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Thread: Assessing project & collaborator needs & goals

  1. LeeNordling Guest

    Assessing project & collaborator needs & goals

    Last week, we continued a series of discussions from the previous week, and we’re going to keep going, but this time with a column and conclusion.

    Or at least a place where you can take what you wish to from this discussion and apply whatever portions you choose to your professional project packaging process.

    Last week was an experiment to see how long a thread could continue through a series of progressive topics before running out of gas.

    It involved more constant interaction than any previous discussion.

    The intent was to plow through a lot of material quickly, because it easily could have been stretched out to a month of more comprehensive columns. Had I done that, I think it would’ve taken too long to get to the point.

    So we zoomed through the discussion, sacrificed the consensus we might have had on most of the topics, but we did pretty well, made the points that needed to get made (I hope), and were just reaching the cumulatively important part…when the stream of conversation turned to a trickle, then dried up.

    I learned a lot about how much we can expect to progress, which is, to say, not much. This week we’re going slower, and will finally get to the point.

    As previously promised, there’s been a point.

    So let’s reboot last week’s ending and make it a beginning.

    By now, we understand that we need to look at everything that can go wrong in a collaboration, as well as what can go well…on both sides of the collaborative fence. And we’ve been examining those root causes, free of the kind of judgment that builds barriers instead of tearing them down.

    Until last week, many of you would have approached a collaborative relationship with one primary goal, expressing what’s important to you, while forgetting to ask, or, more importantly, getting to the heart of, what’s important to your collaborator…or even the project.

    Failing to do the latter two is the beginning of the end before it even begins.

    It’s why working relationships flounder and projects fail, more often than not, to live up to expectations.

    Understanding this is a huge step.

    Now, let’s discuss the components of a collaboration.

    Every project is different.

    Every collaborator is different.

    Every collaborative process involves a complex series of decisions based on all the component variables.

    That’s a lot to process, and figuring it out is like math with a psychological and marketing spin.

    How can one approach or paradigm contain enough flexibility so that it’s adaptable to the widest possible range of circumstances? More precisely, how can it allow for a thousand different and constructive discussions that will put you on the right course toward a thousand different constructive and collaborative relationships, with a goal toward producing a thousand different and potentially successful projects?

    It comes down to knowing the project needs, your needs, and the needs of your collaborator…and making certain they are simpatico. (I loved that term from over twenty years ago, and we’re going to resurrect it for this column, but not just for old time’s sake; we’re bringing it back because it implies oneness of mind and direction, a worthy goal for what is largely a collaborative medium.)

    Eventually, making a specific determination about a specific project will become so second nature that you won’t have to use a microscope and tally sheet to set up a successful collaborative relationship. However, until you’ve developed a working method, and stopped succeeding with simply talent, personality, and good fortune, you’re stuck learning to use the tally sheet and microscope.

    In short, you’re stuck starting over, so let’s start over.

    First, we going to do that thing that you’ve already seen me do quite a bit: we identify the components, and separate them.

    In math terms, nobody knows the values in x + y = z until after they know two of the variables, then it’s easy to figure out the third.

    Okay, easier.

    So what are our x, y, and z components? There’s you (whether you’re the writer or artist), the project, and the person who may or may not be working with you. (That was the no-brainer part.)

    One of you is the Project Initiator, the other is the Potential Collaborator, and the project is the project. Fancy terms--well, except for “project”--but they identify who has to sell whom on coming on board the project; it would be presumptuous to refer to the Project Initiator as the writer, since a lot of artists have concepts they need developed by writers.

    I know, so far it’s pretty obvious stuff, but if we’re not clear about this, we can’t ask you to imagine these three items noted as headings across the top of three columns on a sheet of paper, with the project column running down the middle.

    Let’s start by identifying the intended distribution outlet of the property.

