What's a Freelance RPG Writer Worth?

Freelance writers (as opposed to those on salary) tend to be paid per word. The rate varies from publisher to publisher, and on how experienced the writer is. Ed Greenwood, for example, can command a much higher rate than a new writer can. Obviously only you, the freelancer, can decide what your labour is worth - and if you're an experienced freelancer you probably already have a pretty solid idea what that figure is. But if you're a new writer, you may be a little lost. In this article, which I'll continue to update with new information, I'll tell you what rate a new writer can expect from various publishers.

[Note - this article will continue to be updated and tweaked; folks are suggesting excellent advice to include, so it's worth checking back]. Using publisher submission information on their official websites, and publishers advertising for writers I have compiled the below list. In some cases, publishers have kindly volunteered the information; thank you! At the moment, it's a bit sparse; but I hope it will grow. New writers can use this page to help them determine their own value and check out publishers that interest them. I don't want to tell you what to charge for your writing services, or what to pay freelancers, but hopefully the information here will help - a little bit - in making an informed decision. You can click through to apply for opportunities that interest you.

Advice: Here are a few things to be wary of. They don't have to be dealbreakers, they aren't necessarily bad, and you may well be OK with them, but you should be aware of them. This applies to new writers (and artists, for that matter).

  • If you're doing work for somebody, and you're not being paid, you are being exploited. (Doing work for somebody is different to doing work with somebody). Volunteer work obviously falls outside this category, but volunteer work should clearly be volunteer work, not work paid in "exposure" (see below).
  • Never work for the promise of "exposure", or for "experience". You should work for money. This is a common tactic, and is often puffed up with nice language, but it is exploitation and you should look out for it.
  • Also be wary of jobs offering payment solely in royalties (or a percentage), unless the company has a verifiable track record of good sales - and they should be able to provide you with solid figures. Do not be afraid to ask for these figures; they're asking you to trust them and take a risk by working for royalties only, and if they refuse you those figures you should proceed with caution. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, but do it carefully. Royalties on top of a fair rate is perfectly reasonable.
  • Be wary of contests which grant the copyright of your work to the company; that's often a way of getting people to work for free. Look for contests which allow you to keep the rights to your work, or which will pay you if they publish your work. There is a caveat to this -- it's reasonable for companies to protect themselves from future claims of similar development to past contest entries, but, as Paizo's Erik Mona says, even then "If we publish it, we pay for it. Period."
  • Look at what's being sold. "Work for hire" means the publisher owns the output completely. Other options include "first publication" (in which you retain ownership but the publisher gets to publish it first) and non-exclusive licenses. All of these are OK, but the last two are worth more to you than the former, and may make a lower per-word rate more palatable. If you're writing for an existing setting, keeping the rights to your work is far less valuable to you, because you're unlikely to be able to re-use it (you're not going to be able to re-use material about Drizzt or Yoda, for example). Be wary of work-for-hire combined with a low per-word rate.
  • Be wary of pay-on-publication work. That means a publisher can shelve your work and never pay you for it. Take pay-on-acceptance work. Some publishers will portray their policy of paying-on-acceptance as a beneficent act: it's not; it's the baseline you should expect. That said, it's OK if the payment doesn't come instantly, as most publishers do their payments en masse on a periodical basis - but make sure you know when to expect it.
  • Don't do "audition work" for free. You should be paid for that, too, although it is fair that that be at a lower rate. Game designer Ryan Macklin has a good article about this.
  • If you re-use Open Gaming Content, it is reasonable for the publisher not to pay you for those words.
  • If it's not in the contract, ask how stat blocks are paid.
  • Finally, don't work in exchange for product.
  • Remember, it's OK if a company can't afford you. There's things that all of us can't afford! And also remember that it's very, very difficult to make a living freelancing for RPGs. Some people manage it, but it's not easy!

Please feel free to send corrections or additional information.

The below list shows the rates I've been able to find published online for new writers.

This is just starting rates only. Experienced writers will already know what rates they usually get, and already have relationships with various companies, so they don't really need the information below. If there's an asterisk, then I've been able to confirm that the company in question pays experienced writers more, but it's generally safe to assume that these minimum rates are increased depending on the writer.

I've included links where I can so that you can apply to the companies that interest you.

