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Author Topic: Independence, Adept Press, and Indie Press Revolution  (Read 12608 times)
Ron Edwards
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« on: October 17, 2008, 07:22:53 AM »

This is a companion thread to The New Thing and The Forge Booth 2009.

Over the years, I've posted about issues of fulfillment and distribution, including The Nuked Apple-Cart, Channel conflict with distribution-retailers-manufacturers, What the industry needs (by me!), Fulfillment houses in the role-playing industry, The merits of fulfillment houses, and Poison pages. It's past time for an updated look at this issue, given the changes over the past four years. One point I'd like to sustain from those older threads is that I always recommended that we as publishers are best served by the existence of several multi-company ordering and fulfillment services - not so as to be present in each one, but rather so that many different policies are available to be chosen according to personal needs, and to spread the diversity and simple multitude of available titles into digestible website experiences. Plus what benefit might be gained, if any, from the services' owners knowing that every publisher does have alternatives available.

A publisher must meet two minimum requirements, each of which has some add-on features that may be tweaked to taste. The first concerns customers: people have to be able to find the books if they've heard of them, or be able to understand that they might want them if they happen upon them by accident or recommendation. This is no more nor less than basic promotion, which in today's internet has a lot more to do with author presence, documenting successful enjoyment of the book, and genuine community-building than it does with classic grab-eyeballs advertising. The most important add-on tweaks concern payment methods, of which there are many, and how one might organize and record transactions without going crazy.

The other minimum requirement is that the books people order actually get to them in a timely way. The add-on tweaks about that come with success, specifically to be compatible with the publisher's desire and time regarding fulfillment, and other optional/personal issues, like some way for the books to be available to retail distribution, or storage of print runs for books that aren't literal POD.

The basis for those older threads and the topic of this one, as a continuation, is twofold. First, that tracking and recording orders and payments, as well as physically packing and sending the books, is considered by many people to be an unmitigated pain in the ass. I'll put my hand in the air first about that - I don't mind keeping track of orders and payments but I'm bad at it, and as far as fulfillment goes, I fucking hate it. My case may be a little unusual at this late date of 2008, because my big-ticket books (the Sorcerer line) are all traditional-print and therefore must be stored in the thousands, and also because they are sustainable in the chancy and weird world of retail game-stores, in addition to selling steadily through individual on-line orders. In other words, the opportunities for massive ass-pains are rife for me. Anyway, although the ass-pains may be less for many, they're still real. So there's a widespread demand for some kind of paid fulfillment service.

Second, that multi-company sales points can be beneficial, for a number of marketing and logistic reasons. Those reasons include the message that a given game belongs to a community of similar products from a variety of companies, and the simple and practical reason that a customer likes to see a shelf of stuff rather than a hundred one-product shelves scattered hither and yon. Note, however, that I phrased it as "... can be beneficial," not must be or is or anything like that. It's a highly conditional benefit.

 The previous threads concerned issues of ownership and commission, and I won't go into that here; for now, let's assume that full independence is maintained and the only parties who ever own the book are publisher and customer. What I want to talk about here is how a fulfillment service provides or does not provide those two points above in a unique combination a given publisher might want, and how that relates to IPR specifically.

Piece 1: handling invoices, turning over profits to the publisher after commission and shipping costs, storing the books if necessary, and shipping them to customers
Piece 2: presenting the games as sales items, (a) in and of themselves and (b) as part of a trend or type or community of products that share a certain informal brand

Sphinx, Tundra, Wizards Attic (badly), Key 20, and IPR were or are all characterized by both pieces. I'll leave off other services out there (Impressions, Osseum) as being less suitable for the independent publisher, which I acknowledge as a personal judgment, and will save for discussion in the future.

Here's my point: the second piece is nice, but not necessary. If it becomes primary, typically the fulfillment service turns into a store of its own. When that happens, it is now no longer a commissions-based service subordinate to the publisher, but a profit-making venture which the book sales are supposed to be supporting in a growth model in addition to supporting the profits expected or desired by the publisher. The (newly-become) store changes its policies, usually based on far more extensive staffing, salaries, and other features, specifically to keep more of the money made by the books.

Is this bad? The answer is, not necessarily - if the storefront is in fact a boost to sales, so that the money that does make it to the publisher is overall more than he or she'd make on his own; and if the publisher retains full authority over the marketing, presence, availability, and representation (say at cons) of the game, which requires full knowledge of the store's policies and full say in his accord with them. However, both of those are a little problematic. Even with the best of intentions on both sides, a kind of shadow-ownership struggle has begun over both money and books. The store says "Hey, you'd never make this much on your own without the storefront, so be glad we take this much in commission," and the publisher says, "Scuse me, I want to sell these books at the con without any commission for you." And those are just two issues out of many.

