Friday, July 8, 2011

The Upside of Unprofessionalism

In my last post, here, I talked a bit about the various quirks and limitations of the way I handle the "business" of selling the things I write. My personality quirks create and define the shape of how I'm organized on this, and all I can do is try to warn people up front about things like if I have to go to a post office it can take weeks before I work up the motivation to do that. That's one example. And how, even though I've never cheated anyone, I don't handle or borrow money -- this is a general rule for people with bipolar disorder.

Those are limitations, but there is an upside to being only a semi-pro. The big upside is that I'm freer to follow the trail of creative ideas with more time and energy than I could if there were back office matters like mailing and accounting taking up my time. Because there isn't any kind of publication schedule, it gives me more freedom to switch from a project where my creativity isn't working and shift over to something where the ideas are jumping.

I don't mean to suggest that a full-service publisher, or a one-man shop that's better organized than me can't produce great materials, but the odds are stacked in my favor. A casino doesn't always win in every game, but they make money -- in the same way, it's possible for a guy running a better organized business to produce a better product than me, but over time I think what I write is going to be slightly better on the edges. You can't measure quality in units, but if you could, I think my freedom of action would stack up more quality units per hour, or per product, or something, than a guy who have to divert time and attention to the other parts of a business.

If I don't think something is the best it can be, I have the luxury of putting it aside for a while until I get the inspiration for that missing piece. If I need time off from everything game-related, I can take that time and come back rejuvenated (this, I think, just happened again). I avoid the parts of this whole process that, for me, are a chore. In other words, I steal the benefits of being a freelance writer but still get to produce or control the entire work from text to art to layout. Freelance writers don't get to do that; it's the guy running the business who gets the reward of assembling the totality of a piece of work.

When I get the luxury of putting together a complete resource, I can't say that everyone, objectively, will conclude that it's of higher quality than a work where several people deployed their particular talents in cooperation. In fact, I think many, many readers would prefer the high production values of the more "professional" result. However, I think there's also a spirit and an energy to something that's produced with some rougher edges, finished out on its own schedule, and reflects the overall vision of the module in the totality of art, cartography, text, and layout. These things have a fire to them.

On the other hand, of course, lots of artists are more capable of rendering my own mental images than I am, so there are definitely limitations on the ability to do this all the way. Nevertheless, by being unprofessional in terms of the "business" side, playing hooky to act like a pure freelancer, I think I produce material that if not "better," at least has more fire to it. It might not be a perfect orchestration, but it has the energy of a kick-ass garage band.

That, I think, is the upside to being unprofessional in terms of the actual business of producing cool modules and resources. You have a better chance to succeed big or to fail big. I lost money on the art book I produced some months ago, and I'm proud to have lost (or spent) that money to produce an art book of the visual side of recent old school modules. On the other hand, I apparently hit a "commercial" home run with Tomb of the Iron God ... which I really only thought of as a meat and potatoes module. And Spire of Iron and Crystal, which is the module I'm proudest of, has basically been right at the middle of the road in terms of popularity. When there's no way to predict how any particular resource will be received by people, I have the reward of knowing that no matter how well it sells, or how it is treated by reviewers, it's a product that I'm proud of.

Again, I'm not saying that a more professional publisher *can't* do this, I'm just saying that I have more time and flexibility, which gives me a slight edge each time to produce something that I think is the best it can be (whether it's well received or not).

This sort of brings me full circle to the recent events in which a blog publisher (who has restarted HERE) pulled his blog in response to an attack post on another blog. The mental protection against that sort of attack has to be internal -- the internet does not provide much external support. That's not a criticism of our community, it's just the way the internet itself channels and shapes discussion. Nevertheless, the real rewards of publishing have to be based in personal satisfaction with the product, or at some point someone on the net will manage to get under your skin.

Which is why at heart, the unprofessionalism of the way I work is ultimately linked to that objective -- being proud of the work itself rather than focusing on pride in the business. I do my best on the business, but my best is kind of ratty on that side of things. So as much as possible I try to shift the business side over to people who enjoy it, and keep all the stuff I enjoy. because that way, I have the maximum amount of time available to wander in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the actual writing and art without facing the responsibilities of being a good business.

Which is why I rely on warning people about my flaws, rather than trying to fix those flaws. In my case, at least, putting more focus onto the business would cause me problems in terms of the product -- that';s probably not the case with everyone, but it is with me. So when I say I'm unprofessional, I specifically mean about the business side of things, not the quality of the product. I could be better at this, but by doing so I would turn a hobby into work. But warts and all, I'm a hobbyist publisher, and that's what I like, and I would probably slip a lot if I tried to be something else. It's a matter of recognizing what I can and cannot do, and working around that.

It stays fun. :)


  1. The OSR has some great examples of people who know their limitations working with others who have compensatory strengths, producing an effective team. The creative guy with no organisational skills who teams up with a logical and astute partner. This is smart business that has produced some terrific results in our amateur publishing scene.

  2. Great post Matt. I think for nearly everyone they are in the same boat. We are hobbyists putting our own little stamp (or scar) on a game we grew up with. I make no claims that my adventures will be any more than something I find very cool and I hope others like it to.