I was recently asked to take part in a conversation for Effekt Podcast. They’re more about Swedish RPGs than the Jonstown Compendium, but nevertheless, Free League Publishing, which has an English presence, has plenty of IP that is covered by Fan Publications in the anglosphere.
I’m going to be speaking generally for most of this post, but there will be some parts specific to DTRPG. If that’s not your fan publishing method, you’ll still get a lot from this, I hope.
First off, thanks to Matthew Tyler-Jones for the invitation to talk, Nick Brooke for setting it up and being part of it, and Lloyd Gyan of Mophidius for stepping up with advice that we hadn’t covered. This post is based on the talk I had with them, without which it would not have been feasible.
You need a finished manuscript. That’s literally the only thing you need. You can convert to PDF in word, and stick it up on the internet, and you’re done. However, even if it’s one of the best manuscripts in the world, it’s not going to get the love it deserves. To make a proper bit of self-published work, that does more than languish in obscurity, you’ll want a lot more than that.
So, the first thing to decide is how much effort you want to go to. There’s a minimal amount of effort that will make a decent manuscript, and then there are stretch goals.
At the very least you should have playtested your ideas, and passed your manuscript past an editor. They shouldn’t be someone who has seen it multiple times before, if possible – they should be someone who will have to read for comprehension. That way, if they don’t comprehend, you have the chance to explain in a way they can understand – and change your words to suit. You probably don’t need or want a separate editor and proof-reader, unless you’re launching a major book, in which case one editor and several proof-readers is good, and you probably also know about publishing already.
The playtests can be of two types; one is where you just test your mechanics or your world. The other is where you hand over your manuscript to someone who doesn’t know it, and ask them to run it.
Your manuscript might be a scenario, or it might be a setting. It might be a list of treasures or 5G D&D feats – but no matter what, you want someone to check for you that it actually works. If someone avoids giving out a certain treasure on the list, ask them why. If a feat turns out to be totally unbalanced, you’ll learn. Your playtester can be your editor, if they run games too – you don’t need many people. You do need people who will be truthful, though. You hand over your darling baby over which you have laboured, and they stab it repeatedly. It can hurt. However, it makes the resulting release much better, so be prepared for this. Ask for what you can improve, and if they say nothing, find a new editor.
You don’t have to take the editor’s advice, but you should definitely read it and understand what they mean. If they say you’re wrong about something, you may be right. If they say they don’t understand a thing, then you have a problem you need to deal with.
The Legal Bits
The next things you want are to do with permission. One is making sure that you have permission from everyone you need to have permission from, for publication. The other is being sure to let people know your words are yours.
Depending on the fan license and the circumstances, you may have to have explicit or blanket permission to use some items. Chaosium gives people the right to use a particular set of maps on the Jonstown Compendium, as long as there’s a credit given at the front. You may have a similar arrangement with rules you are allowed to quote from but not copy verbatim, or an open gaming license. Make sure you have permission for everything you use. That means permission, not forgiveness; do not take other people’s words unless those words are released to you explicitly, or in the public domain.
Public Domain varies from place to place, but if the original creator has been dead for 70 years, you can probably use their words. However, check this for where you live and for where you are publishing. If you’re putting your works somewhere hosted in America, and you’re not there, you risk falling foul of different laws. (It’s a small risk if something is 70+ years old, but it’s there, and it’s always worth checking.)
As well as that, you want to establish your own copyright. The good news there is that as soon as you write a unique combination of words, you have copyright over it. It’s your labour! The bad news is that not everyone knows that. To make sure that everyone has been warned about it, you want a copyright notice at the start of the publication.
If you are using someone else’s IP, in a fan publishing context, then they will probably have a set wording about their own copyright, and you using it with permission. On a different line, you want to add a warning to other people. The one we use is simple. It has the name of the book, the date, and our name as the variables. ‘The Dregs of Clearwine (c)2020 Beer With Teeth’ and that’s it.
Chaosium have a template for the Jonstown Compendium; that has all the stylings you need and their copyright notice. You just need to add yours.
Art and Prep for Layout
After that, look at making the manuscript pretty, and making it dramatic yet readable. You want art and layout. These things often go together but if you have a multi-page project, then assume you’re leaving maybe a quarter of a page per double spread for art. You don’t have to pay for all of that, but you want to break up your text. More about layout below; art now.
You need art to stand out. Art is the one thing where you might feel that you should drop money on a thing. You could actually be right. A dramatic cover increases sales. People stop scrolling to look at it. You want your cover to stand out.
There are many ways of finding art. The cheapest way is to look for works that are public domain; for which the copyright has expired. There is one particular problem here, however. If there is a photograph, then the photographer will also have rights. They put in the work of making up the shot of the art work you want to use. However, many libraries and museums have a publication policy that lets you use what you like, as long as you acknowledge it, or simply for free.
Flickr.com and Google Images will let you filter image searches for those things with generous copyright terms, or no known restrictions.
