Oct 292014

Idea Explorer

I am interested in publishing an rpg setting, but I am having trouble finding information on how much it will cost, and how it is done. I would be extremely grateful if you could give me some information on publishing, and point me in the right direction for when our setting is finally ready.

Whoof! Okay, the “how it is done” part is kind of involved, as that’s sort of the everything of publishing. But, let’s talk costs, and I’ll try to touch on the hows along the way.

I’m also going to split each of these into “Deep End” and “Shallow End” thoughts.

  • The Deep End is going to talk about publishing at the scale I currently operate at, with Evil Hat.
  • The Shallow End is going to talk about how to do things as a newcomer without a lot of cash to risk.


Know your wordcount budget! Something like Fate Core runs around 80k-90k words. Something like Fate Accelerated runs around 10k-15k words.

Deep End: Professional rates for writing (including system design, tho some gearheads may want to price this differently) right now starts at 5 cents/word. Certain folks will cost you more, especially if they’re a “name” of some sort or another.

Shallow End: Some folks will work for less. Sometimes you’re doing the work yourself, and you’re willing to do work for yourself for no money. Beware the quality reduction traps that can lay in wait for you when you cut corners on paying your writers. That’s not to say you can’t find some folks of quality who are willing to work for less than the pro rate (above), but in general you should figure out how high you can make the rate, and make that the rate you pay, until you can start paying more.

Prior to the influx of cash that the Dresden Files RPG got us, when we weren’t writing words for ourselves for free, we paid around 3 cents/word. After we got that big increase in our company’s revenue, we went to the Deep End.


Deep End: Right now Evil Hat pays about 2 cents/word for editing.

Shallow End: Before Dresden (BD from here on forward) we paid 1 cent/word. Some folks can get away with paying even less. I don’t recommend underpaying for editing, because it’s completely crucial for a good product and you’ll get what you pay for.


Deep End: We pay what has emerged as roughly the industry standard on art.

  • Color: $200 per full page; $100 per half; $50 per quarter; $25 for a spot illustration.
  • Black & White: $100 per full page; $50 per half; $25 per quarter; $20 for a spot.
  • Cover Art: Depends on the complexity, the artist, and the size of the piece (front cover only? wrap-around?), among other factors. Could run you anywhere from $500 to a few thousand bucks depending on who you get.

It’s worth noting that some of the smaller-size rates may be a little low; some artists want to see the rate on smaller pieces go higher because a reduction in size is not necessarily a reduction in complexity, and it’s complexity that’s the real driver of the amount of effort. So keep that in mind, and use the above numbers only to figure out what you should offer an artist for the set of pieces you want them to do, and be ready to boost that by as much as 25% if you’re primarily sticking with smaller pieces. Also, be very clear in your communications about what the actual physical dimensions are that constitute a half page or quarter page piece, and in general, size those proportionate to the size of page you intend to print on.

Shallow End: You may be able to find some stock art and public domain/royalty free sources that can fill your needs. You may find artists willing to work for less (but beware quality). You can also reduce your ambitions as to the amount of art used in your game. You can get away with fewer pieces than you think!


Pricing this out can be a bit of a dark art.

Deep End: I tend to see flat rate payouts in the $1500-2500 range depending on the size of the book, the complexity of the layout required, and the use of color or black and white, etc. Particularly small projects may be able to go as low as $500. You may also encounter hourly rates, maybe $25/hour, maybe higher; I’m not as able to comment on hourly rates as I almost never operate with them.

Shallow End: You can try to learn this yourself. There’s a lot of ways to go wrong with this! But learning the ropes on a product that’s not particularly important to you can end up building skills that end up serving you well in your efforts to become a publisher. If you do consider doing layout yourself, please take the time to read and absorb the lessons in Robin Williams’ The Non-Designer’s Design Book as it’s probably the single best resource out there for a layperson to learn layout principles that can be applied to nearly any situation where you’re formatting text (emails, Word, etc).


