In My View: The Human Cost of Comics Piracy

Surface Tension #4

Jay Gunn is the creator, writer and artist behind the Titan Comics-published project Surface Tension (available quite legally in both in print and digitally) who we interviwed about his work recently. Here, he addresses an issue that is one regularly discussed among creators and fans – the dissemination of digital copies of his work by third persons and web sites without permission… 

I just need to get this off my chest, so forgive the fact that this post was written in the heat of the moment.

Piracy sites like the ones that are hosting my comic for ‘free’ hurt me – and yet I see sites are already hosting Issue Four only two days after release. If I search for my comic, the results for files (including images of the covers etc) come up pretty quickly.

Surface Tension #1 - CoverI’ve had this debate many times with people – some say that piracy can actually be a positive element as it helps your work to reach a wider audience and some of those who ‘ripped’ your work may go on to actually buy future works. Maybe. Large corporate TV companies like HBO have even claimed that they can take the hit of piracy and that they are proud that their Game of Thrones show is the most pirated show on TV. However, I’m not HBO, I don’t have their vast finances. I don’t have the same clout, revenue streams or financial backing that HBO has. I’m simply a small first time comic creator that, some might say unwisely, decided to invest his own money into crafting a comic series.

When I made Surface Tension it was from my own pocket. You see, when artists/writers make a ‘creator owned book’ they do not get paid a salary or page rate. As far as I’m aware they’re not paid anything other than royalties and even then the royalty deals are not fantastic for a first time creator. Forget earning enough to pay all of your monthly outgoings, never mind affording future proofing your income with things like a pension, or if you are in the US – health care. I work very long hours (the longest hours I have ever worked and that’s after coming from the games industry!), including weekends and often through illness in the hope that some people will like the book. I missed birthday parties, weddings, holidays and other social niceties that I would cost me time. I hoped that all the work would eventually pay off and that hopefully the book would reach an audience that would be willing to pay a couple of quid/dollars for it.

I hope I get some royalties from my hard work, even if it is to try and contribute to the paying of my mortgage, bills and other life costs that occur when creating work. Maybe I’ll get a deal outside of comics, possibly a TV of film option that might help me to make more books – who knows. It’s a huge gamble. Maybe one day the book will pay for itself but honestly, I’ll probably make very little on my book. But hey, I did this book because I had a burning passion to tell the story, bottom line. If it goes belly up I can try and get a job back in the games industry.

Surface Tension #2 Cover BI always expected torrent sites to host the book. Torrents are an unfortunate side effect of the digital online world that we live in. However, I wasn’t quite prepared to see very polished looking torrent sites hosting the book complete with attractive images of the covers and page samples. At first I thought this was an official comics review site – it even had the slogan of ‘Support the comics industry’ or some ironic words to that effect. But no, this was every copy of my comic for everyone to download for free. They even had Issue Four – and that had only been released two days prior.

The reality of piracy hit me hard, like a physical blow to the stomach. Much harder than any bad review ever could. If truth be told it hurt seeing it so readily available like that. It was like seeing my own child, taken at birth and then strung up in a butchers shop for people to take a slice from. I fucking loved that child, I had loved, raised and nurtured that child.

Fact 1 – The results of sales equal new books getting made. Sales shows that you work is popular enough to get another book a green light.

You see, at the end of piracy is a human being, one that has hopes and dreams and has to pay bills just like you. I had cancer when creating Surface Tension and spent periods of time too ill to draw – it killed me not to be able to write and draw. In between bouts of exhaustion and night sweats, I would find the energy to draw the book. Each page was a victory – the thought of seeing the book released and on book shelves kept me going, even though I was losing money every day that I wasn’t able to work. Thankfully I had an amazing partner who helped support me during that time, both in spirit and financially – for a self employed artist health care and time recovering costs money. When you are self employed there are no paid ‘sick days.’ When you steal copies of Surface Tension you are also stealing from my darling partner too. This isn’t a sympathy vote, it’s simply a fact. You’re hurting us both, financially and possibly even physically.

Surface Tension Issue ThreeSo you see, piracy such as the site that I saw today hurts creators like myself. They might pretend that they’re promoting the industry but I’m not so sure. At the end of the day they took something form me without my permission. The things you enjoy are not for free – taking things for free means that the small folk like me have to pay for your sense of entitlement to free entertainment. When you take something for free there is a human element to your theft, not to mention all the people who work behind the scenes to promote and edit the book. People who are essentially paying and losing money to create work for people to enjoy.

I don’t have a long legacy of hits behind me, I’m not Alan Moore. This is my first book – in all its glory and mistakes and lessons to be learnt. I’m an unknown first time creator. Creating and releasing a first book is like releasing a delicate, fragile newborn – a thing to be nurtured, not ripped apart by vultures looking for a free meal.

