On the Principled Profit II

Just so it looks like I'm blowing
the whole thing out of proportion
Continued from Part I

The Case of a Magazine Open for Exposure 

John Reyst of d20pfsrd writes:

"If you're an aspiring artist [/writer] and would like a chance to get officially published as well as have your work in front of large numbers of industry insiders, which has already proven in many cases to lead to on-going role-playing game industry jobs, then please fill out this form!"

Work for exposure? [Link to a recent opinion piece in the NYT]

Issue #1
The Magazine Open Gaming Monthly (Issue 1, 2, and 3, 4 and 5 from one book shelf) sells for 2.99$ and is a full-color illustrated 100 page .pdf. All 10 reviews on d20pfsrd given to the magazine are 5 star reviews. Reviews on other sites are glowing. Great magazine! Great art! Five stars!

What do the writers and artists earn?

John Replies "The magazine. . . will likely end after issue [six] basically because the amount of work going into it far exceeds the amount earned per issue. . . If we have to pay writers AND artists there's no way it works.
"[T]he theory is we use the magazine as an entry point for new writers to get their name out in public or industry insiders who want to promote a specific product. Then d20pfsrd Publishing will offer the writers with high quality work paying gigs for other products. . . no one is forced to do anything and it's all out in the open.

But Fight On! was non-profit. ". . . [T]his is a fanzine and not a for-profit enterprise, although happily we've been successful enough that the thing pays for itself and even supports some contests."

Issue #5. Fantastic Cover.
And Dragon Magazine paid writers also, although below industry standards, coming in at .03-.06$ a word and giving up all rights.

John says "Here's the thing. . . 100 pages at 2.99$ per issue. . . was divided between distribution share, and then between the editor and me. After 5 issues . . . my share has been less than 100$ total, but which I've also turned right back around and funneled into a pool of money to be used to pay artists or writers as the thing grows. . ."

I asked John if his profits, or any profits were actually used to pay a writer or artist. His answer is somewhat complicated. He replies: "In regards to artists the answer is "it depends." Meaning, a great deal of the art used in the magazine . . . was art that was created and owned by Fat Goblin Games. . . the remaining art and graphics used were either public domain art/images, or art which was provided by other publishers as part of the content they asked to be highlighted in that issue, or clipart packages. . . [we obtained] extremely high-quality images for the covers in exchange for a two-page spread in the issue . . . used for profiling the artist and providing links to their contact information and further samples of their work .

In regards to content writers, Have they been paid? [Have] WE directly sent them checks? No. . . Each issue typically included 4-5 major pieces/articles written by existing publishers and which are either previews of their soon to be released products, or are excerpts from existing products. . . "Pay" for these articles in these terms was in the form of links to their products and essentially a several page advertisement for their products and companies. . . . the remaining space [was filled] with ongoing regular "feature" columns. . . The writers of these columns are the previously mentioned d20pfsrd.com contributors who were unknown in the industry previously. . . .The remainder was written by [the magazine manager] himself. . . The point being that the vast majority of each issue's content was indirectly compensated for in terms of additional sales for the publishers who contributed content"

So the answer is, that the magazine is essentially full of content that is a high quality ad for print products, and that other contributors were given personal recommendations to paying publishers based on the quality of their work.

If you're putting out 100 pages, you're writing about 40,000 words. Even at just .01$,  1/10th the going rate, how much would you have to charge to pay just your writers? (The answer, you'd need to profit 400$ after all other expenses. 4000$ if you wanted to pay the industry rate.) Apparently he's earning about 20$ an issue, a far reach short of what is required to actually pay anyone.

Jeff Easley Cover
So John was part of a team producing and editing a full color 100 page magazine in .pdf in 2013 and charging three dollars an issue and not taking in much, if any advertising money. It's true that the average price trend in magazines is around a dollar an issue, but that's because those magazines have national appeal and take in money from advertisers. They aren't niche specialty magazines. Looking at a product that's more comparable, Gygax magazine charges 8.95 and issue, and is about 70 pages.

