This 84-page PDF is subtitled on the cover as, “The definitive guide to electronic publishing for the RPG/game Industry”. That pretty much covers it: this is a book about publishing RPGs as PDFs and selling them online. The price of $19.95 is unusually high for a pdf, let alone one of this size, but I swallowed it on the basis of getting insights that would help to gain sales in my own publishing efforts. Presumably this was the thought behind the pricing strategy. The version I’m reviewing is labelled “revision 1.1”. It is available from RPGNow.com in a 3.6mb zip file which also includes other documents like sample contracts for writers and artists.
It’ll be good when it’s finished.
I think the process went like this. Let’s hook up with a number of people who are known for their experience in publishing RPGs electronically, get them to write up what they’ve learned, and put it all together as a guide for people who are just starting out on the same track. Fantastic. The contributions come in, and most people have things to say about a number of topics which will end up as different chapters, like licensing, layout and marketing. So these have to be edited together into a whole that covers the topics and flows well, with some sort of unified voice, or perhaps by giving cameos to named contributors. And they don’t manage it. Some sections are mostly fine, but others are really bad. You end up with paragraphs making points that were made a page earlier, bad flow and arguments that are hard to follow. The editing has more general problems too: words with no space between them, missing words making sentences harder to follow, odd use of language, having a “forward” instead of a “foreword” (grr!), and so on.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a product has to be perfectly edited in order to be useful, though I pick up faults more than most. But, objectively, a how-to manual for prospective publishers ought to set a good example.
I’d include the questionnaire result boxes in the “editing problems” basket. These are sprinkled throughout the book, and show proportions of respondents who gave various answers to interesting questions like “What do you dislike the most about a PDF?” and “Where do you hear about PDF products?” The first time these appear there is no explanation of what they are and where they come from – which left me wondering why I was supposed to be interested. The sample size for most is around 100, which is very small, so it becomes even more important to get context. 45% of WHO say this is important? Only on the penultimate page do we learn that they are customers at the RPGNow “mall” site (along with a summary of conclusions). That’s a pretty good audience to listen to – not definitive, but about as useful as you’re going to get, consisting of known potential PDF customers – and it needs to be identified next to the first result box. Put yourselves in the position of the reader, guys! (One of the absolute cardinal rules of conveying information in writing.)
In a couple of places, we get a run of Editor’s Note paragraphs. I’m all for getting everyone on the project to contribute their wisdom, but these interrupt the flow of reading the text. It might work if we knew who the main writer was and which of the four listed editors was chipping in, as a sort of discussion panel approach. As it is they’re like someone butting in on a conversation to show how clever they are.
This has been all negative so far. There are positive points as well. I’m slightly jaded by having bummed around the RPGnet forums for a few years, so less of this is news to me than it would be for someone fresher. (Mmm, lemony.) You can learn useful things that’ll save you some wheel-invention.
Visually, it’s practical and uninspiring. Readable two-column text. Apart from the cover – and, although the assembled authors say otherwise, I still think a cover’s of marginal relevance for a PDF product – there is no artwork. The text is broken up occasionally by the questionnaire result boxes mentioned above, and a few graphs of sales figures which are similarly lacking in annotation.
It is written by US authors for US readers, which is not surprising given America’s dominance of the RPG market. If you’re not American the financial and legal stuff will be less applicable to you.
Prepress and planning. This is really a lead-in section, and a lot of what it says is covered in more detail elsewhere. Its point is really to get you thinking about your target audience and how best to reach them.
Budgets and staff. The cost per page calculation on the first page doesn’t add up, which isn’t a great start. This chapter is about working out what money and time you need; finding funding and staff; paying people and pricing products. It assumes that readers want to set up a company-like operation that will crank stuff out on an ongoing basis, rather than just creating and selling their own piece of work with the minimum of fuss. Maybe the authors would say that the latter approach will never make a worthwhile impact on the market. It needs less help, anyway, so it’s fair enough.
Legal. Talks about different structures for your publishing venture (sole trader, company, etc), plus record-keeping and intellectual property. Decent general stuff. Most of the principles would apply in the UK too, though specifics will differ.
Licensing. Holy cats in a basket. This chapter nearly made me give up reading the book because the editing problems mentioned above were so obtrusive. It’s about using other people’s systems or settings: what systems are available to license, negotiations, understanding OGL and d20, licensing your own stuff to other people. It’s the second longest chapter – presumably because a lot of readers will be thinking about using the OGL/d20 licenses (subject of a possible further book).
“Wizards is giving away a lot of control with these licenses and essentially have opened up their successful game system for anyone to use. You can’t blame them for having a couple stings attached.” One amusing error and one annoying one.
Design and layout. Title, cover and interior art, layout, software, creating PDFs. I’d have welcomed a couple more pages on layout; more clarity, especially on creating PDFs; and fewer of those dratted Editor’s Notes.
Marketing. The book gets a much-needed pick-up here. It’s the largest chapter by a factor of 2, and that makes sense because this RPG-specific info is probably the hardest to pick up elsewhere. Good advice on setting up a website, though quoted hosting costs look high. Inspiring ideas about demos and downloads (the new d20 game of…); solid but limited stuff on press releases; practical tips on reviews and other advertising channels like forums and e-zines. A section on the costs and benefits of print advertising gets its figures wrong, saying 1% of 100 is 10. Web malls, CD sales, Print on Demand. It does spend over 2 pages at the end plugging RPGNow pretty thoroughly. Opinion will divide on this: some will see the publisher giving an unfair advantage to its own site (and it does seem to be a reproduction of standard promo blurb); others will think it’s a good thing because of the site’s role as the leading seller of PDF products. I’d have trimmed it down and made it more like reporting and reviewing.
Sales. Starts with the premise that selling through RPGNow is the only way to make a decent splash without unreasonable inputs of time and/or money. There’s a nice little chart of likely sales for different types of product but it doesn’t specify what time period it applies to – I’m assuming it’s “ever”, which paints a pretty gloomy picture, especially for non-d20 stuff (d20 City Books seem to be the most popular). Talks about life cycle of products and order processing (it should probably clarify that you can accept credit card payments via Paypal as it treats them as exclusive). Needs a clearer explanation of website “bandwidth” limitations. The last paragraph is a blatant ad for RPGNow.
Internet resources. 6 pages of links (albeit well spaced out) covering forums, discussion sites, company sites, news sites, conventions, associations, primers on publishing… all sorts of stuff.
This is a great idea for boosting a part of the RPG industry that’s still quite new yet will become ever more important, but it really needs to sharpen up its delivery. Perhaps the price should be lowered – but at the moment it’s definitely out of line with the standard of what you get.
It’d do itself a favour if it had quotes from named industry figures to establish that RPGNow is really as dominant as the book makes out – by the end it feels borderline between hard-headed advice and blatant self-promotion. I’d also welcome a bit of attention for small (one guy and a cactus) publishing operations and people outside America.