2012-03-07 : Simon Rogers: Publisher POV

a guest post by Simon Rogers

I'm a small publisher. I've been publishing roleplaying games for ten years usually in the traditional model – that is I pay people to write and draw stuff, and it's usually work for hire. So, I'll pay a word rate based on the writer's experience and the amount of work we need to do to get their writing up to scratch. This varies between 3-6¢ a word, and you can guess who gets top whack. While I try to build on-going relationships with freelancers, many writers have produced one-off work for us. Some projects make money; others don't; either way the freelancers get paid.

More recently, I've engaged writers on 50% of net margin, mainly for Trail of Cthulhu PDFs, and some of these are indie names you'll recognise, for example, Graham Walmsley, Jason Morningstar and Bill White. Clinton and Bill have also produced their own games (not work for hire) which I am publishing on the same terms. They retain copyright. The effective word rates of these projects varies between 2¢ and 9¢ a word, averaging about 4¢ I'd guess to date.

My approach is to give the senior writers final say over their project, so if Ken or Robin tell me I'm wrong, I'll abide by their judgement. Likewise, if Jason told me he wanted his ms unchanged, it would be. Usually, but not always, people suggest their own projects, and I just OK them. That way I get enthusiastic writers writing about the stuff they love.

I set out the conditions of employment (which are in effect a contract) when I first engage their services, although there have been times when I haven't done this adequately.

I don't like subjecting writers to the vagaries of publishing deadlines, and I try to accommodate writers' needs. So people might get paid on submission of first draft (if they specifically ask or the playtesting takes more than about 60 days) or on final ms, (if everything goes smoothly). I tend to pay a bunch of invoices at the end of each month. I am very happy to receive reminders – in fact I encourage it. I will almost always pay a writer who asks early, or even give a trusted writer an advance if they want it.

I am super-cautious and rarely work with negative cashflow, so I have money to pay for stuff. I think I've once had to ask a freelancer if I could delay payment for a month. If I had to pick someone to get paid late it would be (in descending order)
• Printers
• Other suppliers
• Freelancers
• Beth

So where do I fall down? I've no doubt that somewhere on the internet there are a couple of freelancers with a reasonable grievance that I haven't paid their invoice from three years ago. Why? Disorganisation, invoices filed as spam or deleted and no reminder emails. Most importantly, no attempt to contact me by phone, skype, facebook or DM on twitter. They are most likely small invoices. (If you are such a person, let me know.) Other things which make it less likely I'll pay on time – being Russian and asking for a bank transfer which I try and fail to do, having my checks not reach your address for the third time, or not sending me a proper invoice. One freelancer emailed me on the day their cheque was due and threatened me with legal action. I was on holiday, and should perhaps have sent it out before I left, but I was quite surprised at the vehemence. I picked the phone up, and the matter was sorted. I later learned that said freelancer had been badly stiffed by another publisher, and felt very strongly about deadlines.

What happens if a writer cocks up or delivers late? I just put it down to experience and try to find another way to get the work done. I do try to cut them some slack – sometimes they are going through hard times personally, and it's not like I'm paying big bucks. I don't put in penalty clauses, for example. The very worst sin any freelancer can commit is the silent treatment – no doubt the same feeling you get when you email publishers asking for payment. If I ever did get in a position where I couldn't pay, I hope I'd have the decency to speak to the freelancers concerned to let them know and work out a plan. My stupid US bank charges silly money for epayments, so the US postal service can cause issues. I have to cancel about one in twenty checks.

So in summary – if you are a freelancer who wants to be paid:
1. Find out what the terms of employment are.
2. Send a professional invoice in good time.
3. Send reminders.
4. If you aren't paid, within a reasonable time pick the phone up. Get a commitment. Put said commitment in writing and email it.
5. Talk privately to other freelancers. Is it you, or is it everyone?
6. Send a proper debt-collect-y letter before you consider going public.
7. If you don't get paid, consider your motives for going public: get money, get revenge or protect other freelancers from making the same mistake you made. These are all reasonable motives, but be sure you know which is driving you. One freelancer performed a ritual curse on the publisher concerned.

I am very happy for freelance writers who have worked with us to tell me what's it's like from their perspective, either in person or on this thread and how we might improve.

