Archive

Posts Tagged ‘self-publishing’

Getting a Job in the RPG Industry

October 10, 2012 4 comments

There must be something in the air. After the last two posts on breaking into video games and getting your game published, today one of my LinkedIn groups had a question from someone who wants to get a job in the tabletop RPG industry. Here’s what I told him. I think it’s realistic, but others may think I’m being too negative. If he’s really committed to tabletop RPGs as a career, he won’t be put off by what I say anyway.

All my tabletop RPG pals out there, please weigh in with your own advice and experiences – either here or on the LinkedIn discussion.

There’s barely an industry to break into. With very few exceptions (WotC, Paizo, Fantasy Flight), the industry is made up of garage operations doing it for love rather than money. Almost no one makes a living at it: I don’t. A little while ago I wrote a blog entry on the reasons for this.

If this doesn’t discourage you, start by freelancing. Pick your favorite 2-3 game systems and become an expert. Write a few pieces for each one and send them to the appropriate line editor. Don’t expect these to get published: they are just samples. If and when you get paying gigs, use the published work build up a portfolio.

Look at Kickstarter and Indiegogo for RPG projects. If you see anything you like, contribute cash (this establishes good faith) and write to the project’s owner and offer to create something for a stretch goal. Don’t expect payment for this until your name carries some weight.

Review games for sites like DriveThruRPG, RPGGeek, and Roleplayers Chronicle. Start a blog and post your work there alongside intelligent discussion of issues and market developments. Be active on the forums for your favorite 2-3 games. Go to GenCon and other major shows, visit the booths of your favorite publishers, and find someone to talk to about their needs.

Give this process 5-10 years (seriously). With a little luck and a lot of hard work your name will become sufficiently established that you can get regular freelance work. No matter how much you get, though, you will still need a “day job” to pay the bills. You will always be competing with an unlimited number of fans who write or draw as a hobby, and this keeps payment rates too low to sustain anyone as a career.

Keep an eye on publishers’ web sites, looking for vacancy announcements. Develop skills in graphic design, layout, and web site development that will set you apart from the mass of writers and/or artists. Consider acquiring business skills as well. Take your cue from the vacancies you see advertised: in my experience business and production vacancies are the hardest to fill. Writing vacancies, when they exist, are almost never advertised, for two reasons:

a) Any ad for RPG writers produces an unmanageable flood of applications. Picking out usable candidates from the mass of semi-literates and enthusiastic schoolkids takes too long. True story: when I worked for Games Workshop, an ad for a game writer produced multiple applications from 12-13 year olds (and a touching one from a 9-year-old, written in black crayon and accompanied by a sketch of his character) asking us to keep the vacancy open until they finished school.

b) All RPG companies use freelancers extensively to keep costs down. Therefore when a vacancy arises, hiring managers usually approach their best freelancers, filling the vacancy without needing to advertise.

Or, you can do what most people do and found your own company.

Set up a blog and post regularly, including free samples (skeleton rules in the GURPS light mode, free adventures) to give people a taste and make them want to spend cash on your products.

Use Facebook and game forums to develop a fan base. Send electronic samples to every review site you can find.

Once you have a base and some good reviews for your initial products, use Kickstarter to fund more. Look at current Kickstarter campaigns to see what works and what doesn’t.

Using print-on-demand and electronic distribution, you can avoid tying up too much cash in stock, but you have to do everything yourself because it will be years (if ever) before you have enough money to hire any help.

You’ll have to keep a day job, and free time will become an unknown concept, but you’ll be working in the industry you love and for some people that is enough.

I’m sorry if this sounds negative, but the reality is that the tabletop RPG industry is (and looks to remain) idea-rich but cash-poor, with writers in particular being a heavily oversupplied commodity.

Crowdfunding

April 19, 2012 1 comment

I’ve been hearing a lot about crowdfunding over the last couple of years, especially in the cash-poor but idea-rich tabletop roleplaying industry. What I haven’t heard is how successful crowdfunding has been at raising money. As of a couple of days ago, though, it looks like I’m going to be finding out.

Last week I got an email out of the blue from James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I hadn’t heard of him or his company before, because I really don’t do much in the world of tabletop roleplaying these days. I’d like to, but I can’t generally afford to work for the kind of rates that the industry pays: I wrote an entry On the Economics of Tabletop RPGs earlier.

