Thoughts on the Freelance RPG Business

by Mike Shea on 2 February 2015

There's an excellent post on Enworld entitled "What's a Freelancer RPG Writer Worth?". This is one of the rare examples I've seen where the comments add a lot of value to the discussion so give them a read as well.

As a freelancer and independent publisher of roleplaying game articles and books, I have a few thoughts on the matter I thought I'd share. Keep in mind, this isn't advice. Advice is bullshit. These are just the thoughts of one guy lucky enough to have some success both self publishing and freelancing for a few different RPG companies.

The Enworld article tends to focus on a single metric, pennies per word. One company pays six cents a word, another pays only one cent. There are other things to consider, however.

Who Owns the Rights?

First off, I'm no lawyer so take all of this with a grain of salt.

It's possible one might want to take a lower paying assignment (even free) if they are able to maintain the rights to the work. This isn't common, however. Typically, when a company pays you to write something, they own the full rights to the work. It's theirs. That's usually part of the contract you worked out with them ahead of time. You do have a contract, right? RIGHT?

If there's someone who wants your words and can't afford very much, you might consider writing the work and licensing it for their use for a specified amount of time, maybe six months or whatever, at which point the rights come back to you. You might also give them a non-exclusive right to the work where they can use it in their stuff but you can use it elsewhere. However you work this out, you'll want it in a contract, in writing, so everyone is clear.

Again, this isn't how big publishers likely work. They're going to want to pay you for the work and it becomes theirs. If that's the case, they should pay you for that right. Personally, I probably wouldn't take less than 4 cents a word unless I get to keep the rights somehow.

Writing in a Shared World

Writing in a shared world can be tricky. If you're writing in a world that someone else owns (like the Forgotten Realms or Star Trek or something) you likely can't publish your work on your own even if the publisher doesn't pay you for it. Again, I'm no lawyer, but it probably falls into some horrible gray area where neither of you actually owns the rights. You can't publish your shared-world work because the world itself belongs to someone else and the publisher can't publish your work without your permission. So it just dies.

This is a good reason to either build your own world or write world-agnostic stuff that doesn't use anyone else's material.

Visibility and Exposure

If a company can't afford to pay you more than 4 cents a word, how much visibility are you likely to receive? If they had a real audience, couldn't they afford to pay you more? Again, if you're posting something on someone's blog, you might do it for free or very little and keep the rights to what you write so you can use it elsewhere. Whether we publish something on our own or try to freelance for RPG companies, exposure is hard. Unless I get to keep the rights to what I write, I'm not likely to write for exposure alone.

The Risks of Spec Work

Short for "on speculation", this sort of work can be risky. This means you write a piece and then see if the company you're pitching it to is interested in publishing it. A lot of companies do this sort of thing, including those in the RPG world. There's a risk, however, that it may fall into a sort of limbo where the publisher won't publish it but neither can you. They might even pay you half of the agreed amount but then you still lose rights to the work and now no one will ever see it. Considering how little we get paid already, it's a real blow to know no one will ever see the work we did.

Volunteer Work for Commercial Companies

Sometimes we think about our RPG community and feel like the work we put in is for the greater RPG community. It begins to feel like volunteer work. Sometimes we have to remember that we're boosting commercial companies, companies who are seeking commercial success. They're making money from our effort. So should we. These aren't non-profit companies saving puppies. They have a brand and they sell stuff. Often, it's our stuff they're selling.

Freelancing vs. Self Publishing

We're really lucky to live in an age where we have so many ways to publish our material. There are many mechanisms and methods for us to publish our work, both physically and digitally. There are a lot of profitable models out there including traditional freelance work, self publishing, and support from systems like Kickstarter and Pateron. We have a lot of options and sometimes it can be hard to choose.

I like to imagine that all the RPG writing I do, whether it's blogs, tweets, freelance articles, or self-published books helps fuel the rest. I write weekly articles on Sly Flourish. I write daily tweets on the Sly Flourish twitter account. I write freelance articles for a few different game companies, many of which note my website in my by-line. I self publish GM advice books and adventures, which I can promote through all my other feeds and which also cross-promote back to my website. Every piece of work boosts all of the other work I do on every platform. That's a great upward spiral.

The Value of the Written Word

There's a downside to all of these new payment models and the freedom we have to publish words on line. There are a lot more words now. If you think about each word as a product in a supply and demand curve, there is a LOT more supply (words) without a much greater demand (readers). The value of the word seems to be going down.

Looking back at the comments in the Enworld article, I'm not sure that the cost per word has actually gone down very much over the years. It sounds like we're making about what people made back in the 80s and 90s, though it doesn't look like the price kept up with inflation. I don't think demand has gone down that much either. There are a lot of people playing RPGs.

The supply of words, however, has gotten a lot bigger. There are many of us who want to write awesome RPG products. Every RPG GM is a designer and developer and many of them feel like their world is worth publishing. Maybe they are. Whether there is enough of an audience to buy it all is a different story.

How different is your thing than every other thing out there? How do you get your voice heard? That's the hard part when supply is at a much higher curve than the demand.

Get Your Own Info, Make Your Own Choice

A lot of people have strong opinions on this topic, including me. Each of us, however, needs to get whatever information we can and make our own choices. We'll have to experiment. Hopefully we don't get hosed by making the wrong choices, but it likely won't kill us if we get screwed making a bad decision. In the mean time, we can all learn a lot watching the changing world of the RPG freelancer.