Developing games, and then bringing them to market

I’ve been spending most of my working/creative time for the last year on thinking about and developing tabletop games. (I actually started working on it fairly seriously over 18 months ago, but I definitely spent several months of the first half of 2013 working on Virtual Danger.) I’ve developed at least three fun, playable games in the last six months or so. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster.

Getting the ideas, developing the themes, working out the gameplay, designing the cards, crafting the prototypes, and then playing, improving, and refining the games is generally quite satisfying, fulfilling, and rewarding. It’s intrinsically good, for me. Throughout those parts of the process, I frequently get so caught up in the joy of the work that I lose hours, days, even weeks just totally consumed by the work. It’s actually really interesting to be almost-consciously-able to trigger something like a manic episode just by setting myself to work on a project I care about.

Then there’s the other side of these projects: Everything about bringing them to market. It’s a bit like poison.

On the first big project I put together last year, everything seemed to go smoothly until I got past a few good play-tests and began seriously considering what would be needed to take it to market—namely, coming up with art for all the cards. For my private-use prototype, I’d been using a bunch of images grabbed from around the web. A lot of fun and funny pop culture references and visual puns, but not a one which could lawfully be used in a commercial release or even a free distribution. The whole subject of modern Copyright law and how it applies to protect giant corporations from individuals is an injustice which upsets me greatly, and one which has shaped my entire life in ways I frequently despise. Correspondingly, attempting to approach the task of drawing (for the first time in many years, and after having never really put much time into illustration) several dozen pieces of card art for no other reason than that it was painfully expensive for me to pay for the photographs which better-suited the tone of the game (even just using stock photography would have been easier & better than the sort of art I’ve been able to imagine for the project, but would have cost many thousands of dollars in licensing fees—and forget about paying for custom photography!) made the whole process feel terrible. So terrible, in fact, that it made me question whether I were even an artist at all, as I wrote about.

But it turns out it wasn’t the art that was the problem, necessarily, but the reason for having to create the art. It was feeling forced by the laws, by the corporations, by the requirements of the market to create the art which poisoned the process for me. I wasn’t making the art for the cards because I wanted to, but because I felt I had to. That game will never see the light of day, now. The handful of people who got to play it are unique in the universe for their experience of it. I disassembled it and recycled it and moved on. It wasn’t worth doing things I didn’t want to do –several hundred hours of things– to try to take the game from a fun experience I shared with my close friends to a fun experience I shared with “the world”.

Ah, “the world”. What a thing. What an idea. The concept that by simply making something available on the open market (or even for free on the Internet), it’s been shared with “the world”. I’ve been publishing books for over a decade, now, I’ve got 19 discrete books out (not counting multiple editions, or eBook-only short stories), and I can tell you with certainty that sometimes “the world” can be counted on your fingers and toes. I can tell you that if there’s a cost for a thing (even just the cost of having to put in an email address), most of “the world” won’t share in what you have to offer. That game I was working on and quit would have retailed for $60 or more, and probably cost almost as much to print, as a print-and-play version—there were a lot of cards. It took me over a year to sell out of 50 copies of the Never Let the Right One Go hardcover, and it was a mere $35 (and relatively easy to market); to think I could sell my strange card game for almost twice as much is silly. The world can’t be bothered to show up. You have to take your idea to their door, not just open yours.

I’m barely comfortable opening my door for close friends; I’m certainly not one for going out into the world, trying to extoll strangers of the virtues of my creations. Did I mention I’m not going to be exhibiting at Phoenix Comicon, this year?

Anyway, I began steering my creative thought more in the direction of smaller games which would be more affordable to produce, cheaper to price, and more reasonable for people to simply download and print for themselves, and away from projects so large they would be infeasible to produce in smaller quantities. A lot of board game manufacturing relies on economies of scale, with minimum orders in the thousands. A few components (cards especially) can be produced on demand (just like all my physical books) in smaller quantities (usually as low as one, or sometimes as few as 18 cards, so they don’t waste the sheet), but for any truly unique components or, say, if you wanted your box to have one of those nice custom plastic inserts for keeping everything in order, one needs a good chunk of capital to even get off the ground. Around ten or fifteen thousand dollars for a board game without too many custom components is the typical floor. I don’t have that kind of money. I have no faith in my ability to drum up that sort of response to a Kickstarter; when I went so far as to ask for $1000 for Never Let the Right One Go, I managed to get $361 in pledges from 14 backers. Finding enough customers, ever, for a thousand copies of a game is beyond the scope of my capabilities. Coping with the realities of dealing with a distributor, even if I were making enough money thereby to pay their fees, currently feels like it would be beyond the scope of my capabilities, but that might just be my anxiety and insecurity talking. The bottom line here being: If I want my games to be played by anyone at all outside my own home/presence, I need to be able to manufacture them affordably in extremely low quantities.

