Liber Ludorum devotes a lot of attention to TTRPGs’ print culture, and that usually means game materials. But this post looks at another important but often-unexamined document in RPG culture: the publishing contract.
Over the past months, I’ve talked with several people who’ve signed or were considering contracts from four (at least) notable small “publishers” in the indie RPG scene. (Why is “publishers” in quotes? By the end of this post, you’ll know.) And by traditional publishing standards, these contracts are bad.
This post examines standard practice amongst these companies, contrasts it with mainstream publishing practice, and explains why the apparent norm amongst RPG “publishers” is unprofessional at best. I’ll also overview some contract and publishing options, and at the end, I’ll discuss some other points you should consider in evaluating and negotiating a publishing contract.
Note: Nothing in this post is legal advice. I’m not a lawyer, just someone who’s tired of seeing my friends and other indie designers get raw deals. This is a layperson’s attempt to provide some common knowledge and transparency on how a real publishing contract should be structured.
By “traditional,” I mean fiction and nonfiction books from big and small publishers alike. This section will overview the well-established publishing industry baseline.
An advance is an up-front payment a writer receives after signing their contract. Advances vary in size depending on the author, the book, and the publisher.
The advance is a commitment. The publisher believes the work is a viable product, and they’re willing to take the risk of publishing it because they’re reasonably confident it will turn a profit.
Writers earn royalties on each copy of their book sold, and publishers pay out quarterly (often after a certain monetary threshold has been met—i.e., you need to be owed $X before they’re obligated to cut a check). Royalty rates increase at certain breakpoints; for example, 10% of the list (not the net) price for the first Y copies, 12.5% for the next Z copies, and then 15% for every copy after that.
The logic behind this schedule is that as more copies sell, the more the publisher has recouped on their initial investment in editing, marketing, and all the other overhead costs they pay to operate. So the more a book sells, the more everyone earns back.
Authors who receive advances must “earn out” their advance; they don’t start accruing royalties until what they would have initially earned in royalties equals the advance they were paid. This is standard practice.
Publishers have internal costs—paying staff, overhead on facilities, utilities, etc. That’s why traditional publishers take a large cut of the profits. It pays for crucial initial services: editing, layout, printing, marketing. Publishers provide these services because they contribute to a high-quality final product and that product’s visibility and appeal in the market.
Small RPG “Publishing”
Now that you understand how standard publishing contracts structure some major financial components, let’s look at how several small RPG “publishers” do it.
You don’t get one.
This isn’t unheard of; very small, indie publishers sometimes can’t afford to pay an advance. The practice is professionally frowned upon, though, as that lack of financial support hinders a writer’s ability to complete work on an accepted but unfinished manuscript.
For the life of the contract, the four small “publishers” offer approximately 50% royalties; the percentages can vary, but to my understanding, they’re usually around there. This rate is absolutely unheard of in traditional publishing, and it seems like a huge win for indie RPG writers, right?
Well, no—for multiple reasons, the first of which is the anti-advance.
Contracts from the publishers in question all stipulate that the authors must earn out the initial costs before they’re eligible for royalty payments. The writer doesn’t start earning until the publisher recoups their own expenses.
The publisher’s job is to take on risk. Traditional publishers carefully evaluate a submission. It starts with an acquisitions editor who reads a manuscript and decides it has merit and can be refined into a final product with a reasonable commitment of time and effort. Eventually, their proposal lands with a financial team, who crunches numbers and decides the potential for actual, quantitative profits.
This sort of detailed analysis may not be viable for small RPG publishers. Instead, they likely rely more on personal intuition and knowledge of the current market. But the “anti-advance” practice forces an unacceptable amount of risk back onto the creator, risk that is traditionally the publisher’s sole, exclusive responsibility to assume when deciding that something is worth publishing.
Here’s another reason a 50% royalty is unheard of in traditional publishing: it wouldn’t leave the publisher with enough capital to pay for everything on the back end. So guess what happens when “publishers” can’t and don’t?
I’ve spoken to multiple writers whose “publisher” promotion amounted to occasional social media posts and listings in the “publisher” newsletter. One described working with the “publisher” as a “nonexistent partnership” wherein that partner put forward no effort to sell the product besides listing it on their website and mentioning it once in a newsletter.
Another received no editorial service and went out of their way to secure it themself before final submission. And having personally read products from these “publishers,” I can tell you that their typical quality (with editing or otherwise) is at a level unacceptable in mainstream publishing; it ranges from poor or cumbersome style to blatant typos and misspellings, incorrect internal references (even sometimes left as “p. XX”), and other failures of quality control.
How well will your work sell if it’s not marketed or publicized outside tweets and a newsletter? How will it reach new customers except by word of mouth and the slim chance it goes viral? And how many people will recommend it if the final execution is of poor quality?
Offering a large royalty forces skimping on (if not foregoing entirely) the services that a publisher’s percentage is intended to cover. So if a “publisher” isn’t assuming their obligatory risk and isn’t providing standard services … what the hell is that?
