The Story of the Storium Contract
As freelancers we encounter an ever-changing market. Fads in product types come and go. Sometimes it's miniature design that's big, sometimes it's card game art. At the time of writing board games are big. Something we don't often see is changes in whole business models, or if we do, they just don't affect us.
This isn't the case with Kickstarter. It's changing the way publishers raise money, and it will potentially have ramifications for freelancers and the way we are paid.
There are a bunch of things we could talk about in relation to work on Kickstarters. It changes some of the power relationships. Today I wanted to talk about one specific Kickstarted project which I'm currently working on: Storium.
I had a wholly positive experience in negotiating the contract to work on Storium and I thought the telling of the tale might be of use to my fellow freelancers.
So Storium, in short, is an online tool for playing roleplaying/story telling games. It gives you a bunch of tools and assets to play games with your friends online. Cool! The project involved some big names from within roleplaying games (Protip 1 – learn the big names in rpg design)
and it looked really interesting. ((Protip 2 – know something about the market you want to work in. How do you assess what could be successful, influential projects from the one million others out there if you don't know anything about the market?)
The kicker though, was that it did really rather well. You can see for yourself: Storium Kickstarter
And they held an open call for artists to work on the project. ((Protip 3 – Keep your ears to the ground for open calls – I saw this on Google plus)
I'm usually booked up round the clock, having a day job as a full time AD/lead artist at Cubicle 7, and squeezing some freelancing in the evenings to keep my hand in. I don't often answer open calls, but this time I made an exception because the project looked really exciting. And let's be honest they had some cash. I dutifully followed the instructions in the open call to the letter, despite knowing a couple of the people involved. ((Protip 4 – follow the instructions very carefully. It's your first chance to impress.)
I mentioned in a comment on the open call that I would submit, and this opened an initial conversation with one of their team members who I happened to have had some prior industry contact with. So that was cool. They seemed keen to have me on board. ((Protip 5 – engage! A public show on enthusiasm is flattering to potential clients)
But as so often happens, nothing came back for a couple of months, and I figured maybe they didn't like my style, or whatever. No big deal.
Then just as I had almost forgotten all about Storium I got an email asking if I would like to work on the project. Yay!
I replied in the positive, and let them know how excited I was. I generally find showing some enthusiasm is very worthwhile, and I know from my day job ADing that it's much nicer to work with people who are keen and engaged. I didn't need to do this with Storium, but you can fake it.
And so the negotiation of pay and terms began.
For me this is a very normal thing. I do it most weeks. I'm not daunted by asking for what I want, nor am I daunted by negotiating around
what I want. But if you're reading this you might find that idea terrifying. The secret to not being scared of negotiation is to remember that we're all just people trying to make a successful business. No one wants to mess up, no one wants to offend or be offended. Whilst we are supposed to act professionally and as business people, we're all just humans. Provided everyone acts that way it's all good.
There's another secret to happy negotiation too – it's a sort of samurai thing – you always have to be prepared to walk away if the deal is no good. And it really helps if you can do that with dignity and good grace. That way even a job that didn't get you any work can still add to your positive reputation in the industry.
So back to Storium. The initial email from their art director Jess, was full of information. I think that's always a good start. ((Protip 68– every piece of communication from a potential client helps you assess them. And don't forget: vice versa!)
Clearly these guys had thought it through, and were serious about making a good product. Having spent the best part of 15 years doing this I did read a little inexperience in there, but that never bothers me. There are definite advantages to working with new teams trying out new things. As we shall see.
Jess sent me a brief, which is always good to get right away, so I could assess the kind of work they wanted. She also sent me a very thorough document detailing what they expected both technically (image sizes and so on), and the pay.