So I focused more on smaller, card-based games. The next game idea I went anywhere with has gone much farther than the one before it, in part because the art direction was something I was excited by from the first day I was working on the idea. I already had notes on what the cards would look like, what the art would depict, for every single card (triple or more than what I ended up with in the current prototype) in the entire game—again, from day one. The art, the theme, the gameplay, it was all developed as one from the start. I think I posted about that, too. About how rewarding and amazing it’s been to work on the art for this new game. I’ve already been working on it for three and a half months, and I’ve only recently been reaching the parts of the project which are poisoning me.

The parts about bringing it to market. The parts which make me want to give up on the thing and throw it all away, or at best just toss it up as a POD/PnP offering without much more thought and move on. Even if I only wanted to sell the game to a publisher and let them take care of the rest (potentially gutting the game, since normally publishers handle all the artwork), I’d still have to do almost everything I’m currently faced with, because it would have to be marketed to the publishers and they want the how-to-market-to-the-market part as part of the pitch, of course. Of course! Why not? *sigh*

It’s stupid stuff, too. Stuff which shouldn’t kill me, but does. Stuff like trying to guess how to categorize the game. I hate categories. I just had an argument with my wife over genre categories for fiction, because it’s such a complicated and ridiculous subject, for which it is very difficult for any two people to agree upon the definitions of words. In my recent weeks of research, I’ve learned several different “main ways games are categorized”, few of which I’d ever heard before and almost none of which particularly fit the game I’ve developed. Which may mean it’s simply unmarketable. …Or stuff like writing the descriptions and blurbs of the game. You probably know I have the same problem trying to write blurbs for my books, or even to explain what they’re about. I don’t know. I don’t think about them that way. I certainly don’t want to feel forced to go into the design process with a specific categorization and blurb in mind. Yech. To try to design a game based on how easily it could be described on the back of a tuck-box is a painful and ridiculous (to me) idea. But thinking about what the tuck-box should look like has been giving me stomach-aches.

So I’ll go a couple of weeks working on the game, working on the art, the card designs, working with manufacturers and examining samples, trying to get the game to be just right, and it’s great. It’s a high. I’m having a good time.

And then I’ll get back to having to figure out the marketing side. How to sell it. How many copies I need to figure out how to sell to hit various manufacturing thresholds, so I can offer various stretch goals on a Kickstarter, for example, without costing myself meaningful amounts of money. And it’s torture again. Working out a spreadsheet with the numbers is actually pretty fun. Contextualizing those numbers and thinking about what it would cost me, both financially as well as emotionally, to reach 150 or 500 or 1,000 people twists me up inside. Even just going through the following calculation is fairly upsetting:

In order to potentially reach even a couple hundred backers, I’ll probably have to reach out to at least a dozen or more of the major game reviewers (I don’t currently know them or follow them, and even if I start now it still feels slimy/gross to contact them directly, to ask them to look at my games, it’s Marketing, and it makes me sick, sending unsolicited messages to strangers about me and my work) and send them prototypes of the game, which will cost me at least a couple hundred dollars, which increases my costs-needed-to-cover by an order of magnitude, which means my plans to start with a totally-feasible goal (such as 5 copies sold, or about $75—I’d be glad to go to the trouble to assemble and ship out copies of the game if at least 5 people were interested, even though I wouldn’t even make enough to cover what I’ve already spent developing the game) go out the window and I’d need to start with a $1000 goal just to cover the costs of the prototypes for the reviewers, and I already know from history that I can only raise $300-$500 for my projects, so betting hundreds of dollars ahead of time that I’ll easily double or triple that sure feels like throwing good money after bad, while making myself feel bad by doing it.

Sure, I can project that if I can get this many backers I can afford this manufacturing discount, and if I can get that many backers I can afford to offer that stretch goal, and fiddle around in a spreadsheet to find the tipping points which account for shipping both ways and Kickstarter/Amazon/Wire-transfer fees and mailing supplies and a percentage of loss due to damage and so on and so forth. But it’s one thing to say “if I get at least 1,000 backers buying the base game, I can give them all the expansion for free”, and another entirely to find 1,000 people who would be interested in my game and convince them to part with $15+ on the promise that they’ll get it in a few months. (And a further thing to consider the scenario where I get 1,000 backers exactly and end up with another 1,100+ copies of the game (and its expansion) taking up space at my house (or costing me money to take up space at a warehouse).) Did you know that in the neighborhood of 85% of all new tabletop games sell through fewer than 500 copies? That’s certainly in line with book publishing where 8 or 9 out of every 10 books published never earn out their advance. With odds like that, what are the chances I’ll reach stretch goals requiring 1,000 sales? With a history like mine, with social anxiety and anti-Marketing sentiments like mine, what are the chances I’ll make the ~70 sales necessary to reach a $1,000 goal, even with positive reviews? (And who says the reviews would be positive? In my experience they’ll be middling, if they come at all. Did you see that The First Untrue Trilogy got its first Amazon review, recently? Two stars. Seven years after I first published it, thousands have read it, and it has one two-star review on the world’s biggest book store. Yay.)

