The Dollars And Sense Of ‘Womanthology’
Womanthology is a forthcoming 300-page hardcover anthology featuring comics created exclusively by female writers, artists and editors. Organized by artist Renae De Liz (IDW's The Last Unicorn, Anne Rice's Servant of Bones), the book's purpose is to "show support for female creators in comics and media" and showcase "what women in comics have accomplished, and what [they] are capable of." To that end, the book places side-by-side popular women creators like Gail Simone, Camilla d'Errico and Fiona Staples with newcomers and unknowns, some amateur and some professional, all of whom contribute and in many cases collaborate on original, creator-owned comics.
Womanthology will be distributed by IDW Publishing but its production and printing is funded entirely by donations made via Kickstarter, the popular fundraising website often used to facilitate comic book projects including Tony Harris' Roundeye for Love. The project exceeded its goals by more than $75,000 -- taking in an astonishing $109,000 in all -- which galvanized proponents of creator-owned comics and female creators. The impressive fundraising total also inspired some consternation around the Web about fiscal propriety: where is the excess fundraising money going? How will be accounted for? Are Womanthology creators being paid for their contributions, and if not, why?
In this comprehensive piece, ComicsAlliance spoke with the extremely forthcoming Renae De Liz, among others including critics, about the dollars and sense of Womanthology, charity, the value of "exposure," and the theme of women in comics.
To follow the story of Womanthology, it's important to understand the way individuals use Kickstarter to raise money. Kickstarter's system is such that even after a fundraising goal is met, the project leader cannot simply "turn it off." The month-long clock must run out before fundraising is closed, which is why Womanthology was able to earn so much more than its original goal had been met and continue to offer even greater rewards for larger donations, including script reviews by Gail Simone and portfolio reviews by Jim Lee. It is also not a matter of Kickstarter policy (nor law, as CA determined in consultation with an attorney) how a project leader wishes to use excess funds. A project leader can channel that money into another project, donate it to charity or simply pocket it as profit.
Featuring contributions from Ann Nocenti, Barbara Kesel, Devin Grayson, Lauren Montgomery and more, Womanthology comes at a time when the advancement of female professionals is a critical subject within the comics industry. Initially Womanthology's fundraising goal was $25,000, which was to pay for the printing of 1,500 copies as well as the production and shipping costs associated with the various "rewards" offered to Kickstarter backers who pledge especially large amounts (bonus sketchbooks, art supplies, signed copies of the book, etc). With public support and backer rewards from popular creators like Neil Gaiman, Kevin Smith, Steve Niles and more, Womanthology raised more than $100,000 to become the most funded comic book project in Kickstarter history, and the website's 25th most funded project overall.
Public scrutiny of Womanthology's finances was minimal until last week, when some observers (notably, Warren Ellis, Kurt Busiek, DC editor Janelle Asselin, Stuart Immonen and others) began wondering aloud on Twitter and elsewhere where that $100 thousand raised was going, with some asking specifically whether any of it would find its way into the wallets of Womanthology's 140 women creators. Some people, including Ellis and Alex de Campi, the Eisner-nominated writer of IDW's Smoke and the director of music videos for comics-related musicians Amanda Palmer and Art Brut, indicated they were at first unaware of the project's charitable component, and seemed to assume the worst. Shortly after Ellis raised the question, author Jess Nevins characterized Womanthology as "a scam" over similar concerns. The oversight is excusable, as charity is not mentioned anywhere on the Womanthology Kickstarter page, although it is discussed three minutes into the project's video presentation and on the off-site Womanthology blog.
In July Womanthology exceeded its first and secondary fundraising goals, more than $50,000, which De Liz had stated would pay for the production of 5,500 books -- but no more. In the meantime, donations continued to come in, money that De Liz stated on the Womanthology site and elsewhere would go towards unspecified future endeavors such as a second book or even a publishing imprint (whose profit or not-for-profit status was until recently unclear -- it would be not-for-profit).
Asked in July why some of the money people donated to Womanthology would not actually go to Womanthology, De Liz wrote via email that she felt it necessary for practical and sentimental reasons to cap the number of books printed to just 5,500. "Basically I wanted to really reach around 5,500 copies because I felt that was a good number to stop," De Liz told CA. "It's not too many that it would crowd bookstores, still an accessible number, but it would keep it as a special book because of it's limited number. If we sold out of that run over time, it could mean at least $50,000 for our charities that we choose through Global Giving.
