I’ve seen the future…and it’s expensive.
There was internet rage recently surrounding a topic that I was actually getting a little burned up about myself; that of comic creators charging for autographs at conventions. I have to say, regardless of how any of us feel about it, this is going to be the future.
I will apologize upfront right now, because I will be calling out some creators in this article, but seeing how they were present at a convention, there certainly can be no complaints of me spoiling any secrets – they were in full view of thousands of people. The speculation of the reasons behind charging for signatures, however, is mine and mine alone.
Let me put the reason right out there before I go any further: It’s GREED!
I know, right? Duh.
I support capitalism, so I totally get it. But let us call a spade a spade here. If the norm is doing something for free but you realize you can make money doing it, you’re going to take the money, right? Should you feel guilty about that? Maybe a little but you wouldn’t be wrong and are certainly within your rights to charge anything for whatever you want. It’s the suckers who pay that are the ones creating a market for it. Regardless, you are not providing a service nor a product, but you are charging a fee. Why? Greed.
Let me back up a bit here. There were several articles and several different comic book related websites recently that were discussing this topic and, as usual, there was some heated debates firing up in the comments sections and across Twitter. They say it “started” at a recent convention but I can guarantee this has been happening at several conventions across North America for several years. The arguments seemed to be about three major points:
One: Should they, or shouldn’t they, charge?
Two: Does this establish a kind of market where creators are establishing their monetary worth or value?
Three: Who is at fault?
Allow me to argue all three.
Should They or Shouldn’t They?
In my opinion, comic artists and writers should NOT charge for their autograph. “Now, Chris,” you would say, “of course you’re going to say that. You buy comics and go to conventions to get them signed.” And I would say, “Yeah. So?”
Not much of an argument is it?
Allow me to elaborate then.
My intentions to receive an autograph from a creator may be different from other people; It is simply that I enjoyed the work. I appreciate the time and effort it took to create such a work and I appreciate the fact that the creator takes the time to visit with fans. That should make for a pleasant meeting and a nice souvenir. I simply enjoy the work and am asking them to sign their own work. I do understand that this is not everyone’s intention. I have seen first-hand, someone drop a full long-box at the creator’s feet and ask them for their autograph. I have also witnessed someone drop approximately fifty copies of the same book on the creator’s table and ask them to sign all of them. These are the bone-heads that ruin it for everyone.
As a collector, I get the completest mentality. You want your favourite writer to sign their whole run of Justice League so you can – what? – have a really cool looking long box? I’m sure they have their reasons, but you need to be reasonable and a least a little conscious of the time it will take to sign all the books and the people who are waiting behind you. In this instance, I think it would be reasonable for the creator to charge a fee.
The same goes for someone who is asking for multiples of the same book to be signed. This blatant attempt at flipping the book for an easy buck, or a shop owner stocking their shelves with a creator’s signature without having the decency to even ask the creator if they’d like to attend their shop for a signing is also ruining the experience for the rest of us. Not to mention, completely taking advantage of the creator who would look like a jerk if he refused. In this case, charge away, my friends!
Personal Experience Time!: I was at the Niagara Falls Comic Con and I was quite excited (and, frankly, surprised) that Gerry Conway, the writer of one of my favourite stories of all time was going to be in attendance. I had four books in hand and lined up, waiting for him to arrive. A volunteer approached the line and mentioned that Gerry will be charging $5 per autograph. There was nothing advertised about any charge prior to this. I have been attending Comic Cons for over 20 years and have never paid for a signature. I was immediately deflated. I picked two out of the four books to get signed, paid the $10 and left with a bad taste in my mouth. Not the experience I was looking for.
Creators, if you are going to charge for your autograph, at least advertise it ahead of time. You may be the only reason a patron is attending the convention so they are practically forced to pay up. At least if they knew ahead of time they could make a better financial decision rather than when they are sweaty-palmed and anxious because they are meeting their heroes.
Comic creators produce a tangible product – a book. We, as customers, pay for that book. The funds then get filtered back to the creator (I know this isn’t exactly the way it works but because creator-owed and licensed work and different companies operate differently let’s just simplify it for this example). We pay for their work and then later ask them to sign their work. Requesting a fee at that point seems like double-dipping. We have already paid for the book, they have been paid for their work and now we are fans requesting an autograph.
Asking a fan to give you money after they have already (I’ll admit indirectly) given you money is borderline rude. Doing it because you know that there is a good chance that they will give you the money anyway, is greedy.
Establishing a Market
Even with my background in Economics, this one boggled me a little bit. With the debate raging in the twitterverse, some creators went so far as to say that if a creator doesn’t charge a fee then he is undercutting the ones that do. Also, that they are even reducing their own value and worth if they do not charge for their autograph.
So, they are arguing about a market for autographs at conventions: Creator A is charging $5 so Creator B charges $10. Creator A then charges $10 so Creator B charges $15. Creator A temporarily matches the $15. Then Creator A “undercuts” Creator B by charging $10 again there-by stealing all of Creator B’s “customers”. Creator B is forced to reduce their price and we settle at a nice little equilibrium of $10 for autographs. Yay, Economics! The problem is, this is an imaginary market that was only made up of the “suppliers” and the customers are left no choice but to buy at that price or not buy anything at all. For a customer, you are faced with either spending a lot of money to enjoy the convention, and end up feeling bad about it later, or spend nothing and feel bad about it now. Boooo, Economics…
The problem is they are mistaking this “new” market for the actual market of signed merchandise that is later sold in the secondary market. This would be the market for previously signed merchandise that is sold on eBay or wherever. This merchandise is an actual product that is bought and sold between two parties. For example, a signed baseball jersey: Neither the person who sold the signed jersey or the person who purchased the signed jersey need to kick-back any money to the player who signed it. Presumably, the player didn’t charge for the autograph at the time but the seller is including the cost of the jersey, the time and cost to obtain the autograph and the intrinsic value of the player involved into the price. The Player is not, and should not, be involved in the transaction at all.