The second tier of cost is to look for cheap art. There is a lot of stock art available on DrivethruRPG. There’s a lot of choice, and you’ll have to spend a while, but you can get good art cheaply there. There are different available licences – some might be unlimited use, some might be one product only. Check out what the rules are so you don’t get bitten. You might also be able to persuade artist friends to do you a favour, but don’t rely on that – artists like eating too, and you don’t want to destroy a friendship.
Another possibility is to look the Deviant Art for pictures that do what you like, and see if the artists are open to offers. Sometimes you can make them a low offer, and they’ll be OK with it. However, if you have enough money, please make a high offer instead – the art sets your work out from the rest, and you should give what you can.
Then, you can look for expensive art. Art station has a lot to feast your eyes on, or you may want to commission your own works. Artists have different styles and prices, they are fine with you shopping around, but don’t mess them around. Work out what you want, approach your artist through their chosen method, and ask what their price would be for a particular thing. It’s fine to approach several. If you get an offer you prefer, then let the others know that their work is good, but you’ve gone with someone else. That way, they are not hanging on waiting for you. Be polite.
Art briefs are a complicated subject. You want to let the artist know what you want, and how you want it, preferably without tying down too many details that they can’t all put in at once. Ask them what they need from you to get the right image down. Make sure you let them know that it’s for commercial use, and agree with them the scope of that. You’ll want to use it in any original and reprints, but not in a substantially changed book, probably.
The cover, in particular, will make or break your project. Don’t skimp on that. Make it as good as you can reasonable afford.
Now you have a manuscript and you have some art. They need to go together in a coherent fashion. There are a few things you can use. InDesign is part of the Adobe Suite, and it costs money per month. If you think you’ll make a lot of money with your work, or you have access to it, and it’s familiar, then use that. Personally, I’ve never found that I have that much money, and I’d prefer to use what comes in to pay for food than to pay for software. On Linux I use Scribus, which produces large but clear PDFs, and which I’ve never successfully used to create a Print on Demand (PoD) work. I tried, and it was a nightmare. However, for pure PDF work, it’s free, and it’s clunky, and you can use it on any Linux system – it was my cheap option until money came in and I could buy a new computer.
Once I had some money, I switched to Affinity Publisher. It does everything you need for PDFs, and everything save one thing, ink level checking, that you need for PoD. It’s available at a set cost, and it’s familiar to me – it does everything you’re likely to need.
Put all your text into the program. Put your art into the program. Move the art around so it goes with the text, and hopefully everything fits. If it’s a little bit too big, then make the art a bit smaller. If it’s a lot to big, flow it all over the next page, and add in some filler art. That’s really cheap stuff, maybe your own icon or some little squares or spears or rifles – things that fill in the really blank spaces. Make sure your awesome cover has an easily readable title.
Then you’re basically done. PDF it, check it with your editor and if possible a new proof reader, and re-check the permissions and credits, and decide on a price.
Advice for making money: Don’t make it Pay What You Want. That says ‘please download this free thing and never read it’. If you’re creating a scenario, you’re making a thing that people will spend an evening on. If you’re creating magical items or feats or encounters, you’re making things that may stay in a campaign forever. Make sure it’s good quality, and then make sure you’ll get paid for that. Don’t under-price yourself. For one, you shouldn’t be competing on price. If you’re competing on price then you’ll never be able to beat people who give away their work for free unless you are in a very small product niche. If you’re there, giving away your work for free, please don’t. Let people’s work have value, and don’t undercut it for the joy of a few early downloads. You’re in it for the long haul and so, I hope, are they.
On DTRPG you need to compete on quality. After that, you can decide what sort of deal to give your customers. $0.10 a page is cheap. $0.30 is expensive. The minimum price on DTRPG is $0.50 but for the most part you want to be creating above that level, because unless you can move 100+ items, you’re not getting much out of it. Make something a bit bigger and more expensive that stands out from the crowd.
Then upload it. Write the best blurb you can on the DTRPG page.
First, once you’ve published a thing, if you’re going to keep it up, try to get an affiliate ID. It’s free money if you’re sending someone through a link with the ID attached, and that can add up over time. It’s more likely that you’ll send people to DTRPG this way, so clicks on the link generally mean more custom for the website, not less money.
Meanwhile, your wonderful thing will vanish without trace. No, really. For most people, if they put a work up on DTRPG with little marketing effort, then there it will get covered up by other things. Yours will stand out, because you made that effort, but it’s not going to stand out for long, unless you build it up, and build yourself up.
Do you have friends? Good. You’re about to need them. If you don’t have friends, try to make them. The good news here is that you don’t really need friends; you need cheerleaders and banner-wavers.
You want to get to the point where people who don’t know you will find your work, judge it, and buy it. There are a few things at your disposal. The first is the Hottest List. Take a look at the Free League page for an example of what I mean. The Hottest Titles list is created from the list of what’s sold recently. You want to spend as much time as possible up at the top of that list. Multiply your price by the number of units sold since launch, OR in the last sixty days1I think. But that’s the right idea whether the numbers are right or not.. The Hottest List is sorted by that number.
