Writing

Don’t Trust the Dabel Brothers! Crystal Rain Comic Book Falls Through

This is one big frustration that’s been two years in the making, and I feel compelled to blog it up as a data point for other people because I am that guy who tries to shine light into how things work so other people don’t make the mistakes I make. I have all my correspondence backed up and archived, and so I dug through it to make sure all my dates, facts, and things said were accurate.

Here are the bare facts, with no commentary first:

In early 2004, contract in hand for my first novel to Tor, Crystal Rain, I read the whole thing over very carefully. I noticed that my agent had negotiated graphic novel rights to stay with us.

In early 2005 I met one of the Dabel Brothers at a convention and was really impressed with the great art work of one of their comic books. I talked to them about my novel, and later sent an email talking to them about it. Ernst Dabel was intrigued and asked for a preview copy of Crystal Rain and to see the cover as soon as I did (April 7th, 2005, 10:30AM) in reply a while later to my email.

May 13, 2005 at 4:41, Ernst replied that he liked the cover very much and requested a link to the Amazon page. From May-February there was little correspondence, though I do see I forwarded early reviews and ‘buzz’ about the book to them and on Crystal Rain’s launch date, Ernst sent an email asking if they could adapt Crystal Rain into a comic book (Feb. 7th, 2006 11:56 AM). He handed my details over to Les Dabel.

On Feb 16th, 2006 (12:03 AM) Les wrote that he would get me information by the end of the week. On the 28th he apologized for a delay. On March 8th I got a contract that I passed onto my agent along with the Dabel Brothers’ emails.

After that, there was a long lull. Finally on July 31st, 2006 the Dabels promised to get the contract changes back to my agent that he’d asked about. After a second round, my agent reported a contract had been agreed upon on October 3rd, 2006 and emailed it to me to look over. I signed it and sent copies to my agent.

In the past, once I’ve signed contracts for any US deal, my agent has said it’s okay to announce it. So I did here. Dabel had just announced that they’d teamed up with Marvel.
There was more silence over the next couple months once I’d sent the contract back. On Dec. 19th I exchanged emails with Les saying how excited I was about seeing the novel make this transition. I showed them the cover for my next book, Ragamuffin.

And then… more silence. We never received a copy of the contract back, no details on when Crystal Rain would be adapted, and I never got paid the very token advance for the rights to make Crystal Rain a comic book/graphic novel.

On July 11, 2007, I dropped a line to the Dabel Brothers asking what was going on, noting that Crystal Rain was in paperback, available in Wal-Marts, and so on.
Silence.

On August 13th, 2007 (1:19 PM) I asked again, point black “I haven’t heard from you guys all summer. What’s up?”

Les replied at 1:50 apologizing and asked if I could receive a call. I said sure.

I was then told that Dabel was having trouble with Marvel, because Marvel had never heard of me and had not been interested in my book and put the stop on it, but the Dabel Brothers were doing something new and moving forward, and the second half of 2008 was going to be awesome and they were going to launch Crystal Rain then.

My agent was to talk to them on the 14th and have a conference call about details.
At 7:58 on August 14th my agent emailed that they hadn’t.

I found out that Marvel was discontinuing their relationship with the Dabel Brothers. On August 16th, 7:58AM, I emailed that I was sorry to hear about that, and that we still needed to talk about Crystal Rain via phone conference with my agent, as they had promised.

Nothing. I kept my hopes up though, because at least I had a date now, 2nd half of ’08.
September 4th I started hearing grumblings about the Marvel/Dabel Brothers fallout, and that it left some people unpaid and so on. My agent emailed asking me if I wanted to continue hoping, or take another course of action. I started calling around and emailing people who’d worked with Dabel to get some bead on what I should do next.

I won’t repeat or insinuate anything. But what I got back in feedback depressed my hopes of ever seeing Crystal Rain in comic book form.