He even states, "If going 100% free meant I could be guaranteed a steady flow of content, I'd be all over it. I really don't care about making any money off the magazine, that's not the point. . . "

Free and Non-profit magazines have an erratic history. It's hard to keep such a thing going for very long. Threshold is an excellent recent example of a free, high quality magazine. Crawl! charges 3.95 and issue and rewards contributors with a free copy, but is completely non-profit, putting all profits into printing hard copies and postal costs. Fight On! is effectively finished. It is clearly a hard thing to do and a labor of love.

But the fact remains, profit is being made on the magazine and the contributors are paid in exposure. Is this a bad thing?

Stacy Dellorfano, who has recently written about hiring practices in the industry and is the publisher of an excellent pay what you want zine Randomocity herself says "Payment doesn't always mean in the form of cash." This is true! If it does what it says on the tin, and you actually do get paying work from contributing the article then you are benefiting in a concrete way from the exposure. Speculative Work can get you paid.

John says: "I maintain d20pfsrd.com which gets, on average, 150,000 daily visits. I sell ads on the site to publishers. I can easily offer advertising space in exchange for either piecemeal art, or on an ongoing basis for a "staff" artist. I also send out a monthly newsletter that has thousands of subscribers so again, while paying direct money is hard to do, offering screen real estate on a very popular website and/or high subscriber newsletter seems like it would be of value."

That seemed kind of vague, so I followed up on it with some more questions, asking if his magazine only made him $100, how did this translate into views for the authors?

"[T]hat's not entirely what I meant when I used the term exposure which prompted this entire fiasco. By "exposure" I mean that I manage a site which routinely gets around 150,000 visits per day and I manage several social networks with thousands of individuals in the networks, as well as send a monthly newsletter with thousands of subscribers. By exposure I mean I can promote your content to those people. . . My point also was based on the proven fact that other writers who started by submitting "free" content to the magazine are now paid regularly for their work. One could relate this to the thousands of hours of work I've done for free over the years building d20pfsrd.com before it ever generated 1 penny of profit. So I take a long view of compensation. That is, doing work early for little to no pay is a requirement to proving your work is good and worth other people paying you."

This statement about writers getting paid from later articles was backed up by a Tyler Beck who contacted me. He says:

"I've written, (I believe) 5 articles for Open Gaming Monthly and haven't gotten paid for any of them. HOWEVER, what writing for the magazine HAS earned me is a monthly contract with Fat Goblin Games for which I DO get paid, AND I got an offer from Paizo to write a monster for one of their upcoming adventure paths (which theoretically will be coming out in July of next year!) This is all a direct result of getting started writing free articles for Open Gaming Monthly."

These things do have real quantitative value, likely greater than any cash payout made. Any artist or writer should consider advertising space or personal recommendations as a real form of payment.

The chart that answers the question "Should you work for free?"
Note that all options from "Is it for a legitimate business?" lead to no.
There are real problems with work for exposure though. The content produced by writers and artists is skilled learned content. I've never asked my dentist or mechanic to perform their skilled labor in exchange for a positive review or the number of people that will see my smile or running car.

There are plenty of ways of getting exposure for yourself, that do not involve giving work away so someone else can profit from it. You can add your best work to your portfolio it will still have value towards getting you future work.

Work for free is not automatically bad. But the issues involved are varied and manifest. Both the publisher and the creative have to be aware of what is going on when they request or provide free work. If you're going to ask for people to donate work, a high priority should be put into place explaining exactly what they can receive as well as what you are expected to make from the endeavor. As a publisher, I can certainly understand having a project and needing work done for it and trying to figure out a way to avoid giving away anything you don't have to. In capitalism, when you are paying for work, it's up to the creative to avoid those pitfalls when getting paid. Do they keep rights? Do they get paid for secondary publishing? But when you are in a gift economy, not being straightforward and open about all the compensation options the setup is exploitative, in the Marxist sense of the word.