"There are so very many more people that wanted onto this book, not to mention so many men that would appreciate opportunities like Womanthology has to offer. So I decided that once we met my idea of a maximum run amount, I'd try to fund another book so more people could have the same experience. Again, going through Global Giving with the profits for that one too."
De Liz added that she was forthcoming about her intentions should Womanthology exceed its initial goals. "I have my plans listed in the description since the beginning, I've sent out an update to all our backers and for all potential backers to see, and the video mentions that I have further plans if we exceed our goal and where to go to find out what," De Liz told CA. "Beyond that I'm not sure what else I could do to let people know. But as I have said nothing is set into stone what to do with the excess funds, I would like to do another book, so that looks the most likely."
To further satisfy demands for accounting, De Liz posted to the official Womanthology blog the following cost estimations.
$109,000 Kickstarter Final
$6,000 Kickstarter "errors" such as bad card numbers, faulty pledges
$9,000 Fees (Kickstarter is %5, Amazon takes another %3 - %5)
$40,000 Printing for around 5,5000 Womanthology books (may change)
$20,000 Postage for 2,000 books (overest.of labor, postage is at least $5 a book/ may change)
$3,000 Printing/postage of 1000 Sketchbooks
$2,000 Postage of other rewards
$20,000 Taxes, for me, a self employed person, overestimate, may change
If the figures are reasonably accurate, it would seem that concerns about future books or publishing imprints might be moot, since just less than $10,000 will remain after the above costs are paid. But several items on De Liz's breakdown raised additional questions amongst some Womanthology critics as well as some supporters, questions we put to De Liz and other experts.
To verify the seemingly high $6,000 figure budgeted for Kickstarter "errors," ComicsAlliance spoke with artist Molly Crabapple, who's made prodigious use of Kickstarter in funding her various endeavors and has appeared on CNN talking about the platform. She told us that "faulty pledges" and the like are indeed a hazard of the Kickstarter platform. "Honestly, there are a ton of people who give wrong credit card info/have their cards cancelled/don't have money in their bank account before it's over," Crabapple told CA. "The amount of this obviously varies from campaign to campaign, but it does happen, is significant, and was around a thousand or two for me, I think." Crabapple's "Week in Hell" project raised more than $25,000.
The $20,000 designated for the shipping of 2,000 books applies to Kickstarter backers whose pledges entitled them to their own copies of Womanthology, some of which may be personalized in some way (i.e. signatures, sketches, etc.). An estimation of labor costs has been factored into this figure.
The majority of funds, $40,000, has been earmarked to pay for the printing of 5,500 copies of Womanthology to be distributed to and sold in comics shops, bookstores and elsewhere. For many this has raised the question, if the printing is crowd-funded, then what exactly is IDW doing as "publisher?" In an email to ComicsAlliance in July, De Liz explained that for the purposes of Womanthology, there is a distinction between publishing and printing, and that IDW's role in the project is mainly superficial.
"IDW is publishing it by putting their name on it," De Liz wrote in an email. "Printing is just part of publishing it. The biggest reason I approached IDW to publish it is I wanted the women on the book (who haven't had the chance yet) to have the chance to be published by a big publisher. Also IDW wanted to help support women in comics in general, and by doing this it lends so much credibility and distribution range to the book."
The deal with IDW has been criticized by some comics industry professionals. Jill Beaton, an editor at Oni Press, wrote on Twitter that paying $40,000 for the printing of 5,000 books was "ridiculous." Additionally, Alex de Campi questioned the publisher's lack of hands-on involvement, citing more equitable arrangements that similarly ambitious anthologies have enjoyed at other companies: Image Comics fronted printing costs for books like Tori Amos' Comic Book Tattoo and Flight, recouping its expenses and paying creator royalties from the sales; and Dark Horse pays contributors a page rate for their work on its anthologies, including the Diana Schutz-edited Sexy Chix, which also spotlighted female creators.
Along similar lines, Dan Nadel, the publisher of Kramer's Ergot, a series of high quality anthologies whose last edition was a 16" by 21" hardcover that cost $125, wrote on The Comics Journal blog that Womanthology is "the most expensive anthology I've ever heard of."
Even the numbers as presented make no sense, since a good accountant would wipe out the income and the shipping (after the comp copies) should be paid for by the customer. A little perspective: I could print 2 Kramers Ergots and 2 Odd Future books for this amount of dough and pay all the contributors a decent page rate. Put another way, I could publish 25 issues of Cold Heat and give Frank Santoro a pro page rate. Or another way, I could buy the rights to certain 1960s characters and employ half of Providence to draw them.