Someone just messaged me on Facebook with a link to a Card & Board Game Designers group, and my first reaction was that punch-in-the-gut feeling I get when I think about heading into a crowd, or a cocktail party. They mean well, I know they do, and I may even attempt to join the group, possibly even to participate in some small way, but probably I’ll be 99% a lurker, or just never click through. Because social anxiety. Because inferiority complex, impostor syndrome, whatever. Because I don’t play well with others. My brother basically doesn’t talk to me any more, and I got kicked out of my own home, because I don’t play well with others—in this case quite literally referring to the playing of tabletop games. I’ve been trying to play-test my game with as many people as possible (which has been emotionally exhausting), but I’ve been trying my best to avoid actually joining in on most of the games, because I know that playing with me just isn’t much fun—and then I joke about it, that clearly the designer of the game has an advatage, so it wouldn’t be fair. I’d rather the game could just go out into the world on its own and report back to me about what needs to be corrected.

In fact, I’ve been working on that (creating a PnP download for remote play-testers), but a key part of that is in writing clear, concise rules. Certainly, I can teach someone the game in person. If I’m there to explain scoring during each hand, that certainly helps smooth things out. But normally people don’t have the game designer on hand to teach them the game, or to score it for them. They have the rules. I tried. It was another of those difficult parts, the parts I don’t get any joy from but instead get a lot of pain. And I kept at it until I felt I had a good, clear set of rules. And then I tested it with some people who had never played before, and the gameplay didn’t survive the translation to the written word and back again.

So not only is it painful for me to write the rules, but I’m not actually much good at it, either. Reminds me of blurb-writing, or most any other form of writing-for-Marketing; it hurts to do, and doesn’t actually give the desired results. But I certainly can’t bring the game to market without a clear set of rules. I certainly won’t succeed on Kickstarter if I can’t explain the game clearly in the project description and video. If I can’t describe the game. If I can’t do the marketing. If I don’t reach out to reviewers. Et cetera.

And the development process is an up and down. A rollercoaster. Some parts of it, most of it, in fact, is awesome, and the awesome parts can bring me 99% of the way there. Right now I have a fun game with great art I can play with my friends and anyone else I’m there to teach it to. But I’m also just about beyond the point where there’ll be any more of the ‘good parts’. From here on out, the only good that comes from the remaining effort and expense is the joy I get from seeing/knowing that people are enjoying what I’ve created. Watching people play. Hearing back from people who enjoyed playing. Knowing that my creation is out there, “in the world”. I’ve just got to hope that the joy is worth the torture.

Right now I’m on the verge of giving up on this one, too. Setting it aside—though at least as part of my own game collection, rather than as a mere memory. Possibly not even bothering to make the POD or PnP versions available, or *only* going that far, and foregoing the rest of the effort. No tuck box design. No suffering over the description. No videos. No reviews. No Kickstarter. No shopping it to publishers. No dealing with overseas manufacturers, or with distributors, or with pallets of unsold games. No more trying to find people to play-test it, no more trying to cope with having to deal with social situations every week (or twice a week) with all those people coming over. No more pressure to be “part of the community” in any of several board-game-related communities, for the sake of marketing my games.

Right now I’m on the verge of giving up on sharing, on “the world”, altogether. I’m on the edge of just keeping all my creations to myself.

Nevermind, I’m an artist. Maybe not a good one, but an artist nonetheless.

I apparently haven’t posted here since November. Oops.

I’ve been putting plenty of long (-for-Facebook) posts on my Facebook account, and I’ve been writing the occasional private journal entry (in the Day One app), and I suppose this online journal has ended up a little dry. I’d been decidedly infrequent in my posting since early 2005, but rarely fewer than one or two posts a month until now. Oh, well. Things change.

Additionally, about a year ago I started a tumblr account. I had the intention of working more on art in 2013 than I did. I had a lot of intentions. I won’t detail here my failures in that department. I will say that my intention for the tumblr is to post my creative output, my drawings & stories, preferably immediately—drafts, roughs, et cetera, theoretically in addition to polished/finished stuff as I complete things. Not a lot of stuff there, yet. But I’ve been working on card art for the games I’ve been developing, so that’s there.