I do make exceptions, but they are very rare. One is for Colonial Gothic, because I’ve known Richard Iorio of Rogue Games for years and I think the setting has a lot of potential. Another is for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, because it has been such a huge part of my gaming career going back to 1986. And I still write occasionally for GURPS, because it allows me to indulge my passion for historical and historical-fantasy roleplaying. Recently I had to turn down a project from a once-big publisher, because they were offering the same rate of pay as they did 20 years ago and I just couldn’t afford to do it.

Anyway, back to Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Casting about for reviews and then looking over the PDFs that I received, I found it was quite an interesting game. It’s an AD&D retro-clone, another phenomenon I had heard about but not investigated – but the main thing that interested me was the game’s focus on atmosphere and horror over old-school hackfests. So I’ve agreed to do something – maybe.

Here’s where the crowdfunding comes in. My adventure will be one of the bonus items if another project – a hardcover edition of the core rules – exceeds its funding target. Jim has also signed up Ken Hite, Frank Menzer, and some newer names to provide additional bonus items. You can find the details at Indiegogo – and make a pledge if you like what you see.

This is my first brush with crowdfunding, and I really don’t know what to expect. But I guess that in 44 days, I won’t be able to say that any more.

It’s going to be interesting.

On the Economics of Tabletop RPGs

January 28, 2012 30 comments

Almost 30 years ago, I wrote an article for TSR UK’s Imagine magazine on the subject of converting characters and adventures between different roleplaying game systems. I remember taking an unscientific poll at the time, and based on the content and advertising in the various RPG magazines I had to hand, there were around 50 tabletop RPGs on the market. Today, a quick look through DriveThruRPG.com turns up 97 game lines, and I’m sure there are many more that don’t sell through that site.

The year after my article was published, GenCon attracted 5,000 attendees in its first year in Milwaukee. Last year, a reported 36,733 people went to Indianapolis for GenCon, to say nothing of those who attended the various smaller GenCons around the world.

All this might lead the casual observer to believe that the tabletop roleplaying hobby has never been stronger or more popular – but I’m not so sure. Here’s why:

The FLGS Under Threat

In the 80s and early 90s, I was usually aware of 2-3 Friendly Local Game Stores (FLGSs to us game geeks) within a 30-minute drive of wherever I happened to be living at the time. They were places where gamers could go and browse, maybe play a demo or two, pick up new releases for whatever games they played, and discover new games.

Now, the FLGS is almost an endangered species. The major games – D&D, Pathfinder, and maybe one or two others – can now be found in big-box bookstores, but they don’t carry anything like the range of stock found in an FLGS, and small to mid-range titles are absent altogether. The online retailers carry a much broader range, but browsing takes serious determination. I suspect that game conventions are now the main way that gamers discover new games.

Follow the Money

When I quit Games Workshop in 1990 to set out on the uncertain seas of freelance game writing, I was paid between 2 and 5 cents per word. Twenty-two years later, that’s what most of the tabletop RPG industry still pays. A handful of the larger publishers pay 6 cents per word.

According to DollarTimes.com, a 2012 dollar is worth only 58 cents from 1990. So in real terms, payment rates have declined by more than one-third over the last 22 years. Many old-school tabletop RPG writers, myself included, now make their living in the better-paying electronic games industry. Many of the people I know in the industry – even those who own and operate RPG publishing companies – list a “day job” on their LinkedIn profiles, which is a sign that they can’t make a living from game publishing alone.

So what’s happening? Why do we see growth in the range of tabletop RPG titles and increasing attendance at game conventions alongside clear evidence of a drop in profitability? I can think of a couple of reasons.

Lowering the Bar

In the 80s and 90s, getting a tabletop RPG to market was a serious undertaking. Layout was still done with scissors and paste. The first desktop publishing programs were so expensive that only professional publishers could afford them. A print run of at least 5,000 copies was needed to break even, and publishers had to pay for printing and shipping before a single cent rolled in from sales. Nowadays, e-books and PDFs have slashed production costs and money tied up in unsold stock. Word can be used to turn out respectable-looking pages. Gamers who would have started typewritten fanzines in the 80s now run blogs and sell PDFs online.

I’ve always said that if you scratch a roleplayer, you’ll find a would-be game designer underneath. Today, the bar to entry is so low that anyone with a computer and an internet connection can start their own publishing house – and many have. For most, it’s just a hobby. For a few, it’s an attempt to make a living – or at least a little cash – from the hobby that they love. But almost no one outside a handful of the largest publishers is making any kind of a living at it.

So What About GenCon?

It’s easy to see how DTP, PDFs, POD, and various other acronyms have led to a growth in the number of tabletop RPG publishers. But surely the numbers from GenCon prove that the market is growing in proportion, right?