Nonetheless, I had a contract and a date, that was something, and I shouldered on.
On November 14, 2007, after still more silence, I saw that Dabel was now with Del Rey. My agent counseled me that we should send a certified letter saying that the agreement we signed and sent them was null and void.

On the 15 I finally, after doing some more checking around, research online, agreed that it wasn’t worth it. My agent reported on Nov. 26th that a return receipt proof came back.
Thus ended my 3 year attempt and work to get Crystal Rain out as a comic book via the Dabel Brothers.

My feelings about this:

I’m frustrated to have placed my trust in them for this long. I was excited by the idea of Crystal Rain becoming a graphic novel. Everyone who heard the news said stuff like “yeah, your writing is adventurous and dynamic, full of eyeball kicks, it would translate well.”

Furthermore, I felt it would be nice cross advertising, both of my readers to Dabel and for new readers to find me. And for existing readers to see a cool new version of Crystal Rain.

I’ve done my best to believe in these guys because, frankly, they do great artwork. My first worry was that 4-5 month delay in negotiating the contract, which I felt was a bit long.
The second delay troubled me as well, but there was a lot of other work going on. I pinged the brothers a few times, and the silence did trouble me. The fact that I had no money in hand, had never seen them announce anything on their blog or site, also troubled me.
When they got back to me this last August, full of excitement over my work and how they were finally going to get to launch it, I was flattered. And excited. Until I found out that the Marvel deal had fallen through and a lot of the content creators stayed with Marvel.

So that could explain the sudden newfound enthusiasm and discussion.

But soon I was seeing announcements of other people signing on, and then there was that ominous silence again. Emails not being returned.

Sometimes people fall into the cracks. Sometimes deals fall through.

At this point though, I felt, if Dabel wasn’t interested, they should just have said so, or say so. I did feel that other authors with larger names were doing okay, which made me feel like I was talking to someone in a party, and someone with of more importance walked by and I was suddenly having a conversation with air.

On one hand, a small comic book company has to push it’s bigger names. On the other hand, I’m a nobody at lots of other venues and am climbing my way up, and I never got this kind of treatment.

And frankly, to be egotistical, with over a thousand people a day passing through my blog, decent sales, solid reviews, and some buzz going, I’m not exactly chopped liver here. I’m in my late 20s with a novel career, reputation in new media, and some solid reach. For fuck’s sake, I at least expect some open communication, or a ‘sorry, we can’t work with you.’ I’ve been turned down before. I may get let go from somewhere. That’s fine, but to remain in limbo, and then when I do reach someone, to get the big enthusiastic talk-up. I felt like I was being treated like a multi-level marketer prospect, not a fellow businessman, and certainly not a fellow creative professional.

Every business occasionally fubars, and I’d been passed some negative links about Dabel business practices, but I’d brushed them off as outliers. So I I decided to go hunting online to get a sense of what I was dealing with.

My research

Comic Book Resources has a column that linked a few times to the Dabel Brothers/Marvel fallout. This one from August has this columnist about the Comic Book business say:

I’ve been hearing more and more from people, unpaid by the Dabel Brothers, but none wishing to speak out for fear of never being paid, for losing work, or be seen as a troublesome employee. You know, a comic book creator union can’t come fast enough.

In 2007: September 4th saw this article that many forwarded me with names people who were distressed about not being paid and then follows with this:

There are plenty of other people who have asked me not to run their details, for fear that they will never be paid or will alienate potential employees.
*snip*
One explanation Les Dabel has given to people asking what happened is that he believes he signed a poor initial deal with Marvel, against his own attorney’s advice. He paid off other debts initially, but gave Marvel until this September to pay enough money to keep the cashflow going. However, this did not stop Dabel from promising and failing to pay creators. Despite claiming he has guaranteed incoming arriving from Marvel, he states he couldn’t get a bridging loan from any bank. And in San Diego he was claiming that he was ending his deal with Marvel to speed up payments to creators, at a loss to himself.
This story is thrown in doubt in that the deal broke up only weeks before September, the date at which according to Dabel, Marvel were meant to pay a large cash sum. Creators remain unpaid. And any bank, shown contractual guaranteed income coming in a short period of time, would likely fall over themselves to lend money.