You may recall a few months ago I made a long post questioning my interest in and capabilities related to creating art. “Maybe I’m not an artist, after all.” I had prototyped a deck-building game, the gameplay was reasonably fun, it was narratively meaningful, it taught behavioral changes through its mechanics; it could have used more polish, sure, but I was satisfied with having created it, and I considered it a successful effort. I want, eventually, to be able to bring my game designs to market in one way or another, and had thought I could take that game forward, so was working on developing the artwork for all the cards. If I recall correctly, I needed something in the neighborhood of 60 or 65 unique pieces of art for the different cards… and it was torture. You can read the whole post for the details. Basically, I was having so much difficulty even getting myself to sit down for twenty minutes to sketch stick figures that I was questioning my entire existence.

Anyway, I ended up shelving that game. I disassembled the prototype and recycled it. I started working on other ideas. NaNoWriMo came along and I tried working on a writing project; it stressed me out too much and I immediately remembered why I’m on hiatus from writing & publishing right now. Luckily my brain had been working on some new game ideas, and a couple of weeks into November I was saved from my anxiety and stress over writing by suddenly developing the core of a small deck-building game in one night of insomniac mania. Over the next few days I worked on the math and developed the theme, printed out a prototype, played a few solo rounds, made changes, played a couple rounds with my wife, made more changes, and got a pretty solid little game… with no art.

The fact that the game works and is fun when it’s just numbers and math (with a very thin suggestion of theme) is a very good thing. (For a while I was very happy about that. (I’m still happy about it, just somewhat less so, for reasons I’ll explain.))

I kept working on it, played with a few more people, got some good feedback, made more adjustments, played some more, and then began working on the card art. I began working on the card art with some trepidation, stemming from the trouble I’d had earlier in the year, with the other game I’d taken that far into development. I started carrying a paper sketchbook with me when I knew I’d have time & space to work (such as to NaNoWriMo write-ins). I got a pressure-sensitive stylus (the Jot Touch 4) so I could try drawing on my iPad. I drafted up some templates to sketch into, and I tried different drawing apps, and I spent a few weeks thinking about and sketching out basic ideas for what I wanted from the card art.

It was slow-going and a little difficult at first, partially because I felt like I needed to be creating print-ready quality in my first drafts. One or two pain-staking drawings (over a couple of weeks) in, I dropped that pretense for a while, and a couple dozen new sketches (extremely rough) poured out in a couple of days. It was going okay.

Then I had the opportunity to play with another new person, and discuss the game and its mechanics with some new perspectives, and in the context of producing and seeing and thinking about the art, I had a new idea for the game. A relatively major alteration to the game, actually, and to the way I needed to think about the art of at least 1/3 of the cards. And here’s the worst part, the explanation I promised earlier:

I won’t know how the changes affect the gameplay until I have a prototype with art.

The game could be unplayable, or just un-fun. It could be unbearably slow, where the last prototype was very fast-paced. It could be awesome, an excellent marriage of theme and mechanics with art that really sells the concept and hooks players, without slowing down the pace too much. It could have crossed the line and become too complicated. It might have been unbalanced by the creation of the starter decks. Anything. I won’t know until I have a prototype with art (and updated card text, and rules) and can play the updated game. So that’s a bit of a worry, and why I’m less than very happy with how well the art-free prototype worked, since the game has moved forward since then but hasn’t been tested yet.

So for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on the art in a new way, based on the requirements of the new round of changes to the game. I’ve been doing it all on paper, and in my art studio. I’ve actually been doing it “actual size”, which would be “totally wrong” if I intended these drawings to be the actual source of the final card art—you’re supposed to do everything orders of magnitude too large; yes, yes, I’ll do the digital files in high resolution, and will entirely re-draw (and color) all the art with one or more of my pressure-sensitive styluses. Anyway, I’ve been working on the art, and here’s where I suppose we get to the point of this entire post:

I’ve been having a really good time working on the art for this project.

Not every day, and not by any means early most days, I’m still depressed, but I’ve been getting up in the morning and sitting down to work on art all day. Putting in four or six or eight hours of good, solid work on drawing monsters’ body parts for these cards, day after day. (Well, I was too messed up (emotionally) a couple days last week, but I accomplished other things with my time, instead, knowing art wasn’t going to work.) Last Friday I had finished a major milestone in the art creation process, and over the weekend I figured out that at the rate I was going I should easily be able to finish these rough (but totally usable) drawings for all the card art (66 different pieces of art are needed for the 66 cards) before the end of the month, only working weekdays. (I generally spend my weekends with my wife.) Over the last three days (Monday was a holiday), I’ve gotten up in the morning, gotten dressed (relatively nice, wearing my button-down shirts rather than t-shirts; how you dress affects your mental state, you know), and gotten to work—and somewhere in there I noticed that I’m really enjoying it. I’m enjoying the work, I’m enjoying the project, I’m enjoying the process, I’m happy with the results… It’s all going quite well.