Let's take a look at how IPR started, in late 2004. It served seven companies with maybe 15 books at the most, all chosen and invited by Brennan, all independents by his definition which happened to be the same one used here. The basic concept was similar to the Forge booth: a hand up for people whose business model included paying some money for fulfillment service. He stored the books, kept invoices, and packed'em off to on-line customers, and that was the sum total aside from displaying them on the (simple) website. He was paid on an admittedly small commission. Brennan was in practice the only guy (I did not deal with the other founder, Ed Cha) and our arrangement involved a contract but was essentially a very clear agreement between just him and just me. Stores were not involved.

All of this served me really, really well, especially after the clusterfuck that became of Tundra (for which money is still owed me). I was glad to contribute what cannot be denied was a significant addition to their starting stable of companies, and I was glad of the services rendered due to my personal dislike outright hatred utter loathing for fulfillment.

IPR today is a different entity. Its membership includes 77 companies, at least three times that many titles, functioning for both store and online-sale purposes. The selection is broad to the point of being "just about anything," with my definition of independence being a low priority. (I'm not saying there are no standards for membership, but that what they are isn't easily apparent to a site visitor.) One of the biggest changes is that fulfillment is now outsourced being handled by private warehouses with fees of their own. The staff is pretty big for a small company, and to at least a couple people, IPR provides a signficant paycheck. Management is now organized by shareholder proportions. The new contract is by no means abusive, but it does operate much more from the standpoint of a distributor and store rather than a single-service provider.

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that IPR should never have grown or changed from its original form. What I'm saying is that its current form isn't serving my aims, and that any middleman's services should only be utilized by a given publisher if it serves that publisher's aims. (Do not read "middleman" with a sneer. There are lots of good reasons for middlemen to exist.)

Regarding fulfillment, what I want is for someone to store the books and diligently pump them to people who order them, and to be paid a small, flat fee for doing this. I frankly do not want to share much profit. That means I can't help make anyone's living for them; I can pay for their time/effort and that's it. (As I see it, if my game is going to be generating anyone's salary, it'll do so for me first, and then someone else only after that.) Since IPR outsources these services, that means the only thing it's really offering me is the storefront.

Unfortunately, the storefront isn't suited to me either. At the entry page, upon a casual visit, a customer is not confronted by my books and doesn't get any idea of what they are like. There's no real "browsing" process aside from lists. I want a web presentation that puts my books front and center, or front and center with a small offering of others which, in combination, communicate a shared and enticing concept. As a secondary issue, front-page promotion at IPR is based on total sales starting a couple of years ago, which by definition under-represents the market presence of my titles which have been available starting in 1996 - this is not to bitch, but to state a reality-based constraint.

To make my point, I'll turn it around to IPR's perspective: given my desires and their current scope and size, they'd be idiots to have me for a client - I'd never be happy. Why would the staff, some of whom are drawing significant salary, settle for the pennies I'm willing to give? Why would my books get priority over any others for display (which would be necessary given the volume of titles)? This isn't so much about how IPR has "failed" me, but about how my desires (or standards, if you like) make me a poor client for them. I think it's to both our benefit that I have not signed the new contract, not with any rancor, but with a firm statement that I think the current situation is too centralized and that their policies have become characteristic of a store rather than the service-only it began as - with the qualification in each point being for me.

So this isn't about some feud or enmity. I'm OK with how IPR has evolved, recognizing that it reflects what the people who do the actual work wanted and want to do with it, and furthermore, whether I'm OK with it or not is no one's problem but my own. But the present company doesn't directly serve my needs. Nor are we married. Any relationship between a publisher and any other entity (other publishers, storage and fulfillment, stores of any kind, website, perceived community) is subject and subordinate to the self-defined needs of that publisher. When they match, it's well and good that a relationship forms, and when they don't, that's also well and good that the relationship ends.

To reach back to the older postings that I linked to earlier, and to speak to an issue that isn't specific to IPR, here's my big point: in this day and age, there cannot ever be "the only game in town" ever again, regarding distribution and marketing. I personally broke the back of the 1990s notion that a game cannot exist, commercially, unless it entered book distribution, specifically with Alliance. I am affirming, here, that same principle regarding any middleman service, no matter who, and no matter what branding is involved.

I bring this up not to combat or criticize IPR or its policies, but to strike hard at the possibility among new publishers of perceiving that any non-publisher means of distribution is the indispensable gatekeeper of successful publishing, or that it has any role as a policy-maker regarding the content, format, marketing, or printing decisions for games. That perception, if present now or if it arises in the future about any such service, is my enemy, against which I fought in 1999-2001 to get Sorcerer out and known, against which I fought in 2001-2003 to found the Forge and to open the retail stores to independent games as such, against which I fought in late 2004 in alliance with Brennan when IPR was founded, against which I fight every year at GenCon, and against which I'm fighting now.

Over and over, as in Forge vision, I say openly: I am an ideological fanatic. No one owns independence. Through the existence and impact of the Forge and the Forge booth, the term "indie" became a brand sometime in 2004, and that's great, but as a brand it rightly belongs to any and every game which is truly independent, and to nothing else.