Publisher
Rate/word for new writers
Notes
Paizo Publishing$0.07*
Wizards of the Coast$0.06*Freelance articles for D&D Insider; other writers work on salary
Pinnacle Entertainment Group$0.06*"Higher for some folks, plus a % of any crowd funding we do if they're one of the principle creators."
Evil Hat Productions$0.05
Atlas Games$0.05
Steve Jackson Games (Pyramid / GURPs PDFs)$0.04 (Pyramid) or royalties (GURPs)After publication. "Pyramid pays 4 cents a word, shortly after the article appears in final form in our PDF"; "...our base royalty is 25% of the cover price (this can go up for authors with a strong reputation that helps sell books, and can go down for inexperienced authors or those requiring very heavy edits)."
Vorpal Games$0.04
Posthuman Studios$0.04
Pelgrane Press$0.03*
Goodman Games$0.03Link is to Level Up magazine submissions; other submission calls have the same figure
EN Publishing$0.03*
Drop Dead Studios$0.025
Fat Goblin Games$0.02
Dreamscarred Press$0.02
Purple Duck Games$0.01*
Frog God Games$0.01*
Kobold Press$0.01 - $0.06"...strict minimum of 1 cent per word... Our rates for established, proven freelancers vary from 2 to 6 cents/word."
Bards & Sages$0.0125% on acceptance, rest on publication
Rite Publishing$0.01*Rates go as high as $0.11.
Raging Swan Press$0.01
Open Gaming Monthly$0.01"If your submission IS selected, you will receive 1 cent per word for your first published work. If your work requires very little editing (fixing typos, fixing grammatical errors etc.) then that will likely be increased to 2 cents per word. If your work receives great reviews and we use your work in future issues or products, you'll receive 3 cents per word in those future products."
Obatron Productions<$0.01Savage Insider; Word Count: 2,000 – 5,600 | $15 – $35
LPJ Design$0.005* (half a cent)Up to $0.02 with experience
Rogue Genius Pressroyalties only
Ephemeric RPGroyalties only$1.00 for every PDF or e-book that is ordered

What the Publishers Said


Discussing this subject with numerous writers and publishers turned into a fairly lively debate. Some of the statements made clearly illustrated why it's important that writers make themselves informed. Louis J Porter of LPJ Design says that "You kind find was to save money at the beginning that pays off very well in the long run [sic]" and that "Do I think I could get to a point were I make $10K month doing this, Oh Hell Yes!"

The way LPJ Design finds ways to save money in order to make $10K a month is to pay writers half a cent per word. As he says "if you are a first time writer never have sold ANYTHING to ANYONE, sorry you bring no value to my company... You guys sound like the college grad who wants to get paid $50K for just showing up. LOL!" I found myself very uncomfortable with Porter's language; he later said to one writer "You can die from exposure. Just prove to me why I should pay you more? You do that, you get paid better." and to that writer he later said "And there is the problem, you think this is an equal relationship. It isn't."

That said, the same company's calls for freelancers on various RPG forums take a different tone: "So if you are interested and not sure you think you can be good at this, I will just say, don't miss out on your dreams because you are afraid to go after them...It is your job to loose."

I can't help but feel that "I can't afford writers" isn't an great reason to underpay writers. It's OK to not be able to afford something but the solution is to find some other way to afford it, or accept that you can't afford it. Many small publishers have addressed this issue by using services like Kickstarter, Patreon, and others, which are great alternative models, although not for everyone. Erik Mona asked about products with margins so low that $160 is too much (assuming a 10-page PDF at $0.02 per word) "Does it make sense to put effort into projects that garner so little interest from the paying public that they require shennanigans like that? Is $80 a fair wage for what amounts to 4 days of work?"

And, definitely, the majority of small publishers do not intend to consciously underpay anybody. It would be unfair to point at a bunch of publishers and chastise them for being exploitative, and many tiny publishers can really only afford $0.01 per word (although James Ward observed "At $.01 a word you get what you pay for.") As Raging Swan Press' Creighton Broadhurst (who is a very small publisher and pays $0.01 per word) said, "If I thought I was exploiting people, I would stop doing what I do. But I don't think I am as I'm forcing no one to work with me." And I myself know what it is to be a tiny publisher with incredibly low sales, so I can certainly empathize with that position -- most micro-publishers are run by decent people paying what they can afford.

