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#16: Publisher Implosions

JLowder

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RPGnet Columns said:
http://www.rpg.net/columns/free/free16.phtml

Summary:

Don't stand too close to the blast radius when this happens.

Go to the column for more information.
Some good advice here, some OK advice stated in rather vague terms.

You use "small publisher" in several places, but that's a phrase that needs a little definition. Small compared to what? Wizards of the Coast, when compared to Time-Warner, is tiny. Really, most companies in the hobby game industry are small companies--either sidelines for their owners or just a few employees. Anyway, the best points you make apply to all publishers, both in the hobby market and outside the hobby market.

What's a Publishing Right?
Copyrights and publishing rights are often intertwined in discussions, so some fuzzy uses of the words are common, even among people who know what they're talking about. Yes, there is a difference between the two, and that difference is important, but the terms are related and can get muddled in conversation.

When discussing contracts, publishers need to know the difference between offering a contract that buys limited publishing rights (first rights, reprint rights, all rights) and one that is work-for-hire. In the former, the copyright (ie. base ownership of the material) resides with the creator. In the latter, the creator agrees that he or she never had any rights to the material, that the publisher is the creator of record and holds the base ownership. Even with an all rights contract, the copyright once belonged to the creator and it was transferred to the publisher when the contract was signed. The distinction about who holds (or once held) the copyright matters when a company implodes, as it will impact whether or not you stand a chance of getting the rights to unpublished work back.

The real warning flare--for me, at least--is a publisher who doesn't understand that work-for-hire is not the standard contract for all of publishing. Or one who fails to grasp the notion that a publisher should compensate for the rights he or she wants to buy. Want to offer a work-for-hire contract or an all-rights contract? OK, what are you offering in return that compensates the writer or artists for all the rights you are taking? The deal should be balanced.

Also, publishers should be able to consider and intelligently discuss reversion clauses in their contracts--terms by which the writer or artist regains rights to the material he or she created. These clauses kick in if the product is never published, the company fails to pay, and so on. Barring reversion, kill fees should be offered that compensate the creative for the work in case it isn't published.

There is an important caveat here: a smart publisher will want to protect its intellectual property, so if you as a freelancer are asked to write an adventure set in the Great Land of Snid, which is owned by Company X, you should expect your reversion agreement to specify you must remove all references to the Great Land of Snid (and other existing Company X intellectual property) if the work reverts to you. Otherwise known as "filing off the serial numbers," this is possible for most--but not all--work freelancers do for game companies.

Short Stories
"Be careful of publishers who actively seek this kind of work because, in all likelihood, they won't sell enough to stay in business."

Publishers like WotC or Games Workshop or White Wolf? They all publish short fiction. TSR/WotC's fiction has made the company piles of money. GW does just fine with fiction, too. Eden is a small company and did pretty well with the zombie anthologies I put together for them.

Yes, fiction is a tough market. No hobby game publisher should enter into it without a clear business plan and an understanding that a) hobby shops are reluctant to carry fiction titles (because the chains regularly undercut them on fiction from the bigger houses like WotC) and b) chain book stores are unfriendly to small fiction publishers, meaning most hobby game publishers will have a hard time getting them to stock their fiction titles. If a publisher doesn't understand those truths about the fiction market and tries to publish fiction, they are headed for trouble. But publishing fiction by itself, or soliciting for fiction (especially if it's going to be published as part of an RPG book)--these just are not the telltale signs of doom you make them out to be.

This point might be better stated as: "Be careful of publishers who actively seek to branch out into new types of products--fiction, miniatures, music, comics--without a clear understanding of that product-type's distribution and marketing peculiarities."

Thunderous Silence
"Former employees (sometimes part of the Incredible Shrinking Staff) who blatantly refuse to discuss the company are saying more than they're saying, if you know what I'm saying.

The employee could be under a legal agreement not to talk about the company. Or he or she could be showing professional restraint, thinking ahead to his or her next job. (Would you as an employer jump at the chance to hire someone who is actively bashing a recent former employer in a place like RPG.net?) So you overstate this whole "silence is telling" thing. For freelancers or potential freelancers, silence is telling when the publisher does not respond to questions in a timely fashion, particularly about money owed or a product's release date. The silence of ex-employees is all but meaningless because it can be chalked up to so many different things.

Overall, though, the column is a good (and timely) discussion.

Cheers,
James Lowder
 
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pawsplay

Guest
Nice column. While some of the advice is vague, and some of the specifics could probably be more specific, I think the overall point is well made: the second thing a freelancer needs to understand (the first being craft) is business. If you are an unpublished freelancer, rest assured it is a bad sign when a novice to the freelancer side of things can spot deficits in the professional demeanor of their would-be employer.

Freelancers are business people, and as such, should be looking at things like investment vs. returns, gain vs. risk, networks, reputation, and so forth, all points touched on in this article.

Bravo.
 

smascrns

New member
Banned
Great column, very well complemented by James. One of the interesting things is that it applies as much to publishers as to freelancers. I mean, if the reader is thinking in terms of starting a rpg publishing house (or garage) he should read this to know several mistakes he should avoid.
 