Here is a recent one just this week: an artist who is very much in a feud with them for talking negatively about them all over the internet about their not paying people. He is threatened with a libel lawsuit. You can poke around the details here and here.
While everyone, including me, had wondered if Marvel wasn’t bullying around Dabel, I started to see that in the past 5 years or so Dabel had a similar pattern of fallouts with every business partner they’ve been with.

Publishers Weekly’s Heidi MacDonald:

Against that is the Dabels rep for dissolving publishing relationships — in the past they had distribution agreements with Image, Alias, Devil’s Due and Red Eagle Entertianment — all ended, as has their deal with Marvel, which seemed to be making money for everyone. The Dabel Brother wiki page makes reference to court proceedings regarding the Red Eagle Entertainment deal (for a series of Robert Jordan comic books) but that has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Researching this seems to reveal a constant move of Dabel Brothers from partner to partner, with un-amicable separations every 1-2 years:

In 2006, Red Eagle Entertainment and Dabel began fighting over the Book of the New Spring. Dabel claimed that Red Eagle stopped paying them, which led to various problems with delivery (Robert Jordan confirmed here). You can see Les defend himself here with stuff that seems to make sense.

In 2005, Alias and Dabel Brothers split thusly:

According to a statement from Alias, they are releasing DBPro “after a series of late and failed deliveries, and an expression by Dabel Brothers that they would like to return to their roots as an independent publisher.”
From Alias: “”Alias is all about promoting and defending creator and studio rights,” said Alias Publisher, Brett Burner. “DB Pro has been afforded other publishing opportunities which they believe are in their best interests to follow, and we are not in the business of holding creators back from reaching their full potential.”

In 2004 Devil’s Due and the Dabels had a nasty running forum and internet battle with both alleging each other payment issues.
Again, Comic Book Resources was there with other notes on the Devil’s Due breakup:

Some have had a hard time believing anyone who’s done as much licensed work for as long as Devil’s Due has (longer than they’ve done comics) would have a vendor contract with a termination clause… but the Dabel guys seem to be on the verge of demonstrable damages with these press releases. There are also allegations that the brothers have yet to pay certain freelancers for projects, and at least one is now boycotting them – though Mike Bullock is doing his best to smooth things over there…

In 2003 Dabel left Image:

While expressing similar sentiments of others who have left Image, Dabel explained the #1 reason for moving to Devil’s Due in black and white ““ money. “I’m getting a better offer from Devil’s Due,” Dabel said. “It can get really expensive to publish books, and with Image right now, we’re not making enough through them to cover all of our costs. We’re paying all our staff and creators, but that’s coming out of my pocket, and not the profits from the book, as ideally, things should work. The books are making money ““ don’t get me wrong, but a large chunk of that is staying with Image. If we’re going to continue publishing comics, we had to make a decision to do what best suited our financial health.
*snip*
“A lot of the books at Image never are completed, or those that have started in color have moved to black and white and the number one reason is that barely anyone is making enough money to support the books ““ it’s just too expensive. Devil’s Due is going to be very creator friendly, even to the point that that Devil’s Due will be pushing individuals to promote their own name, so he’ll allow us to brand our own name. With Image, you could only brand the Image name, now, with our new books, our name will be in the corner. Devil’s Due’s name will be there as well, but so will ours, so everyone will know that the book is from us.”

Summary

I don’t know if the Dabel Brothers are just some guys with bad luck, or if they are just not good at business, or what. But there are constantly delays, accusations of non-payment, and very bad feelings with every major venture. I’ll be curious to see how their partnership with Del-Rey works out.