I have no idea where the line lies, though personally I feel uncomfortable these days offering anybody less than $0.03 per word (I have in the past), and wouldn't consider paying $0.01 per word. But that's just what I choose to do. Most writers I've spoken to agree that 2,000 publishable words per day is a fairly reasonable rate. As game designer Rich Baker observed, "It's hard to knock down 2000 word days, day in, day out. That's an honest 8 hours of work. At $0.05 per word, you'd be making $12.50 an hour... I am frankly appalled at the idea that someone might pay (or take) $0.01 a word in the 21st century. That's saying a writer is worth $2.50 an hour." Paizo's Erik Mona feels that "1 cent a word is not "bordering on exploitative." It is exploitative FULL STOP."

[As a side note, using Rich Baker's estimate of 2,000 words per 8 hour day, that works out to $10 per day at half a cent per word, $20 per day at $0.01, $40 per day at $0.02, $60 per day at $0.03, $80 per day at $0.04, $100 per day at $0.05, $120 per day at $0.06, and $140 per day at $0.07.]

With luck, this article should give writers some of the the information they need to inform themselves when considering freelancing, and ensure that the relationship is an equal relationship. I'll keep the table above updated as best I can, and folks can make their own decisions. Please do feel free to correct inaccurate figures or provide additional information! Also, if you're a freelancer, feel free to share rates (don't break any NDAs, though!)


[video=youtube;mj5IV23g-fE]https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&amp;v=mj5IV23g-fE[/video]
 
Russ Morrissey

Comments

Creighton

Villager
What are the reasons for these low rates? Is it a simple matter of supply and demand? Can the market not support higher rates? Are the established writers/designers being paid significantly more than newcomers? Are the publishers taking what they feel is a "fair" cut, at the expense of the writers?
My name is Creighton Broadhurst, and I run Raging Swan Press - a moderately successful (in that we still exist after five years) publisher of Pathfinder compatible products. Currently we pay 1 cent a word for freelance game design. I'd love to pay more, but the economics of 3PP don't support it.

I've blogged about the reasons for low pay rates over at my blog.

Here's a direct link to my thoughts/ramblings. I'd love to get your thoughts on freelancer pay rates. Come on over and have a read!
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
My name is Creighton Broadhurst, and I run Raging Swan Press - a moderately successful (in that we still exist after five years) publisher of Pathfinder compatible products. Currently we pay 1 cent a word for freelance game design. I'd love to pay more, but the economics of 3PP don't support it.

I've blogged about the reasons for low pay rates over at my blog.

Here's a direct link to my thoughts/ramblings. I'd love to get your thoughts on freelancer pay rates. Come on over and have a read!
As I mentioned to you elsewhere, I think it's great that folks are talking about this subject. Even if we don't agree on things, it's a conversation worth having. Creighton, I wonder if exploring other models might be the way forward. I'm trying a Patreon model soon for a pair of article platforms, and lots of people have had success with Kickstarter. They're not the only options, of course, just a couple of well-known ones. Kobold Press, IIRC was doing patron-based stuff long before Kickstarter even existed, and made that model work well.

As folks say, the economics of small press publishing doesn't work well. It might just be that the traditional model isn't supported well by the market for small publishers, and that we should use our flexibility and agility to adapt and stay ahead of the game. (Not that I'm especially successful at that).
 

knottyprof

Villager
As a tiny (one person) publisher/writer/artist I have been approached once by another free lance writer with some ideas he would be willing to create for my company and I knew there was no way I could afford him so I turned him down but thanked him for presenting the opportunity. As with many other smaller and even successful companies (thanks Jeremy Smith on the reality check even for a company like Dreamscarred Press which is much more successful than my current run) I have to produce my own material, do my own editing, layout, and either rely on "cheap" stock art or make my own and work a full time "paying" job to make ends meet.

I would like to know what qualifies as an "established" writer. After all I have been publishing for over a year now, have over 20 PF products out now and my yearly sales last year were over a grand so my numbers are not huge but I do get sales (that and most of my products range between .99 and 3.49). For me, it is more about getting my ideas out there in a professionally looking product. I haven't done print yet, all PDF but I try to use the latest technologies (mainly Adobe) and all of my current products include the ability to turn off background layers to make it easier for people to print out. I do have a full time job that pays really well, but my passion there is quite lacking compared to what I put into creating game product material. Right now I just try to make enough to pay for the subscriptions I have for the software (Adobe CC, Microsoft Office 365) and pick up other publisher's material on DriveThruRPG.