In contrast, De Liz is paying for Womanthology's printing with Kickstarter funds while IDW distributes and presumably markets the book itself, incurring the various costs associated with those tasks. IDW is not paying a page rate or royalties, and all revenue from its sales of Womanthology will go to charity. As such, and according to the Kickstarter video presentation, responsibility for printing costs fell to De Liz and company.
A representative from IDW did not respond to inquiries from ComicsAlliance.
It is against Kickstarter's terms of service to directly raise money for charity, which probably accounts for the lack of any mention of charity on the Womanthology fundraising page (except for in the video). Nevertheless, charity is a major component of the whole endeavor, and contributors were recruited on the basis that all sales profits would be donated to worthy causes via Global Giving, a kind of Kickstarter for charities. The specific charities are to be determined at a later date. Despite last week's confusion over this aspect of the project, donating Womanthology's profits to charity was always the plan, as made plain in the video presentation, blog, and much of the project's coverage in the media. Comics blogger Jill Pantozzi, who will be writing her first published comic for Womanthology, Tweeted last week that the book "was billed as a charity project from the get-go. All contributors knew that. That's part of the reason I did it."
But artist Laurenn McCubbin (Madame Xanadu, Rent Girls), who's used Kickstarter to fund her projects as a fine arts graduate student, questioned why charity plays a role in what's ostensibly a book designed to advance female creators' professional ambitions. In a blog post dedicated to Womanthology, McCubbin wrote, "The money is 'for charity.' But also, it's for 'Women in Comics.' But the charity that was belatedly chosen, Global Giving, has nothing to do with furthering the cause of women making comics."
De Liz told ComicsAlliance that while the "theme" of Womanthology is "women in comics," the project's "purpose" is "to help people." She wrote via email last week, "I was trying to find opportunity to help others on every level of this project. Charity was the best place to put those profits because it helps people with the most need. The theme is 'women in comics' but the overall goal of what we're trying to do is give a hand up to people where it's needed. All of us picked Global Giving right at the beginning because we could not decide on just one charity, and with GG it was a way to get money to many different causes as possible. Once pre-orders are in, we'll all choose together which charity will be the first to give to, then we'll move on to another, and hopefully another, depending on sales, as the charities goal amounts are met.
"Choosing charities and tracking profits will be a neat little community event all on its own. We can't choose which ones right now as on GG charities' needs change daily. So once profits are available, they are sent directly from IDW to GG, and all we do is choose who benefits. Maybe we'll choose a women's charity, maybe a comics one, maybe a kids one, maybe animals, who knows. But whatever we choose it'll be helping people who really need it, which is what our project is truly about."
Because Global Giving is not itself a charity and actually takes a 15% commission from all transactions made with its platform, de Campi and others have characterized De Liz's intent to use it as a waste of money, as opposed to donating profits to a single, traditionally established charity.
De Campi, a former investment banker and a chartered financial analyst, was also taken aback by the portion of De Liz's cost breakdown that estimated $20,000 in income tax liability, an amount that de Campi told CA could be easily divided among Womanthology contributors or used towards other expenses associated with the project, rather than declaring any of it as profit and paying some portion to the government. De Campi has been engaged in a public debate with De Liz and her husband Ray Dillon on the subject of taxes, and believes De Liz should hire an accountant to establish Womanthology as charitable entity via the standard IRS form 501c3. De Campi told CA the potential advantages of doing so could include discounted printing costs, special arrangements with Diamond Comic Distributors and digital distributors, and, of course, not having to declare any income from the project and thus negating any tax liability. Additionally, the move may even provide an average page rate for each Womanthology contributor (depending upon many assumed factors, such as average workload).
During our discussion, de Campi quickly outlined an alternate financial plan for Womanthology, which she told us was also submitted to De Liz last week. A portion is as follows:
Register as a 501c3 charitable organization, for promotion of the arts, and make this retroactive to the commencement of Womanthology. This costs $850 to file with the IRS, plus say about $150 in other business set-up costs such as Renae [De Liz] setting up a business bank account for this so it all doesn't wash through her personal account.
Direct financial benefits are:
Removal of the estimated $20,000 tax liability. Net of the circa $1,000 filing fee and associated costs, this savings of $19,000/140 contributors = $135.70/contributor. That's an indie-pro rate for 1 page.