Coming back to the magazine, why charge for it at all? There are plenty of examples of free magazines that accomplish the same goal. John says:

"The pricing was determined by [the magazines manager and marketer] and  with the intent that we had to get something to justify the many hours per month [the manager] was putting into arranging, laying out, and writing content for the magazine, and to cover distribution costs and such. However, with [the manager and marketer] stepping away now we're considering reducing further or going 100% free. Right now we're leaning towards free for multiple reasons, possibly the biggest of which being that the amount of "profits" gained from the sales certainly don't make up for the perception that is gained by profiting off of the work of others. If going 100% free means that "stigma" goes away I'd be all for it. Truly, the amount the magazine earned is not close to enough to make that worth the beating you take over it."

And there is the complexity of the situation right there. Money was being charged because "we had to get something to justify the many hours per month [the manager] was putting into [work on the magazine]". Didn't the writers put hours into their articles? But in reality, the profit was small, and the benefits of exposure being offered by the magazine were concrete benefits for at least some of the authors: "[T]wo of the regular contributors are now steadily writing for established big-name RPG companies and directly link their new "careers" to the exposure they gained via the magazine and via their connection to me personally, and to the publishers I recommended them to."

And really, it seems like communication is really the core issue in these situations. Being upfront, clear, and concrete can head off a lot of negative responses at the pass.

Tomorrow, in part III we're going to look at a multibillion dollar company and a contest with an unusual "reward".


  1. Working for exposure is a suckers game. Working for contributor copies is okay, certainly so for fan media. It doesn't matter how far up you are in the industry folks will keep trying to get work out of you for "exposure"; I recall Haraln Ellison ranting about this years ago.

  2. All contributors to Open Gaming Monthly received free copies of every issue they had content in. Also, anyone who reviewed an issue online somewhere received the next issue for free. Also, as Tyler noted, working for exposure had a direct payoff for him with industry work. He's now too busy doing paying work we probably can't get him again, which is awesome for him.

  3. The chart that answers the question "Should you work for free?"
    Note that all options from "Is it for a legitimate business?" lead to no.

    I like that chart, how that works out.

    FWIW all of my RPG publications have been for some kind of compensation. Even the stuff I wrote back in my PBEM wargame days came with a free issue of the newsletter since I was publish in it. My GURPS stuff has all been compensated for - $0.03 or $0.04 cents a word, free copies of the book (or both), royalties.

    It's painful to me to see people basically donate free work to for-profit companies. You should get something back - it may not be much. The RPG market may be small, but "small compensation for creative work" shouldn't mean "may as well be zero compensation." If people are doing creative work for zero compensation they shouldn't wonder why creative work pays so poorly. :)

  4. Dungeon and Dragon both paid well above industry standard rates in the Paizo days - between 5c and 10c a word.

    At the time, the industry standard was 3c for professional work, 4c if you were fairly well-known, and 1c-2c if you were working with a small-time publisher.

  5. From the description given, it seems to me that they didn't "showcase" or "spotlight" any "new" writers. Most of what they put out was supplied/produced by "established" publishers, whether large or small.

    That being the case, why would any legitimate "new writer" bother?

  6. Did you not read the part by Tyler?

  7. I spent 3 years in Law School just for people to assume I'd work for free to "gain experience." Incidentally, I'm not a lawyer anymore.

    1. Try being an artist, an awful lot of people expect pictures for free or that they can treat 2 or 3 days of work as a draft sample.

    2. Far more similar situations than you may realize. Instead of being expected to draw people professional-grade pictures (which is hard as hell and a trained skill) for free, you are expected to represent people's legal interests for free (which is hard as hell and a trained skill). As for "draft samples," try 2 days to a week of legal research before the person has decided you represent them. Thanklessness is thanklessness, and everyone's looking for a handout.

      By the way, big fan of your blog, JDJarvis.

  8. I think that mixing for-profit work with hobbyist work feels unclean to many people, and they then reason backwards from this feeling to the idea that some sort of scam or violation must be involved.

  9. I think this is partly a valid issue and partly a communication issue.

    If "we had to get something to justify the many hours per month [the manager] was putting into" it is something that had to happen, I think the writers and artists should get paid. As mentioned, they're putting time and skilled labor into this as well.

    If the manager was also bringing in "less than 100$ total" then clearly the money doesn't (or at least shouldn't) make a difference. All those hours for $20 an issue? That seems like a waste of effort if you're trying to get paid.

