Val posted a stirring defense of Zuda, home of corporate approved webcomics. I’m not a huge fan of the site. Its image viewer is a clunky flash program that’s sluggish compared to the php code most independent webcomics use. Val’s not one to pull punches or suck up, so I believe every good thing she says about them. But Zuda’s contract with creators is still not that great. Oh, it’s okay from the point of view of the comic book industry and great from a historical perspective of that industry. But I write better than I draw and loved novels before comics, so started learning the industry practices of book publishers before I started looking at making comics. Compared to book publishers, comic book publishers suck. It’s hard to fight the status quo of any industry, and I might be willing to let it go on that, but Zuda isn’t even in the comic book publishing industry. It’s in the webcomic industry, where none of the leaders in the field follow their business model.

First, let’s look at the terms Zuda offers. They’re not evil, which is good. But they aren’t great, which is bad.

With Zuda, creators sign away rights in exchange for a paycheck, an editor, a chance to find an audience under the Zuda banner, and not having to spend their own time and money to distribute the work. The rights signed away are the same as those signed away when creators get hard-copy publishing deal for their work, so the rights being signed away are not completely out of line for the comics industry.

If the immediate paycheck is important, then Zuda certainly makes sense for the creators. If having the flexibility to pursue other publishers for hard copies is important, it does not. Megatokyo switched from Dark Horse to CMX (DC’s magna imprint), PVP is printing floppies and collections through Image, and Penny Arcade released its fifth collection with Dark Horse. This can go horribly wrong – Amazon says Gunnerkrigg Court’s collection is supposedly coming out December 15th. It was supposed to be out in May. It can go really well – Order of the Stick is either self-published or just the side of it and supports its creator Rich Burlew as his full time job. He still doesn’t have any ads on his site.

On the same topic, I have not heard any web comics being optioned by Hollywood yet, but that takes a hit too. The creators get 40% of whatever Zuda gets paid for the license less foreign taxes, duties and/or currenty losses, and all direct costs incurred by Zuda. Direct costs? Anyway, less than 40%. I’d rather have an agent and keep 85 or 90%, myself. The agent can take his direct costs out his chunk of our money. Hollywood can pay a creator well. More when you do not have to share it with your web publisher.

Does Zuda give you a leg up on getting Hollywood’s attention? I mean, DC owned, which means Warner Brothers owned, right? Sure. But before Hollywood loved comic books, they loved novels. Still do, actually. The fact that the novel publishing subsidiaries of the giant media companies do not own any of the movie rights to the books they publish has never stopped Hollywood from putting down the money for an option. Why should comic creators tolerate sharing rights for their original work with a company that did not create the work? They supplied editors? So? Forrest Gump had an editor, but Doubleday didn’t get a chunk of Winston Groom’s Hollywood money, much less over 60% of it. DC and Marvel are IP farms because of an accident of publishing history and a lack of competition. Any modern publisher that tries that model today is a bad bet and will eventually implode in the current market. Zuda’s trying it. I’m not investing money in it.

Speaking of editors, they are the ultimate mixed blessing – they can help the creators fix the flaws in their work or keep the creators from reaching the height of their vision. So, for a creator, it depends on how good they are without professional help and how big their ego is.

Having editors is draw for the audience though. Read any title in the Zuda lineup, and they get a reading experience that is at least mediocre. Considering the average quality for a webcomics is horrifyingly bad, that’s not nothing. Course, the audience also isn’t paying anything except time and eyeballs, so digging through the links to other webcomics their favorite sites post is not that much different and has the advantage of being the personal recommendations of the site owners. Zuda’s lineup is chosen for both quality and commercial viability, which might be good enough but is not quite the same as word-of-mouth.

The readers also get an active forum to play in, even for new Zuda titles. I’ve seen more than one dustbowl of a forum where a site had one sooner than it had the audience to justify it. Heck, I’ve owned that useless, empty forum. Fans of a Zuda title get to skip that dustbowl. So, a clear marketing win for Zuda on that one.

So, plusses and minuses for creators working with Zuda. Paycheck, plus. Rights, minus. Built-in audience, mixed. Distribution? Minus. Big minus.

Seriously. I have a webcomic I don’t update and nobody reads. I have this blog – which I’m still setting up and nobody reads. Several hundred comics and eventually a book posted online which costs me 27 bucks a month. And I’m paying too much for the webcomic site. I’m going to take it down and post the archives here after I get the blog set up for it. 27 bucks a month. On the average week, I spend more than that on trades. And I have unlimited bandwidth and storage space. I only need to upgrade when this website’s processing speed bogs down. Sure, no audience, but that’s lack of updates, lack of quality, and lack of marketing on my part. All fixable if I decided to make it a job. (Well, maybe not all of quality. I really, really need an artist partner or two for some of my projects. I mean, look at the comic in the previous post, the first of my webcomic Phantast Staffing Services. The drawing is as bad as it was in the last Phantast strip).

Zuda? Zuda seems to think it is publishing paper comics. Putting together the files, sending them to the printers, and then distributing to book stores and comic book shops all costs money. None of which applies to a company posting them on the web. The costs just aren’t the same. For that, they want all the rights of anything DC might consent to publish if you were a nobody and they accepted unsolicited submissions. It’s a terrible long-term deal.

Zuda’s paycheck is good. Might make a living doing a Zuda comic, but you’re not going to get rich – unless you get enough popular to rewrite their terms, which will still probably be worse that what a nobody novelist gets – or a freelance webcomic artist. It’s not so bad that Zuda is evil, certainly not from a historical perspective of the comic industry. It’s actually pretty good for the current publishing industry, but Zuda is not a publishing company. It’s a web company selling webcomics. And every single industry leader in webcomics is operating on the own for a reason – they get to keep every single right and exploit every revenue stream they can get to work (Ads, books, and swag, so far – with donations and ransom bringing up the rear). Zuda’s business model for a creator is mediocre. Don’t count on it lasting as more successful webcomic business models will eventually drive it under.

And don’t settle for mediocre, creators. Your work it better than that.