Also, in regards to the expectation that PDFs should be cheaper than print books I have a strong opinion (and not what you would think it would be as a publisher). My hang up with pricing PDFs as much as actual print books is that the cost to produce such items is a lot less than a traditional book. Sure there are costs for writers, art, editing, etc. but I know that a majority is in the actual production of the book itself. If a publishing company can produce a hard cover book for $50 I know much of that is in the actual creation of the physical book. For a PDF such costs are not incurred so as a consumer why should have to be charged for a cost that has essentially gone away. I think Paizo gets that in that most of their core PDFs are much less than the actual physical product. Also, from what I recall of my economics classes pricing is determined by supply and demand. In this digital age, the supply of PDFs is infinite (there is no cost for production of individual files once the original one is created) so it is mainly a demand driven market. If the demand is not there then no money is made. Demand can be driven up by offering a cheaper pricing model, so a publisher has to determine what is the optimum price point based on demand. Would you rather make $100 by selling a $1 product 100 times or $10 for selling a $10 product once. And this would trickle down to paying freelance writers as well. Just my two cents on the matter and how it relates to the original article.
 
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Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
My hang up with pricing PDFs as much as actual print books is that the cost to produce such items is a lot less than a traditional book. Sure there are costs for writers, art, editing, etc. but I know that a majority is in the actual production of the book itself. If a publishing company can produce a hard cover book for $50 I know much of that is in the actual creation of the physical book.
For a large print run, the shipping costs are the killer - way worse than the printing costs. Printing gets cheaper the more you print; shipping doesn't!
 

turkeygiant

Villager
My name is Creighton Broadhurst, and I run Raging Swan Press - a moderately successful (in that we still exist after five years) publisher of Pathfinder compatible products. Currently we pay 1 cent a word for freelance game design. I'd love to pay more, but the economics of 3PP don't support it.

I've blogged about the reasons for low pay rates over at my blog.

Here's a direct link to my thoughts/ramblings. I'd love to get your thoughts on freelancer pay rates. Come on over and have a read!
Thats really interesting it ends up really coming down to how many copies you are able to move, also why paizo with such a huge market share has such good rates!
 

knottyprof

Villager
For a large print run, the shipping costs are the killer - way worse than the printing costs. Printing gets cheaper the more you print; shipping doesn't!
I bet. But bottom line is that there are more costs per book for a physical book that does not get factored in for a PDF. I have a hard time coughing up more than $10 for a single PDF.

I guess to play devil's advocate, you are paying for convenience with PDF in that you don't have to carry around the physical book. Back in the day I carried a duffle bag full of my books that probably weight 30 to 50 lbs. Now I can carry an entire library's worth on a flash drive or portable drive that I can carry in my pocket.
 
I bet. But bottom line is that there are more costs per book for a physical book that does not get factored in for a PDF. I have a hard time coughing up more than $10 for a single PDF.

I guess to play devil's advocate, you are paying for convenience with PDF in that you don't have to carry around the physical book. Back in the day I carried a duffle bag full of my books that probably weight 30 to 50 lbs. Now I can carry an entire library's worth on a flash drive or portable drive that I can carry in my pocket.
One other thing to consider is that as more and more people buy PDFs exclusively, publishers are looking to PDF sales to make back their investments. PDF is no longer a supplemental income, it's becoming the primary income or at least a strong secondary. So the cost of a PDF really does have to include the creative costs of making the book. It's becoming much harder to do a high-end PDF for $10.
 
I'm the one-man shop that is Sine Nomine Publishing. Last year, between monthly sales through DTRPG, two Kickstarters, and a couple appearances in Allen Varney's Bundle of Holding offers I netted a little north of sixty thousand, before very substantial taxes. Even if I didn't have a day job it still would've been enough to have supported me comfortably. And I never have hired a freelance writer and don't see any obvious occasion in which I would.

