I spend a lot of my time thinking about the future of The Gauntlet.
As a leader of this organization, if I’m not always looking around the corner for what’s next, for what ways this organization can innovate, then I’m not doing my job.
We’re getting ready to turn around one of those corners. In one week, we launch the Kickstarter campaign for our very first standalone game, Hearts of Wulin. I’m going to use this space to talk a little bit about The Gauntlet as publisher. I’m going to talk about why The Gauntlet is getting into publishing in the first place, what we hope to accomplish in the publishing space, and how Hearts of Wulin fits into that vision.
UPDATE: Hearts of Wulin is now on Kickstarter! You can find the campaign by clicking here.
I have a close friend who is writing a major, standalone game for a big TTRPG publisher. I asked if they would share details of their compensation with me so I could get a better sense of what the market was like. What they told me was, frankly, disturbing—so disturbing, in fact, I decided right then and there I would try to create something better.
My friend explained that, in exchange for writing the text of a full game for this major publisher, they were being paid 3 cents USD per word. Folks, that is breathtakingly low (at the time, our zine, Codex, which has a budget that isn’t even a scintilla of this publisher’s budget, was paying 5 cents per word). And that 3 cents per word does not account for any playtesting and revisions my friend is responsible for, which they have to do for free. To make matters worse (and, to be clear, I’m not sure if this applies to my friend’s deal) many publishers don’t pay for the entirety of the words their freelancers write, only what they decide to actually publish.
I remember asking my friend: “Why are you doing this? You know this is predatory.” Their answer: they wanted to work with the publisher in question. It was worth it for my friend to take this shitty deal because they wanted the prestige and professional development that came with working with this big publisher. And there is definitely a part of me that gets that: my friend is involved with the TTRPG industry in a myriad of capacities besides publishing, and I could see how something like this would help them in other parts of their career. I know there are people who work for Codex at a rate lower than what they normally charge, and they do so for similar reasons: because there are rewards for doing so outside of the purely financial.
But I still think there is a better way. In fact, this conversation with my friend solidified in my mind that The Gauntlet needed to get into publishing so we could develop a better model.
Exploring a better model
Codex’s 5 cents per word (soon to be 6 cents per word) isn’t amazing. We know that. But it’s what we can afford, and furthermore, the Codex publishing model is structured to be extremely friendly to authors. For starters, Codex pieces are shorter than what you might find in a bigger TTRPG book; these are projects the authors don’t have to spend huge amounts of time on. Second, the author 100% owns their text. They can turn right around after we publish their work in Codex and publish the text on their own Patreon or itch.io account or whatever. Finally, if playtesting or revisions need to happen before publishing, we will take care of that (although many authors choose to do their own playtesting). That last point should be especially salient considering the author still owns the text and can continue to benefit from our playtesting and revision.
I bring all this up to say: we have taken into consideration basic fairness in the publishing process when it comes to Codex.
But Codex is a periodical, and one that does not have to get X sales per month or hit Y dollars on Kickstarter in order to be viable. Basically, we can afford to take a lot of risks with it.
A traditional, standalone game is a more complicated proposition. When devising a publishing model for a standalone game that is both fair to the author and respectful of their time—but also makes it worthwhile for the publisher to do—you have to be much more careful.
After a great deal of thought, and conversations with some of our mentors in the industry, we have settled on a 50/50 profit split. The Gauntlet, as publisher of the standalone game, will pay authors a royalty equal to half the profits earned on the project. That includes profits from crowdfunding, physical book sales, PDF sales, and any licensing agreements we enter into. We will even pay an advance on those royalties, dependent on crowdfunding performance and other factors.
We think our publishing model is a generous one, and, to be honest, it may not even work. But we’re going to try. If we can pull it off, we will have created a system by which authors get paid real money for their work and The Gauntlet community has a source of income that exists outside the vicissitudes of Patreon. And that last part is really important: in order to continue being viable into the future, The Gauntlet must find new ways of raising money. We simply can’t do everything we want or are expected to do on 4K a month, and there are a lot of signs Patreon may not even be a going concern in a few years. Remember when I said I'm always thinking about the future of The Gauntlet? This is one of the things that weighs heavily on my mind.
Hearts of Wulin
So, how does Hearts of Wulin fit into this? Well, to be blunt, it’s our test project. Hearts of Wulin is going to prove whether or not our model works.
Now, before I go any further, I want to note that discussing Hearts of Wulin as a game is beyond the scope of this blog post. If you want to know more about it, check out our Kickstarter preview page right here.
What I'm interested in doing here is discussing the specifics of our arrangement with the authors of the game, Agatha Cheng and Lowell Francis, so you can see how our model will work.
In exchange for delivering a draft of the game text by XXX date, Agatha and Lowell are entitled to royalties equal to 50% of the game’s profits (split evenly between them). They will receive an advance on those royalties equal to 10% of the crowdfunding so long as the project hits $40,000 during the crowdfunding campaign. They will be expected to a do a reasonable amount of promotion, such as appearing on podcasts and similar, but the only hard requirement is to deliver their draft by our agreed-upon date.
The Gauntlet gets a grant of rights that makes it the exclusive publisher of Hearts of Wulin. We also have the right to publish supplements and add-ons for the game, and to enter into licensing agreements. If Lowell and Agatha are ever unhappy with our marketing of the game, they can terminate the contract so long as we have been given a chance to address their concerns.
There are, obviously, many more details, but the above represents our basic agreement.
A note about self-publishing
Why would an author want to enter into an agreement with a publisher at all, especially given that self-publishing is easier than ever? That’s a great question, and, in fact, we strongly recommend it. For many people, self-publishing is a completely viable, financially rewarding path to take. Our model was not developed to suggest otherwise.
But I do think there are a lot of advantages to working with a publisher. I can only speak for The Gauntlet, but here is what we bring to the table for our 50% cut: we handle editing, layout, artwork, and the logistics of printing and shipping; we offer a platform for promotion; we offer a platform for playtesting; we set up and manage the crowdfunding; we offer project management; and, importantly, we take most of the risk. The author is likely going to write the text no matter what, but we’re the ones putting extra resources on the line to get the project going.
Also: many game designers simply may not want to do all the things needed to self-publish. A great many self-published game designers only have time for working on their game, and get separated from the pleasures of the TTRPG hobby. Our model creates space for designers to write their game and exercise their creativity, but otherwise continue enjoying TTRPGs as they wish.
As mentioned above, this may not work! At all. It is as equally likely to be a total misfire as it is to be a reasonable success. Is Hearts of Wulin going to get published? Yes. Will we meet our obligations to our crowdfunding backers? Yes, absolutely. Will the project be so successful that The Gauntlet can push forward with this publishing model? Unknown. If the crowdfunding fails, then no—that future as a publisher of standalone games is foreclosed to us. That could be the case even if the crowdfunding is a moderate success. If crowdfunding is a great success, then yeah, we think our model will work.
We shall see!