I’m annoyed to have held Crystal Rain off the market for almost 3 years. If that doesn’t show my good will and intentions, I don’t know what does. I do resent that my possible window of opportunity to get people really psyched about Crystal Rain in graphic novel form and get some synergy going has been very diluted if not lost (I have hopes for Sly Mongoose, though).
I’m glad that I did not entrust my rights with them, though, digging around and doing this research. I wanted, however, to put this up publicly because I know many major name authors have been treated okay by them, but I want to make sure that since the Dabel’s have moved to hunting for novels to adapt, that you should make sure you at least have money in hand before moving forward on anything. No matter how good-intentioned or excited they may be, they either have a lot of concurrent bad luck, or are business-incompetent (but graphically/artistically gifted).

Be very, very careful. Like use an escrow account, or do something to protect yourself.

(And no, I never did see a dime from them)

22 thoughts on “Don’t Trust the Dabel Brothers! Crystal Rain Comic Book Falls Through”

  1. Well, that certainly sucks. I’m sorry you had to go through it. But thanks for blogging about it and shedding some light on the process.
    Not to sound too cynical, but I guess researching prospective partners can save you time and trouble. Good on ya for at least showing some faith in them, even if they ultimately didn’t deserve it.

  2. DKT: me too!
    Jeremy, I did cursory research, but that doesn’t reveal all that much other than their onslaught of positive press they send out online. It was only after the Marvel stuff that I started digging really deep.

  3. Well, this sounds pretty typical of the small-press comics scene. Lots of ideas and enthusiasm but not much professionalism.
    It’s a dog-fight for anyone to make money beyond Marvel, D.C., and Dark Horse, who rely more on their merchandising and media products for profits than the actual books. A lot of talented people and good work being done in the small presses, but it’s basically labor-of-love/self publishing.
    Crystal Rain and/or Ragamuffin would be great in the comics format–provided you had experienced artists and a scripter with leeway to do justice to the stories. Some of the recent novel tie-ins have been crammed into too few issues, which makes them stilted and sucky. See some recent R.A. Salvatore adaptations as examples.
    Bottom line: comics have simply become too expensive. Expensive to produce and buy. Though people are doing interesting things with webcomics these days…

  4. That really sucks, Mr. Buckell. That’s a prime example of a group of unprofessional people…ridiculous. They could have saved you a lot of time and effort by just saying they weren’t going to do it.
    CR would translate really well to graphic novel. Lots of action. Call up Frank Miller. Maybe he’d do it.

  5. This is such a bummer, though as Scott suggests webcomics are a interesting medium which appears to be on the rise. Not sure if you could break even on a webcomic after artist work.

  6. I could definitely see how Crystal Rain or Ragamuffin *could* be adapted. I know squat about the graphic novels / comics market, though, but both novels would lend themselves to visual storytelling.
    Too bad that it wasn’t able to come through, and really too bad considering the circumstances why.

  7. Well, that’s a bummer, although my gut feeling is you’ll have your graphic novel adaptation eventually. It does, actually, confirm something I was thinking, which is that if you hang around long enough in publishing, shit happens. I’m not really sure if it’s worse in publishing than it is in other fields–I suspect it’s worse in the arts–but in publishing, there’s what I perceive to be a depressing lack of respect for contracts. The publishing industry seems to treat them as agreement letters rather than legal documents. And my experienced with Llewellyn aren’t the only examples. I have a friend who was dropped by HarperCollins a decade ago in a Rupert Murdoch purge where they dropped several hundred authors, then went back to the authors demanding the money back, even though they were the ones in breach of contract. (To which my friend and his agent suggested the publisher kiss his ass.)
    Anyway, hang in there. A movie deal might be a nice consolation, si?

  8. That is too bad… all that effort and not a dime. The publishing industry is a rough ride. What about self-publishing? You can do full color graphic novel style books now for fairly cheap…

  9. In my various non-creative day jobs, I’ve seen a few deals go sideways in similar fashion – Party A says “I love this” but their checkbook never seems to be handy.
    I think it’s a problem with entrepreneurial type individuals. Your typical entrepreneur is very interested in starting new stuff, but finds finishing it boring. Successful entrepreneurs, AKA “outside guys” have to partner with a detail person, AKA “inside guy” who makes actually makes the trains run.
    It appears that the Brothers Dabel are both outside guys.