That I’m still working on the same project two months later says a lot, in itself. I’ve got more than a couple books on my shelves which I conceived, wrote, edited, designed, and published in less time than I’ve been working on this game. That I’m still working on it and not hating it, or giving up on it, but am actually enjoying working on it and happy with the results coming out of that work – it speaks volumes. Plus, there’s the art. I’m creating art again. Some of it –a lot of it– is art I’m really quite happy with, both visually and conceptually. Certainly there’s a portion of it which needs more work, but most of the groundwork is solid and some of the pieces are (to me) brilliant. Beautiful. Elegant. Communicating clearly. Evocative.

I’m learning and progressing as I go, but a lot of what I’m capable of doing this week is because of the sketching and thinking I’ve been doing for the last eight. And right now I’m at a point where, assuming I can get this finished and posted soon and get to sleep and then get up at a reasonable hour of the morning, if I get as much work done tomorrow as I got done today, I’ll have a drawing for all but one card (Conceptually, I just don’t know what to draw for that card. Yet.) by the end of the day tomorrow. I’ll be able to spend all of next week working on the digital side of creating an updated prototype, and still get it done by the end of the month. (I’m having a small game night on the 1st, and wanted to see how a new group of players take to the game—if I can have the updated prototype ready by then.) This is almost twice as fast as I’d been hoping to be able to get the art created, and that could only be possible because of how much joy the whole thing has brought me.

So, yes. I’m an artist. And I still get joy from creating art. And I still have ideas, I have things I want to express, both visually and through other means (words, gameplay, et cetera). You may not think the art I’m creating is any good. You may not think the ideas I have to share are of any value. Still, I’m an artist. A creator. And that’s a good thing.

Ruining Thanksgiving

I’ve been seeing a lot of Facebook posts, blog posts, and even “news” articles about how “Black Friday” shopping is “ruining Thanksgiving”. Specifically, they tend to be referring to the way stores have been starting their Black Friday sales earlier and earlier every year has been upsetting people—as though this was the first year that Black Friday shopping had started Thursday night.

To anyone who has just noticed this phenomenon: Congratulations, you haven’t been paying attention to the retail situation surrounding Thanksgiving Weekend for a long while, have you? At least a decade, you say? Yeah. Shut up. You clearly don’t work in retail, don’t know anyone who has worked in retail in November in the last decade, and don’t shop over Thanksgiving Weekend. If you’ve been complaining about retailers “ruining Thanksgiving” you have no right to have been. Shut up. Delete your posts. Apologize for your ignorance. Go back to your little hole.

This has been going on for years. My wife and I have been enjoying the holiday-that-is-Black-Friday since before we got married. In fact, we bought 80% of everything we needed for our wedding in one long shopping day, six years ago this Black Friday. We’ve been heading out to start our Black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving for at least three years, though it may certainly have been longer than that. The last couple of years, one of our goals has been to attempt to get all our Black Friday shopping done by two or three in the morning, Friday morning, so we can go home and sleep in while less interesting crowds are shopping. Unfortunately, some stores refuse to cooperate; more on that later.

First, back to Thanksgiving. I don’t know what your Thanksgivings are like. What your celebrations entail. What your schedule is. In my family, and in the families of virtually everyone I’ve ever spoken to on the subject (barring broken families where overlapping members are forced to celebrate twice, and both homes’ meals are rescheduled to accommodate), the holiday centers around a feast, and the aim of those preparing and serving the feast is to have it served in the early afternoon, typically between Noon and 2PM. There will be gathering with family, of course, beginning earlier in the day and frequently lasting for hours after the meal, but it certainly isn’t an all-day affair. Perhaps half a day. Less, if you aren’t the one cooking; just a matter of hours. Maybe you like to include the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in your Thanksgiving celebrations; fine, you’ve got something to occupy your morning while other people are busy in the kitchen. I hear football is a thing; it may also be related to Thanksgiving.

Here’s another thing about Thanksgiving: Not everyone has it off. A handful of industries are better-served by operating year-round, even when they pay their employees extra to work on holidays. Time and a half, double time, I’ve even earned triple time for working holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. For the last several years, this has included more and more of the retail sector. Some stores just have normal hours on Thanksgiving, some have abbreviated hours (grocery stores are often open for a few hours in the morning, so people can pick up last-minute forgotten ingredients), but the most recent additions, the ones opening on Thanksgiving for Black Friday, are all opening late at night. After everyone’s done with (normal) Thanksgiving celebrations, which happen in the middle of the day. We’re talking about people who get to both celebrate Thanksgiving with their families and get extra hours (and probably at a higher-than-normal rate) for working that day. You may not work an hourly-wage job (like retail is), but for most people who do, any opportunity to earn more money is a blessing. For most of these people, their Thanksgiving is not ruined, it is enhanced.

