Archive for the 'Anti-Publishing' Category

The “Business Model” of an Academic Press

2011 Jun 6

Reposted from an SG thread about crowdfunding.

I’ve been wanting to share a talk I went to hosted by the University of Washington Press, which explained their “business model.” It was among the most depressing talks I’ve ever gone to. Luke Crane has a more sustainable economic enterprise than the entire academic publishing world, no joke!

They said it took $30,000 and 3 years for them to produce a volume and, generally, they might end up selling 300-500 copies of a book. Selling 1,000 copies was a significant success. Also, they often didn’t have the funds to afford a print run, so the press and authors would apply for grant funding to cover a significant amount of that. Or, at some presses, the author might be asked to front some portion of printing costs themselves.

That entire industry is dead and it doesn’t seem like they’re doing much about it. They still have a kind of vampire hold on the universities because many people still view publishing a volume through an academic press as they only way to gain scholarly status and tenure, but that’s less and less true these days as both tenure and academic publishing continue to die. The whole system is going to crash and have to be rebuilt along totally different lines. It’s totally unsustainable and not really a “business” at all.

I had been considering approaching some academic presses to see if they’d be interested in publishing Magic Missile and/or another edited volume I might put together later on, but there’s basically zero chance of that now, given how completely out-of-date their publishing model is. I mean, I can sell 500-1000 copies of something through the normal indie games channels, given a year or two. Waiting 3 years and having to raise $30,000 just isn’t worth it for the kind of non-support that an academic press would apparently provide. I even know the kinds of people that I could contact to get peer review, which is the major service that academic presses provide. Essentially, I feel like I could run an entire academic press for RPG-related books much better than most actual academic presses.

On Publishing: What I Should Have Said

2011 Mar 17

Based on my brother’s recommendation, I recently read part of Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, about the rise of indie rock music in the 1980s. What it reminded me of — especially in the sections about “selling out” or bands “blowing up” or whatever — is that there will always be tensions in any independent publishing scene between two major goals on opposite sides of a spectrum, which for simplicity’s sake let’s call:

A. being just a kid with a dream;
B. beating The Man at his own game.

Being just a kid with a dream, in publishing terms, is showing up someplace — out of nowhere, knowing nobody — with just some hand-made photocopies in your backpack, ready to show people how badass your creation is.

The Man in the case of indie games is probably Hasbro: a big, faceless corporation who we can all pretend to loathe even as we buy and enjoy at least some of their games (shout out to Castle Ravenloft!), and aspire, at least in some respects, to emulate or triumph over their products, producing big beautiful, hardcover tomes that millions of people will buy and enjoy.

The points I wanted to make about this are as follows.

1. Being anywhere along the continuum between A and B is great. No place is better than any other, necessarily. Really, truly, honestly. This is something we still forget too often.

2. The continuum between these two goals is actually false or, at least, it applies across the entire range of choices involved in publishing. You can aspire to have a game that does dungeon crawling better than D&D but is still a stapled, photocopied booklet. You can decide to have production values somewhere in the middle (getting some fancy layout and printing hardcover books) but get your brother Ned to edit it and draw some pictures for you. There’s an infinite number of choices available and none of them is necessarily “right” or “wrong.” It all depends on your desires and goals for a specific project.

3. Even if you’re sure you want to try to beat Hasbro at their own game, it’s very difficult to jump right in and expect to do that right off the bat. If you look at the indie folks who are closest — like Luke Crane and Fred Hicks — they were themselves once kids with a dream. Luke literally showed up at GenCon with photocopies of the first version of Burning Wheel in his backpack. Fred and his comrades originally released Fate as a free PDF, just hoping a few other folks would find it interesting. How many years has it been since then? To get where they are, they’ve made consistent progress over time, project after project, rather than jumping in headfirst and losing their shirt.

4. By all means, take advice and learn from folks who’ve been involved in publishing before, but be honest with yourself about where you are in the process and what the next step is for you. It’s not coincidental, I don’t think, that a lot of the indie creators who are currently enthusiastic about editing are not planning their first game but their second or third. It is only natural, I would argue, to rethink how you did things the first time and do them differently the second or third time around. Does that mean everyone needs an editor on their second game? Not necessarily. Again, it’s all based on what your needs are and what you want for your game. Vincent recent had a great post that talked about approaching things gradually. Be true to yourself also means acknowledging the scale and complexity you’re capable of handling right now. Start with something manageable.

5. Really, in the end, question this advice as well. It’s not as if those of us who have done publishing before took the gradual, careful path in all cases. We tried things. We experimented. We screwed up. We did things we now regret and feel guilty about. Really, that’s all part of the process too. Don’t let the “be careful” advice of experienced folks prevent you from ultimately taking the plunge and publishing however works best for you. In the end, it’s your game and maybe you’ll blaze a new trail for others to follow. Maybe you do know better than we do. And, even if not, you’ll learn from your mistakes just like we did.