Deep End: I can’t quote you specific prices, but at the Deep End, you’re requesting quotes from book printers to price out offset printing jobs for you. Ask for a range of quantities so you can see where the economies of scale kick in. In my experience the economies of scale don’t really start kicking in until the 2000-3000 quantity range, but really it’s something of a curve that plays out throughout.

I prefer to print domestically in the USA and I tend to give repeat business to folks who respond quickly via email and who give consistently strong customer service throughout the process. So my list of who I work with here is pretty short, because I find a good outfit and I tend to stick with them. You might be more inclined to shop around, and that’s fine.

  • Recommended for softcover, black and white interior printing: Bang.
  • Recommended for hardcover and/or color interior printing: Taylor Specialty Books.

If you end up using either of those guys, tell them Fred Hicks from Evil Hat sent you. They like to know when I’ve sent someone their way.

Shallow End: Consider pubishing digital-only on DriveThruRPG.com to start. DriveThru also has a solid print on demand program, too, which would let you print small quantities and on-demand-when-a-customer-orders-a-copy pretty affordably. In the RPG space I absolutely recommend you focus on them; DriveThru easily owns 70% or more of the eyeballs in the RPG PDF market, and their print on demand program gives you access to that same market with your print goods. It’s a lot more targeted than other POD options like Lulu or CreateSpace, tho those might work for you too.

With all POD, in general, I tend to recommend avoiding color interiors; if you do go for color, please consider paying for the “premium” version instead of the “standard” version, as the standard version, to me, usually looks a little muddy and kind of inkjet quality. And color printing is just plain lots more expensive in POD than black and white books are.


Deep End: It’s gonna suck. If you are not already schooled in and capable of running a top quality shipping and fulfillment operation, shipping out daily and promptly, find someone else to do this for you, and find out how much they charge you per package and per item, and tack that on to what you charge your customers for shipping. That’s the “handling” part of shipping & handling right there. See Distribution, below, for more; Indie Press Revolution may be a good fit for you as a fulfiller interested in working with small press RPG publishers.

Shallow End: If you followed my Shallow End advice for printing, above, this isn’t really going to be a concern for you. If you’re all digital to start, there’s no cost to ship. If you’re using print on demand that’s consumer-accessible, then they’re paying the shipping cost themselves at the time they place the order.


Distribution! It’s how you get your games out onto game retailer shelves everywhere, or at least somewhere, without a lot of very hard work hand-selling and trying to find the small percentage of retailers who are willing to buy product direct from a publisher.

Deep End: Diversify. Exclusives only really serve the distributor you get into an exclusive with; sure, you might get a few extra percentage points, but the loss of market access gotten from using other distributors too is probably not equaled by that. So diversify.

Distributors Evil Hat currently works with include but aren’t limited to:

  • USA: ACD; Indie press Revolution (IPR); Alliance; Peachstate Hobby Distribution (PHD); GTS Distribution; Golden Distribution.
  • International: Esdevium; Lion Rampant; Ulisses Spiele; Pegasus Spiele; Bergsala Enigma.

If you’re getting into bed with distribution, you need to manage your costs pretty tightly. Distribution is going to buy stuff from you at 60% off of your cover price, typically: meaning that your $20 book will get you only $8, gross, for the distribution sale.

(The reason the discounts here are so steep is because a very big discount, close to or at 50%, is given to retailers; because when a retailer buys your book, they aren’t buying a sold book, they’re buying a book they’re hoping will sell. You give a big fat discount to retailers because they’re taking a gamble and assuming a ton of risk on a book that may tie up capital and never turn into that cash coming back to them. But you want retailers in your world, man. They’re the best kind of advertising & marketing for your stuff, at the end of the day, when things go right.)

Shallow End: If you’ve got physical goods, and you want a partner who can do direct sale orders and fulfillment for you as well as sell to a retail market that’s friendly to small press publishers, you really should look at Indie Press Revolution as your first step. They were created specifically for your kind of situation; warehousing with them is super cheap (possibly free last I checked), and on consignment, and Jason Walters (who runs it day to day) is a pleasure to work with.

Once you’ve found your feet, you can start diversifying your way towards a full Big End implementation of product distribution. But IPR? They’re where I’d recommend starting.