    If the manager was making more, then I think this falls fairly squarely in the "it's wrong" area. To make money off someone else's work when that someone isn't profiting is wrong.

    If the magazine was a non-profit, and all proceeds went back into the magazine, I think I would have less of an issue. It does cost real money to publish something on a regular basis. This would ensure that the magazine had at least a small budget to continue and possibly improve.

    That said, I think this is partly a communication issue. John should be clear and up front about who retains what rights, whether you get a free copy, what forms of non-monetary compensation there are, etc. A clear agreement between the creator and the publisher is important.

    I haven't read his guidelines, so that stuff may be in there. But it sounds like if it is, then it's just not prominent or explicit enough. That should be a fairly simple fix to post those details publicly. It think it may also draw in more artists.

    And I'll second that industry standard is not $0.10 a word. It's closer to $0.03-0.05.

  10. "The content produced by writers and artists is skilled learned content. I've never asked my dentist or mechanic to perform their skilled labor in exchange for a positive review or the number of people that will see my smile or running car."

    With all due respect, "dentist" and "auto mechanic" are not the right points of comparison to "RPG writer" in terms of market demand. "Interpretive dancer", "feng shui consultant", and "artisanal lightbulb blower" might be closer points of comparison. Those people do skilled work as well, no doubt, but many of them must resign themselves to doing that work gratis. Such are the realities of the labor market for such niche occupations.

    1. That's odd. Fiction writing earned 1.8 billion dollars last year. And it's a field that you have to be quite skilled to break into.

      You've got a pretty weird idea of niche.

      Did all those boxes in the supermarket just spontaneously develop their box art?

    2. Bullshit. You know what he meant.

      Any old idiot can and does write for RPG's. 300+ reviews have taught me that there is no way this is skilled learned content. I started doing reviews because so much of the content was of such low quality that I couldn't find anything worthwhile. I will extend this further to RPG editors, layout, etc. The vast majority of them are taking crap and producing crap from it. Frankly, I have no idea how Fight On! managed to produce as much high quality content as they did/do. Interviewing Cal on they managed it would be a much more worthy effort than trying to defend the "skilled learned labor" nonsense above.

      Or, you could cover how pay-per-word ruins the fucking content because of the bloat it ensures when combined with editors and publishers who allow it.

      Anything other than defending "skilled learned labor." Utter and total BS.

    3. I wasn't actually saying that writing RPG content isn't "skilled" labor. I was just saying that RPG products are a niche market (unlike "fiction" -- I'm not sure how the reply above conflated those two). So neither writers nor publishers can expect to turn a profit doing it, unless they're one of a very tiny minority of companies who have figured out to make keep business model in the black (which, BTW, usually involves paying your writers and artists next to nothing).

      It isn't 1982 anymore. People don't buy a lot of paper RPG products. If there was ever a time when a skilled writer or artist could be assured a steady income working on RPG products, that age has long since passed. At least that's my understanding of the market.

    4. First, Bryce, you sound bitter. You know you don't have to read and review shitty modules.

      Second, yes, it's a aphorism that 90% of everything is crap, but your reply indicates that what I'm saying is actually the case. You are looking for those skilled writers producing that content, because it's a 'skilled learned labor'. It's not just something anyone can do. At least, I've learned from your blog just how bad most people are at it.

      You are laboring under a misconception of pay-per-word I believe. It is rarely given for works of indeterminate length. A magazine will have a 1,200-1,500 word hole and will pay, per word, for someone to fill it. The idea that somehow someone is getting more money by 'padding' out a book or work, I believe, may have only occurred in a few specific circumstances (something like Dungeon magazine for instance).

      My point is, that people who write things you want to read are using their skilled labor to produce content.

      I can change your oil. Hell, I can pull a tooth. But you're not going to pay me to do it, because I am not a professional.

      Or hell, maybe you are. But if you do pay an amateur for a service, it's for the same reason you'll buy a module from someone who can't write worth a damn.

  11. This is a fascinating subject. I've only begun playing tabletop games a little over a year ago. I came from a software engineering background with game design aspirations and wanted to broaden my exposure to become a better designer. Articles like this on your blog have done a great service in educating me about this game industry.


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