From a publisher's perspective, writers are either fungible or they aren't. Either you have a Name that draws an existing audience that will seek out your work and purchase it, or you don't have such a following. In the latter case, from a marketing perspective, you're basically creating Bulk RPG Product #7 and the publisher's role is just to swaddle the log in an attractive package for shipment. Generic Joe Smith can't drive any sales, so while his writing might make the project possible, it's not enough to actually make it especially salable in the absence of some other selling proposition. Any payment at this level is an act of conspicuous financial optimism rather than something grounded on a return on the investment.

New writers can reasonably point out that the only way to get a following is to actually put something out there. A publisher who recognizes real potential in a writer can pay them until their genius is clear and they actually drive sales with their name... at which point the writer will quite reasonably demand higher rates, because very few indie publishers can afford salaried positions. Thus, there's not a lot of upside in cultivating new talent. By the time they get big, they cost the same as existing names that already can whip up notice.

The raw numbers have to be recollected here. A slab of generic RPG product can expect to sell between 50-100 copies over its short-term lifespan. If it's got a notable publisher or hot buzz, it might sell 500+, or 1000+ if it's a real hit. So let's run some numbers from the publisher side of things.

Assume it's a 64-page supplement, since those sell well and are manageable for small publishers. Call it a $9.99 PDF + $19.99 print, since those prices are what the market will generally bear. Be conservative and assume that profits average out to about $8 a sale after OBS' cut. Be overly generous and assume that you can put this 64-page supplement together for zero dollars in art cost, layout, and editing, because you're a renaissance publisher who undervalues editing and uses Scribus and free art. If you do your own writing of circa 50K words and the product sells 75 copies over the near term, you've made $600 pre-tax. You're paying yourself the handsome rate of 1.2 cents a word there.

Now let's bring in a Name writer, one whose mere presence on the cover can turn the book into a modest hit of 500 copies sold. How much can you pay that Name writer before you're better off just doing it yourself? 500 copies @ $8 = $4,000 gross sales - $600 for the alternate case = $3,400 over 50,000 words = 6.8 cents a word. So less than 7 cents per word. And that's with excessively optimistic assessment of art, layout, and editing costs.

Honestly, I don't know if there's a healthy place in the publishing ecosystem for non-Name freelancers. If I were in their shoes, I'd ditch the publishers entirely and just self-publish until I'd built up a following and had a demonstrable value to a publisher. This requires developing a whole suite of new skills in layout and business management, yes, but the capital outlays are very small. You can get a subscription to Adobe InDesign for $20 a month, grab free stock art from DTRPG, and use guides and templates to get a basic grasp of layout design. Then you get to keep all the money, and I can assure you that that is a very happy place to be.

Such freelancers can eyeball some of the free resources I've put out:
An example template module for laying out 1980-style AD&D modules.
A recap of my production sequence for Kickstarters.
My publisher resources Google Drive folder, with some layout and creation guides.
 

knottyprof

Villager
I'm the one-man shop that is Sine Nomine Publishing. Last year, between monthly sales through DTRPG, two Kickstarters, and a couple appearances in Allen Varney's Bundle of Holding offers I netted a little north of sixty thousand, before very substantial taxes. Even if I didn't have a day job it still would've been enough to have supported me comfortably. And I never have hired a freelance writer and don't see any obvious occasion in which I would.

From a publisher's perspective, writers are either fungible or they aren't. Either you have a Name that draws an existing audience that will seek out your work and purchase it, or you don't have such a following. In the latter case, from a marketing perspective, you're basically creating Bulk RPG Product #7 and the publisher's role is just to swaddle the log in an attractive package for shipment. Generic Joe Smith can't drive any sales, so while his writing might make the project possible, it's not enough to actually make it especially salable in the absence of some other selling proposition. Any payment at this level is an act of conspicuous financial optimism rather than something grounded on a return on the investment.

New writers can reasonably point out that the only way to get a following is to actually put something out there. A publisher who recognizes real potential in a writer can pay them until their genius is clear and they actually drive sales with their name... at which point the writer will quite reasonably demand higher rates, because very few indie publishers can afford salaried positions. Thus, there's not a lot of upside in cultivating new talent. By the time they get big, they cost the same as existing names that already can whip up notice.