    It could be a prospective web comic, a planned submission for Image, Dark Horse, an indie anthology, or any other direct market publisher. It could be planned as a self-financed, self-published, direct-market comic, series, or graphic novel, or it could be intended as teen-oriented manga or a graphic novel for trade book publishing. There are a million other category, genre, and distribution options to consider, so let’s just presume the Project Initiator knows enough about what he or she is developing to delineate it. (And if not, never fear, because we’ll be discussing all this in the future.)

    Now add a list of all the important market demands that you can think of beneath the project heading.

    There will be fewer for a self-financed, self-published indie comic that doesn’t need to make any money than for one that’s intended to reach a much wider readership and sell 20,000 units from Dark Horse. In the case of the latter, the bar of professional excellence and experience is an increasingly important and complicating factor.

    Be certain to include how the project is intended to be marketed to the reader; this means you need to know whether the project is brand/creator-or-property-driven, concept-driven, or execution-driven.

    In short, if the project is Star Wars or you’re Neil Gaiman, it’s brand-driven.

    If you’re pitching a story for an existing licensed title, then it’s got to be a very cool concept, making it concept-driven, or you’ve got to be Neil Gaiman, making it more likely brand-driven.

    If you’ve got a great script or idea for a story that won’t be perceived as novel, then it’s execution-driven, unless you’re Neil Gaiman, which probably trumps execution and makes it brand-driven.

    Yes, something can be all three…but one of them is going to be the most important for marketing the book to readers, and you need to be realistic about this determination, because missing here will mess up everything that follows.

    For example, if you think you’re really Neil Gaiman (and you’re not), then you might also think somebody will buy whatever you produce, and that’s just won’t be the case.

    If you think you’ve got a really cool concept, a more likely case, and it’s really just not that special, then you’re going to be marketing something as the Next Big Thing, when it’s really not.

    If you have the rights to a 1940s pulp adventure series, of which most people have never heard, and plan to market it to the book trade because you think everybody is as aware of it as you are, then your marketing assumptions are likely to derail all your following creative and collaborative determinations.

    IMPORTANT NOTE (with my finger poised above the delete button): I don’t wish to delve further into this aspect of consideration, because I don’t want it to derail the bigger, more important discussion; if you don’t get the whole “brand/creator-or-property-driven, concept-driven, and execution-driven” thing, please wait till we get to it as a separate topic for discussion. The point of me mentioning this here is because you need to be comprehensive in your assessment of the property needs, and this aspect is too critical to not mention. Do your best with it.

    Back to our work on the project list: include all the important marketing aspects…and yes, there are many, but list them.

    If the Project Initiator and/or Potential Collaborator needs to be a brand name, include it. If that would simply be icing on the cake, don’t include it. Only include the necessary aspects. And don’t forget, some name creators and properties are only brands in certain markets; not everything is Star Wars, which sells everywhere, and not everybody is Neil Gaiman, who can work in any medium he chooses.

    Who’s the reader?

    How professional or experienced do the writer and artist need to be?

    How much is it likely to pay…and how is it likely to be paid?

    Who’s going to own it? If you’re targeting a story for Superman, DC Comics is going to own it. If the Project Initiator simply feels he/she needs to own it, that assessment doesn’t belong here; it belongs in their column, the point being that the Project Initiator owning it isn’t critical to the project’s being published in the intended distribution outlet, whereas DC Comics owning it would be critical to getting it published in the intended distribution outlet.

    How vital is it that the artist is used to working with other people’s scripts? Seems like a no-brainer question, but I’ve seen it ignored, and then seen a lot of really good artists topple because they don’t have the skills or level of craft to work towards somebody else’s vision. On the flip side, where an artist’s exploration or freedom to do what he wants to on a project may be exactly what’s required, experience with adapting to somebody else’s vision may not be as important.

    What kind of script does it need to be? Asked another way, does the project need to be written as a full script with a lot of direction, or as a full script that shows the flow of the story, thus allowing for more artistic interpretation, or is plot method the best way to approach it (because the potential for visual dynamics outweigh the need for a densely plotted script). This only gets mentioned here if the project requires it for success, and not if the Project Initiator simply requires it. In the case of the latter, like a necessity for ownership, this is likely saved for the Project Initiator column, which we’ll get to later.

