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Freelancing Is Not For Free

Mining the Websites

by Lloyd Brown
Sep 15,2005


Mining the Websites

A friend of mine has a family patriarch with the ultimate "when I was your age" story. He used to be a coal miner. During the Depression. And he had polio.

Any complaints from the family have to compare to "when I was your age, I was a no-legged coal-miner during the Depression." They have to be pretty intense to stand up to the comparison.

Yet when I browse publisher websites trying to find freelancer information, I feel a kindred spirit with this no-legged coal miner. Digging for useful material on some websites constricts my chest like a virtual black lung hack.

Ideally, publishers make this information available easily and intuitively. This service helps out both parties: writers find what they need, answer the questions they need answered, and either keep searching to submit a proposal. Editors can keep working without having to stop and answer the same redundant e-mails every day.

The execution is never as simple as the plan.

Where It Is

Look first for a direct link on the navigation bar, usually called "Submissions" (www.greenronin.com is a good example).

Usually, you have to follow another link first, like a general "Contact" link, "About the Company" or even a "General Information" umbrella category. The Steve Jackson Games website (www.sjgames.com), for example, requires a click on the "About Us" link, which leads to a "Writers and Artists" link.

Ideally, you see a brief introduction that describes the company's freelancer policies. Don't skip this part to get to the "meat!" Read it. It might tell you, for example, that the company is not currently accepting adventures, even though they still have their adventure guidelines posted (it's easier to just change the intro paragraph than to redesign the whole page).

What They Provide

Elsewhere on the site, you should find descriptions of the publisher's product lines. The freelancer section might have a bit more overview from that point of view. Look for details like word count guidelines, chapters to include, and tone or style notes.

The site should have a way to e-mail the editor. Out of concern for spam, many website administrators are not including mailto links these days, either writing out e-mail address as name [at] domain [dot] com, or by scripting forms for submitting your queries and proposals.

The site details should include some sort of rough estimate of the turn-around time you can expect to wait for a reply to your query or proposal. Events like GenCon (and Origins, and the GAMA Trade Show) add wait time, and some companies take off for up to two full weeks around Christmas, so be extra forgiving around those dates. Wait until that deadline has gone by before you ask about the stutus of your proposal.

If you're lucky, the publisher has a forum where you can find out much more information. What products are the readers asking for? What did they like or dislike about previous products? Which product line generates the most discussion?

In a perfect world, all publishers would take multiple cues from Steve Jackson Games' website. Their Wish List (although currently down) makes the freelancer's job much, much easier. In all the scraping along on your stubs to choose what projects to write, they just lay it out on the table for you. Since companies often plan out their releases up to two years in advance, everyone should be able to make a Wish List.

What They Demand

You hope to find a section detailing the rights the company offers to purchase. Expect that most companies won't take anything other than all rights, even for periodical publication. Gaming products are generally derivative works, relying on proprietary information. If you write an adventure for Broncosaurus Rex, you can't sell reprint rights without Goodman Games' permission anyway.

Publishers should provide specific format examples that identify their preferred formats for stat blocks, font and size, and what file type they prefer. You'll find that many editors prefer, for example, a single space after a period instead of two.

Typically, the publisher mentions one of two style guides, either the AP Style Guide or Strunk & White's Elements of Style. If you're a writer, you should have access to both of these reference works. In addition to standard writing format, they might have particular formats for abbreviations, capitalization, spelling and hyphenation, and other requirements for game-specific terms.

Lastly, look for a release form or waiver specific to the company. This form protects the company against any lawsuit you might try to bring if you propose a work and something they publish later resembles it. Assume that they will not read your manuscript without it. The idea of manuscript theft, while realistically impractical, is a common misconception of new writers. The professional writer prints this document, signs it, and sends it in without a second thought.

Special Alert!

I have it on good authority that certain companies insert passwords in their submission guidelines. If you submit a query or proposal without mentioning the password, they know that you did not read their guidelines. Read them all the way through.

What They Offer

Does the publisher offer a word rate or a royalty rate? If so, how much? Comparing one to the other is tricky because the sales numbers vary considerably from publisher to publisher and from product to product. If a royalty rate, is it paid based on retail price or net sales (the amount the publisher collects)?

When is the payment due? Typically, it's either on acceptance, or on publication, and usually due to you within 30 days. In the case of royalties, expect payment quarterly.

On a final note concerning payment, do you receive complimentary copies ("comp copies") of the work? How many? Check to see if you can buy more copies at a discount.

Knowing your way around a publisher's website can give you vital clues to how best to write for that publisher. Knowing what's missing from that website can teach you what questions to ask so you can deliver the best-targeted pitch possible to that publisher. While making a sale might still feel like dragging yourself by the arms along a stone floor, at least you have your own pick.

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