Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Time for a DIY Game Publishing Coop?

Good conversations stick with me for long spells. Slowly over months they seem to percolate and build until they find some kind of public expression on my part. 

About a year back I had a marathon conversation with a fairly well-established (albeit close to the bottom-rung) crime fiction author at a union convention. One of the most interesting topics we hit on in that wide-ranging talk was the evolution of writers' circles.

He floated the notion that the increasing sophistication of print-on-demand and distribution services was causing a veritable revolution, transforming a few of these circles from simple self-help (and commiseration) groups into something closer to a full-fledged DIY publishing coop. Members were going from being sympathetic shoulders and sounding boards to providing rigorous editing, layout help, publishing advice, etc.

I could tell from his increasingly glowing, animated tenor that the idea of such a transformation driving a stake into the heart of the traditional publishing industry—or at the least chipping away at it's outer edges—clearly was an idea near and dear. Having worked on both sides of book and publication publishing I could only nod my head vigorously and mutter things to the effect of “right on, preacher man.”

Months later with my own feet starting to dip into the slackeriffic world of hobbyist game designing/publishing I find myself longing for some stake-driving. Let's face it about the mainstream of the rpg industry: it deserves to have a vorpal blade go snicker-snack on it.

The problem is, what's the alternative? In some ways we are already seeing it, a bewildering constellation of single-person outfits and micro-companies. All well and good, let a hundred flowers bloom and all that.

But what about something like those transformed writers' circles to also help chip away at the edges? What about something that combines the best of that rugged independence with a larger pool of skill sets and co-equal work?

What about a DIY game publishing coop?

It's not an entirely new idea. Indeed my favorite hex-and-counter wargame company of the late-90s was the Canadian-based cooperative outfit called the Microgame Design Group, which produced a stunningly creative array of highly affordable microgames relying on then revolutionary technology of desktop publishing. 

What I am thinking of—and this is thinking out loud more of a baseline for discussion than a concrete proposal--is something like this:

1. The coop would need to be a reasonably cohesive group with a healthy amount of trust and expectation—at least as much as we can get out of the herd of cats that I know and love out there. It would need to be fairly self-selective about who can be a member: people with drive and/or talent who have a lot of heart for putting out creative DIY rpg products.

2. A member would give something like this to the coop:
Annual donation. Should be modest and affordable, but something to help build a psychological sense of ownership and to have a small base of funds. Can be waived in favor of more work as below.
Work. X amount of work hours per month helping do distribution, layout, line editing, copy editing, technical work, illustration, or what ever their core competency takes them.

And the member would receive something like this from a coop:
Work. X amount of work on a project. Type of work as enumerated above.
Quality Control. Critique/feedback/editing from a pool of like-minded souls on your manuscript or other project work.
Distribution Channel. The coop would run a group distribution and printing channel. Perhaps through a Lulu storefront or other print on demand at first and then traditional printing and distribution later if it takes off.
Income. Member keeps the lion share of the profit of sales after modest cut for coop (10-20%?). At any rate it would have to be something much higher than the industry standard for royalties.
Product. Members will be able to obtain copies of coop works at the production cost of the product.

Lay off the crack pipe, Chris, or something worth thinking about?


  1. I suggest:

    Have events and/or product that function as fundraisers for this idea--state that if you reach your target, you'll do it.

    If you can't shift enough to do it, then you'll know you don't have the time/energy for this. If it works and it's fun, then you make a go of it.

  2. I would be willing to provide editing for the coop. While new to the RPG industry and without any big ideas, I've done edited a fair number of OSR products. Pay isn't a concern, I just want to get some more experience and references under my belt.

  3. Beautiful idea and want to be part of it. Somehow.


    I'm up for a co-op. A lot more free time now and I might as well use these stupid liberal arts degrees for something.

  5. It does sound very cool. But I'd have to know more about it.

  6. @Zak
    I like that suggestion a lot. I have participated in the birth of several non-profits (mostly alternative papers) and you quickly know the difference between projects with real legs (focus, energy, and bucks by participants) and those without.

    It'd be good to set some goals like X amount raised on Kickstarter and X amount of people pledged to X amount of work hours. Have to think about it.

    Editing will be one of the biggest needs (my old professional day job trade too btw), so thanks.

    @Rev Rosey
    Glad to hear you are interested. Now all interested just need to dream out loud some more and think about rolling up some sleeves.

  7. I'd definitely like to be involved, but I'm not sure what I'd have to offer. I can write a decent sentence, and have gotten pretty good at constructively critiquing prose. My wife is an author, and I'm usually the first to read and critique her manuscripts. I could potentially do some illustration work, but at present, I'm worried that my skills are too rough and amateurish to apply to any products meant for publication.

  8. http://thmgames.blogspot.com

    No longer a going concern, but you might be interested in the history, philosophy and how we approached things.

  9. @Brad
    Yeppers, I am slapping on old overalls, dusting off the Copenhagen, hauling out the wire and getting down to some hen-farmin'.

    Seriously I would definitely want you on board (same goes to you Jeremy).

    Totally forgot about Three-Headed Monster and am glad to have a reminder about not having to completely re-invent the wheel. Thanks for stopping by and triple thanks for all the inspiration on the years slogging with your blog.

  10. Anything I can do to help, just ask.

  11. I am available for layout work (you can see my work in Ruins & Ronin, and I did layout for Redwald as well). Of course I would love to get in on the creative side as well. :)

  12. @Kelvin and Mike
    You both do great work and it would be awesome to have you involved.

    I am liking the idea more and more.

  13. I think this is a good idea, at least in theory, and the response to it is heartening. I'd be willing to participate, both financially and otherwise.

  14. @Trey
    I know, on paper, I am 100 percent sold on doing it.

    But there are a number of questions that'd need to be answered like: how do we vet viable projects and resource make sure they have the resources to succeed? How do we ensure that work going in and compensation going out are fair? Etc.

    We don't have all the answers up front, but I think if we are serious about it we need to at least be pretty intentional and thoughtful in how it gets launched.

    Given the response already (and it's admittedly stronger than I anticipated), I will try and draw up a more concrete proposal tonight.

  15. This sounds quite interesting. But starting off small seems to be a good idea. Maybe something simple like a way for folks to easily network and find good folks for various tasks.

  16. I'd be interested, dipping my pinky toe into writing as I am.

  17. I'd be down for this. I'm able to do editing and layout, although my editing skills are better. We could have little jam sessions where we focus on someone who has some impasse or is almost done and just pour creativity into it. Change who receives each time. Is that too far from the publishing ideal, straying into a writer's workshop?

  18. I’m interested. I can proof, perhaps edit too. As Mike mentioned he did the layout on the play test version of Redwald, and did a great job. I’m also interested in throwing Redwald into the mix as a possible test project for the co-op. Providing it passes whatever criteria you decide on for choosing projects, of course. I feel like I’ve taken it as far as I can (or want to) on my own.


  19. @1d30
    We're just kicking around ideas so nothing's off the board. Personally I want it to feel more like the intentional community of a writer's circle than say a housing co-op.

    For selfish reasons I'd want to see Redwald pushed forward too--I've been a fan of the project for a while--but I think it would be an ideal candidate as a coo-op project all the same.

  20. Ian is an excellent editor, if you need a seconding.

    This is all good Chris, and I'm interested too, but let me do a little deconstructing to help focus, hopefully.

    The idea, as I read it, was to pool together the talents of several persons of related interests to publish OSR material - the bulk of any profits going to the author.

    So far, that is no different than a number of the small hobby publishers out there (Brave Halfling, or Autarch, for ex).

    But, it will be a non profit and a coop - meaning paticipants will have to pay a membership fee in either cash or service or a combo of each.

    Now that is different, and interesting, but what precisely do you see as the advantages over the traditional "for profit" route? Membership (i.e. commitment) would seem to be one. What else?

  21. Interested in adding software to the lineup?

    I write code for fun and have thrown together a handful of old-time RPG tools as I dabble around in different game systems. Up next - Stormbringer! first edition character generator for the iPad.

    My problem will be I have a taxing day job and so cannot really commit on an ongoing basis. Donations I have, though.

  22. I like the idea, and I would be willing to do editing or proofreading. I couldn't invest any money right now, but I've got nothing but time.

  23. I am very interested in this. I could gladly contribute real hours of art per week or month. (I did three pieces for petty gods, I have a bachelor of arts, and have a bit of artwork to share if you're curious about my style or talents.)

    Some is visible in the free documents I've already produced (psionics, and empty rooms, tricks and basic trap design).

    I have my own projects, that I do not need (but would take) assistance on, and would gladly publish them under the label.

    If you're interested, include me in any future correspondence.

    My only concern is that I am serious about this, and would expect other people to be, um, what's the word. Responsible? Reliable? probably creative would help :-)

  24. @ckutalik - Cheers. Being a Brit. I'm always surprised when someone says they like Redwald.

    @DHBoggs & Everyone else - One way a Co-op could differ is members could ‘pitch’ projects at the idea stage. If accepted the Co-op works on it from the start rather than at the end of the creative process. Now, I’m not talking about product by committee; and it wouldn’t work for some projects. You might not want an adventure written by multiple writers, and some projects work best with an individual vision, but a megadungeon, wilderness, monster manual, etc. could benefit from the group approach. Just a loose idea I’m throwing out there. I geussing a Co-op would also want a clear(ish) vision of what it’s setting out to achieve.


  25. @DH
    I always appreciate those kinds of tough, honest questions, what we are trying to do is hone in on the why and how here. I'm going to take advantage of your comment and use it as a frame for the next post on the co-op.

    You had me at Stormbringer first ed. character generator: http://hillcantons.blogspot.com/2011/10/generating-swords-sorcery-land-your.html

    You raise a biggie here. I think we'd definitely want to think about expanding what a traditional pen and paper company does by building more on and offline tools. So yes and yes.

    My only concern is that I am serious about this, and would expect other people to be, um, what's the word. Responsible? Reliable?

    That's a big concern myself which is why I think we need to emphasize that for this to work members will need to be a cohesive and serious-minded body. I have seen it work in the past, but it needs to be very intentional in how it proceeds.

    And of course, I'd be happy to have you on board too.

  26. @Lee
    One way a Co-op could differ is members could ‘pitch’ projects at the idea stage. If accepted the Co-op works on it from the start rather than at the end of the creative process.

    Absolutely, I think one large potential by-product is that with people having closer working relationships that it will start to incubate more ambitious collaborations.