I could also talk about how people end up writing for us.

And do ask any questions.

1. On 2012-03-08, Mytholder said:

Pelgrane is a wonderful company to write for, especially as they give actual feedback and redlines. I've learned a huge amount through working for them.


2. On 2012-03-08, Jim Henley said:

First question! Is Pelgrane your livelihood or an enterprise you do in addition to a full-time job?


3. On 2012-03-08, Julia said:

I second Mytholder's statement. I've written for Pelgrane's fiction imprint, Stone Skin Press, and have had the same experience.


4. On 2012-03-08, Simon R said:

@Jim Is Pelgrane your livelihood or an enterprise you do in addition to a full-time job?

It's in addition to my full time job, which is co-running ProFantasy Software, also in the RPG industry. Pelgrane now supports a full time employee, so it could support me, though to be honest I think she does a better job that I could - she can do layout and is a tough print buyer for example. Any profits I do make (and they are modest) are set aside out of caution, invested in new RPGs, or in the forthcoming fiction imprint, Stone Skin Press.


5. On 2012-03-08, Vincent said:

Mytholder: "Pelgrane is a wonderful company to write for, especially as they give actual feedback and redlines. I've learned a huge amount through working for them."

That seems like an excellent benefit.

My guess is that it adds to Pelgrane's workload up front, but pays off very well over time, as you work for them again and again. Is that about right, Simon?


6. On 2012-03-08, Vincent said:

Mytholder: Oh, other publishers who don't do it that way, what do they do instead? Accept or reject your work without comment? Accept it, then change it themselves instead of sending it back to you for changes?


7. On 2012-03-08, Mytholder said:

Depends on the company. Some might give general comments as opposed to line-by-line critiques, others just take the manuscript and vanish.

I'm actually on the other side of exchange at Cubicle 7, as I'm line developer for three of their games. I try to give detailed feedback, but sometimes it's faster for me to just make the changes myself. Deadlines trump redlines.


8. On 2012-03-08, Simon R said:

@Vincent: My guess is that it adds to Pelgrane's workload up front, but pays off very well over time, as you work for them again and again. Is that about right, Simon?

Yes - we really like to develop freelancers despite the increase in intial editorial expense. Gareth's writing for us has improved immensely. Writing for a specific system is a very specialised skill and Ken and Robin are both very experienced. We also do peer review - so Ken will pass me and Robin his ms and we'll both add comments, for example.


9. On 2012-03-08, Graham said:

Given the positive tone of Gar and Julia's comments, I'd like to gently emphasise that it's not all roses. Working for Pelgrane can be rewarding; it can also be frustrating. (As it is with any publisher, I'm sure).

When I write new stuff, I often find myself deciding whether to publish independently or through someone like Pelgrane. There are advantages to both. These days, I find I'm appreciating the creative freedom that independent publishing gives me.


10. On 2012-03-08, Simon R said:

As an aside, one useful rule of thumb for a publisher is to imagine your correspondence with a freelancer made public in its entirety. If it was, would you seem reasonable? If you think it would reflect badly on you, then you are probably doing something wrong.

This works pretty well for customer service, too.


11. On 2012-03-09, David Berg said:

Simon, do you mind if I ask a question about paying for game design as opposed to writing?


12. On 2012-03-09, Simon R said:

@David Berg

By all means go ahead.


13. On 2012-03-09, David Berg said:

I'd like to present a hypothetical situation.

Suppose I come up with a cool set of rules.  I include a very loose setting, and playtest it with my friends.  I refine it, playtest it more broadly, and come up with a document that is a proven success.  The game is playable, fun, and delivers on its promises.

Now suppose this document is 5 pages of instructions, plus 1 page of setting.  And suppose that my writing is clear but horribly bland.  And suppose there are no illustrations.

What would that be worth to Pelgrane?  Is there any circumstance under which that could turn into a book written by Ken, illustrated by Jerome, published by Pelgrane, and with me getting any combo of flat payment, percentage payment, and/or retained copyright?

I'm just curious if the work of designing how a game works carries any monetary value in the publishing equation.