LBrownIII

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Validated User
Thanks for your contribution, James.

I'm sure everybody understands that a large part of the vagueness is based on trying not to mention names. While I don't mind mentioning the surely-dead (like Precedence), I'm certainly not going to comment on anything that I merely speculate is dying or whose death might be exaggerated. Harsh assessment is one thing; libel is another!

When I talk about the RPG industry, I use small publisher to refer to nearly all startups and most RPG publishers that fall below a certain threshold I've never really established. I consider the big boys to be WotC, White Wolf and arguably Steve Jackson (although GURPS' market share is only like 3%).

I consider publishers like Mongoose, AEG, Kenzer, FFG, Eden, Green Ronin and some others to be mid-tier.

I understand that the relative values for the RPG industry are different from the relative values for the larger publishing industry. In the publishing industry, I think everyone other than WotC & White Wolf would be considered a small publisher.

On short stories: yes, I understand that a few markets have found a use for short fiction. They are the exceptions that do not disprove the rule. The number of times I've seen solicitations for fiction vs. the three instances you name overwhelmingly favors my "warning sign" caution. Again, it's just a tell--it's not proof.

Also, the fiction that makes WotC piles of money is not short fiction--it's novels, and that's a different kettle of fish. While I'm not current on how they're paying their novel writers, I know that TSR/WotC has previously offered substandard terms for novel writers compared to, say, Random House. However, I specifically did not mention novel solicitation as a warning sign (although it arguably should be, it's a big enough issue for its own discussion, and I don't want to deviate from this one right now).

Lastly, on Thunderous Silence: Legal obligations notwithstanding, people often talk about former employers. However, I'll agree that I could have overstated the value of this item. Edited to add: Hey, I just read my own article. I even said "Don't read too much into this one"! I think I'm covered there.
 
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JLowder

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LBrownIII said:
On short stories: yes, I understand that a few markets have found a use for short fiction. They are the exceptions that do not disprove the rule. The number of times I've seen solicitations for fiction vs. the three instances you name overwhelmingly favors my "warning sign" caution. Again, it's just a tell--it's not proof.

Also, the fiction that makes WotC piles of money is not short fiction--it's novels, and that's a different kettle of fish.
A few markets? You need to research this more actively. TSR/WotC has indeed made piles of money on short fiction. I personally edited two Forgotten Realms anthologies that sold well over 100,000 copies each and have been translated into several languages. The big WotC project of the moment is that dragons-across-the-settings short fiction book. GW publishes short fiction successfully, as have White Wolf, Chaosium, Eden, and a host of others. WizKids solicits paying short fiction for their online site. Other successful game publishers frequently use short fiction as "tone-setters" at the starts of RPG products.

There are too many specific examples of publishers who have published short fiction successfully for you to claim soliciting short fiction is, by itself, telling of anything dire about the company.

Cheers,
James Lowder
 

LBrownIII

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Validated User
The number of small publishers asking for short fiction without actually ever releasing their product or releasing their product and selling pathetic numbers is large. The success stories are limited to relatively few. For every success story you named, I could name a dozen failures.

But in any case, I think we can disagree on how important this point is without disagreeing over the point of the article.

I think we both agree that novels are more marketable than short stories. How about that one?
 

JLowder

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Validated User
LBrownIII said:
The number of small publishers asking for short fiction without actually ever releasing their product or releasing their product and selling pathetic numbers is large. The success stories are limited to relatively few. For every success story you named, I could name a dozen failures.
Far more than a relative few. And from both large companies and small. These multiple examples at multiple tiers of the industry disprove your point that soliciting short fiction is a sign of trouble. You have to ignore massive successes and minor successes from too many companies.

Your failures are likely examples from companies that could not sell RPGs either. But please name some of them. I'd like to see your first dozen at least. Be specific. Provide at least ballpark numbers for the pathetic sales or the losses incurred.

If a company solicits fiction and fails to release it, it's not proof that fiction is a problem, but rather that the publisher in question lacks basic business ability. No doubt they solicited work for other products, like RPGs, that were never released. Yet you do not list soliciting RPG materials as a warning flag. That's because the flaw is unrelated to what the poorly run company solicits and fails to publish. Could be an RPG or CCG art or a boardgame. Again, this says nothing about an inherent trouble sign in soliciting fiction.

So, no, it's not a matter of a disagreement with your point's relative importance. I disagree with your point about fiction.

As far as novels go--a company that fails to research the fiction market will do just as poorly with novels as they do with short fiction. Novels may be easier in some ways to market, but they typically cost more to put together than anthologies, for the same "name value" level of writer. Small publishers are far more likely to get "names" to write short fiction for them for an affordable rate than they would a whole novel. And even a bump from C-list to B-list author makes a difference to booksellers and potential readers when considering carrying or buying a book. That can often offset the relative benefits of marketing novels over anthologies.

Cheers,
James Lowder
 
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