    There are a ton of other aspects to be determined, many necessary, and many optional. Try to keep your eye on what’s necessary; otherwise you’ll find it increasingly hard to achieve everything you include on this list.

    Now, why is this list of necessary project requirements and goals important?

    Because the Project Initiator and Potential Collaborator need to match up to these requirements in order to accomplish these goals. If they can’t, the project has decreasing odds of reaching the intended distribution outlet and becoming a success.

    Yes, projects beat the odds all the time.

    And lottery numbers come in.

    We’re working through a process where you need to count less on being lucky and more on crafting a professional package with the right team for the right market.

    Now, let’s presume you’re the Project Initiator, because otherwise you wouldn’t know about the project. (One side note, though: if you’re the Potential Collaborator, you can create the project requirement list from your discussion with a Project Initiator and reverse-engineer this tally to see if it all lines up and makes sense to sign onto.)

    So, let’s shift the spotlight from the necessary attributes for the project to the Project Initiator. He/she is the column to the left of the project.

    Write down all the perceived requirements that you have or contribute to the project.

    These are “what you bring to the party” or aspects that you absolutely must have, for you to work on the project.

    This is where “you own it, and the artist/writer is a hired gun” goes.

    It’s also where “I co-own it with the artist/writer” goes.

    If neither is true or necessary, it doesn’t get included.

    It’s where “I’m Neil Gaiman” goes, too.

    It’s where “I know a Marvel or DC editor” goes.

    It’s where “I’m a fan-favorite” goes.

    It’s where your knowledge of the horror genre goes, if the project list has “horror genre” noted in its list.

    Just so you don’t think this is where your entire CV goes, “I’ve written published children’s books” only goes here if the project happens to be a children’s book.

    Work to keep everything apples to apples.

    How much compensation you need goes here, too.

    Everything goes here.

    Be comprehensive.

    And make certain your “must have” aspects aren’t “it’d be nice to have.” If you wish to make an “it’d be nice to have” list, create that a separate second column under the Project Initiator heading.

    If you do that, you now have the two extremes of your negotiating stance; you know what you’ll ask for, and you know what you’ll take.

    Your discussion with Potential Collaborators will be negotiations, and it’s always important, for each project, to know where you can and can’t be flexible.

    Unlike the stereotype, negotiations aren’t always about money and percentage points; they’re as often about process.

    For those looking for potential Project Initiator “must haves,” please review the work we did last week.

    Our work there identifies what’s potentially important to the Project Initiator and the Potential Collaborator.

    Could there be more on that thread to consider? Absolutely.

    Did we cover it all? Not by a long shot.

    I did my best to encourage more contribution, and the more there is, the more there will be to consider, so feel free to go back to it and keep coming up with stuff. The more you do there, the more it’ll help here.

    Now, in theory, two columns on your tally sheet are complete, though I’m sure you’ll be adding and subtracting from both as you advance and negotiate through the process.

    Your first question should now be: do you match up to your project list?

    If so, great.

    If not, ask whether the addition of a Potential Collaborator can offset those areas where you fall too far short.

    If so, that’s who you’re looking for; that's who you need.

    If not, scrap or revise the project, or scrap and revise your Project Initiator perceived needs or contributions. And yes, it’s harder to take off what you can contribute, but it’s not as hard to take off your perceived needs.

    It’s important to make sure the Project Initiator and project list columns work well together, because that suggests the project is viable.

    If it’s not viable, good luck finding a Potential Collaborator without having to pay out lots of money to get him/her on board.

    When the two columns are simpatico (or at least identify achievable needs for a Potential Collaborator’s contribution), you now have some focused parameters to search for your Potential Collaborator.

    And here’s where it gets tricky.