Personal Experience Time!: I was at Fan Expo waiting for John Cassady to arrive for his scheduled signing time. He was late. A volunteer begrudgingly approached the queue. “Here we go,” I’m think, “He’s stuck in traffic, he’s cancelled, he’s been refused entry at the boarder…” The volunteer mentioned that ONE signature was complimentary, all others are $5. “Complimentary”. I got a big kick out of that. After buying the books, paying for admission, and the time spent in line, I get a “complimentary” signature. I guess my dollars were spent in the wrong market.
People may argue that, in signing their signature, they are providing a service and, therefore, are charging for the service. I don’t agree and I’m not sure you could convince me that signing your name is a service. Unless you are a lawyer or acting on behalf of the government I don’t see how the action of scratching your name on a document or a book is a chargeable service. Hey, creators, if you want to be lumped in with lawyers and the government, by all means, charge away!
This one’s easy – YOU!
No, not you. The other guy.
Yeah, it’s you and me and anyone else who ponies up the money to pay for a service that is not a service. Yeah, it’s you and me who knowingly pays twice for the same product. We are the ones who are supporting the imaginary market. If we didn’t pay for them, they wouldn’t know that they could charge.
Again, I can’t really blame them. They are not stupid. It’s dollars left on the table, why wouldn’t they?
Personal Experience Time!: I was waiting patiently for an artist to finish a sketch at Artist Alley so I can get a couple of books signed by them. I notice a “tip jar” on his table in support of the Heroes Initiative (a charity to assist comic creators who’ve experienced some hard times).
“Hmmm. That’s nice.” I think.
The artist graciously signs my books. I thanked him and donated $5 to the cause. A lovely and pleasant exchange. Yay, charity! I then make my way to another artist who also has Heroes Initiative tip jar.
“Hmmmm. That’s……..nice…” I think.
I drop a toonie in the jar, got a book signed and moved on to the next artist who, yup, has a jar, too.
“Hmmm………” I think.
I get a book signed. I don’t donate. I feel like heel. Next artist – you guessed it.
“………..” I think. “Everyone seems to have one of these, eh?” I say.
“Yeah, I think all of us do.” The artist responds.
I don’t even bother asking him to sign my book.
The unjustified guilt is my own problem I have to deal with but I think that these tip jars are putting the customer in an awkward position. If we don’t donate, we feel like a jerk. If we donate at every table, it turns into an expensive stroll through Artist Alley which used to be free, or as I thought, CAME WITH THE PRICE OF ADMISSION!
Sorry. Now I’m yelling.
One of the biggest defenders of charging for signatures came as no surprise to me: Neal Adams. The proponent of creator rights and fair compensation has been charging for signatures for years. Adams will come out on the right side in the history of a lot of things but I vehemently disagree with him on this one.
Fan Expo (or maybe it was Neal, himself) did right this year when he was relegated to the retailer section of the convention and not Artist Alley. I’ve been hoping they would do this for years, as he charges a ridiculous amount of money for sketches and signatures. He has a table full of previously signed merchandise and (not so limited) prints. He’s a retailer at these shows and nothing more. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but don’t advertise him as a “Guest” because he is not there for us, the fans, he’s there to make a buck.
Adams participated in the online debate defending the right of creators to charge for signatures (which, I agree, they are well within their right) saying, “I have always believed that the creators come first, the fans come second and the publishers come third.”
This is one of the most Neal Adams-y thing he has ever said.
Adams, of course, is wrong. The fans/customers come first. Not because they are right but because that is why creators get their work published. If they were doing it for themselves there would be no need to mass produce it. No, Neal, you do it for the fans. You sign your name to your work for the fans. You talk and tell stories and shake hands and take pictures or just sit there and be $%*@ing pleasant for the fans.
Despite my personal views and bias, I still do understand the other side of the argument. I also can’t say that I do have all the answers and reasons as to why it’s happening. I understand that an artist can make money at a convention by selling his/her original art as well as completing sketches and commissions (an actual product that is sold). A writer, on the other hand, doesn’t really have much merchandise to offer (other than their own personal comps that they sometimes sell, but that discussion, too, may be for another day) so perhaps they feel justified.
Comic creators may see Z-Grade celebrities across the aisle at conventions pulling in $50 a pop for an autograph and think that they are chumps for not charging. But I can cite hockey games, baseball games, library and bookstore signings, meet and greets, concerts or just seeing a celebrity in public as times where the autograph is free.
There is the time and cost involved for the creator to attend the convention to consider. They are essentially taking a day away from work to attend the con and many of them have to pay for their travel and accommodations.
I’ll always come back to the same argument: If it weren’t for the fans, the creators wouldn’t be at the convention nor would they be working. The fans support the creators. We buy the product that they produce. When a fan presents the work back to the creator they are essentially saying, “Look! I bought this from you and I love it!” Why ask for more money at that point? Greed.
Mark my words, this is the way things are going. Whether the money goes to charity or to their pockets, comic creators are going to be charging for their autographs in the very near future. If you choose to participate in this fictitious market in the future, it’s going to be expensive.