Another schedule board actually existed in the West End offices...the one that helped transform ideas for product into actual publications. For each product this board displayed when various stages had to reach completion on the road to timely publication. This large, magnetic white board occupied an entire wall in production manager Rich Hawran’s office in the far corner of the art department. Rich somehow managed to hold the whole volatile team of editors and layout artists together, coordinated with the sales team, and mitigated the occasional unreasonable demands from management. His schedule board included all the products from the regular board, but with a space for each week leading up to the intended publication date. Color-coded magnetic bars indicated the weeks during which he expected numerous tasks would take place: final draft due date and editorial work; beginning and end dates for art department layout; final review; printing; and finally shipping to distributors and official publication date.
The schedule assumed some activities took place during other phases. For instance, contracting artwork began when a final draft entered the editorial process, based on illustration suggestions authors provided and editorial additions. The sometimes-temperamental approvals process for Star Wars Roleplaying Game and other licensed products also factored into other production designations: Lucasfilm and other licensors often saw proposals, final drafts, pencil sketches, final art, and final layout before granting an ultimate approval (all depending on individual licensing agreements). Activities like playtesting, proposal reviews, or other development occurred before a product even made it to the general schedule board.
Rich worked very hard to accommodate the inevitable scheduling snafus that reared their ugly heads. When I first started working he said the most important thing was to let him know when I suspected a project might “blow up.” Although this sometime led to a good deal of drama while scrambling to find some solution, it more often than not helped avoid severe problems down the line on the production schedule. The closer a product came to publication, the more difficult it became to handle problems that might delay the release date.
|Beware editors bearing contracts.|
West End Games didn’t always hit the mark when releasing product according to the schedule, but considering the volume of publications and the number of people involved in each one, maintaining any reliable schedule was an amazing task. Most people who worked to transform a product proposal into a published game book knew what they had to do in the months leading up to the products listed. The pipeline included one or several authors, a stable of artists who could work to exacting specifications, the editor who oversaw the project from start to finish (including contracting, concept development, revisions, art approvals, final reviews), and the art staff for layout, with Rich keeping an eye on everything to make sure it moved as smoothly as possible along the production schedule. Staffers often stepped up as freelancers (both for writing and artwork) to take on regularly contracted product and to help when projects occasionally “blew up” and needed some additional material. Staffers even worked in the warehouse assembling the occasional boxed product.
During my five years at West End Games the company typically released between two and four products a month: at least one or two for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and one, rarely two for the company’s other game lines. The months before Christmas and GenCon typically saw the most activity. Setting aside all the other licensed and original lines, did gamers really need a new Star Wars game sourcebook, adventure, or journal every month? Could the market sustain that volume of product from one mid-tier company when the overall portion of potential revenue was divided by other companies after consumers spent money on TSR D&D releases and Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering card game? The answer, ultimately, was “no.” West End Games spiraled into bankruptcy in July 1998 due to a number of factors; some might say flooding the market with too many books played a role in the company’s demise.
Love or Money
I dislike the often-changing semantics behind various words used to describe different kind of game publishers; it’s a great way to start unending, uncivil arguments online. On one hand the hobby has the “corporate” publishers, those business entities with big budgets, facilities, staff, and a going business interest built on making a profit. On the other are far smaller “fan” publishers (call them “amateur” if you like, though some of their product quality rivals that of “corporate” publishers) who release game material, sometimes on blogs, other times in PDF, sometimes charging small amounts, sometimes asking nothing at all. A host of game publishers inhabit the landscape in between, from fans who’ve gained experience freelancing or in other publishing fields to professionals no longer in the corporate system trying to make it on their own. Certainly the internet and online e-storefronts like the One Bookshelf websites and the relatively new Tabletop Library have enabled those without a corporate infrastructure to bring their gaming ideas to publication.
The number of game publishers with full-time staff members, corporate offices, and the full infrastructure to produce and promote games has dwindled over the years. Many have transformed, transitioning into board game production, online publication, and other modes of commerce. They’ve become juggernauts of game publishing towering over a few respectable mid-tier publishers and a swelling host of small-press, independent, and often single-creator publishers. Corporate publishers have to churn out the product to make money to sustain their infrastructure; they can’t always afford to blow deadlines when writing, art, layout, and other production-value concerns require more time. Smaller publishers can afford to release their material when it’s ready, much like the old Paul Masson wine slogan, “We will sell no wine before its time.” Some try maintaining general schedules, though adhering to those remains difficult when such publishers are often one-person operations pursued after one’s day job and family time. Some engage in some online promotion before a product releases, but most buzz comes after a product’s release.
To me a key difference exists between professional publishing houses and individual small-press creators: one designs to make a production schedule and generate income to maintain an infrastructure (and profits), the other designs for love of the game and little or no profit. That isn’t to say big publishers can’t infuse a love for a game in their product; it just isn’t paramount when compared to making money to sustain the corporate structure. And it certainly doesn’t mean small publishers or even “amateur” fans can’t infuse their product with a level of innovation and professionalism to rival traditional publishers. Does it matter whether a publisher releases product for love or money? Do small publishers need a schedule to succeed? What amounts to “success” for today’s publishers across the spectrum? The creative energy centered on those West End schedule boards produced a host of amazing product for its time – some of which still stands out today – and perhaps limited the potential of a few less-than-stellar releases. That schedule enabled the company to capitalize on its Lucasfilm license, work within the confines of the distribution system of the time, and provide enough revenue to keep the company going for a few more years. It continued proving to me the value of professional discipline in both corporate and personal-level publishing endeavors.
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