But people keep posting about how Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving are ruining Thanksgiving… and it reminds me of what ruins Thanksgiving for me: Thanksgiving does. I enjoy cooking, certainly, baking more so, and once in a while I enjoy serving a dinner party. But Thanksgiving doesn’t fall on the calendar according to my mood for cooking, the menu isn’t determined by what I want to prepare, the guest list is entirely out of my control… and sometimes that’s okay, but imagine it were any other “you must prepare a feast, and it must be this feast, and you must serve these guests, and you must do it on this day and time, and no, you don’t get a say in any of it” situation not called “Thanksgiving” and there’s probably a good chance that would ruin the day. This is not to begin getting into the fact that many families, my own included, do not get along well for long periods of time in such situations as Thanksgiving creates. There is a ticking clock, and half of us are aware of it but hoping that maybe this time it’ll be different, but if the Thanksgiving celebrations last a little too long (will be be the third hour, this time, or maybe we’ll make it to five?) we’ll all end up screaming at one another. And that certainly ruins Thanksgiving, too. Thanksgiving is what ruins Thanksgiving.

But then I remember that once the mess of Thanksgiving is over (though it won’t really be over; there are dishes to wash, and leftovers to deal with for weeks) we get to go do something fun and rewarding: We get to go celebrate Black Friday! Yay!

We get to go out and do something we enjoy, we get to buy things we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford (we seriously make Black Friday shopping lists all year, watching prices and sales of high-ticket items, confirming almost every time that Black Friday is the day to get it), we get to do a lot of fun people-watching, including a lot of helping people find what they’re looking for, get in the right lines, get the best deals, and otherwise have a good time right along with us. We get to ride ‘the line ride’, which we obviously enjoy or we wouldn’t have gone to 8 theme parks in the last year, and we get to talk to lots of different people about what motivates them to stand in line in the cold in the middle of the night for hours. We never get into fights, partially because none of the things we’re shopping for are mission-critical items (or we’d have bought them already, rather than waiting up to a year for a sale), and in all my years doing it I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen a fight. Most people are out there for a good time, to indulge, to buy themselves and their loved ones things they wouldn’t otherwise—most people seem to end up going home with wonderful presents at sometimes-wonderful prices. The whole thing is like a giant, communal Christmas Morning for adults; we don’t have the myth of Santa anymore, we know we have to pay for it ourselves, but there are thousands of us out there experiencing that rush of finding exactly what we wanted (not under the tree, but under the price you thought you’d have to pay), a far larger, higher-energy, and more positive holiday experience than just about anything else I can think of.

Black Friday is certainly the better holiday, if we’re comparing it to Thanksgiving.

Heck, this year we’ve cancelled Thanksgiving. I’m not going to cook a feast (at most I’ll cook a reasonably-sized meal for my wife and myself), we’re not going to spend time with (read: get in a screaming fight with) our extended family… I think Mandy will try to watch the parade (but we have no antenna, so that probably won’t work), but what we’re really looking forward to is Black Friday. Heck, we’ve already got it planned around a big meal: We’re going to hit the early sales (ToysRUs, Walmart) for a few hours, then get one of those Jack In The Box (ooh, I hope we can find one that’s open) late-night-only Munchie Meals (which we normally can’t buy; I may be nocturnal, but Mandy isn’t, and that’s at least enough food for two people) before heading to the later-starting sales. Probably we’ll be back home and in bed by 2AM—because as I said earlier, some stores are refusing to cooperate with the all-night shopping-extravaganza that Black Friday has become, and we need a nap before heading out again to the not-opening-until-its-actually-Friday stores get going. As far as I’m concerned, those stores are ruining my holiday, the better holiday, by not opening Thursday night. …making us wait to finish our Black Friday shopping on Friday… That’s the day for the people not celebrating Black Friday to get the leftovers of the deals us celebrators got to enjoy. It’s fun, usually more fun than Thanksgiving, but not nearly as fun as the all-night party that is the real Black Friday.

Copyright terms, public domain, and me

Forgive me for not being as eloquent or popular about it as, say, MCM, who beat me to the punch by a couple of months, but like him (and I’m sure he wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last), I decided long ago to intentionally limit the term of Copyright on my books. He chose seven years, I chose ten, either is infinitely more reasonable than “author’s life plus seventy years”, and both are still significantly longer than the average book’s commercial lifetime in the modern age.