    Yeah, the last stuff was just a lot of hard work; it wasn’t necessarily tricky (unless you know less about the project’s potential in the publishing industries than you should).

    Personal style has a lot to do with how successful you’re going to be in finding Potential Collaborators. I don’t intend for you to mimic my style, or anybody’s style. My secrets of “success” aren’t likely to be yours.

    Regardless of your own particular sales techniques--and don’t imagine for a second that trying to get a Potential Collaborator doesn’t require some form of selling--what must remain in every discussion with a Potential Collaborator are the requirements established in the project list, and the contributions and requirements on your Project Initiator list.

    Every. Last. One. Of. Them.

    If you leave any out, you’re holding something back from your partner, and we’ve all experienced the results of poor and/or shady communication.

    How you unfold this information will determine your success, so work hard at crafting your presentation or spiel.

    It probably is best to begin by chatting, being friendly, being personal without crossing boundaries.

    Then I recommend presenting the project, its goals, and requirements.

    Next, it’s probably good to list your contribution, and some of but not all of your requirements.

    Early on, somewhere in the process, and probably interspersed, it’s important to interview the Potential Collaborator and find out everything they’re interested in doing, short-term and long-term.

    Too much early on about just your needs can be a turn-off. Too many demands before you’ve given Potential Collaborators the opportunity to offer their perspectives will likely back them into a corner.

    There’s a give and take to this, mixing requirements with questions, and it’s the true artistic portion of the negotiation that cannot be taught in such a short space, if at all.

    As you go, take notes on what the Potential Collaborator says. Keep the notations focused, add the relevant ones to the Potential Collaborator column.

    Where you and he or her are simpatico, agree; it will make him or her feel good.

    At some point, you’ll need to discuss those aspects of your goals, or necessary Project Initiator parameters, that differ from what the Potential Collaborator has defined as important.

    However you approach it, be honest, and respectful.

    There is no right or wrong.

    Everybody’s version of fair is valid, not that you need to embrace one that you don’t embrace.

    You may agree that they divide you too much to work together.

    You may decide that some pluses in one area so outweigh your necessary parameters in other areas that you’re willing to barter, and that’s fine.

    It’s good to be flexible to and conscious of these trade-offs.

    But remember, the trade-offs are bargains you need to be completely comfortable with making; you can’t regret them later or take them back, not unless your collaborator somehow doesn’t fulfill a corresponding portion of the bargain.

    This complicated but rudimentary paradigm has one goal: to get you making focused, relevant decisions, which will help you build the right team for the right project.

    That will, in turn, help you work towards a mutual agenda (or at least in a direction equitably serving separate agendas), and will set in place an agreed-upon process.

    And that will, also in turn, allow you to work together to complete the project with a minimum amount of frustration, angst, and moments of mutually assured destruction, so that you have a legitimate opportunity to achieve your publishing goals.

    It is complicated, but thorough.

    And flexible.

    It can be your compass for setting up any project with any Potential Collaborator, or for determining whether a Project Initiator’s proposal makes sense for you.

    Do I use this process?

    Absolutely. In my head. For every single project.

    It’s work, but it also allows you to explain why you need what you need to anybody who asks or needs to know.


    Lee Nordling is the owner and founding partner of The Pack (, a comics-related content provider for the publishing industry. He is also author of “Your Career In the Comics,” an overview of the newspaper comics syndication profession and industry.

    If you wish to contact Lee separately from Comics Pro Prep, please write to him at lee@projectfanboy.
    Last edited by LeeNordling; Thursday, February 04, 2010 at 03:30 PM.

  2. RonaldMontgomery Guest

    I printed this off and read it on the train a couple of times. Marked a few sections. Pulled out the structure.

