of first refusal, to see how much they can get away with. If creators in bulk stand up and say, “no, this is donkey shit and we’re not doing this,” it’s my hope that Tapas will weigh their scales and make changes that don’t have the potential to hurt creators so badly. Their recent edits indicate they might be listening. So protect yourself, and keep your fences electrified, loves.