To clarify: I have put the first of my books into the public domain, and will continue to do so as they pass a decade beyond their initial publication. I don’t have good, hard “street dates” for when Lost and Not Found was “officially” published, but I know I definitely published & sold at least one copy before my 25th birthday—it was a big deal to me, at the time, to be a published novelist by age 25. An arbitrary goal, met. Today is my 35th birthday, so I figure Lost and Not Found is around 10 years old, and I uploaded updated versions of the eBooks all around this morning, with an updated Copyright page showing that I’ve put them in the public domain, using the CC0 1.0 Public Domain Dedication, CC0. The updated files will trickle out through the servers of the various eBook retailers over the coming days and weeks, and are immediately available from and Smashwords.

Additionally, I’ve decided to put the Lost and Not Found – Director’s Cut in the public domain now, too. By some accounts, I ought to have put it into the public domain last December, since I actually had a copy printed up (and I shared that copy (and electronic ones) around with many people) immediately after finishing NaNoWriMo in 2002. (I still have that copy of the book, here on my shelf, still titled Forlorn. It’s right next to my copy of the version of Lost and Not Found which I sold a copy of ten years ago this month.) By other accounts, there are a meaningful number of differences between Forlorn and the Lost and Not Found – Director’s Cut, and LaNF-DC wasn’t published until 11/30/2009, so I could reasonably retain Copyright on it until 11/30/2019 under my ten-year-term scheme. Instead, I decided to compromise and release it now. I could probably write a couple thousand words exploring my thoughts on the subject without ever providing a clear “explanation”, so I’ll just leave it at that.

What about future earnings, you may ask, or about my descendants? Aren’t I stealing money from my future self?

Nah. All my books are already available for free on my site and are published under pretty easy-going Creative Commons licenses; my latest, Virtual Danger, being available under a simple CC BY license, meaning you can do anything at all with it as long as you say I was the original author. The people who weren’t going to pay for my books already don’t have to. The people who are willing and able to pay for my books still will. Additionally, I’m not currently planning on having any descendants, and I figure if I want future earnings from writing, it means a future of more writing and more editing and more publishing and more marketing; money doesn’t just come out of nowhere if you leave an eBook available for a few decades—you have to actually do the work, and the part where I’m actually writing new stories/books is the part which typically takes the least amount of work.

What about other people profiting from my work? What if someone actually hires an editor, cleans up Lost and Not Found, makes it a really commercial book, and puts it out under their own name? (All lawful for public domain works, btw.)

Whatever. If they do enough work that it in no way connects back to me and my works, I’m not sure I would have had any meaningful claims under full Copyright. Plus, that’s clearly not the book I was trying to write, or the story I was trying to tell. Or, if they just repackage it (think most PD books, where they leave the author’s name & just want the $$), and it takes off and finds a lot more readers than I’ve been able to with ten years of work at it, it’ll still just send them my way, as the other 3 books in the universe are still mine and still under Copyright for a while, and readers who like my writing tend to like almost all my writing. Plus, I say they deserve whatever money they can get from the books; I haven’t been able to figure out how to break even on them, after ten years trying—good luck!

Additionally, the way Copyright has been interpreted for a while now, when you take a public domain work and create a new version of it (say, a movie based on a play or book or fairy tale), the new version gets its own new Copyright term. So if someone creates an updated or derivative work based on Lost and Not Found (or the Director’s Cut), they actually get Copyright over the new work (specifically the parts which they add/change).

What about your podcasts/audiobooks? Will you make them public domain, too?

Uhhh, sure. Yeah. I mean, that was my plan all along. And then I got to procrastinating, and I almost didn’t get Lost and Not Found updated by today and … well, see… I’ll have to re-record the outros and remix all the episodes (three times) and for the ones on Podiobooks/iTunes, that means running them through quality control again (taking up Evo’s time), and it’s a long process and a fair amount of work and, listen, I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point, but … I really don’t feel like recording anything right now, so … (I mean, heck, I’m supposed to upload Virtual Danger to Podiobooks this week, for release sometime after the final episode hits the Modern Evil Podcast on Friday, but I realized recently that Evo usually wants an audio “promo” to go along with it (even though I’m not sure they’re actually used, any more) and I haven’t recorded one yet, and if he insists on it I’m thinking of just putting off getting the book on Podiobooks for a few months, or until I feel like recording a couple of minutes of audio, whichever comes first—the rest of it, in three distinct versions, has been done since May) … uhh, for now let’s pretend I’m waiting until the ten-year anniversaries of the audio publications, which won’t start popping up until 2018, okay?

(and as a further aside, now that the text of the books is public domain, anyone is free to record a new audio version and put it out there in whatever way and under whatever license they please)

What comes next?

