On the Principled Profit IV

Part I is here. Part II is here. Part III is here.

What does any of this even matter? Is there even a moral question involved? Who cares who makes money off hobbyist works?

Alex Schroeder says: "What does 'make money' in this context even mean? To take myself as an example: I don't want to work for anything if I'm going to earn less than $200/h since I have a well paying day job. As far as I am concerned, all this RPG business stuff is peanuts. Some people do stuff for free, some ask for a few dollars because they think it makes their work more valuable, or they see it as a sign of respect, or of appreciation, a tip jar, a way to defray some of the costs such as servers, artist, or whatever else they need to do beyond simply spending their own time and energy."

Who is it that actually makes money in gaming? It's a well known fact that the property rights holder wanted to turn D&D from an under 50 million dollar property into a 100 million dollar one, but they have their fingers in a lot of pies, branding, video games, web subscriptions.

Do any hobbyists make money equivalent to the day job?

Well, the answer is yes.

Evil Hat posted their figures from 2008, and the gross was $36,392.75, with his take home being $27,143.25. This was before this year, when their Kickstarter raised an impressive total of $433,365. Yes, nearly one half-million.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is also likely profitable. The just finished hardcover referee book raised $38,288 american dollars (converted from Euros), his campaign last year raised $16,240. These are just the public campaigns, Raggi turns over a lot of his work via traditional publishing channels, so his revenue is higher.

Monte Cook and Bruce Cordell are doing quite well with Numenera ($517,255) and the Cypher Engine run game, The Strange (at $186,000+ with 25 days to go as of 10/28)

Now, in many cases it isn't $400,000 gross a year (that's 200$ an hour) but none of those are below the poverty line for single males where I live.

Compare this. . .
What traits do all of those share?

  • The designers, writers, and artists have been working very hard for over 10 years producing content before any of them started to turn over a significant profit. 
  • Each book or work by the people producing this content is a labor of love, filled with high quality content. 
to this! Look at that floppy mace!
The thing is, work and compensation for that work is a moral issue. It has been for the whole of human history. I'm American and our capitalistic culture glorifies and demonizes profit. This conversation isn't new, 'selling out' 'getting rich' and 'working for exposure' are just ancient conflicts starting to reach our hobby industry for two reasons.

  • Individuals now have the power to produce professional quality products, without needing a traditional publishing chain. 
  • Our hobby is growing, and more and more money is being made in the industry by people who are not massive distributors, in spite of claims made to the contrary

But we have to deal with it now. Some of us have great jobs, but I can say that personally, the money I made off of my book "On the Non-Player Character: Solving the Social Trap" (also in Print) was a non-trivial portion of my income this year. So to those who don't have good jobs, the few hundred dollars they make, might make the difference between ramen noodles and fresh fruit.

So, how to handle the hobbyist income? 

Publishers, if you are producing something that you are charging for:
  • State openly and clearly what kind of compensation you are offering. This is a pretty basic professional standard. 
  • Expect to compensate those who assist you with your work, if you yourself are getting compensated.
  • Communicate clearly how what you are publishing works! If I had been able to find information about how the One Page Dungeon authors submitted under the CC-SA license I wouldn't have cared that someone was publishing their stuff and charging for it. Obviously it was in large print on the actual One Page Dungeon page, but not so clear from where the print book was available for sale. We're a suspicious and lazy bunch. 
  • Openness and communication are key. 
Creators, if you are producing content:
  • Be professional and communicate with your producers. If there's a problem or a hold up, let them know when you find out. We are all instantly connected, taking more than 48 hours to let someone know you aren't going to make next weeks deadly is unacceptable and ends up costing everyone money, sometimes even killing the project.
  • Same with kickstarters. If it's going to be late, tell people. You should probably have it complete before it's kickstarted. You should certainly not spend all the money on booze and whores conventions and then take up a collection to become a travelling wizard. 
  • Make sure that you are ok with the terms you are agreeing to. Zak notes here that deciding to go freelance gives you way better returns then writing for someone else, along with other good advice.

What does our community have to say?

Johnathan Bingham: "I know this is a fairly hotly debated topic amongst some.  The way I see it, it's OK to work for free as long as the work you are contributing to is not for profit. . . I don't agree with publishers that are creating for profit work and don't somehow compensate the contributors. If you can't pay the artists/writers/editors for the work yet you are planning on selling it for a profit, then you'd best be willing to pay once you do start turning a profit.  
Ultimately as an artist, it's up to me to decide if I agree to the terms and know what I'm getting into.  . . I think once you start trading work for some sort of compensation, it's best to lay out all of those terms.  I still work for free if it's a project that I'm excited about and there is no intent for it being a for profit venture."  

