Bring to light what is hidden in darkness / by Benjamin Woo

Writer Andrew Wheeler wants to be a good guy and pay freelance artists what they’re owed. He wants to know the prevailing wage, so he’s asking around. But he says on twitter that he’s having trouble finding out because artists don’t want to talk about what they make. For an independent writer trying to hire an artist, this is an individual, practical problem that can be addressed in a number of ways, but there’s a potential danger to this culture of secrecy.

This discomfort with talking about pay is common across a lot of fields. It feels personal, and it’s understandable when people aren’t forthcoming—maybe you don’t want to brag, or maybe you don’t want to know if you’re being ripped off. 

But knowing what the prevailing wage is important, especially in fields like comics where most workers are independent contractors, so that people don’t end up accidentally driving their own wages down. Knowing what is a reasonable level of compensation for your work lets you bargain—and walk away from the table—with confidence.

In some cultural industries, unions or other associations with the power to bargain on behalf of a sector set a pay scale. This is the minimum  you can pay someone doing job x  on a project of type y  (a more highly valued creator can still command more money). While pay scales have come in for criticism—in some cases, by employers or other commissioning institutions full of mock concern for the creators’ right to accept less money or to work for free—they are an important tool for upholding a decent livelihood in the face of otherwise pretty cutthroat competition.

In its absence, more knowledge about what’s actually going on out in the field can’t be a bad thing.  I respect people’s decision to keep their personal finances private, but a climate of secrecy makes it hard for creators to make decisions about how to allocate their limited time.

Setting aside the problem of who would or could bargain on behalf of comics creators, would a pay scale be a positive development in comics?