Yes, more people are attending GenCon than ever. However, if the market for tabletop RPGs is growing at all, I’m fairly sure it’s growing far more slowly than GenCon attendance. I would love to see how the age breakdown of GenCon attendees has changed over the last 20 years or so, but I haven’t been able to find any statistics on the subject. I suspect that a major factor in the rise in attendance is the increase in tabletop roleplayers’ disposable income as they get older. Couple this with the decline in the brick-and-mortar game stores, and for many people conventions have become the only place to mix with other gamers, play demos, and discover new titles.

But Don’t Panic!

Does this mean the tabletop RPG industry is dying? Far from it. It’s just not booming. It will never be what people hoped it would become in the late 80s, when TSR released a long-box edition of D&D aimed to fit alongside Monopoly and Clue on toystore shelves. For some, it’s a hobby that maybe brings in a little cash. For a very few, it’s a living doing something they love. There’s a lot to like about the fact that you can start your own publishing house from your basement or garage. As long as everyone realizes that the odds of striking it rich are vanishingly small, no one will get hurt.

Let’s Put the Show On Right Here!

April 14, 2011 3 comments

I’ve been thinking more about author Barry Eisler’s blog series on self-publishing. As I seek to expand my own writing horizons beyond the games industry, it’s a question I have to ponder. Are we at the dawn of a brave new world where authors skip hand-in-hand over sunlit daisy fields, unshackled from the dead hand of big publishing? Or has a comet just hit the industry, requiring the survivors to adapt or die?

It’s been said that the best thing about the new technology is that anyone can get published. The worst thing? Anyone can get published. In the old model, publishing houses acted as gatekeepers, ensuring that only the very best work (in their own opinions – your mileage may vary) got before the eyes of the reading public. Now that technology offers a way around the gatekeepers, there’s going to be a lot of material clamoring for the reader’s attention. It will be of all levels of quality, and almost completely undifferentiated. Members of some discussion groups on LinkedIn and elsewhere are already starting to fret about a coming “sea of crap” that may make the reading public throw up its hands and stop looking for new authors altogether. Some have a touching faith that quality will stand out. We’ll see.

In any case, the authors who will succeed in this environment will be those who can stand out from the mass of self-published material. If authors self-publish they take on all responsibility for marketing, and for many that will be less of a learning curve and more of a learning cliff.

Social networking is being touted as one way – some say the way – to reach and build a readership. But if you’ve just published a book and no one has heard of you, why will they flock to connect? How many Facebook contacts do you have at the moment? If each and every one of them bought one copy of your work, would you make enough to sustain yourself? And how would you reach people who don’t already know you? “Buy my new e-book” spam, alongside guaranteed Canadian pharmaceuticals and sure-fire male enhancement products? The mind reels.

Let’s think about how readers discover new authors. Marketing is one way, word of mouth is another, and these both work for e-books just as well as they do for dead-tree books. However, browsing in a bookstore does not. Ever tried browsing through a book retail web site? They are much more geared to searches for books and authors the customer already knows, and the “other products you may like” functions can’t match the experience of wandering a favorite bookstore, latte in hand, flipping through things that look interesting. There’s a reason for the coffee shop and all those comfy chairs. They help sell books. And in all honesty, what proportion of Amazon’s customers goes there to browse, anyway?

The new technology provides a production solution that is much cheaper than the previous “vanity publishing” route. An e-book costs little or nothing to produce once it has been written, although let’s be honest, a printed book is still a pleasing thing to hold and read. However, the publishers’ marketing and distribution functions remain. And by “distribution” in this context I mean the process of making the work available in places where customers go, and doing so in such a way that customers will notice it. Arguably that is part of marketing, but I wanted to make that distinction.

Any author who wants to self-publish will need to learn how to handle marketing and distribution for themselves, and to do them as well as – if not better than – the publishing houses do currently. Some will, I’m sure, but many more will find they lack one or more of the time, the expertise, and the inclination. I, for one, would rather spend time writing than marketing, or learning to market. That keeps the door open for those traditional publishers that can keep up with the paradigm shift, and for newer “e-publishers” and service houses to whom authors can outsource these functions, along with tasks like editing and file conversion. I expect to see the latter popping up like mushrooms any time soon. Remember, the real money in the 19th century gold rushes was made by the folks selling picks and shovels.

So as you can tell, I’m still undecided about self-publishing. Right now the only thing I do know is that I can’t affort to ignore it.