That’s more what I meant to say earlier. Yes, it’s contradictory. Welcome to publishing! :)

Quick Note and Apology

2011 Mar 17

Fred Hicks has mentioned that some folks were really annoyed at my rant about editing. If so, I apologize, since I didn’t meant to make people upset, just to question some of the new consensus that seemed to be building about editing in the aftermath of Ben’s anti-playtesting post on Anyway and some other discussions.

In truth, “editor-serving drivel” was completely unfair to the motivations of folks with different opinions. Really, we all want to help folks make games that they’re proud of. If anyone’s still upset and wants to talk about it or tell me I’m a jerk, feel free to whisper me or email me (jaywalt, gmail).

That was not the best example of the kind of voice I aspire to be and hope I can gradually re-earn any respect that I’ve lost.

The First Dozen Things I Learned from Push

2011 Mar 17

There’s an SG thread about things you wish you did differently when publishing something. Here’s what I came up with:

0. I would have gotten to know people who were indie publishers BEFORE I published rather than after, so I had people I could call up and ask questions. If you don’t have the personal cell number of a successful indie publisher, maybe you don’t know one well enough yet.

1. I would have gotten a business account at my bank (which I now have) first thing, before doing anything else, so I could keep income and expenses for my publishing activities complete separate from my personal accounts. This is especially critical later on when you’re doing your business taxes.

2. I would have taken care of other business-related activities way earlier too, like getting state and city business licenses.

3. Before I had any products ready to go, I would have set up spreadsheets to track purchases through all the different methods I used (“backpack” sales, booth sales at various cons, IPR direct sales, IPR retailer sales, IPR convention sales, PDF sales through my website, Lulu print sales, Lulu PDF sales, PDF sales through DriveThur/RPGnow, etc.), since all of those have different expenses and I made different amounts of profit off each one. That’s a lot of work, but it’s critical and is one of those things nobody really talks about.

4. Having set up the spread sheet and run some estimated numbers through it, I would have been careful to price my book so that I made at least some profit off each one of those outlets. As it was, I lost money on IPR retailer sales for a while, maybe even for the duration that Push was available in print.

5. I wouldn’t have printed books through Lulu, despite it being relatively convenient. I know some publishers that still use them, but it’s not really competitive, cost wise, with getting a short run of 200 or so copies through an actual printer.

6. I would have had a schedule where I printed the books months before I actually needed them for GenCon. First, it’s good if folks have at least a month or so to read and/or play your game before you launch it at a big convention, so there’s folks there who can run it besides you. Second, it prevents last minute deadline rushing that can leave you with a product that you’re not satisfied with later. Better to put out a solid game the first time then back-track and apologize later. If you’re putting out your game in, say, January or Feburary (a great month to release a game), it’s clear you’re not rushing it just to have it for GenCon. If you’re launching at GenCon or some other big convention… maybe your book isn’t actually ready to go yet.

7. I would have had a flat, up-front payment to contributors and not split profits later. Promising people money you don’t yet have is kinda bullshit and it means that you have to keep sending them checks for a potentially infinite amount of time into the future, until you decide to let the book go out of print (which is ultimately what happened to Push, not un-coincidentally). While it may seem the “fair” thing to do for the folks that are helping you out, it’s WAY more trouble than it’s worth in the long run. Ryan recently had a post where he mentioned the option of trading shares of later profit for editorial work. DON’T DO IT. Pay some money just so you never have to work with someone again if they turn out to be a jerk. Everyone I worked with on Push was awesome, but it was still too much of a hassle to count profits and them split them 6 ways.

8. I edited Push, so I can’t really talk about editing so much. It’s been a popular topic lately, though, so I feel like I should say something. Here’s the thing, a good editor is more than just some dude you hire to read your game and tell you where it sucks, in the same way that a good layout guy doesn’t just walk away with your text and come back with a fully finished PDF. Editors get into the guts of what you create and are collaborators in what you ultimately produce, so make sure that they’re somebody that you want to have a partnership with and trust to stick with you until your project is done. I know more than a few indie game designers who thought they had a deal with an editor and then shit happened and they ended up having to do it themselves or find other people to help. Heck, that’s how I ended up editing part of Blowback for free. Also, this stuff about “getting what you pay for” with editing is editor-serving drivel.* Paying more won’t always get you a better product. When is that ever true? Paying less or expecting things for free won’t get you a better product either. The only way to make sure you get good editing is having a strong relationship with someone who is willing to give you the kind of help you want and need. Whether you’re paying them or not doesn’t matter. You can pay someone a bunch of money and still get shitty editing (or even no editing, if they take your money and walk). Hiring an editor does not absolve you of the responsibility of publishing a unclear or poorly written game. You don’t get to blame them later when there are still problems. You still ultimately have to decide when your game is ready for release. And that can be without any editing. Really, the idea that every game needs an editor is also editor-serving drivel.* What happened to our punk-rock, DIY spirit? Release whatever you want, just make sure you’re willing to stand up and take responsibility for your creations, whatever they look like. If they’re a photocopied, stapled thing that you wrote in 6 hours and sell for $10 a piece, power to you.