It’s like me walking into your day job (the salary from which you no doubt that use to fund your hosting sites) and just taking money from your salary without your say so – it’s as simple as that.

Fact 2 – a lot of comic creators that are not working on the big name titles are actually earning below minimum wage.

This isn’t about self pity, I just thought it important to write down how I felt when I saw my work on display on that site. If people consider it their right to free entertainment then I consider this my right of response.

If you have copied my book for ‘free’ and you enjoyed it in any small way then I am happy that you enjoyed it. If you have paid good money for it, I hope that you enjoyed it, I dare say it’ll not please everyone. You have my respect and gratitude for taking a punt on my book and paying for it.

Peace and respect.

Surface Tension is on sale now in all good comic shops, and digitally from Comixology

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7 replies

  1. I understand all that you said. I’ve drawn and created my own comics, sold them as minis, and never expected to make anything much more than my costs of paper and printing. Why did I bother doing a comic with little chance of financial return? Pure passion to draw, to tell a story…to put it out there.

    And to an extent, there lies the problem: the passion that folks who create in this medium much like schoolteachers who teach, legislators(few, admittedly) who believe in public service, or any other passion-based activity are at a disadvantage because pay doesn’t equal the love of benefit given.

    To address your concerns, though, were I to download and pirate your comics, it would be due to a simple equation: too expensive for the value provided. I think of entertainment value; what do I get for my money? $3.99 or $2.99 for about 15 minutes diversion is a lousy buy. A used paperback for $3 gives me a few hours or more of distraction, and a full priced one at $7.99 also delivers. Paying for a streaming movie from Amazon for $6 is 75¢ for 15 minutes. You get what I’m saying.

    I would simply wait for it possibly getting to a public library in a few years, or do without, which is my thinking. I’ve done my own comics, managed a comic book store, been a comics dealer, and worked as a sales manager for a small comics publisher in the past. I have a passion for comics, but I simply don’t find them paying off with entertainment value for their money.

    Given the rampancy of piracy, were Indy publishers like yourselves to set up some sort of PayPal account or other system, pirates (or those more fair-minded, anyway) could send you SOME compensation, it might provide some minimal revenue stream back in your direction rather than seeing your official digital copies ignored for the pirated versions. People would send what they thought it was worth to them, or a token payment.

    My guess is that most comics pirates, like me, would be disinclined to pay for most $3.99 comics anyway because of their pricepoint, particularly so for digital. Are they taking money out of your mortgage payment? My guess is they wouldn’t have paid for it or chosen to buy it in the first place. I could be wrong.

    • Just to point out that Titan Comics is not an “indie company” here in the UK. It’s a mainstream publisher, not only of the titles you see in comic shops, but numerous titles for the UK news stand.

      • Yes, reasonably aware of this. I met the then-publisher back at Comicon in 1989 or so when I was the sales manager for Viz Comics. The terms ‘indie’ to me often refer to any publisher other than, say, Marcel or DC, but perhaps that no longer applies.


    Instead of complaining about the theft of your work, engage your fans where they are. At the very least you can ask that the book be taken down — many of the people who run the bootleg sites are fans themselves and will respect a creator’s and publisher’s requests to take down their bootlegs, and often will cease to offer future bootlegs if you engage them in a forthright manner.

  3. Well said! I agree with you completely. And, while I’m sorry to admit that I’d never heard of you or your book until just now (someone on my Facebook list posted this article), I am about to go to comixology and buy all 4 issues of Surface Tension, just to show my support.

  4. I agree with you about the pricing issue, and unfortunately there’s not an easy answer. I wish digital comics would get steeper discounts or more frequent sales considering there is no printing cost but I can understand why publishers don’t want to do that.
    Personally I try to buy comics most of the time, rather than pirating, and especially try to support smaller publishers and creator-owned books. Luckily I don’t follow DC or Marvel that much, or it’d get expensive fast…

  5. It’s a sticky wicket. My suggestion, to restate it, would involve a system whereby a reader or user of someone’s content could easily send a micropayment to the creator once they read or maybe enjoyed the content. Something seamless like PayPal or such. In any case, there’s no way I’m going to pay $3.99 for content that I will chew up and spit out in less than ten minutes…with all due respect to the hardworking creators.

    Fwiw, I don’t download or pirate music, movies, TV shows, or games content. Neither do I do books or paperbacks. I will admit that we occasionally get movies or tv shows from my wife’s relatives here overseas and I don’t take the time to check their provenance or legality etc., so I may be complicit in the piracy process, but I’ve got enough on my plate to worry about the sourcing of every damned bit of data or food on my table…

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