Keep in mind, my biases lean heavily against directly doing sales and fulfillment yourself. If you, in an honest and sober self-assessment, think you can do a great job and do right by your customers consistently, then, sure, think about doing your sales & fulfillment for customers & retailers yourself. For me, at every step of the way, that’s always felt like too much work, and has very clearly been the thing I should not be doing vs. all the other jobs that a publisher has to do.

If you don’t have physical goods or are in a strictly print on demand footing for physical goods, distribution isn’t really in the picture. Print on demand often won’t produce a low enough unit cost to make selling your product into retail make any sense.

Pricing Your Book

Deep End: Remember that distribution scenario: bank on getting 40% of your cover price on a sale. What should a sale do for you, exactly? In my opinion, it should pay for at least the unit sold plus one unit more. So if you have a $20 book, that sells into distribution at $8, that $8 should be enough to cover the unit cost of 2 of your books. So flip that around: if your printing cost is $4 per unit, you can price your book with a cover price of $20. 5x unit cost is your multiplier — and if you can make it higher than 5x, you’re in good shape. If you can’t produce a competitive cover price with your printing (see Printing above) method’s unit cost times five, you’re probably not using a printing method that’s friendly for getting into distribution in the first place. Over to the shallow end with you, for now.

Shallow End: Make sure you at least make a few bucks of profit. Ideally, make sure you make at least as much profit as an individual unit costs you to produce. But really, think about the distribution math from the Deep End, above.

Advertising & Marketing

Don’t look at me, man. It’s also a dark art. I have people for that sort of thing!

… Okay, that’s only mostly true. Advertising is kind of dying/changing/dying again/changing again right now. The Internet has exploded everything that everyone used to know about how it’s done. Yields are low and problematic. No matter which End of the pool you’re at, I just don’t recommend putting much money into advertising unless the yield is very likely to be pretty high. (And it almost never is.)

So instead you should focus on building audience. That only happens healthily, in my opinion, through an investment of a lot of years of work, being as transparent as you can be so folks never have to guess at what’s going on, interacting with fans, getting out to conventions and running games, providing good customer service, and so forth. There is no overnight solution; it’s all by increments, each fan hard-won.

This ties over into some of my thoughts about crowdfunding, at the end of the day. Folks ask me how we’ve found the scale of success we have when we use things like Kickstarter. They ask me what the secret is. My answer is: first, take ten years building an audience.

It’s all about the audience.

A Final Note On Paying People

Pay them. Pay them promptly. Establish a contract with them at the start of work that makes it clear what they’re supposed to make for you and how much you’ll pay them and when. Stick to it. And in general please avoid “pay on publication” contracts. Pay folks when they complete the work for you, not when you finally get off your ass and get around to publishing what they made for you. Their work is done, already.

Photo credit: Stephen Poff via photopin cc

Jun 292014

Derek Sivers just posted this thought about the philosophy of customer service: https://sivers.org/cs

“This isn’t some sales technique, it’s just good human behavior.”

Derek nails it, which is no surprise if you know anything about him.

It’s also worth noting that if you like Evil Hat and you like what Evil Hat does, a healthy portion of that appreciation likely flows from our customer service focused philosophy, in one form or another.

We don’t limit it to our customers either. When we’re hitting all our marks, functioning exactly according to plan, then everyone in any interaction with Evil Hat gets a great “customer service” experience. Freelancers working for us (ask around). Business partners (the Campaign Coins guys, whose Kickstarter for Fate Point tokens is coming up soon, have told us we’re one of the best licensing experiences they’ve had). Licensors (Jim Butcher and the Atomic Robo guys have been happy with what we’ve created for their IP — in part because creating games that they’re not just satisfied with, but actively happy about, is a major goal for EHP).

While we can’t send everyone away happy from an interaction with Evil Hat — that’s just how reality works — we do everything we can to make sure that the vast majority are happy; that they get a personal, human touch whenever interacting with us; and that we’ve done something for them, customer or not, that makes them more inclined to say good things about the Hat whenever the topic comes up.