9. I would have made sure the games were consistently fun to play before publishing them. There’s are a bunch of ways to do this, but mostly it involves playing your game in the spirit it was intended — not to break it, not to see if extreme situations are covered by the rules, just to have fun and enjoy it. What Ben’s anti-playtesting rant got right was that playing your game a whole bunch won’t magically show you all the problems it has and offer you clear solutions to them. Sometimes you’ll play a game a bunch, it’ll still be mediocre, and you won’t be sure what the problems are and how to fix them. In that case, maybe you shouldn’t publish that game (yet or ever, depending on if you figure it out later). Also, if nobody wants to play your game with you, you should either find people who do or maybe not publish that game. If you had no audience, who are you going to sell it to or (if it’s for free) who’s going to play it?

10. I would think very carefully about conventions and make sure that they made sense for my budget and aspirations. I wouldn’t have done a convention just because it felt like I was supposed to or that’s how things worked. Better yet, I would have gone to conventions just as a regular con-goer before deciding to pay a bunch of money to attend as part of a booth.

11. I wouldn’t have bought any art before the text of the game was final and ready to go. I still probably have several thousand dollars worth of art for products that may never exist. I’ve also sent hundreds of dollars to artists who never ended up delivering the goods, so this is another place where working with people that you have stronger ties with — or, at least, who act professionally — is much better.

12. I wouldn’t release “press releases” or made any kind of announcements about the future availability of products before they were at the printer. Definitely don’t take pre-order money from people before the final PDF is ready to be sent to the printer and you have a clear sense of print costs and everything else. Otherwise, how do you know what to charge or how long it’ll be before the books are ready?

I’m sure I can think of more, but those are the first dozen things.

EDIT: * an unfair characterization that I regret, see the next post.

Scout Books: Hot New Printing Option

2011 Mar 16

So I’ve been watching the awesome folks at Pinball Publishing for a long time. They’re an eco-friendly print shop based in Portland and do really amazing work with 100% recycled materials and plant-based inks. A year ago, they launched a line called “scoutbooks,” blank or lined mini-notebooks with custom covers, inspired — as far as I can tell — by Boy Scout merit badge pamphlets.

Recently, they’ve upgraded the options and allow you to order bad-ass looking 32-page 3.5×5″ saddle-stitched booklets with chipboard covers and custom interiors through their amazingly simple website. With 1-color covers, they end up being $2-3 a piece, and it’s between $2-4 for two color covers, depending on how many you order.

In my mind, these are PERFECT way to print short indie games in a way that looks nice and professional. I’ve been planning all along to use them to print Geiger Counter and Super Suit, and thought about hoarding this secret away so I could be the first to do this, but decided it was better to share.

If anybody does get games printed through them, please let me know because I’m dying to find out how they turn out.

What This is Actually About

2010 Sep 8

A note mostly to myself, paraphrasing a recent conversation with Ryan Macklin, but also in reference to conversations with Matt Snyder and others:

“Creator ownership is (or should be) about creators having as much control as they want.”

It doesn’t mean everybody should have to self-publish as a sole proprietorship.

I think that might be the step in thinking that could take the indie roleplaying community closer to where indie comics are right now.

At least, something worth thinking about.

Everyone Can Make Games

2010 Aug 29

Archived from this thread on SG:

So, with Game Chef coming up again, I have to say that I firmly believe that:

1. Everyone can design a game. It’s like how everyone can draw a picture of a flower. You just do it, period. And there it is: a game.

2. Whether a game is “good” or not is completely subjective, depending on what you want from it. Maybe it isn’t particularly successful as a game, but tells you a great deal about the author (insight) or, 20 years down the road, becomes a record of what they were thinking about at the time (nostalgia). Everything is potentially valuable and useful and “good” to someone. And the rest doesn’t matter. Why would anyone want to judge all games by the same set of criteria? Why should every game aspire to be D&D or Dogs in the Vineyard? That’s bullshit. You have to know your (subjective) criteria before you decide how to judge a game.

