Startups

On the Brennus IRC chatroom, it came up that a few of us have received an email.


I've, since Worm started taking off, received about 20 of these things from various people. It's usually one of the following:

* "We want to make a platform specialized for online serials (possibly with an app)."

* "We want to aggregate entertainment in general/just web serials and have a one-stop shop for people to visit to find and promote the best stuff. If you do it, we'll give you publicity."

* "We want to be the next Patreon/Kickstarter, getting you the money you deserve!"

* "We're a new video game company and we want to make a video game based on your work."


I had 10+ of these guys in April/May alone, probably as students graduated/finished up for the summer, got together with classmates in the same program and decided to start their business/project.


We saw the ad from bigworldnetwork a bit ago (this was one of the serial aggregate sites) and I just wanted to bring up the topic, because I know some people might be young, naive or stupid - I know this because I was all three at one point, and if a different offer had come in at a different stage in my life, I might have grabbed for it like a drowning man grabs for a life preserver.


Just a few points. It's ultimately your decision, of course, but go into this stuff with your eyes open:


The Rights


Always find out what's going on with your intellectual property. Small publishers, big publishers, startups, con artists and assholes in general are going to try to take it from you. All it takes is for you to sign a contract that has "So-and-so hereby gives the rights to their work to _____" or something equivalent.


What does this mean? If I were to sign away the rights to Worm, Worm would no longer be my story. It would be the publisher's/startup's. If HBO decided to do a Worm TV series, they'd reach out to the person with the rights - the publisher, and the publisher would negotiate the deal. It's very possible to wind up in a situation where you sign away the rights to your work, it takes off, and you make a pittance for it. Kurt Vonnegut sold his work to a publisher who put it in those crummy magazine stands in gas stations. To make something of it, he had to buy the rights back and then reach out to another publisher.


He was lucky. Before you sign anything or jump on board with something, find out about the rights. Ask about exclusivity (can you continue blogging your serial through other channels) vs. being locked in (in exchange for the promotion/whatever, you must only publish in this way or via this channel). If you're writing for something like BigWorldNetwork, which (IIRC) offers a small amount of pay for publishing via. their channel, figure out if you're locked into certain word counts or formats, what you are and aren't allowed to do.


The best way to go about this? Talk to a lawyer, go over any and all paperwork. If they tell you something, get it in writing and ideally get it initialed and scanned/faxed to you. If it isn't clear, make it clear.


The Money


Ask about the money. What are you getting, and how? What are they getting? What happens if you drop the ball? What happens if they drop the ball?


If they want you to pay something up front, it's a safe bet you should run as fast as your legs can carry you. Howl the names of dead gods in the hopes of disconcerting the enemy and allowing yourself to create more of a gap. This will almost always be a scam. I've seen many horror stories.


Pay very careful attention to the money. Even if you're not being paid and you're not paying anything, find out how they plan on getting their money.


Look, the fact is that the vast majority (90%+) of startups fail within the first five to ten years. Most don't make money for the first five years, as money goes back into building the business. So go into any deal with the impression that this guy or girl or group, no matter how neat their promises are, is probably going to fail. Is it worth your time and energy?


If they don't have a good answer for you as to how they plan on getting the money they intend to use to pay you, or how they intend to stay afloat, that's a sign of something. Maybe they're deluding you. More often, I suspect, they're deluding themselves. I've had offers from people who were already getting off the ground who just didn't seem to know anything or have any plans.


Other Stuff


Whether you're dealing with a publisher, a startup, a video game company or whatever, always remember that contract terms are negotiable. Look it over, get help in looking it over, take note of possible issues. As a general rule, they need big fish to get audience, and they need audience to draw in the big fish. While it's certainly an option to jump on board with an idea and hope it takes off (and takes you with it), especially if you can stand to take a tumble or two. Just be sure you avoid the bigger pitfalls, like the traps of scams and the possibility of losing your rights.


Thanks for the heads up, Wildbow. As always, that was super informative and helpful. I got one of those emails very recently, never considered responding because I'm set up with Patreon. I had never considered they might be going after publisher's rights. This is something really important to be aware of.