The raw numbers have to be recollected here. A slab of generic RPG product can expect to sell between 50-100 copies over its short-term lifespan. If it's got a notable publisher or hot buzz, it might sell 500+, or 1000+ if it's a real hit. So let's run some numbers from the publisher side of things.

Assume it's a 64-page supplement, since those sell well and are manageable for small publishers. Call it a $9.99 PDF + $19.99 print, since those prices are what the market will generally bear. Be conservative and assume that profits average out to about $8 a sale after OBS' cut. Be overly generous and assume that you can put this 64-page supplement together for zero dollars in art cost, layout, and editing, because you're a renaissance publisher who undervalues editing and uses Scribus and free art. If you do your own writing of circa 50K words and the product sells 75 copies over the near term, you've made $600 pre-tax. You're paying yourself the handsome rate of 1.2 cents a word there.

Now let's bring in a Name writer, one whose mere presence on the cover can turn the book into a modest hit of 500 copies sold. How much can you pay that Name writer before you're better off just doing it yourself? 500 copies @ $8 = $4,000 gross sales - $600 for the alternate case = $3,400 over 50,000 words = 6.8 cents a word. So less than 7 cents per word. And that's with excessively optimistic assessment of art, layout, and editing costs.

Honestly, I don't know if there's a healthy place in the publishing ecosystem for non-Name freelancers. If I were in their shoes, I'd ditch the publishers entirely and just self-publish until I'd built up a following and had a demonstrable value to a publisher. This requires developing a whole suite of new skills in layout and business management, yes, but the capital outlays are very small. You can get a subscription to Adobe InDesign for $20 a month, grab free stock art from DTRPG, and use guides and templates to get a basic grasp of layout design. Then you get to keep all the money, and I can assure you that that is a very happy place to be.
Given the relative ease to self publish, I don't see why a free lancer wouldn't want to go that route (self-publish). Granted, if your forte is not layout or art there are templates and free or reasonably priced stock art out there that can be used. If you are semi-serious in becoming a freelance writer you will need tools to do the job anyway (more than just Word or other text editor) so investment in software to some degree will be necessary. For me, $50 a month for Adobe CC isn't too bad and I generally make enough to cover the subscription (so at this point really more of a motivated hobby than anything else).
 
One fallout of the self-publishing trend is that a lot of people now work in this industry in relative isolation from many of the other people who also work in it. Sure, we see each other on forums and social media, but that's not the same as talking or even working with someone. Freelancing (and indeed hiring freelancers as a publisher) is a way to network and develop relationships. Even if you can't get a "name" working on your book, you can get more people talking about it because of the relationships that you have developed.
 

Medesha

Villager
I would like to know what qualifies as an "established" writer. After all I have been publishing for over a year now, have over 20 PF products out now and my yearly sales last year were over a grand so my numbers are not huge but I do get sales (that and most of my products range between .99 and 3.49). For me, it is more about getting my ideas out there in a professionally looking product. I haven't done print yet, all PDF but I try to use the latest technologies (mainly Adobe) and all of my current products include the ability to turn off background layers to make it easier for people to print out. I do have a full time job that pays really well, but my passion there is quite lacking compared to what I put into creating game product material. Right now I just try to make enough to pay for the subscriptions I have for the software (Adobe CC, Microsoft Office 365) and pick up other publisher's material on DriveThruRPG.
Speaking solely on my own experience, I've been freelancing for about 11 years. Mostly writing, though I've done a little editing and even some publishing in that time. I'd say it took me about 5 or 6 years before I really cemented my reputation and was able to negotiate higher rates from publishers. I've probably written or contributed to over 100 books/articles (probably? maybe?) and I'm hardly a household name.
 
Given the relative ease to self publish, I don't see why a free lancer wouldn't want to go that route (self-publish). Granted, if your forte is not layout or art there are templates and free or reasonably priced stock art out there that can be used. If you are semi-serious in becoming a freelance writer you will need tools to do the job anyway (more than just Word or other text editor) so investment in software to some degree will be necessary. For me, $50 a month for Adobe CC isn't too bad and I generally make enough to cover the subscription (so at this point really more of a motivated hobby than anything else).
Because even knowing how to put a product together isn't the same as knowing how to market and sell it. It certainly isn't the same as being able to offer product to an established customer base.

Product on the shelf (even when that shelf is virtual) =/= sales and, subsequently, money in pocket.