14. On 2012-03-09, Simon R said:

@David Berg

That's a tough question. I suppose, in theory, yes, in practice, no. It's not because we don't value system, it's just because I wouldn't know how to value system aside from setting.

With GUMSHOE, Robin created the system based on a simple spec from me and invented the setting to go with it. I wanted a tight wordcount. It's probably the best value I've ever got from a ms - the word rate is the same regardless of whether it's system design or setting. Pelgrane Press owns the rights to the GUMSHOE system. It's then rolled into other games.

We also publish games, whole cloth, by designers who provide us with a finished manuscript - setting plus system. They retain all rights, and get 50% of margin. So, in your case, if I liked it, I'd simply suggest that you find another person to take your bland ms and finish it off. It's then no longer my problem to work out what proportion of the credit would go to who.  I might approach my existing writers and ask if they wanted to do this as a percentage of net margin, but I wouldn't be the one negotiating the relative percentage. I would want something which both parties thought fair. I suppose I might pay an ongoing percentage for future core books, but I would have to be absolutely blown away personally by the system. It's unlikely - systems need to be adapted for new settings at the very least.

I can't think of any reason why I would pay Robin or Ken who are top-notch game designers in their own right to provide setting material for a third party system, unless, in rather sordid commercial terms, the system designer's name on the front cover would sell sufficient copies to make it worthwhile. They wouldn't do it for a percentage - they are writers who want to be writers paid a known amount for their work.

One thing we do know is that commercially, system without setting does not sell. In fact, we think that system and setting must be intimately entwined for a game to work. So that one page setting would also have to be tremendous.

Next, we are trying to build what Ryan Dancey calls network externalities - the more people play a specific system, the easier it is for them to find other players and the easier it is for them to understand and start playing new games when they are released. A new system, rolled into other games, just gets in the way of that. The GUMSHOE system is now a known quantity, but it was an expensive, long term education program getting to that stage.

Also, the GUMSHOE system is carefully tailored to the setting, but it is the primarily the setting which determines how many copies the book sells.

Finally, this post is me desparately trying to shoehorn something unfamiliar into a Pelgrane jacket. I'd be much likely to say "self-publish" and offer advice how to do it. In most cases, taking even a decent finished ms of a game, illustrating it, laying it out and then selling it is not worth my while, or the creator's, commercially.


15. On 2012-03-09, David Berg said:

Thanks so much for explaining!  That's extremely clear, and it all makes sense to me.

You've answered all my questions, but I just want to make sure I'm interpreting your last sentence correctly: "In most cases, [art, layout, sales] is not worth my while," refers to product sales potential, correct?  The chance that any given RPG will sell enough to turn a net profit after expenses is a small, small chance—that's the relevant consideration, right?


It's interesting to me that the work Pelgrane does on books includes illustrating a designer's system, but not writing it.  Do you have a process for art/layout that's more efficient than hiring freelance writers, or is it simply the fact that more system designers can write than can draw?

Has anyone ever approached you about handling printing and fulfillment for a game that was already illustrated and layed out?  Would you ever be interested in such an arrangement?

I hope this isn't veering too far off topic.  As someone who's done a bit of design, writing, layout, and illustration, I'm just trying to get a sense of how each of these jobs fits into the creator-publisher relationship.


16. On 2012-03-09, Simon R said:

@David Berg

It refers to sales potential, yes. I haven't yet done a 50% net margin deal with a third party which hasn't made them some money and I don't want to. I've lost money myself on work for hire, but that's my risk - I'd feel bad if I published one guy's work and they made nothing. If I had to add the expense of writing on top of system design the chances that we'd both lose money would be very high.

No one has ever approached me to complete an unfinished game system, so I can't really answer your second question, but yes, we are reasonably efficient at sourcing artwork and laying work out, though we are very short of artists at the moment.

On your third question, the answer is yes. In the two cases we've been involved in assisting in playtesting, but have had no control over the final print ready file except our suggestions.

By all means email me if you want more details, or I'd be happy to talk on sykpe in UK work hours if that would help.


17. On 2012-03-10, David Berg said:

This is all great information to hear.  Thanks for sharing, and for the offer to discuss further.  I will probably take you up on it at some point in the future, once I've narrowed down the options I'm exploring.


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