Vanity and self publishing aside, there are two general directions to take: writing your own work or writing for someone else.
In the prose world, writing your own work is straightforward: you take your own ideas, put them on the page, and push them out to the public in some way. Writing for someone else usually means a media tie-in (writing a Star Wars novel) or ghost writing (writing a book under a celebrity’s byline).
In the comics world, we have creator-owned and work for hire. In a creator-owned situation, the writer and/or artist create the characters and stories and manage their publication and own all the rights. Work for hire is contract work, usually writing for a company like Marvel or DC. The company owns the characters and the stories, but the writer is paid to come up with the script.
The difference comes down to profit for the writer.
By retaining the ownership of the work and the rights to things like foreign language editions and movie adaptations, the work can be a lot more lucrative in the long term. The writer is more likely to receive royalties, perhaps an advance, but it may also take a while to actually produce a profit for the writer (especially rookies). In a media tie-in or work-for-hire situation, the writer is usually paid a set rate and sent on his way. If the author is given a one-time fee, the book could sell a bajillion copies and make the bestseller list in twelve countries and he’ll never see another dime.
(And yes, there are exceptions out there, but don’t expect to be an exception, precious.)
Some pros will tell you to avoid media tie-ins and work-for-hire work like the plague. Sometimes they will tell you it’s because you can make more money if you handle a creator-owned property correctly, sometimes it’s for more artistic reasons and the satisfaction or reward of forging your own path.
Let me tell you why I’m happy to do both.
To put it simply, work-for-hire gigs pay the bills. While I expect Winter Kill will pay off bigger in the long term, my single biggest paycheck came from adapting a finance textbook into comics format. As I write this, I am punching up the dialog in another of their books, again for pay. This guy pays well and pays on time.
I wrote my Phantom short for Moonstone on a work-for-hire basis. King Features owns the character and now the short story I wrote him into, and I got a small paycheck for my effort. However, I know a few people who sought out my other work after they read my short story, so it paid for itself in intangibles and potential future sales.
This is why many creators are happy to write for the larger comics companies if given the chance, or don’t turn down opportunities to write about someone else’s characters. The page rates the Big Two pay can mean the difference between writing full time and writing in the meager lunch break between shifts driving the forklift. I’ve heard of movie tie-ins that pay tens of thousands of dollars for a month’s worth of punching keys.
What’s more, work-for-hire gigs are easier because half the work is already done. For example, Batman is already written and there’s not much most writers don’t know about him. Star Wars has a meticulous history and character gallery to draw ideas from. With the textbook adaptation, I just had to put someone else’s words to scenes, dialog, and captions. It can be tedious work if it’s not something the writer would read or watch on his own, but compared to starting with a clean slate it’s a piece of cake.
Every one of those projects gets me closer to being able to write full time. Royalties that never materialize will never put food in my kids’ bellies. Until The Pack and other works I’m developing start generating real income, I’d be an idiot to turn down work-for-hire gigs.
Bring ’em on.