This is why, ultimately, when folks ask me how to replicate something Evil Hat does — Kickstarter being the most recent and most frequent example — I start with a bit of a “quip”: “First, take ten years building a fan base.” It’s a quip, because it’s funny and quick, but it’s true. Every bit of our success flows forward from the fans; and fans come about as direct and indirect effects of the “customer service everywhere, all the time” perspective.

Interested in replicating that? Read up on Derek’s article, and get to work making his philosophy your own. It pays off, and it feels great.

This post is a duplicate of what I posted on Google+. For further discussion, see the post over there.

Jun 022014

So, somewhat quietly, for the last couple weeks I’ve been running a little experiment with the Atomic Robo RPG PDF. On DriveThruRPG I’ve given it a preorder-period discount that prices it at $11.99. On the Evil Hat webstore, the promotional price is $10.

Before we get too deep into this, I want to point out that this is definite grey-area; the agreement with them talks about getting equal pricing, but (IIRC) also allows for the occasional sales promotion, so I’ve been making the most of that. Today I’ve had my first communication with them where they point out that the price difference is “worrying” so I suspect I’ll need to move the pricing into greater compliance soon. Really that just means the discount will either get less steep on Evil Hat’s site, or the discounts on both sites will just disappear. (They’re both due to reset to the $15 baseline once the physical book ships, at any rate.)

At any rate, the experiment: I’m interested in seeing how much DriveThruRPG’s market positioning and service offerings make them the sales point of preference even if the same product is available for slightly less on our store.

DriveThru’s service offerings and market dominance is nothing to sneeze at! For many it’s the one place they’ll go to shop for PDFs, and they enjoy the ability to maintain both a “bookshelf” of purchases and wishlist of intended purchases across many publishers all in one place. But what’s the value of that, exactly? Or even approximately?

DriveThru has a pretty clear notion of the value to publishers. Depending on whether you’re exclusive with them for PDF sales or not (we’re not), their cut is 30% or 35% respectively. That’s a pretty significant chunka change, you might say. I’ve done enough e-commerce to nod and say, yeah, but the cost of running that site and providing those services and maintaining their market position makes that seem reasonably correct. It does mean that for the purposes of the experiment, even tho we sell for ~$12 through them, we’re making about $2 less per sale than the $10 item on our website gets, due to the cut. Someone talked to me about this on Google Plus when I first put the PDF out there, and I nodded happily and said (paraphrased) “if it’s worth $2 more to you to get it on your DriveThru bookshelf, it’s certainly worth $2 to us to make that possible for you”.

So how well have each sold? Well, given nearly simultaneous release of the $10 PDF through Evil Hat and the $11.99 PDF through DriveThru, the last few weeks have been interesting to compare. On the Evil Hat store, we’ve sold 68 copies. DriveThru, meanwhile, has sold 227 copies. Yeah: they’ve sold over three times as many, and given their position in the market that seems about right. I’m sure they effectively own at least 75% of the RPG-PDF-purchasing eyeballs. That’s why we can’t ignore ’em, at least not easily; within our wee niche of a hobby, as far as electronic products go, they’re the Amazon.

They deserve it, too. They’ve worked their asses off to get there.

But I do wish they’d let go of the notion of getting exact price equivalence between the publisher’s own webstore and their site. I’m completely happy to give them identical pricing with any other PDF vendor out there, but I don’t like the intrusion into my own “personal” sales space. We are no middle-man sales agent for our own shit, at the end of the day, and now and again I’d like to feel freer to translate that into an extra buck or two of savings for the big fan who wants to come and buy stuff direct from us. Because that takes extra effort on the fan’s part. We can’t provide convenience and breadth of selection and value-added services like DriveThru; buying direct from us is essentially a downgrade as far as all that goes.

We also get into the interesting space, here, that digital goods have no associated inventory. They consume a little bit of storage space while waiting to be sold, yeah, but that kind of storage is cheap and getting cheaper every day. They also consume bandwidth but largely only at the time of sale at which point one can argue the sale is more than paying for the consumption of resources.