Well, that’s not actually publishing. That’s brokering a pay-to-print deal, financing it, and then selling it so they can turn a quick profit before moving on to the next project.
The Writer’s Options
When you receive a contract, read it and make sure you understand it. If you don’t, use Google; blog posts devoted to contract language and clauses are a genre unto themselves. You can also reach out to other writers and ask for opinions and advice. If it’s cost effective, hire a qualified lawyer.
If a publisher ever tells you a contract is strictly confidential or asks you to sign an NDA regarding a contract, walk away. The only reason for preventing access to outside counsel is that they’re going to feed you a predatory contract and hope you’re ignorant.
Once you understand your contract, you have options.
Traditionally, the author’s best bet is to shop around with multiple publishers and see who will offer the best deal.
You can always negotiate. You can always negotiate. Some writers feel like this is rude or will hurt their reputations. If you’re civil about it, it’s not, and it won’t. You have a right to negotiate what you believe is a fair contract and no obligation to take a bad one. Negotiating works best when you have multiple offers to play off of each other—hence the importance of shopping around.
You could also get an agent. An agent’s primary function is to pitch and negotiate on your behalf, but to my knowledge, agents don’t exist in (and are pretty antithetical to) the indie RPG scene.
Sadly, when several notable “publishers” in the space are all offering the same really bad contract, these options become less viable. But the stronger your pitch and your product, the more likely you are to leverage them to your advantage.
Other Contract Points
This post has primarily focused on some key, common issues in RPG contracts. But in your publishing adventures, you may stumble across other pitfalls. Here are a few important things to watch out for.
For unfinished projects, a contract will likely stipulate a date for delivery of the initial manuscript and may also include a delivery date for the satisfactory manuscript (adjusted and corrected according to editorial feedback). Make sure the dates are feasible for you. It’s easier for a publisher to adjust their timeline now than later, and you don’t want to break contract.
The contract should also explicitly describe everything you’re expected to deliver.
Grant of Rights
This section delineates exactly what you’re selling to the publisher. You should retain copyright to your own creative work; the publisher is simply buying the right to print and sell it.
Your contract should also state whether they’re buying digital rights, print rights, or both. In traditional publishing, royalties are higher on electronic editions since they don’t incur the hefty physical printing and distribution costs.
The contract should nail down a deadline by which your work will be published; if that deadline’s not met, the rights should immediately revert to you, enabling you to pursue other publishing opportunities.
You may also ask for a provision limiting the types of copyediting changes the publisher is allowed to make. In all cases, you should reserve the right to review and approve the copyedited manuscript before it goes into layout and the final proofs before they go to print or sale. (Yes, I have had editors alter my work after signing off on the “final” manuscript copy.)
Your contract should obviously state the terms under which it terminates. These include the publisher’s failure to publish, bankruptcy, or allowing the work to go out of print (if applicable). You may also want to add the condition that the contract terminates if the publisher fails to provide payment either in full or on time.
Upon termination, all rights should revert to the writer, they retain all payments already received, and they’re still entitled to outstanding royalty payments or those accrued through sale of existing stock. You may also want to retain the option to purchase materials like digital design files or printing plates.
The option clause gives a publisher the right of first refusal over your next work; you must submit it to them before you can submit it to another publisher.
I haven’t heard of this in an RPG publishing contract, but it could happen. If it does, make sure the contract clearly states an acceptable period of time the publisher has to review and decide.
If they fail to meet this deadline or pass, you’re free to submit to other publishers. If they accept the submission, negotiate a new contract instead of using the existing one, and negotiate for better terms (i.e., more money).
A “next book” clause obligates you to publish your next work with the same publisher under the same contract.
This is bad for you. Get rid of it.
Right to Audit
You should stipulate a periodic right to audit your publisher’s records to ensure you’re receiving full compensation. The cost of this audit should be borne by the publisher if the audit reveals you’ve been undercompensated by a certain percentage.
In the event of a contract dispute, an arbitration clause stipulates that it will be resolved by arbitration rather than a lawsuit in court. This will save you time, energy, and money.
The contract should state which legal system governs any dispute.
For full, detailed discussions of publishing contracts, see Negotiating a Book Contract by Mark L. Levine and The Writer’s Legal Guide by Kay Murray and Tad Crawford; they are invaluable resources that every working writer should have access to.
A contract can feel like a form of validation—and a good one is. But not all contracts are created equal, and some do not have the creative’s best interests at heart. It’s important for every writer to fully read and evaluate a contract before signing. Taking bad contracts drags down professionalism in the space as a whole, but if writers stand together on principle and expect more from their publishers, they collectively can edify the entire indie RPG market.
Do you have a question or concern about a contract? Feel free to get in touch.
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5 thoughts on “Introduction to Publishing Contracts for Indie RPG Writers”
This is cool, thanks for putting this together. I can only speak to my own experiences and not others, but here is my anecdote with Exalted Funeral. Tl;dr I feel good about the arrangement (https://www.exaltedfuneral.com/products/maximum-recursion-depth-pdf).