    One thought, one rant: This is important. You define how to measure project viability and how to match up talent. I was in a meeting at work today, and we were nailing down the scope for an enterprise-wide project. Our pilot budget is $1.5 million. We started getting into scope and goals, and HMM, either we need to change the scope, or we need to accept our project is going to have a longer ROI.
    What you're talking about is stuff that pro project managers and other professionals wrestle with everyday. And sometimes dumb mistakes are made because of personality, overreach, etc. Peeps are peeps, no matter how nice the suit is!
    The difference between working in a corporate environment and on your ACME comic's your ass hanging on the line, you directly reap the benefits or the failures. And hell yeah, that's the way it should be.
    This is helpful for me, very helpful. Lee, you know of my (small) difficulties in the past, and they would've been 100% mitigated by this advice.

    Comics peeps: this isn't sexy compared to reviewing artist sketches and doing the creative stuff, but it's foundational. I think a lot of people seek out publishers because they don't want to muck with the business side...but comics is a tough business -- you wear a lot of different hats and making money is very, very hard. I know numerous creators who slave over books, market them, sell them in print and digital formats, only to sell a few hundred copies if they're lucky.
    It behooves us all to not leave any part of the process on the table for another party to manage in our behalf -- when you do that, you can bet the said party will manage your affairs in their interests.
    That counts for life too.
    Last edited by RonaldMontgomery; Wednesday, February 03, 2010 at 06:06 PM.

  3. LeeNordling Guest

    Thanks, Ronald.

    I was trying to think of my over-arching theme for this particular column, and I came up with: be smart.

    Then realized that, in this column, I needed to show _a_ way to do that, at least a way that allows folks to consider and process all the variables in a consistent way.

    I'm sure folks will come up with variations that work for them, but whatever it is, if you can consider and process the variables, you're being smart, not just instinctive.

    At the end of the day, I think a lot of the cool ideas that end up being smart COME from instinct...but it's the "smart" part that confirms they're not only cool ideas or project packages, but good ideas or project packages.


  4. Rain Guest

    I'm late to the party, but will still chime in with my meager thoughts.

    After reading this column three times -- and making a chart on paper as a visual aid -- I recognize it's a great "roadmap" for the successful collaborative process. As Ronald pointed out, it seems the info is pertinent not only to comics, but can be tweaked for practically any business venture between groups of people.

    Doing it "in my head," as Lee put it, will be difficult, but I suppose with enough experience the process becomes second nature.

    I also appreciate the distinction made in the above reply, concerning "smart" versus "instinctive" and "cool" versus "good." While my experience in the comics field is pretty much zilch, I believe those thoughts are a good summation of the column's purpose -- and all successful comic endeavors.

    I've copied and saved this column for future reference. Thanks, Lee; you've provided plenty of variables to consider, AND a way to do it.


  5. Join Date
    Jun 2008
    Post Thanks / Like

    For my main project, CAT. 5, I have a great "roadmap" that my co-pilot, (see, I kept the roadmap metaphor going) Mike, and I discuss back and forth at great length. We know what we want to do and how we'd like to do it. We also try and work that in a fashion that accomodates each of us and our individual needs (and schedules).
    "Living Robert Venditti's Plan B!"

    CAT. 5

  6. RonaldMontgomery Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by SebastianPiccione View Post
    For my main project, CAT. 5, I have a great "roadmap" that my co-pilot, (see, I kept the roadmap metaphor going) Mike, and I discuss back and forth at great length. We know what we want to do and how we'd like to do it. We also try and work that in a fashion that accomodates each of us and our individual needs (and schedules).
    Nice-looking comic.

    I voted for Maddie Scientist a bunch last year. She was too cute.

  7. Join Date
    Jun 2008
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    Thanks, Ronald!
    "Living Robert Venditti's Plan B!"

    CAT. 5

  8. LeeNordling Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by SebastianPiccione View Post
    For my main project, CAT. 5, I have a great "roadmap" that my co-pilot, (see, I kept the roadmap metaphor going) Mike, and I discuss back and forth at great length. We know what we want to do and how we'd like to do it. We also try and work that in a fashion that accomodates each of us and our individual needs (and schedules).
    I'm glad you guys have a process that works for you, Sebastian.