3. Everyone can learn to make games that work better as games (i.e. creating a consistently enjoyable experience for their players, based on whatever subjective criteria you have for play), given practice and a desire to learn from others. Actually, you can learn to make games that are better at whatever subjective criteria you have, if it’s selling more copies, or causing more controversy, or making you more famous amongst your peers or whatever. People are good at learning to do things. All it takes is time and dedication. Of course, people have different capacities for getting better and different learning speeds, especially as we get older, but I believe that everyone can make incremental progress if they put in the time and energy. That’s one of the simple joys and rewards of being alive.

4. Does that mean that everyone can make a game that will be hugely successful at their own subjective criteria? No. You can definitely get closer to your criteria or more successful, but nothing guarantees that you will be successful at anything you want to do. The challenge and uncertainty is also part of life simple pleasures and vexing frustrations.

5. Sometimes this means, in order to be hugely successful by your own (subjective) standards, you have to change the criteria by which you measure yourself and your games. Maybe you just want to write the best 2-player game about zombies ever written. That’s probably possible. Will it sell a billion copies and make you world famous? Probably not. Who cares though? You did it. You met your criteria. Maybe you want to hack an existing game and run a really memorable campaign that your home playgroup will never forget. Badass. Do that.

A lot of this comes out of my own frustrations and personal journey over the past 10 years or so, coming to terms with my own design and publishing goals and ability to execute on them (at least at this stage in my life). So, changing your personal criteria for success is something near and dear to my heart. I do it all the time and feel like it’s probably critical for human beings to stay sane and satisfied.

Issues in Indie Publishing: 2010

2010 Aug 15

Having missed GenCon this year, I’m trying to aggregate the various issues brought up by the post-GenCon blogosphere and forum conversations in this (so far, civil) thread on SG. Please point me at anything I may have missed.

The Current State of Free

2009 Aug 1

Over on SG, Tony Dowler asked about publishing things for free and how that was working out for folks. This was my response:

Tony, my current personal development/publishing model goes something like this: 1) release free editions of my game until I’m satisfied that it’s as good as I can make it, 2) once it’s in its final form, release a commercial version or contract with someone else who wants to publish a commercial version (but the free versions stay free, including the final finished document). This has a number of benefits, that I really like:

  • no rushing to commercial publication (GenCon, when’s that again?)
  • no worrying about the game being perfect before I release it
  • people can enjoy playing / playtesting my games right now
  • the iterative publication of free editions lets me gradually improve the text
  • it allows me to build up an audience for my games and gain feedback from them
  • if, ultimately, several of my games never make it to step 2… so what? people can still play them
  • I feel like “a real game designer” without feeling caught up in as much bullshit posturing
  • my games will ultimately end up better for it
  • I feel much less guilt about games not being done or out there

Of the games that I’ve released for free, the ones that I’m generally known for are Geiger Counter and Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan. Since the alpha release, I’ve had 14 independent APs posted for Geiger, which is pretty damn good in my book, and 4 independent discussions of my game (all started by Ben Robbins). I keep a log of them on my Geiger page. I know there’s been more play than that too, but it did take a while for folks to really start playing it after I released it (a few months, at least) and there are large gaps in the stream of APs, not a steady progression, but I think that’s pretty common for commercially published games too. Now that there’s a bit of word-of-mouth out about Geiger, I never have trouble filling slots or pick-up games at conventions or meet-ups. If you release a free game, though, and people are already aware of you or your concepts are especially gripping or attractive (I’m thinking of the Red Box Hack, Dungeon Squad, and John Harper’s recent releases), I think you can have free products really explode right out of the gate.

Kazekami Kyoko has had a somewhat different history. I wrote it in 2006 and I keep hearing something about it… once or twice a year, I’d say. So very much a slow, slow burn but something that doesn’t ever seem to go away. And for a game I wrote in a couple of hours, I think that’s pretty damn awesome. There was a really cool thread on the Forge about it just recently.

So, basically, right now I’m looking at free, iterative publication as the main thing I’m doing, since none of my games have made it to #2 yet (and, honestly, I’m increasingly fine with that). This isn’t some prelude to the “big show” of commercial publishing; this is it. The fact that folks like John Harper and Matt Wilson have been seduced and subverted to something vaguely resembling my publishing model — which, honestly, I was seduced to by Clinton — just makes it all the more fun and satisfying, since I’m not doing it by myself. Plus, John and Matt have clearly uped the ante, which just pushes me to make my free stuff better.

The Razor

2009 Feb 7

We are rapidly approaching the day in which the difference between creating something and publishing it is whether anyone else knows of its existence. (Assuming that you’ll create virtual stuff with an online program like Google docs and anybody who knows it exists can Google for it.)