If we sold these things like we sell physical books — on consignment, or in advance — then we’d be setting a (discounted) price that we get paid upon sale, and it’d be up to the vendor to figure out if they want to sell the product exactly at MSRP or eat up some of their margin in the interests of pricing a little more competitively. I have no illusions that moving to that sort of model would ever happen with digital sales, but I think it’d be interesting to see how it’d work (or not).

It’d also give the vendor the freedom to do a sale of our stuff without needing our permission. Right now, since the cut is applied to whatever the price of sale happens to be, so it’s shared proportionately by both vendor and publisher, DriveThru needs our explicit permission every time they want to run a sale featuring one or more of our things. (There is a policy for getting products on a “blanket permission list” so they don’t have to ask each time, but regardless, without permission given, they’re powerless to discount.)

I’m not sure I’m going anywhere in particular with this post so much as shining a light on some of the stuff I’ve been thinking about around this topic. Bottom line I find it pretty interesting that even without equivalent pricing DriveThru easily scores 75+% of the sales. And to be honest I would’ve guessed more like 80-90%; once the prices reset to their non-discounted form in what’s probably no more than a few days’ time, that may even turn out to be the longer-term trend. Maybe we “stole” those 5-15 percentage points by pricing ours $2 cheaper, but I suspect not.

At the end of the day, DriveThru is the big alpha dog on the block. Unignorable, always on the prowl, and the one you’ll always hear when they bark. Being the big dog means they get to do big things, pioneering things, and our hobby’s the better for it… even if I wish the structure of things from the publisher side was a bit more flexible now and again. 🙂

Nov 302013

David Hill has a lot to say about the realities of the freelancer life and getting paid over on Google+ from his perspective as a freelancer.

This is me talking from the publisher perspective.

Pay on Publication contracts need to die a fiery death, folks. These are contracts that say to a writer, editor, artist, graphic designer, or other creative worker on a game project that they won’t get paid until the project they’re working on sees publication.

This is utter crap.

As a publisher, there are a few things you’re bringing to the picture:

  • Overall vision
  • Implementation coordination
  • Connections and clout for publication and distribution
  • Sales and marketing
  • Funding

All of those go into the activity of actual publication. They are your goddamn responsibility.

The creative folk you hire to do work that fits your vision do not carry any of this. Their job is to produce components to spec that you can get assembled into a final sellable thing. Once that work gets into your hands, they’ve done 100% of what you’ve asked them to do.

If, in the face of that, you ask them to wait to get paid until publication, you’re asking them to wait to get paid until you can get your shit together. They have no control over your actual ability to get to that publication date. You’re asking them to trust that you can do so at best possible speed. You’re asking them to extend you a loan (think about how ridiculous that is) equal to the full value of their work at 0% interest for an indeterminate amount of time.

This is an incredibly dishonest and shifty way to do the work of being a publisher. It’s also, frankly, just bad business. It gives you a chance to fail in a way that affects folks’ livelihoods. Those failures, even if they happen for good reasons, become a reputation. If you’re eager to make a lifestyle out of publishing, your reputation is your make or break asset. While there will always be new, fresh, gullible talent to come around to accept these sorts of terms from folks like you, you’re going to end up hurting the experienced folks (which hurts all of us, as it can end up ejecting them from the talent pool for good) and perpetually saddling yourself only with inexerpienced talent. And worst of all, you’ll be their first impression of how the industry operates.

Bottom line: If as a publisher you don’t have the money already to pay someone for work when they finish doing it, you should not be hiring them in the first place.

Publishing can be a juggling act but your funding should not be. See the list of bullets up at the top of this post. It’s your wheelhouse. It’s your responsibility. It’s your burden. It’s the service you’re providing to creative folk. You shouldn’t provide those folks less value than they can provide themselves as self-publishers. Those bullets are how you offer added value and none of them are optional.

At Evil Hat we pay on the accepted delivery of the work. Because that’s the end of the freelancer’s responsibility. Where there’s wiggle room, it’s in how that “accepted delivery” gets defined. Maybe it means a writer doesn’t get paid until after the editing and revision cycle is completed. That’s fair: the editor can be seen as your mechanism for determining the acceptability of the supplied work.