I'll be honest, the pay was a touch on the low side for me. Not horrendously so, but enough to make me have to think about it. Mostly because of opportunity cost – I really wanted to work on Storium, but if I took this on would it fill a slot in my already tight schedule and thereby mean I'd have to turn down something more lucrative down the line? No one wants that – I like money, and publishers like motivated freelancers. ((Protip 546 – if a deal is less than ideal it'll take more mental energy to finish the job. Don't waste energy unless you have to)
So I had a think, took my time over it, and then agreed in principle to the work. ((Protip 57 – never rush into an agreement just because you got offered a job you wanted. Think about it. That's ok. Speaking as an AD again I do like a nice fast response to an offer of work, but I also respect people who take their time to fully commit.)
That's when the Storium guys sent me the contract, and asked for my feedback as it turned out I was the very first artist they were going to hire, and knew I had some experience on both sides of the AD/Illustrator fence. I was really excited to be joining a team that seemed to really value me and my input!
And that's right when the wheels could have fallen off.
Always read the contract carefully.
In the Storium contract there was a clause that said pay would come 6 months after acceptance, or on the first use of the art, whichever came sooner. There was a clause saying they could reject the work for any reason. And they had 30 days to accept the work.
These were all deal-breakers for me. I was disappointed.
I just can't soak the 6 month wait for pay – I mentioned opportunity cost above, and I knew I could find other jobs to fill the time that didn't have a 6 months wait for pay. The ability to reject for any reason at all was a red flag too. What if they just didn't like the work on the basis of taste, and couldn't be bothered asking me to revise? What if they were hiring multiple artists for the same job and picking the best work? That seemed far fetched, but the ability to do that was written into the contract, so you have to assume it's a power that could be used at some point. 30 days for acceptance was an unusual one, and that seemed like a long wait too.
I pondered what to do. A childish part of me wanted to say “This contract sucks!” and be cross for wasting my time. Part of me wanted to just politely walk away. But I didn't do that. I took them at their word, took a deep breath and sent them an email explaining why I found those terms unfavourable, and asked if there was any wiggle room. I didn't demand anything – I tried to just lay out what my expectation of a contract is, where I felt theirs didn't meet that expectation, and how I felt it could be improved, with reference to my experience with other contracts. If I'm honest didn't expect to get too much in response. I pretty much thought that would be the end of my Storium story.
The boss of the project, Stephen Hood wrote a reply very quickly, thanking me for my honest and direct feedback. (Uh oh! Sinking stomach time!) But he also mentioned he would contact their attorney and revise the contract. Wow. Colour me impressed!
So the contract came back. With all the suggestions I made implemented!
The Storium team have made it clear they're committed to attracting professional artists, and place that desire above the initial recommendations from their attorney for the contract. ((Protip 987 - If you pay a lawyer to write a contract for you they are duty-bound to sew it up on your behalf, so never take personal offence to a tough contract. Negotiate!)
Pay was now due within 30 days.
They reduced the acceptance time to 21 days, and explained why that was there – they want to give their new AD the best chance to do the best job. I fully understand and support that, and didn't mind that staying a little longer than my dream turnaround of maybe 5 minutes. (More on that below!)
They implemented a 25% kill fee.
And this is now their standard contract for all artists.
At this point I offered to write up our negotiation for ArtPact, because I think it was an amazingly heartening experience, and we don't hear enough good news stories.
In return they offered to announce my involvement to their numerous Kickstarter backers, with a little profile of me and my work, which was a nice sweetener to the deal.
And most amazing of all, and unbeknownst to me right away, they had decided not only to reduce the wait for pay, but they paid half upfront to secure my involvement.
I just finished the first piece of work for Storium, and they approved it not in 21 days, but more like 21 seconds. Happy days.
My take-aways from this were:
I stayed cool and calm and polite, and negotiated in good faith despite an initially less favourable contract. I tried to remain wholly professional, explaining why, in succinct terms, I felt some of the clauses were unfavourable to me, whilst also trying to remain empathic to their initial reasoning. And you know what? They did exactly the same.
I was heartened that there are clients out there who will change a contract.
I can't claim any credit for the Storium team being such reasonable human beings, but I will claim credit for doing my part in creating an atmosphere where we could make such positive headway.
By offering everything I could, I got more back.
By the way, Storium are looking for artists right now. Storium.com