  10. I’d probably have told them (courteously) to piss off after the second unreturned ping. Patience, thy name is Tobias.
    I don’t know much about the American market, but have you thought about trying the Brits or the French? They’re doing some interesting things across the pond with the format.

  11. Toby, thanks for writing this. It’s interesting, because it’s really a case of trying to understand a lack of data points (ie silence) which means that you have to project into that silence what it means. And that means that you’re making decisions that you’re constantly second-guessing, because you can’t tell if you’re just being prickly and crazy, or if there’s really something bizarre going on.
    I had trouble with an agent a while back and it was very similar. If the guy had just told me to kiss off, I would have happily gone away, relieved that we were parting ways and that I could go on and find an agent who was happy to have me.
    Instead, he let things trail along and would never return phone calls or emails, and I then… everyone once in a while…. he would get really excited about me or a book that I was working on and then — like a silly little monkey — I would get excited to have him as an agent, and think that maybe, just maybe, everything was fine.
    This went on for a couple years before I finally figured out that the dynamic wasn’t working, and dissolved our contract. Best decision I could have made, but damn, it took a long time to get there.

  12. More and more I’m seeing first hand (and hearing from many other creators I talk to) that comic book publishers are simply awful at communicating unless you’re some kind of superstar. I have no idea why it’s so difficult to get communication. Are they worried that they shouldn’t say anything unless it’s positive? Do they assume no communication at all is better than bad news?
    I’d like to say that this lack of professionalism stems from the clubhouse mentality of comics, but I’ve seen similar behavior in video games, toys and TV. Entertainment industries breed strange egos and messed up social situations.

  13. Hi Tobias. I hope all is well. First off please accept my apologies, I know this situation must have been really frustrating for you. My brothers and I were really interested in publishing your work as a comic / graphic novel series. A good way to verify this is to look at the authors work we have published in the past. All of them are New York Times Best Selling authors. The reasoning behind this simple, we have to make our money back. A comic adaptation can run us anywhere between $30,000.00 to $80,000.00 and we don’t make that money back until 1 year after we invest the money. So we have to be very selective when it comes to doing adaptations.
    After meeting you in person and talking with you we figured we would take a chance on the project even though we had no guarantees of seeing our investment back. We really liked you and wanted to do something we generally would not do and probably should not have done but after meeting you we really wanted to make this work and that is why it saddens me after reading your blog. My friend Tobias, we had a lot to deal with in those 3 years you mentioned. When you’re a small publisher putting out money for projects and not getting paid on time or not getting paid at all it becomes really stressful and this stress can cause you to overlook things or not give something else the attention it deserves and for this I apologize.
    Now for everything else you stated. Yes we’ve had our up and we’ve had our downs. People will speculate, people will post what they think they know but the truth is no one knows what’s really going on except the people involved. Good example is the Marvel deal. There are a lot of speculations about what happened but the funny thing is people don’t know what happened? What if Marvel bought out our properties or what if Marvel gave us the option to leave the contract early? Also the last year we’ve been working with anyone that has had a claimed about not being paid and contacting any artist to make sure they are paid for the work they did. People are always eager to post when there is something negative to say but are slow when it’s time to post the positives, I would take what people say on the web with a grain of salt. From reading your post it looks like you will never work with us again and I can’t blame you and I will definitely not hold it against you. I sincerely wish you the best of luck. You’re a great guy and very talented writer with a great future ahead of you and “Crystal Rain” is a great book, we really enjoyed it. Take care my friend.
    Les D
    http://www.dabelbrothers.com

  14. Given the critical mass of creators complaining about nonpayment from Dabel Bros, I would think at this point anyone who had actually had good experiences with the company would be rushing to the company’s defense.
    *crickets*

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