But however you define it, it sure as shit shouldn’t be “until you get off your ass and get the thing published”.

Nov 152013

So, woo! The Fate Core Kickstarter brought in $433,365. That’s money in the bank, y’all. We’re swimming in it like Scrooge McDuck, right?


For illustration purposes only. No twenty-dollar bills were harmed in the making of this image.

No twenty-dollar bills were harmed in the making of this image.

At this point we’ve taken care of printing and shipping all of the physical reward components for the Kickstarter. There are still funded stretch goals that we’ve yet to get done, which we haven’t really spent any money on yet. Those are Do: Fate of the Flying Temple, Young Centurions, Shadow of the Century, and Dresden Files Accelerated.

So the question is, how much money do we have left to make those things happen?

  • $433k to start…
  • minus ~$22k for Kickstarter’s cut
  • minus ~$20k for Amazon’s payment processing cut
  • minus ~$20k for development & art of Core (not including printing)
  • minus ~$4k for development & art on FAE
  • minus ~$8k for development & art Fate System Toolkit
  • minus ~$20k for development & art Fate Worlds 1 & 2
  • minus ~$6k to get the art, Fate Core expansion, and index for Strange Tales of the Century (editing and writing had already been paid for outside of the kickstarter)
  • minus ~$15k for development and where necessary art on other projects (Sally Slick novel, Freeport, Day After Ragnarok, Deck of Fate, the various consultations)
  • minus ~$68k for printing Core, FAE, Worlds 1, Worlds 2, Toolkit, Strange Tales, and Sally Slick
  • minus ~$24k in preemptive royalties paid to Jim Butcher for the essentially free PDF we’ll be giving backers of Dresden Files Accelerated once it’s done
  • minus ~$120k for shipping all the physical rewards (rough estimate to include cost of sending replacements for lost and damaged stuff as well)

Assuming I’ve accounted for everything in the above — and it’s not certain that I have — and that the shipping estimate is accurate, that leaves us with about $106k to spend on the remaining four projects from the Kickstarter.

This is without accounting for the expense of supporting all that: my time, Carrie’s marketing time, Chris’s business development time, Sean’s project management time. I didn’t charge the company anything separate from my salary to do layout on FAE and Toolkit; I’ve spent at least a full month’s time solely on customer service and data-wrangling for this campaign. Carrie has been making sure we’ve got solid product message and marketing for all of that. Chris has been charting the trajectory for all this stuff and helped conceive of a bunch of it with me during the campaign. And Sean’s efforts are a big part of why we’ve been able to deliver so much in so little time. So what’s definitely not reflected in the above is a lot of additional sweat and the coin needed to turn up the heat.

Bottom line, I think there’s a chance that we’ll still retain a small profit after accounting for the as-yet-unpaid costs of those four stretch goal projects we have as yet to complete, but it’s in no way certain… and really, taxes on the income/“profit” we’re carrying into 2014 might eat that up right quick. So I’ve been looking at Fate Core as a “profit-neutral” Kickstarter.

Had we not managed to time the second wave of physical books such that they all came out and were able to be shipped at the same time, the additional shipments for those who wanted the split might have put us more firmly into the red. As it is, I’d rate this as a very approximated break-even, with our actual profit-taking to come in the sales of the product line outside of the Kickstarter campaign.

Which, at the end of the day, is pretty much as designed and intended.

Folks have joked that Kickstarter should be called “Kickfinisher” because you do best to bring a nearly-finished product to any campaign you’re Kicking; it’s not so smart to launch a campaign where you really haven’t started work yet.

But I think it’s in this kind of breakdown and analysis that the -starter suffix makes the most sense. Having crowdfunded an entire product line, with solid expectations that our costs will be all or close to covered by that funding, we’re now starting a new phase of Evil Hat with our most robust product line ever on offer. If there’s profits to be made, it’s not in the Kickstarter campaign and its fulfillment, it’s in what comes after, that the campaign made possible. We brought a near-finished product to get it going in the first place, yes, but we walk away with thousands of books in inventory and already paid for and ready for sale.

That is what we Kickstarted.