Erik Tenkar:  "I have a real problem with Wizards of the Coast holding a contest where "winners" lose rights to their work and the prize is to be published with no further compensation. Wizards of the Coast is a major player. Even if they paid a nominal amount . . . it would hardly break their budget. Instead, they are making money off of the works of their fans, and that just doesn't seem right to me. Is Wizards of the Coast that hard up these days that it can't pay freelance artists?
As for the "beer and chips money", I'm a firm believer in sharing that wealth. I make "beer and chips money" off of OBS referral sales through The Tavern, and frequently give away OBS credit through contests and giveaways through contests. My readers are the ones that generated that credit - the least I can do is return a sizable chunk of it to them in some fun ways.
I'd love to make money from my hobby, but when cash becomes the focus, it's no longer a hobby - it's work."

Derik Badman: "'For exposure' is code for 'for free,' and by the very nature of using that code makes me skeptical of the person using it. Just say 'hey, I can't pay you for this, but I'd love to have you contribute.' Why couch it in some 'No, I'm doing YOU a favor' terms?" 

Ramanan S: "Asking people to work for 'exposure' is almost always code for 'I don't think what you do actually has any value'. I know lots of designers who get pitched web design work that way. The flip to that is no one ever asks me to work on their web site as a programmer for free."

Justin Willcox: "A secondary, brutal consideration:  Not all work has good market value, so you need to make an objective comparison to what your contribution is worth elsewhere.  If what you are doing is super niche and a labor of love, then you have a hard choice:  contribute to a hobbyist community. . .[o]r see a smaller community dominated by expensive niche products on the other."

Adam Thornton: "I think it's totally OK to ask someone to work for free, although calling it 'exposure' ... well, how significant is that exposure going to be for any OSR product?  If it's exposure to build future commercial success, that seems...delusional.  If, on the other hand, it's exposure so that someone at Garycon says to you 'oh hey that crashed spaceship OPD that had the map where the map grid was square or hex depending on whether you were inside the ship or outside?  That was you?  That was awesome!' then, sure."

Martijn Vos: "Working for free is perfectly fine. Professional programmers do it all the time; many contribute to open source projects that distribute their work for free. Many large, commercial companies contribute to open source projects. There's all sorts of reasons, business and private, for why this can be a good idea.
But the expectation that someone will work for free for you, especially when it's something that will make you money, that is bad. Voluntarily contributing free stuff is fantastic. Making it the expected norm that people give their livelihood away is not. It's a subtle but important difference."

And a long statement, but worth reading. . .

Stacy Dellorfano: "It's entirely up to the individual as to whether or not they think that compensation is enough to quantify the amount of labor that they would put into such an endeavor.
"If you can make money for your work, and you don't have problem getting work, then there's clearly no need at all for you to get any exposure and you should rightfully walk away from non-paying gigs (unless, of course, you just want to do them) so that you can focus on your paying gigs. 
"But if you're just starting out, just starting to make a name for yourself, just starting to get things to put on your resume, then telling someone to just make stuff and put it in their portfolio is doing them a big disservice. It makes no difference how much awesome stuff is in your portfolio ... if nobody is actually seeing that stuff, it's not going to get you a job, paying or otherwise. 
I think a better article for new writers and new creatives would be one that discusses how to weigh the pluses and minuses of doing something 'for free' and come to a conclusion that lets you sleep well at night. 
"For me, high on that list would be finding out everything you possibly can about how that publication functions and how the end product looks. Getting people to see your work is great, but if they're seeing it in a publication that is otherwise low bar, or doesn't serve the kind of audience that you want to reach, that exposure is going to be far less valuable than more targeted exposure. Plus, you want something you can take with you to and won't be embarrassed to show a potential client.  
"Then, there are personal morality questions. Is it an indie operation that you want to support because you like what they're doing? Is it a more established, larger, or more 'traditional' company that might get you into that door? Is that where you want to even go? Knowing where you want to take your career and building the brand of you based on those decisions can have a huge impact on your professional future no matter what you're doing, who you're working for, or why you're doing it. Still, this is a question that each individual has to answer for themselves.  
"The question to me shouldn't be, 'Should you ask for work for exposure alone?', or 'Should you do work for exposure alone?', instead it should be, 'When is working for exposure valuable, and when is it a waste of time and money?'. "

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  1. Those that insist on keeping the industry of the hobby at the amateur level by treating contributors as amateurs is going to keep the industry of the hobby amateurish (not a bad thing entirely but not a strong route to profesionalism).
    Do we want energetic and enthusiatic works or do we want energetic, enthusiastic profesional works?


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