2012-03-06 : Chad Underkoffler: Freelancing for RPGs
Welcome, new people! I know you're here for the fight, but I'm going to do my best now to stop fighting and pull my foot out of it, if I can. Stick around if you want.
It turns out that I know nothing about freelancing in the rpg world, and that's dumb. I wrote Chad Underkoffler and asked if he could educate me some, and he was happy to undertake it.
1. I understand that you've both freelanced and self-published your rpg work. How much of each? Which did you do first? Come to think of it, how long have you been working in rpgs?
CU > I started working freelance in RPGs back in the mid-to-late 1990s.
Initially, this was doing unpaid/on spec playtest work on GURPS books for Steven Jackson Games; if you got a playtesting credit, you often got a complimentary copy of the book. That's not really freelancing, but it's a step toward it.
After that, I started writing articles for Pyramid Online; my first accepted article was in the September 25, 1998 issue. Submit, get accepted, get paid, and the company owns the work.
Then, in 1999/2000, I began submitting on spec materials for GURPS STEAM-TECH, and Atlas Games' Unknown Armies line. Again, submit, get accepted, get paid, and the company owns the work.
From 2001 to 2006, I had my own column in Pyramid called "Campaign in a Box"; it was a bi-monthly quick setting description. Once someone gives you a column, the "submit, get accepted" bar lowers a bit; you wouldn't have gotten the opportunity if your work wasn't up to snuff, and you can't afford to slack off—if you do, you could lose the gig.
Starting with HUSH HUSH (2000), because of my work previous and elsewhere, people—in this case, the first was Atlas Games—started approaching me to do specific, contracted work for hire (WFH) for them to their stated needs and requirements.
Around 2004, I started pitching my own ideas for books to the publishers to see if they'd be interested (once success: Temple of the Lost Gods, a PDF product for GURPS; one very bad situation that resolved well in the end: a multi-year attempt to write GURPS URBAN MAGIC), continued doing on spec and WFH for people, and started self-publishing with my game DEAD INSIDE.
Other than doing "Campaign in a Box" until 2006, for the most part, I concentrated on self-published works until around 2008, I started working with Evil Hat Productions. Late 2007 is around the time that I realized I was not having fun with the business end of self-publishing, and partnering with EHP to handle that was a great move for me—thus, Atomic Sock Monkey is sort of an imprint there, under the overall publishing structure, if they want to support a project I pitch. I also do WFH for EHP on stuff like DRESDEN FILES. I'm also doing WFH for Margaret Weis Productions and Adamant Entertainment.
And I'm slowly working on a second edition of DEAD INSIDE, to hopefully publish through the ASMP+EHP partnership... but don't look for that for a couple... years.
2. I assume that you usually work with a contract. Is that true? How often have you worked without a contract? Under what circumstances?
CU > Yes and no.
On spec work that you send in out of the blue—like a call for new monsters or character classes or equipment or a magazine article—the closest thing to a contract is the submission guidelines. Follow those, you'll probably be fine.
For WFH, I've worked with a simple/email agreement; I've signed and sometimes had to get paper contracts notarized; I've received no advance, small advances, complimentary research materials, etc.; been paid on acceptance, before publication, and 90 days post-publication.
I've never been stiffed, and have only ever had to return one (small) advance. I don't think I've missed a deadline more than five times, and in all of those cases, people were notified ahead of time, in two of them, it was the projects eventually were just killed because they ended up being unworkable (my original pitch for GURPS URBAN MAGIC and my UA PDF THIN BLACK LINE).
I have been extremely lucky in this regard.
3. What are common terms for freelancers like? I've heard things like "net-30" and "on acceptance" - what do these mean?
CU > Standard seems to get paid $0.02 to $0.03 cents a word, sometime after publication (45 to 60 days seems usual).
If you're lucky, you get $0.03 per on acceptance.
If you're lucky and good at it, you get $0.05 per on acceptance and/or maybe comped materials to do your work.
If you're lucky and a superstar, you might get $0.10 (last I heard), comps, and/or a small advance.
That's for WFH writing; WFH editing and book writing contracts can be whole other kettles of fish.
I believe "net-30" is more a publisher/distributor invoicing term; I've never heard it applied to the writing end of it, but I might be sheltered.
What's the difference between licensing publication rights and work for hire?
I wouldn't know, because all my game industry life, I've been told from every company I've worked with: "We here at Company XYZ have no interest in licensing your IP. We want our own IP. If we like the IP you're pitching, we might buy it, but we'd rather come up with our own. Or have you come up with a new one for us."
So, no different than WFH, from Comapny XYZ's outlook; it's in their best interest that it's that way.
Which is why electronic and POD self-publishing started exploding around 2003, when it became affordable to do.
I guess you could consider the partnership I have with EHP on the publishing of S7S to be a licensing of publications rights, though, but I'm pretty sure it's an atypical one. I've never heard of anyone else doing it the way we are (percentage cut betwixt ASMP and EHP). Maybe I'm just naive; hopefully, someone in comments will educate me.
4. What's the worst contract you've ever signed? What's the best?
CU > The worst one was for GURPS URBAN MAGIC, for two reasons: 1) the project never got completed, and 2) I had to return a small advance. It was worst because I wanted to complete that project and I needed that money.