Other savings throughout the cost structure of the business. Nonprofits receive discounted/charity postage rates and can potentially negotiate greater savings with printers AND with Diamond [Comics Distributor]. So let's say their print cost goes down to $7/book and postage cost down to $4/book, a $1 savings on each. That's $10,000. Great! Another $71 to each contributor.
ComicsAlliance asked De Liz about her income tax liability for Womanthology and why she doesn't intend to take steps to avoid paying fundraiser money to the government. "I am not a company or a non-profit, I am just a person with a project, so yes I have to pay taxes on this if by the end of the year (as it's already getting close to that). There are funds that haven't been used yet," De Liz told CA via email. "I am also a mom of two with a full-time comic penciling job, and a company or non-profit is something I do not have time to care for, and could not find anyone to take care of for me. Which is unfortunate as taxes wouldn't have to be paid and could just go to help more people."
De Liz added, "As for the [$20,000 tax liability] figure, everything listed is only an estimate, and I overestimate to be safe as for a self-employed person (like me) it's something like 15% as well as state taxes on top of that. As I do not know all final figures for everything by the end of the year, I estimate the highest possible until I do. I even said in the recent blog post that numbers would assuredly going down because they are business costs, but until I'm further in this process, I'm playing it safe and estimating high. If it's not that much; great, we'll all find good use for the funds! But people are demanding answers for things I don't know yet."
Since we spoke with De Liz for this article, ComicsAlliance has learned that a qualified individual has offered her free assistance with with the 501c3.
Asked directly whether she was planning on paying herself with any of the Womanthology funds, De Liz answered, "No. I've done three months of nonstop work and am looking at another few months of hard work. But I'll do it gladly because I've seen the good that has come from this. There are potential careers blossoming that weren't there before, we're helping some ladies through confidence issues and showing them how amazing they are, and teaching them the basics of making comics and helping them make connections so they can go further after, just to name a few of many things. I like to see people happy, that is my payment, for me that's enough to do this."
The themes of charity, compensation and opportunity reappear throughout the discussion of Womanthology not only because of the enormous amount of money that's been raised, but also because there is a broader debate taking place about payment for creative services across all media, with specific emphasis on the notion of being paid with "exposure" instead of with money. In the case of Womanthology, contributors have told ComicsAlliance that even a complimentary copy of the book itself was not a guarantee, although that reward has since been secured thanks to the wildly successful fundraising.
Just before Kickstarter pledges for Womanthology exceeded $100 thousand, De Liz updated the project page to propose the creation of Chance, a comics imprint whereby she would finance creator-owned works (including the printing) and release them through a major publisher. Pending sales results, that publisher would have the option of absorbing the Chance book into its own line. The label was to be funded with Womanthology's Kickstarter funds if pledges had greatly exceeded $100,000 - $200,000.
Basically I'll be working with publishers to create a CHANCE label. For instance if IDW were interested, the label would be "IDWchance" or if DC were interested it'd be "DCchance". These are books that we and the companies hand-pick, I pay for creation and printing, they are printed under that label, and upon seeing the sales of that issue the publisher can either then pick it up from there, or if not then the creative teams at least have an AWESOME book by a big publisher to help further their careers from there! Profits from that one issue would go back into the process to hopefully continue doing this for as long as possible.
Chance would have been another highly ambitious and altruistic project by which creators would not directly profit from their work, fueling additional discussion of the finances of Womanthology and the philosophy behind it. In full disclosure, this writer has gone on the record about the money vs. exposure debate before, and in the resoundingly negative. Cartoonist Megan Rose Gedris (I Was Kidnapped by Lesbian Pirates from Outer Space!!!) wrote a number of blog posts on the subject with reference to Womanthology, and Laurenn McCubbin wrote on her blog, "Don't you think that showing that women can make money being in comics is a better show of strength than just being yet another charity because we can't do it on our own?"
While De Liz's cost breakdown is composed only of broad estimates, it's obvious there will be some amount of Kickstarter money left over, especially if De Liz is able to avoid paying any of it to the government along the lines de Campi suggested. As such, the natural question for many has been, why not divide the excess, whatever it may truly be in the end, among the more than one-hundred contributors?
"From the very beginning we knew that we were all in it for no financial gain, not even me, who has given months of nonstop work, or the editors and organizers doing crazy amounts of work to put this all together," De Liz told CA via email. "We only wanted to help and support each other, create something cool that benefits charity, and maybe make a difference.
"If there is extra money from Kickstarter, I feel instead of taking the opportunity to fill our pockets, which is not at all what we're about (the excess split up amongst so many would likely be a small amount as well), we'd much rather use this chance to give opportunities to even more comic creatives. Certainly, I'd give millions of dollars to each lady on this book as I feel that's what each deserves, but money and getting paid is not what this project is about. It is about giving chances, inspiring others, and helping people. There are a ton of opportunities for these ladies that have come from this success that I'm trying to further set up for them, and I hope that a lot of them can walk away from this with a real chance at a long term career, which is much more valuable than a meager amount of cash right now."
Meredith Gran of Octopus Pie disagrees with De Liz's philosophy, as made plain in a heavily proliferated piece on the subject last week that included the following passage:
...awareness only goes so far. Tons of young women already want to - and are good enough - to work in comics. Tons of them are already doing their own thing in the self-publishing world. Many of my friends are releasing graphic novels to rave reviews and impressive sales. Conventions are jam-packed with women. It's not a question of awareness. It's a question of who's getting paid.
Frankly, there's no amount of awareness that can pay the artist to be an artist. Asking female creators to donate their time and efforts for non-paying projects is, at best, ineffectual to the cause. There is no pedestal flattering enough, no validation tangible enough, to outvalue a month's worth of rent. And that's what we want - for underrepresented artists to pay their rent, so we can see more incredible art from them.
While third parties continue to advocate for the payment of Womanthology contributors and criticize other elements of De Liz's financial apparatus, all seems harmonious within the Womanthology camp itself. Although contributor Amanda Deibert authored a blog scolding unnamed Womanthology contributors for allegedly balking at some of the same financial concerns as others who've been mentioned in this article, Delbert and other Womanthology contributors have told CA that those contributors have since deleted their public remarks or otherwise reversed their positions. Indeed, CA has been unable to get on the record nor find a single Womanthology contributor publicly expressing any such feelings of disappointment over money or any circumstances surrounding this much discussed and much beloved book. Whether as a down payment on future work or as a favor to a friend or as an enthusiastic contribution to an altruistic cause, the writers and artists of Womanthology are on the whole very pleased to be involved -- in some cases, honored.
Fiona Staples, artist of Brian K. Vaughan's forthcoming Image Comics series Saga, has stated that she was "interested right away" in Womanthology, and that "it's pretty cool to be involved in a project of this scale, that could potentially inspire and encourage lots of new creators!"
Devin Grayson, admired by many for her body of work on DC's various Batman titles, was wary of the "gimmicky" potential of an all-female anthology, but De Liz persuaded her to join the Womanthology ranks. Grayson explained in an interview conducted for the Womanthology blog:
Normally, I stay away from stuff that's explicitly female-only, because normally the female part of it is done as a sales gimmick of some kind, and I think that can often hurt the cause of female creators more than help them. But three things about Womanthologyjumped out at me right away:
1) the caliber and range of the people participating, 2) the clear objective of showcasing the work of new female creators by partnering them with experienced creators and 3) Renea's obvious sincerity of purpose: she clearly and professionally explained what she was setting out to do and was intent on donating proceeds to female-friendly charities. That's about as far from a sales gimmick as you can get. Later, when she sent me links to the artwork of some of the newcomers she was hoping to support, I was even more impressed. These young women are serious artists with real talent and developed skill sets. There used to be anthologies like this back when I was breaking in to the industry, and I'm delighted to be able to help support one now.
One of Womanthology's biggest supporters is writer Steve Niles (30 Days of Night, Criminal Macabre), who helped raise funds for the book by offering to review a backer's 22-page comics script in exchange for a pledge of $150. "The message is clear," Niles told CA. "People want comics and they don't necessarily want what Marvel and DC have. They're willing to put money down to prove it. More than anything, the success of Womanthology shows how much people want creator-owned comics."
A search for the #Womanthology tag on Twitter reveals countless similarly positive sentiments about the project not just from contributors, but also from professional supporters and prospective customers. As Niles suggested, that may be the most relevant takeaway from the entire enterprise. While many will continue to ask valid questions about publishing plans, finances and philosophies about compensation, what cannot be argued is that Womanthology has demonstrated there's an audience who wishes to support not just comic books created by women, but original comics created by women, sight unseen, as well a readiness to put their money where their Tweets are.