Dragons’ Truth, of course. It was initially published in … looks like May 2004. Then, technically, the first three books of the Untrue Tales… series; the first one was published 11/30/2004, the second on 2/26/2005, and the third 11/2/2006. I guess I have a year to decide how to put those out, since they aren’t really available individually, right now.

Additionally, I’ve been working, off-and-on (mostly off, of late), on a new omnibus edition of all the books in the Lost and Not Found Universe. I think I mentioned it here. It involves a complete revision of the text, applying everything I’ve learned (and quite a few things I’m trying to get myself to learn, about re-writing) in the last decade about writing fiction. If/when that project ever makes any headway, perhaps I’ll put out a new edition of Lost and Not Found, based on the re-written text created for the omnibus edition of the series. That version I might have to take the new Copyright term on, rather than going directly into the public domain, considering how much work it’s requiring. We’ll see how I feel, if and when I get there.

eBook pricing conundrum

For the first time in a long time, Mandy wanted the new Story Bundle. I thought, “5 books for $1? No problem!” Apparently since the last time we looked at it, they’ve raised the minimum payment for their “pay what you want” scheme to $3. The extra $2 shouldn’t bug me that much, but right now it feels like “Hah! We’ve tripled the minimum price!” Plus, rather than Humble’s straightforward “pay more than the average to get these bonus titles”, Story Bundle has fixed the bonus titles at a minimum $10 buy; I think they’d done that last time I bought a Story Bundle, and I went on Amazon and saw that the extra I’d have to have paid for the extra eBooks was less than what they were priced separately—probably the higher minimum price helps cover that gap better.

I understand the idea is to make money. As an author who sometimes gets frustrated at people who have artificial maximum price points in mind when they go eBook-shopping, it’s somewhat hypocritical of me to be reacting this way. Surely, these books are worth more than $0.20/each (which was how much I was gladly willing to pay for them), even though I’ve never heard of them, or their authors, and I’m perhaps being quite awful by balking at paying a minimum of $0.60/title.

This is a big part of why we so rarely use our kindle, though. Several times a year we have access to large local book sales where we can get hardbacks for $1 and paperbacks for $0.50 (if they’re library discards), or certainly most books for $3 or less at the other sales, which we can re-sell into the used market after we’ve read them—usually for as much as (or more than) we’ve paid, in book-buying credit. Last night we made a big haul to a couple used book buyers and got ~$175 in credit for a bunch of stuff we were done with; if I could use that credit on these eBooks, maybe $3 would hurt less. If it were less of a hassle to check eBooks out of the library, maybe we’d use the kindle more. As it stands, between checking books out of the library and buying them used for cheap, eBooks feel weird and expensive and limited and especially weirdly permanent; the older I get the more it seems that books are meant to be temporary things for any given reader, there while you’re reading but back into the cycle of other readers when you’re done.

I certainly don’t want these books forever, just briefly enjoyed and then (because they’re digital, and can’t lawfully be passed on) deleted. This is a bit of a weird revelation, for me, I think. Having put my book business indefinitely on hiatus has perhaps helped me get here, to see eBooks in a different way. Yes, maybe they should be priced a bit more like sticks of gum, less like precious artifacts or collectibles. (I think I’m getting to be the same way with films and games, too. Yes, perhaps I’ll pay $17 to see your movie on the big screen with my wife, or perhaps some fraction of my Netflix subscription to watch it once at home, but I’m certainly not going to pay $30+ to own it on Blu-Ray forever. Maybe $5, if we really enjoyed it, when we see it on that Black Friday sale.) No, that isn’t sustainable for anything but the most successful titles/authors(/creators/industries, and no, there isn’t a ‘big screen’ experience equivalent for books). I wonder whether fixing digital rights to behave more like property rights would change my mind.

Anyway, we’re already over budget for the month, so we’ll probably buy the 5 books for $3 next week, when we can put it on next month’s budget. A couple of bucks seems, somehow, like a reasonable price for something so utterly temporary, so unlikely to be used more than once in a lifetime.

… Perhaps it’s the sort of thing where we only want to spend a tiny amount on something we’re unsure of, but expect to use only once, and then if we love it we become more willing to spend more. Like I collect Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher and Pixar films; I know they’re great, and I’m glad to put more money down for them. (Though still usually used/discounted; seriously, $40+ MSRPs for a blu-ray?) Or like my fans/patrons collect my books & art; almost all of them tried my work for free, first. In the future where life is more and more about content, and the availability of fresh and potentially interesting content approaches infinity, certainly the price of entry will have to trend toward zero while the value we place on that which we discover (for free) we love will rise to undreamt-of heights.