I Kickstarted and digitally self published my game Maximum Recursion Depth, digital only on drivethrurpg (https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/365970/Maximum-Recursion-Depth-or-Sometimes-the-Only-Way-to-Win-is-to-Stop-Playing-The-Karmapunk-RPG) and itch.io (https://maxcan7.itch.io/mrd).
I personally am totally uninterested in print (still have not even read the print version of my book lol), but I know that a lot of people ONLY care about print, and it would expand my audience, so I wanted a publisher who would take care of all of that and create a little to no effort situation for me, and take on all of the risk up-front. Even if not a single print copy were sold, it would be entirely their loss, so they have an incentive to at the very least make their investment back. Also, having a publisher, especially if it were a small but prominent indie publisher, I figured might give my game more “legitimacy” or more exposure.
My editor, Fiona Maeve Geist, was at the time working very closely with Exalted Funeral, so it was a logical fit. The contract was as you say no advance, I think 50% profit share on print+digital, I think more favorable on digital-only (I could double check the contract but that’s from memory), and minus earning out the initial costs.
MRD was pushed in the newsletter and on twitter, I did some self-promo as well, and it’s also shown up in catalogues for retailers. I did some self-promo on that as well and managed to convince some local shops to order the book from the catalogue, so I know for a fact there are at least some small number of copies floating around a small number of retailers, which is kind of cool even as someone who does not care about print.
Would I have preferred to have the initial funding / advance and editing handled by EF and have a bigger marketing push? Sure. But I don’t think I was done dirty or anything, I genuinely think they’re doing the best they can for my very Weird game with the resources they can afford to put into it, and I do feel like I got out of that arrangement exactly what I was looking for.
For someone who just wants a publisher to handle a lot of those logistics, like doing the actual print, distribution, working with catalogues for retailers, etc., and for a sense of “legitimacy” of putting their logo and a barcode on the book and being hosted on their website, I would recommend EF. Maybe other people have had more negative experiences with them, or were looking for something different, or maybe I’m being naïve, or I was a special case, but for what it’s worth that’s my two cents.
This feels pretty unnecessarily harsh to smaller-scale publishers. When I’ve worked with indie publishers, like Exalted Funeral or Spear Witch, I’ve never gotten the sense they were trying to undercut me or screw me over. None of them have lots of money like a “traditional” publishing house would, which explains the lack of advances, but they do have connections and logistics infrastructure that I as a random person do not. I’ve published work through EF that I’ve now seen on store shelves—a very cool feeling.
On a personal level, I feel like there’s a strong insinuation here that publishers are somehow devious or callous, which, honestly, flies in the face of my experience. Almost everyone I’ve met in publishing is mostly just really interested in making killer RPGs, and on trying to expand the playing field so anybody—not just those with pre-existing connections—can get their name into the scene(s). If they turn projects over quickly, it’s because they’re overworked and underfunded (if they were just trying to make a quick buck, they’re in the wrong field).
I honestly don’t know what you’re expecting. RPGs are a notoriously finicky niche marketplace; imagining that RPG publishers with <10 fulltime employees to have the same reach as traditional printing houses is just… delusional. If you *do* really want to rail on RPG publishers, I'd lean more towards the trad market: from everyone I know who's worked with giant companies, their rates tend to be abysmal and their practices shitty. They're the ones eager to make cash grabs and flip over the next project—just look at the front page of DriveThru.
Love to see someone with a following shitting on indies, that's very cool.
In response to @Sam, while my comment was also in defense of small publishers, I do think your comment goes a little too far in the other direction. While my anecdotal experience with EF was positive and it sounds like your experiences with smaller publishers has been positive as well, I do think the concerns of this post are reasonable.
Bottom line, they are publishers, they are businesses, and I don’t care if they are 1 employee or 1000 employees, they have obligations to their customers and clients, and if they are not competent to meet that task, even if well meaning, that’s not ok. Again, not saying I think that is the case with EF or Spear Witch, but in a hypothetical sense, small businesses are not above bullshit.
Also, a lot of the permissiveness that is granted towards small business in niche hobbies such as this end up creating complications later, when those companies actually do grow, and are no longer operating on the same scale, and inadvertently behave in ways that are unprofessional or insufficient, and then refuse to take responsibility for themselves when called out on it, doubling down on bad behavior, and becoming the big evil company they used to rebel against. That’s the cycle of things, if people choose not to be conscientious of themselves and not hold others accountable.
So while I would give EF a positive review, I think it’s a disservice to myself, any prospective developer looking to publish through EF, the gaming industry as a whole, and even EF themselves, not to be aware of these things and hold them to a high standard.
“Love to see someone with a following shitting on indies, that’s very cool.” you say while shitting on an “indie” for having an opinion. Interesting take.
And these indie publishers being overworked and underfunded, maybe don’t take on so much shovelware that is the “hot ticket” or run so many goddamned crowdfunding projects that you can’t respond to the people you work with or ya know, PAY THEM? Love love love waiting for weeks or even months to get those dollah bills yo!