The first tool you have at your disposal is people who like you, who will toss a dollar or two into that pot. That will keep you being spotted by new buyers. It’s also a step on the way to your next tool, feedback.
Ask them to leave high-star ratings and reviews, if they feel they can. The ‘if’ is a big thing. If they can’t, then try to get out of them what you could improve. If you get the same feedback a lot, make sure you listen to it. If the feedback is ‘too expensive’ then you may want to reconsider your pricing – or you may want to reconsider your friends. The ingrates!
Having good reviews and multiple five-star ratings is a huge thing, because that helps people to pick you out as being high quality. You want your friends to be honest, because you want to keep on selling, but you also want to attract new customers. Treasure the reviews. Thank them for doing it. Share your excitement.
The third thing you have is social media marketing. (I’m leaving aside traditional marketing, where you pay money for adverts, as I’ve never done it, so I don’t understand how the money in converts to money out, and I can’t guide you here.) It’s absolutely up to you to drive people to your products. If you’re too shy to do it, then do it anyhow. If you think people will laugh at you, do it anyhow. If you think that they’ll ignore you, boot that feeling in the stomach and do it anyhow. But do it in the right places. Don’t shout into the wind.
If you already know about fan publishing, then you probably know a few things about the fan world already. There may be forums you can join, discords based around your world or your idea, FB groups where you can post. Leverage those things. Find the ones where you’re allowed to advertise, and the ones where you’re allowed to advertise as long as you’re adding to the conversation. Find groups of people who are also creating, and if you like their work, make sure other people know about that as well. Ideally you want fan forums where people want your work, but you can also use community resources for introductions, including doors you can open to other people. Know an artist, and someone who needs an artist? Cool. You just made someone’s project better. Need a set of proof-readers? There’s your community right there.
Collaboration is often the best way to go. If there’s someone who does not write, but does art in your style, and you write but are a terrible artist, then if you can agree on a profit share, you’re good to go. Even if you collaborate on things you’re good at already, you’ll be learning. Beer With Teeth give their main artist, who does the cover and a lot of the internals, 30-50% as a share, depending on how many other people are in there. I do the layout: I get extra for that, and I do a big chunk of editing and writing as well. DTRPG allows you to allot a share to another account in advance, meaning that you never have to do profit share calculations yourself. Just make sure you allot the correct percentage.
Your community is where you want to advertise the most. These are the people who love what you’re making already. Don’t fall prey to thinking that what you’re doing is spam. The best contract is one where both sides would do the same thing again. You’re giving them the chance to see if they like your work. If they don’t, that’s fine. If they do, then you’ve made a fan.
Chaosium in particular have good communities for this. The Jonstown Compendium, which I write for, has a dedicated Creators Circle, where those who make things hang out. Try to find one of those in whichever fandom you have, and the more official, the better. They also have a couple of large FB sites, and it’s those which give us the majority of our early sales.
Have your contact details (but not personal ones) in your work so that people can send you fan mail and feedback. Respond to that, even if it’s to say thanks for the typo check; you’re working on making the new thing better, and would they be interested in being told when it comes out?
In the end, you’re the most important part of the product. Your creation work, and your marketing work, will make it succeed or fail.
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Everyone interested in publishing of any sort should read this clear, comprehensive presentation. Thank you!
How early should or could one start doing marketing? I know you have teased us without mercy by showing what Kristi has been up to way before publishing Beer With Teeth adventures.
It depends on what you have that’s interesting to say, and a bit on your confidence in how close you are.
Unless you know that doing so will stop you from working, let people know about your project. You want them to buy it. A lot of people don’t self-market because they think they are spamming, or think they’ll be judged negatively for boasting, but most people are pleased to see that there are things that they want. Marketing lets you talk to the people who want to hear what you are saying, and others can tune it out – you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck by saying what you are doing.
So, once we have a manuscript, I’m generally pretty sure we’ll be able to publish. Before that I tend to say things like “BWT’s next planned publication will be set in Prax.” I want people to know we exist and we’re a coherent entity – it primes those who know that for buying our stuff. After we’ve got the manuscript, we also tend to have art coming in, and art makes good marketing posts.
So, there’s marketing and then there’s letting people know. We let people know as soon as we’re confident we’ll have a product. We then market as the product takes on its final shape, and by then, because we have a manuscript, we can answer questions about it, and talk coherently. That way we’re not ever at risk of misleading people who read an early release and get their hopes up. Prepare the ground, then sow.
I don’t have a how-early answer, because you want to be hitting a peak of initial excitement when you’re ready, but if you have a good chance of publishing, then you could start an eMail list of people who want to be informed, you could make sure the mailing lists, forums and FB channels you are on have posts about it, and you can get ready to generate that excitement. Whatever your time estimate for how long you have left, double it. Then work on that – it’s how long you’re going to take, at a minimum. I try to publish a month ahead, and to have at least one post per week. For something that’s more than just an adventure, that stretches to more, but I don’t tend to mind – as long as the buzz keeps going and I haven’t published the whole thing for free, I’m happy.