The idea that publishing PROPERLY and PROFITABLY is just something anyone can do so long as they can handle the technical aspects of production is one of the misconceptions that leads to some of the boldly erroneous assumptions this topic has been rife with, starting with the original post.
 

Jeremy.Smith

Villager
(thanks Jeremy Smith on the reality check even for a company like Dreamscarred Press which is much more successful than my current run)
No problem!

I could probably turn publishing into my sole income - it would just mean downsizing our house, getting rid of one of our two used cars, and moving to a diet consisting primarily of rice and beans. Since the technology industry chooses to pay me far and away more than RPG publishing does, I instead let publishing be something I do nights and weekends and let it fund things like going to GenCon, or family vacations. We also reinvest a large portion of our profits back into the company - sometimes those investments pay off, sometimes they end up being money sinks that give us some good lessons on what not to do, and sometimes they pay off but not for an exceptionally long period of time.

And to give even more of a sanity check - our miniatures Kickstarter has not been profitable. What it has done is given us a line of miniatures that we can produce for a long, long time at a profit, but monetarily, it has been break-even, or a significant loss if factoring in the time I personally spent bagging and shipping miniatures instead of writing material to publish. But that goes back into reinvesting - we could have capped the number of figures at a dozen and had several thousand dollars in profit. Instead, we pushed the line so that we could bulk process the molding and casting and not have to expand our line for a long time. Now comes the test to see if that will pay off over the long haul, or if it became a profit-neutral vanity project.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
As a note, a number of publishers have very kindly pro-actively contacted me and volunteered information in a courteous and professional manner. Thank you! I very much appreciate it.

I can't list 'em all, but Fred Hicks from Evil Hat, Simon Rogers from Pelgrane Press, Wolfgang Baur from Kobold Press, Owen K Stephens from Paizo (and Rogue Genius Games) and several others have all been fantastic and had nary a temper tantrum between them!
 
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Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
No problem!

I could probably turn publishing into my sole income - it would just mean downsizing our house, getting rid of one of our two used cars, and moving to a diet consisting primarily of rice and beans. Since the technology industry chooses to pay me far and away more than RPG publishing does, I instead let publishing be something I do nights and weekends and let it fund things like going to GenCon, or family vacations. We also reinvest a large portion of our profits back into the company - sometimes those investments pay off, sometimes they end up being money sinks that give us some good lessons on what not to do, and sometimes they pay off but not for an exceptionally long period of time.
I don't know how accurate this is, but my perception of you is that you're significantly bigger than I am in the Pathfinder publishing market. By an order of magnitude, I'd guess. But that's just an outsider's perception.

I've found that traditional PDF publishing models have completely stopped working for me. We're finishing out ZEITGEIST, but we're moving on to Patreon-based stuff instead (and the occasional Kickstarter, of course). Using a model like that, I can decide in advance that I am going to pay X, and set targets to publish when funding allows me to do so.
 
The idea that publishing PROPERLY and PROFITABLY is just something anyone can do so long as they can handle the technical aspects of production is one of the misconceptions that leads to some of the boldly erroneous assumptions this topic has been rife with, starting with the original post.
I'd find a qualified disagreement with this.

If you are able to write good RPG material, and you wish to maximize your financial return from that, I think you will do so by embracing self-publishing for at least the initial part of your career. I don't know how you'd grade 'properly', but if you want to publish profitably... well, yes, just about anybody with a pulse can do that. The profit will be measured in a half-dozen McDonalds Extra Value Meals and will work out at about 23 cents an hour, but anybody capable of using a word processor's "print to PDF" function can get a few nibbles off DTRPG. Use Scribus, download free art, grab free templates and guides, and almost anyone of de minimis technical competence and a few months of determined practice can put together a not-unendurable PDF product.

And to be candid, as sad as these profits are, they are likely superior to anything they're going to earn at 1 or 2 cents a word from a publisher. More importantly, they are the beginning of a years-long apprenticeship on how to publish and produce your own material, an apprenticeship provided by a cruelly uncaring market and a pitiless audience. It requires the development of numerous new skills and the cultivation of labor that an author might have absolutely no talent for- but it's cheap. It's very cheap. It requires only the investment of effort and discipline, and if you haven't got either of those, well, you're not likely to become much of a writer anyway.
 