    I know a lot of us have good working relationships with creators, even if we don't have an paradigm for creating them.

    To keep this on topic, a discussion about that, in the context of what we're discussing this week, would be most constructive.


    Last edited by LeeNordling; Wednesday, February 03, 2010 at 09:55 PM.

  9. StevenForbes Guest

    Finally, I'm out from under!

    I've been working with a lot of writers lately, in an editorial capacity. With one of them, we went through a lot of back and forth before he decided to hire me. He then sent over his script, and I had no choice but to tear it down in order to start to build it back up.

    He then wrote to me, saying that he was going to filter my edits through his own judgement as to whether or not he was going to listen to them.

    Yes, that kinda ruffled my feathers.

    Here's my line of thinking: if you're coming to an editor to help make your story better, as long as they're not trying to change your sci-fi epic into a romantic comedy or somesuch, why would you NOT adhere to the changes the editor suggests?

    This conversation has forced me to change my process a bit. Yes, I'm a whore--times are tough, and I'll edit you if you meet my price--but I also have personal standards that I maintain.

    I wrote in Bolts & Nuts about working with an editor, especially when working with a freelance one. You have to understand that you're giving up your power to someone else. You've hired an informed opinion, and when you no longer want to listen to that opinion, you no longer need the services of that person.

    So, before, my process was simply to edit the script. Most people that I've edited are only trying to get their foot in the door, and I do my best to bring the script up to snuff so that it can be published in most places with little additional editing. That's generally a single script, around 22 pages, and then they'll go off on their own to find an artist and do their thing.

    However, a couple of writers have asked me to edit the scripts of their entire limited series. With that, I have to ask questions and ask for additional materials:

    What are your publishing goals--submission, physical self-publishing, webcomics?

    What exactly are you needing me to do? Make sure that the story will sell?

    Send me the pitch, so I can follow the overall arc of the story, and make sure that the issues get there.

    Do you have a timeframe for this to be done?

    And on and on. Questions that are relevant to me and to the story--and hopefully, the questions that are relevant to the story will also be relevant to the writer.

    But now, I'm also being forced to ask "who wins?" And I hate that question, because it implies a contest, and someone having to lose. "If we both see the opposite sides of the spectrum on a relevant part of the story, then who wins? Do you trust the informed opinion you've hired, or do you go your own way?"

    Naive on my part to not get that basic, fundamental question out of the way first? More than likely. But no more.

    I have to make a list of things that are important to me as an editor in order to make sure I'm the right fit for anyone else who wants to hire me, which is separate than my list of things from a creative/project initiator side.

    Yes, asking the hard questions sucks. But if they're not asked and answered, then there are too many ways for needless frustration to set in.

    And yes, I'm still working with that writer.

  10. LeeNordling Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by RonaldMontgomery View Post
    Comics peeps: this isn't sexy compared to reviewing artist sketches and doing the creative stuff, but it's foundational. I think a lot of people seek out publishers because they don't want to muck with the business side...but comics is a tough business -- you wear a lot of different hats and making money is very, very hard. I know numerous creators who slave over books, market them, sell them in print and digital formats, only to sell a few hundred copies if they're lucky.
    It behooves us all to not leave any part of the process on the table for another party to manage in our behalf -- when you do that, you can bet the said party will manage your affairs in their interests.
    That counts for life too.
    Thanks for this new thought, Ronald.

    Put simply, my goal with this particular series was to put the PRO into Comics Prep.

    As much as we love what we do, we each need to find a way to make professional business decisions.

    It's perfectly fine to work for nothing on a cool anthology, as long as you've thought through how it will, in some way, benefit your career.

    Fun is fun, work is work, business is business, and we each need some effective combination of these to succeed in our chosen professions.

    I offered this paradigm to get folks increasing the "business is business" part to their PROFESSIONAL careers.


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