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Learning Open Design by Doing

If you had told me 6 months ago that I'd be discussing business models on this blog, I'd have laughed and called you crazy. But here I am. Since approximately everyone I know in the games industry has asked me, "How's that Open Design thing going?", from new freelancers to NYTimes bestselling authors, I figured I'd offer a report and some observations.

What I've Learned

Like all (very) small publishers, I've learned that my channel has its quirks. There are some real advantages and real problems with the patron model. Let's start with the bad news first:
  • No one is used to it. It requires explanation. As consumers, we're trained to either take what's available, or not make the purchase. Negotiating about content is unfamiliar and weird. Everyone says they want to direct, but given the opportunity, few people do.

  • "Pay now, product later" is an alien concept in our culture. More often, people expect the opposite: product now, pay later. So I'm sure I miss sales on that basis.

  • Mass audiences confer legitimacy on creative works. Part of what makes people buy into a movie or a book is its approval by thousands or millions of others. Patron publishing is meant to be tailored to the purchasers, private, and clubby, and is the opposite of "event" publishing. It's always going to have an indie ethic.

  • Patrons and princes are remote, not approachable. That small, private audience thing has a faint whiff of privilege, snobbery, and remoteness. Plus, one knows how cool it is unless they sign up. That's a tough sell.

  • Marketing is word of mouth. Because I don't have a product for either the print channels or the electronic channels, it's tough to find the right places to reach the audience. The Internet will get you only so far.

The good news is bigger and better:

  • The "50 Pope Problem" hasn't happened. There are only about 20 patrons right now, and I'd say about 6 of them are actively asking questions, making suggestions, and pushing things one way or another. Several have never said a word beyond "I'd like to sign up." That's a huge worry off my mind.

  • The Value of Small Audiences: The project is fundamentally elitist, in the best sense. Only those who already have a stake in its success hand over cash. There is no heckling or Internet trash-talking. If you've shown up, you are philosophically already a supporter with a stake in the project's success. There's been absolutely no negativity, only constructive suggestions so far.

  • Talent at the Table: I'm so happy that my patrons are smart and talented. I know artists working for patrons are SUPPOSED to praise those who hold the purse strings by tradition, but I'm beginning to think some of those over-the-top dedications from the Renaissance were actually *sincere*. Two patrons are TSR/WotC designers. One is a PDF designer. One is a cartographer for a European publisher. These people know what they are talking about.

  • Getting to Know Tastes: Most design is about catering to the lowest common denominator, because that gets you a mass audience. This is the opposite. I've gotten to know people better as DM and as gamers by what preferences they've expressed.

  • Entertainment: The project has been fun more often than stressful. It's quite entertaining to hear Jeff Grubb say "Bring me flying monkeys!" and to know that, hey, that will actually WORK in the Lost City adventure.

  • Feedback: Even better, a patron comment like "What an eye opener. More info and insight than the whole of the Forge is fielding." makes me realize that people are definitely getting their money's worth. And that makes me happy.

Patron Business Model vs. Greed and Fear
Right, so here's the section about the model. I think some of the questions about all this have been motivated either by greed or fear. The freelancers hope that patron publishing is a quick road to easy money, cutting out the publishers, printers, and retailers. It's not. Maintaining communication with an audience is always work, marketing is work, and (oh yeah) writing intelligently about creative processes is work.

By constrast, the publishers I've heard from seem vaguely uneasy about it, as if they fear that direct-to-gamer writing will somehow cut them out of the loop. This is wrong on two counts: 1) the audience for these projects is very limited, and 2) the work that goes into them is high. First, I don't expect more than 40 patrons to sign up, so at most, the publishers have lost 40 sales. In their large-audience world, that's not much.

Second, I'm more convinced than ever of the value that a clever publisher brings to the table: finding an audience, pushing into the right venues, timing, art, editing, everything that goes with print and business. Doing that work (even on a small scale) makes it clear that I could go into business as a publisher, but it would take precious time away from writing and design. At one time I though I was offering a challenge to traditional publishing, but the model just won't sustain input from more than a few dozens participants — so other publishers can't lose more than a few dozens sales to me.

Any questions?


( 4 sutras — Your wisdom )
Jun. 1st, 2006 02:18 am (UTC)
Wow. I almost want to jump in just to see it at work :D This is quite fascinating!
Jun. 1st, 2006 02:59 am (UTC)
From a creative standpoint, it's a roaring success. I'm thinking through some things that usually I do by instinct or from experience. That's good.

Even better, I'm taking a few more risks, because the audience expects it (and the patrons seem not to care for the "play it safe" style of recent WotC and d20 releases — if they did, why would they spring for an experiment like this?).

It's also been done in fiction. Diane Duane, Lawrence Watt-Evans, and others have tried patronage with novels, with fair results.

In that case, though, it's easy to use an installment/tip jar method: when the chapter is paid for, off it goes.

Jun. 1st, 2006 04:06 am (UTC)
Baen Books also uses a patronage system to launch their Baen-Universe Sci-Fi Magazine.


It has various levels of support and also offers tuckerization.
Jun. 1st, 2006 05:14 am (UTC)
Re: Baen
I love it when the streams cross between, say, gaming and SF. I'd never heard of "tuckerization", but it's a wonderful, useful term.

Thanks for the pointer!
( 4 sutras — Your wisdom )

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