Jeremy.Smith

Villager
I don't know how accurate this is, but my perception of you is that you're significantly bigger than I am in the Pathfinder publishing market. By an order of magnitude, I'd guess. But that's just an outsider's perception.

I've found that traditional PDF publishing models have completely stopped working for me. We're finishing out ZEITGEIST, but we're moving on to Patreon-based stuff instead (and the occasional Kickstarter, of course).
Our revenue streams have diversified drastically over the past few years, with CreateSpace becoming a larger segment of our profits than it was in years past. PDF-only products traditionally do not sell enough to justify a lot of investment. The no-hassle print products, such as CreateSpace and DriveThruRPG's print-on-demand, help to supplement that, which means that for us, if a product doesn't have a print version (or plans for one), it's typically not going to sell a huge volume of copies.

It's hard to gauge relative size, but I can tell you that while our library of products has grown, the 80/20 rule is in full effect. 20% of our products make up 80% of our revenue, and while we try out new products or niches, those have typically turned into money sinks. For example, we have yet to produce a profitable adventure, despite increasing our pay rate for writing, illustration, and cartography to produce a "higher quality" product that we can then charge a premium price for.

To give an example:
The Opened Mind (our latest adventure, one of the stretch goals of the Ultimate Psionics Kickstarter which has gone over budget in every way imaginable)

Costs
Writing: $260
Artwork: $235 (custom artwork, plus a small amount of stock art for layout)
Cartography: $150 - two maps
Layout: Free (I did it)
Total: $645

Sales To date (this is net, not gross)
DriveThruRPG/RPGNow: $68
Paizo: $15
CreateSpace: $11
d20pfsrd: $8
dreamscarred.com: $5
Total: $107

Now, we had several hundred backers who paid in knowing that was a stretch goal that they were going to get, at least as a PDF, but part of our justification for increasing our production cost on our books was an expectation of future sales of said books. Those sales are abysmal - and while I could go into a variety of reasons why (already giving it to our backers, potentially poor marketing, crowded market segment, GMs are a smaller segment compared to players, whatever), the fact is that we invested several hundred dollars of money into a book that so far has been a net loss. And a significant net loss. And since the Kickstarter went over budget (our own self-made problem, I fully admit), it's hard to find the silver lining in the loss. Will sales grow over time? Maybe, but history would imply no, they won't for that particular book.

Meanwhile, Ultimate Psionics, even after the 500+ backers who got it from the Kickstarter, and the people who had Unleashed and Expanded who decided they didn't need the combined book, has broken Gold status at DriveThruRPG (free downloads don't count toward that rank), and been in the top downloads at Paizo more weeks than it hasn't been.

So, there's an argument that could be made that we're "doing it wrong" by creating these other products. It's something I've been actively contemplating and it's been a discussion Andreas and I have had on multiple occasions. Unfortunately, that would mean further reducing the work we have for freelancers, because in-house we are absolutely great at producing new psionic content. Sure, we get assistance from freelancers on things like monster design, or handling projects we don't have time to do, but creating psionic content for players is where we started in the industry - and it's also where the bulk of our profits come from. Our other books, high-quality as they might be, paid at "reasonable rates" as they might be, don't produce the sales volumes of books like Psionics Unleashed and Ultimate Psionics that are largely produced in-house. So those sales are used to fund the other projects to "fill out" our library... which then turn out to be a financial loss. And we haven't really seen evidence that those support products have translated into increased sales of the other books.

And that's been a crux of the matter as the publisher - we want to let other people do it for us, since I am a bottleneck on our ability to publish (especially with a growing family with two young children), but doing so has not proven to be financially beneficial except in a few cases (Psionic Bestiary, Path of War, Akashic Mysteries. Virtually all other projects we have freelanced out have been losses or barely break-even.) And getting freelancers interested in writing for psionics, who actually understand the system enough to properly design for it and actually complete the project, has been a struggle. We have fewer than a handful of reliable developers who can take a project on psionics and turn it around without it requiring significant rework by Andreas or myself. We have lots of people interested in doing work, but actually turning in work ready to publish?

That's been the struggle - paying people to do projects we're not as good at has not been worth the cost, and paying people to do things we can already do well isn't in our financial best interests.
 

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