It was also the first book contract I pitched, went through several rounds of outline development, work began, some stuff with Steve Jackson Games changed (the doubling in size of books from 128 pages to 256 pages, and the gear-up for GURPS 4e development), stuff we me changed (more freelance and self-publishing work), years passed, co-authors came and went, outlines got revised again, etc.
When I pitched and eventually signed the contract, SJG and I were on the same page. At the end, we were in different places. I was the one who asked to be let out of the contract, because I didn't think I could do the book anymore, and I said that at the time. Part of it was project fatigue, or you could call it the loss of being able to see the fun from my end.
So, I returned the advance, thanked Steve and Kromm, and I believe Bill Stoddard went on to essentially write a (completely) different version of the book, building off of the other work he'd been doing for them.
It was a very amicable and businesslike break-up, as 'twere, and I have communicated with Steve and Kromm on other issues since perfectly pleasantly.
So, honesty is the best policy.
Objectively, it was a pretty good contract. I gotta say, maybe it's the people/companies I've worked with, but all the contracts I've signed have been pretty decent and fair. Slanted to the company's favor, of course, but they're the ones handing you the contract.
Not a big fan of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), but they're something you gotta do sometimes. And in the wake of some stuff I've seen over the past couple of years, I can see why they're actually a necessity.
5. Have your publishers typically lived up to their contracts? Do you often have to fight for them? How have you fought? Have you ever been unpaid for published work?
CU > Always. No. Haven't had to. No.
And I am truly, truly lucky about that. I have friends who have been stiffed on multiple thousands of dollars. More than once. And that sucks.
I think it used to happen more about 5 6 years ago. Less so now. Just an opinion.
You say you've been extremely lucky. Is it really just luck, or are there things you've done to help yourself out?
CU > A good chunk of it is luck, a good chunk of it i knowing your skills and limits, and a good chunk of it is Wheaton's Law ("Don't be a dick").
Do you feel like sharing a real horror story you know about (without naming names)?
A friend of mine is still owed $5000+ for work done when Guardians of Order folded up tents and skedaddled. But that was a bad situation all around, in all kinds of ways.
6. What's the best thing about freelancing vs. self publishing? What's the worst?
CU > Freelancing: BEST—You're working on something you like, and know other people like, and there's an excellent chance you'll get paid a little for it and make more friends and get more work. WORST—You're not gonna get paid much, you're not going to own your work, not gonna have much control on how it ends up, and if nobody notices its *you* who did *that*, less egoboo, future work, or friends.
Self-Publishing: BEST—You own the work and have control over it; and stand to get a larger payout if the product does well, in money and fame. WORST—No idea if people will like it, no good chance you'll get paid much for it (75% of $0 is $0), a helluva lot more work to do yourself or farm out to other people, you'll be spending money to (maybe) eventually make money.
As an example, I think the cash amount from my very last WFH check from EHP was greater than the first 3 years of the net sales of DEAD INSIDE.
Thanks, Chad! Will you be willing to stick around and answer questions from the gallery?
CU > Absolutely!
1. On 2012-03-06, ndp said:
2. On 2012-03-07, Mytholder said:
3. On 2012-03-07, David Berg said:
4. On 2012-03-07, Emily Dresner said:
5. On 2012-03-07, Chad Underkoffler said:
6. On 2012-03-07, Chad Underkoffler said:
7. On 2012-03-07, Emily Dresner said:
8. On 2012-03-07, David Berg said:
9. On 2012-03-07, Chad Underkoffler said:
10. On 2012-03-07, Chad Underkoffler said:
11. On 2012-03-07, Chad Underkoffler said:
12. On 2012-03-07, David Berg said:
13. On 2012-03-07, David Berg said:
14. On 2012-03-07, JustinDJacobson said:
15. On 2012-03-07, Chad Underkoffler said:
16. On 2012-03-07, Chad Underkoffler said:
17. On 2012-03-07, Vincent said:
18. On 2012-03-07, JustinDJacobson said:
19. On 2012-03-07, Vincent said:
20. On 2012-03-07, Chad Underkoffler said:
21. On 2012-03-07, Tim Gray said:
22. On 2012-03-07, Chad Underkoffler said:
23. On 2012-03-07, Simon R said:
24. On 2012-03-07, Brennan said:
25. On 2012-03-07, Thor said:
26. On 2012-03-07, Paolo Guccione (RosenMcStern elsewhere) said:
27. On 2012-03-07, Chad Underkoffler said:
28. On 2012-03-07, Joshua A.C. Newman said:
29. On 2012-03-07, Chad Underkoffler said:
30. On 2012-03-07, Chad Underkoffler said:
31. On 2012-03-07, Chad Underkoffler said:
32. On 2012-03-07, JustinDJacobson said:
33. On 2012-03-07, Thor said:
34. On 2012-03-07, Chad Underkoffler said:
35. On 2012-03-07, Thor said:
36. On 2012-03-09, David Berg said:
37. On 2012-03-09, Thor said:
38. On 2012-03-10, Leftahead said:
39. On 2012-03-11, David Berg said:
40. On 2012-03-12, anon. said:
41. On 2012-03-12, Leftahead said:
42. On 2012-03-12, David Berg said: