Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Why Build a Publishing Coop?

In yesterday's round of out-loud-thinking and discussion around the possible launch of a rpg publishing coop, DH Boggs raised the kind of tough and honest question that helps clarify what we are on about.

He asked:
“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 participants 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?”

Indeed, what else? Why bother?

For starters, I don't want to over-sell it, in the main because we are still in the process of trying to figure out "it" is. And none of this is not to knock all the good people toiling away in small companies or solo operations. I won't support those that I currently support any less for trying something like this.

But off the bat I do see a few differences from the small company model:

Larger Pool. A coop has the potential to build up a larger pool of talent. Forgive (and correct) me if I am talking out of my ass, but many of those operations have very few people doing the hands on work. While I would think we'd want to keep it relatively small and tight in the beginning, I still think we are looking at something like 20-30 designers, writers, editors, artists, programmers, etc.

Entry-level Access. Most of the businesses are primarily focused on promoting the systems and products of their owner/designers--or a very small collection of people close to them--which is great, but other than starting yet another operation of your own it's difficult for a newcomer to break in. Not only can we have the luxury of a wider door (while still trying to maintain quality standards I should add), but we can assist in being as much or more about the development of coop members as we are about the products.

Greater incubation and collaboration. Lee raised this excellent point: “ 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.” In other words by building stronger working relationships we are highly likely to not only be helping people finish or improve their existing projects—we could be launching new “staffed-out” collaborations.

Removes the For-Profit Barrier. Many small rpg companies have strong hobbyist roots--and we all know no one is really making money more than a glorified beer fund—so I don't want to build up a 99 percenter argument here (we have a movement for that elsewhere), but I do think there is a psychological barrier to fuller participation by folks who aren't fully comfortable with the commercial-hobbyist hybrid we often see. 

That's four off the top of my head. Undoubtedly others can provide some more—and tough questions to clarify the discussion more.
So what's next?

First of all we need more discussion with an eye to answering tough questions and moving closer to a consensus about what “it” is. Unless someone has a brighter idea, I am going to set-up a Yahoo or Google list serve to channel the discussion better and hopefully get me out of the center a little.

If you are seriously interested in participating in launching this co-op--I don't have everyone's email who chimed in yesterday (and likely today)--please email me at kutalik at gmail dot the com—so I can at the least put everyone together on an informal CC.


  1. I read the other post but haven't been in on any other conversations.
    I'd consider doing pictures for a co-op, depending on what it is and how it works. I'll be honest, tho, I am skeptical, simply because I hate working with committees.

  2. >>and we all know no one is really making money more than a glorified beer fund

    This is not true.

  3. @Jim
    Good to hear and I stand corrected.

  4. Why not adopt an Apple-like model, in which the co-op would make about 30% of the gross, the indy contributor would take 70%. That could cover upkeep costs, and people can take advantage of a larger talent pool, and maybe make a little beer money doing it! I would prefer that to a non-profit model.

  5. Lemme provide a little more food for thought.

    So far the focus has been on pre production benefits. but the real hurdles for small press productions are three.

    1) advertisement/product awareness
    2) cost of print runs
    3) product distribution - particularly to mainstream vendors (Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or, at the very least to game and hobby stores)

    Traditionally, these are handled by the larger publishing companies with capital, but such companies are difficult to market to, dictate terms, and take the lions share of generated revenue.

    Maybe a coop could solve these issues, but that would require being involved in more than just the creative side of the process.

  6. Dropped you an email, would love to do some artwork...

  7. Sorry I missed the last post on the Co-Op. If I can help out with anything, just ask.

    For the good points brought up by DHBoggs'

    1. Marketing/Product Awareness:
    Try to visualize what your potentials will do and where they go. Guerrilla marketing. Lightweight. Cards/flyers/zine ads. Don't rely on the internet. Strategic losses can be valuable on the microscale. Every time I've been to a flea market in the past few months, I have looked for game stuff. People bring cash to flea markets. Watch where the cash goes. Don't forget the 'order through the mail' option, as delivery time of packages is pretty impressive these days.

    2. Print Runs:
    I was recently in an email exchange discussing using a template, so that a dozen different authors could pool their content into a large 'real' print run, instead of utilizing print on demand. I believe digital printing allows this in theory, but I don't know if anyone's actually executed something like it. I'd research the cost of a regular sample run of a small booklet. My understanding is that you have to research a lot of printers to price it out and then see about what things can be changed to reduce the overall cost. Watch out for finding a good deal on printing, but getting hit with the other costs - including shipping. Also, take a look at all format options vs. cost and don't be afraid to break with what grognards are used to.

    3. Distribution:
    The few shops I have access to here use Alliance, so researching that would be a priority. Alliance is (I believe) part of Diamond - a comics distributor. I would also examine conventions - not just game conventions - for leads/contacts. It's probably very difficult to get printed works into large retail channels (i.e. the 'boxed set' is probably easier to go through the toy section and to get big books through the 'book' section.)

    It has to be worth examining other venues of sale, but it's a lot of work. Dig into book/scifi clubs. Is it worth selling fantasy RPG material at the Ren. Faire, etc.?

    In addition to the print lot/template idea, I did think of a kind of 'mesh distribution' in case Alliance or regular channels turned you away - your co-op participants are likely to be spread out, and that can be an asset: have each member receive batches of the products before anything is officially 'available'. The idea is that once things are actually printed, you want to be able to spread them out before they are actually ordered. I think most of your members would be willing to donate a couple square of space to harbor a box.

    Another thought (uncomfortable though it may be) - find out if the OGL affects retail distribution. The FLGS people I've asked were proponents of the OGL - it gave them a lot of choices, but it's worth exploring if the large retailers have any risk management or administrative concerns. There may be a practical boundary there that hobbyists don't know about.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  8. Hey just a thought, but couldn't the collective work together to take the products around to their local gaming stores? That way, each member is helping the others and themselves by local sales on a national or international level?

    Along the lines of a self-publishing run then send each member 20 copies to distribute into the local stores and chains. Maybe a bi-monthly schedule to start with, with the first 6 items lined up, just a thought, I might be crazy as I have no knowledge of what I speak.

  9. Dropped you an email. Hope to be a part of the group.

    I've recently been in a similar situation. Maybe I can help by sharing experiences.

  10. I think a Co-op (I have to add the hyphen otherwise I end up thinking of chickens and foxes)could be a great benefit in the following areas.

    1.) Design/layout. Design software is expensive to purchase. Having someone who owns it do the layout could be a great benefit to many game designers.

    2.) Artwork. If there's a co-op they can be a stopping place for designers looking for artwork for their game. Rather than individuals having to advertise their art via deviant art or their own website there could be a portfolio section where artists upload samples of their work and charge a set price.

    3.) Marketing/distribution. Often game designers don't know where to go to get their game out. They might know lots of people or be active on social networks and so hit up people there, but having someone who's experienced in marketing and distributing games could be very useful. Part of the co-op fees could go to that kind of work.

    4.) Printing. Printing costs vary greatly depending on the product. Perhaps a co-op could end up with contracts with printers to get discounts on work and do it cheaper than print on demand places like Lulu, or they could get a group discount via print on demand places.

    5.) General support/game testing. G+ has turned into a godsend for many people who are designing games to get feedback as well as do playtesting. Not everybody is on G+, nor are they active. Having reliable game testers could be very useful for designers.

    Did you get my email from the G+ conversation?

  11. As an illustrator, I find this to be a very appealing concept. Count me in.

  12. A couple more comments:

    - scottsz brings up some really good points. This leads me to ask whether or not this co-op can have any folks involved in market research. If it is a for-profit organization that wants to make anything more than beer money then market research is key to actually making $$$.
    - I prefer the non-profit approach. I work for Adobe Systems and can get much of the software for *very* low prices if it will be used for a non-profit. Moreover, I'm not looking for personal gain here and only an outlet for my creativity (and programing skills.)
    - In addition, everybody keeps talking about FLGS and print-based distribution. While its important to cover print-based customer segments, digital publishing revenues tripled in 2009 and nearly tripled in 2010 (I don't have complete 2010 data.)

  13. "I do think there is a psychological barrier to fuller participation by folks who aren't fully comfortable with the commercial-hobbyist hybrid we often see."

    True, but some want just hobbyist and others want just commercial.

    "What will you do when co-op member #115 is told his product won't even start production for three years because 114 others are ahead of him? What will you do when the one or two people who have layout software get tired of working on other people's projects?"

    More generally, there are likely to be some things that lots of people want to do (for example writing rules), and other things that few people want to do (for example market research and liaising with distributors).

    There might be a market niche for a business (whether a co-op or not) that does the un-fun stuff eg that will edit and lay out a module.

  14. Sorry to sound like a killjoy but here's a couple points to consider.
    Even if the co-op is not-for-profit, once money starts changing hands it becomes a business that means accounting, tax paperwork and all that other fun stuff. Along those lines, the co-op would need to be some sort legal entity probably an LLC.
    In the unfortuante event that for whatever reason the co-op implodes who gets what rights?
    I know this sounds nitpicky but hope for the best and plan for the worst.