Well the person who emailed me still hasn't gotten back to me on why her site is a viable alternate to patreon. It was fun investigating her 'site', she really needs to work on layout and PR.


Everyone is jumping aboard the "content aggregation" train, hoping to become the new Youtube or Wattpad.


One dynamic behind Wattpad's success is billions of words and many years of community engagement. (They also hav ehad several rounds of investor dollars but can only do so because of their impressive visitor numbers and ability to explain what they offer to traditional authors and those who are more interested in data mining reader behavior.)


One reason many of us stayed away from Jukepop (Serials) was because of their initial exclusivity clause. We were told that you had to keep stories on there for at least six months before you did "something else." But at least they did not insist on rights. After all, they weren't paying you. They could only ask for license to use your material or your stories on site or in promotions. [JP has backed off this six month exclusivity from what I am reading now.]


For sites that don't make claims on ownership, however, there has to be a clear business gain from you working with them. Do they have a large community of readers? DO they advertise better than you can _to readers_? In other words, do they look like they're going somewhere?


With the exception of Wattpad, I don't think any of them really can promise you that. If you track the ones that tried to take crowdfunding over the last three years, most of them seem to have moved away from "serial only" content and had to significantly revise their initial business model.


As for all the others who want your rights, promise money later, just be wary -- there are tons of sob stories out there already in the indie/small press (and traditional press realm).


It's a good idea to also read about the common scams offered to the print-based writers.

My favorite place to read horror stories from today and years' past would be at http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/


Yeah, i tried doing that a while back, mostly to try and bring myself some editorial experience, working with other writers. It's.... dead at the moment. no updates in over a year to any stories. sigh.


I should stress that I'm not bagging on startups so much as I'm trying to highlight that succeeding with a startup is neither common nor easy. For us to get on board means we're taking a risk. Always keep that risk in mind.


If someone wants to get something going and make serials a bigger thing, I'm all for it. Honest. But as far as I'm concerned, that's something that takes a lot of time, luck, money, and/or help. In answer to my 'big fish' point in the OP, it's very possible for someone to get a big or established name (recognizable to John Q. Public, or related to a project that's recognizable to John Q. Public) on board and generate confidence that way, and get things moving. More likely, it'll require someone with a proven track record or a lot of money and time to get off the ground.


While I wish them luck, I remain skeptical of just about every offer, really. What I'm doing is working ok for me, and any change to that pattern risks things not working out so ok. The chance of falling into one of the really devastating traps just cements my personal opinion on that front.


I just wanted to back up Wildbow's advice on this matter and add that giving up your rights to a work will usually mean also giving up your rights to produce derivative works, e.g. sequels, or even further works existing in the same universe as the work you have given up rights to.


I have a law degree and experience working with startups and the best advice by far that I can give is to have a licensed attorney specializing in contract dispute or negotiation look over anything before you sign. You should make sure the attorney clearly understands your goals from the beginning.


Entering into any business deal is a lot like entering into a marriage, everyone hopes that love will last forever, that both parties will be faithful, and that the spouses will prosper together. All the terms in the contract talking about payment, royalties, licensing, rights, etc. is planning for this happy marriage. People forget, though, that a large percentage of marriages end in divorce. So, too, with business deals. It is as important, if not more so, to make sure you think about what happens when things fall apart when considering your goals and to include it in the contract.


Man, this stuff never changes. They used to pull this crap in the early days of webcomics, too.


Back then the deal was that hosting a website was "hard" and "time consuming" so allll these sites popped up that would "allow you" to publish comics on their servers, along with a bunch of other comics -- basically copying the idea of the funny pages in newspapers, only with a lot more content, including archives. At one point I even considered using one, until I read the terms -- they didn't actually grab your copyright but they did try to grab the right to use everything you posted there however they wished, in perpetuity (in other words, "forever.") They were preying on the then-artist's unfamiliarity with the medium (this was back in 99-2000, the web was still a strange beast in those days.)


If there is any one thing keenspot ever did for webcomics, it was by placing its artist agreement front and center. The agreement would seem laughably restrictive now. At the time it was considered so generous it was economically unviable. But that pretty much killed most of those exploitative groups, because suddenly artists were talking about terms.