Matt Snyder chose to discontinue his publishing - and that is good. Clinton Nixon chose to discontinue his publishing while opening up his material to a universal license - and that is good. Vincent Baker, Meg Baker, and I have chosen to shift the business details of our on-line sales to a new semi-centralized model - and that is good. Jared has chosen to shift differently, to return to fully single-owner centralized - and that is good. Why is any of that good? Because it's what each of us, individually, has chosen to do as creator and full owner of our games, and that's all there ever was to independence or "indie," or ever will be.

Best, Ron
edited to set up all the links - RE
« Last Edit: October 17, 2008, 07:29:52 AM by Ron Edwards » Logged
iago
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« Reply #1 on: October 20, 2008, 06:13:13 AM »

Simply in the interests of keeping facts clear, I want to comment on an IPR specific or two.  Folks who aren't Ron, please don't take this as a cue to move this thread off-track from Ron's central points, which (despite the subject line) are NOT about IPR.  But I want to make sure there's no information getting out into "common understanding" that paints an erroneous picture of how IPR operates.

Quote
One of the biggest changes is that fulfillment is now outsourced being handled by private warehouses with fees of their own.

This has been true since early 2007, if not earlier.  These fees are not passed onto the publisher; they're factored into shipping costs which are passed on to the customer. 

In function, these costs operate very similarly to the pricing model discussed over in the New Thing thread -- in this case, a flat per-shipment commission and a flat per-book fee. 

Everything else is shipping materials & as-priced-by-the-shipping-vendor shipping costs (UPS, USPS, and FedEx rates are derived in real-time from reasonably current data sources or via a back-end connection over the net).

Quote
The staff is pretty big for a small company,

The staff for this small company is:

- Brennan Taylor: Owner, CEO, Publisher Relations
- Fred Hicks: Customer Service, Webmaster

... Yep, that's it.  If you want to expand that to include the (married couple) running our fulfillment warehouse, you could, but they aren't "direct staff".  Brennan is largely absent beyond that due to day-job concerns, so the day-to-day staff is mainly me.

I'm not sure I consider this to be "pretty big".

Quote
and to at least a couple people, IPR provides a signficant paycheck.

IPR pays me for 10 hours a week -- it's a quarter-time job.  No one else receives any "paycheck", unless you consider the fulfillment operation getting paid for shipping costs, plus per-shipment and per-book commissions as outlined above.

(In reality I often end up doing more than 10 hours of work a week for IPR, but not always, so I tend to be okay with it.)

Quote
Management is now organized by shareholder proportions.

I'm not sure how I'd interpret this, but my various attempts at understanding it don't line up with my understanding of the "management" portion of the operation.

Brennan is the CEO, and is my boss.  That's it for all of the management that goes on at IPR.

There is a small number of shareholders: Brennan Taylor owns the majority of the company, with other investors being Simon Rogers, Chris Hanrahan, Fred Hicks (me), and a couple other people.  At best, the "board" offers opinions to Brennan, which he can factor into his decisions or not, but ultimately Brennan is still the guy making the decisions.  There's nothing that I'd call "management" originating from the investors, at any rate.

Hope these clarifications help anyone looking to understand the internal operations of IPR.  We certainly don't want the company to operate in a way that's opaque to others, so if you have any other questions about how it functions, please do ask -- but NOT on this thread.  Sending email to support AT indiepressrevolution DOT com would be the best way.
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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #2 on: October 20, 2008, 09:53:22 AM »

Ron, I think you nailed many of the problems with the current distribution options, even given Fred's corrections about IPR. I responded further on my blog, but the gist is:

Quote
...publishers often have different priorities than the people doing the distribution and fulfillment. My goal is not and was never to sell as many copies as possible or make as much money as I could. Itís more important to me to get my game into the hands of people who will actually enjoy it and then maintain contact with them, get feedback, and help ensure that their experience with my game is as good as it can possibly be. And ultimately I decided that the current options available for commercial publishing were not suited for me to really do that. While IPR and Key20 may strive for those same ideals, the way their websites are set up and the manner in which they process orders makes that less likely. ...For now, free distribution through Bleeding Play (free electronic versions) and Lulu (print products at cost) is what Iím planning on sticking with for the foreseeable future. But Iím also interested in continuing the conversation with like-minded folks and exploring any other possibilities that might develop.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #3 on: October 21, 2008, 07:16:35 AM »

Well.

Fred, none of your corrections are corrections.

For example, the very fact that you have posted here to speak for IPR contradicts your claim that IPR's management is Brennan's. If that were the case, then why am I, here, dealing with you?

I could go on. Everything you posted about the staff numbers is known to me, and you are leaving out temporary help such as we see at cons. In other words, yes, you, warehousers, and paid con staff is indeed "big" because it's too big for me - i.e., more than Brennan. I also think that passing warehousing fees on to the customer is a significant issue (note: not unethical, just significant to me), and neither did I claim that any of those costs were borne by me.

I see no point to arguing with you or to dissecting your implications one by one. The fact is, your post forces me to disclose that I vetted my original post with Brennan before putting it up. Therefore any discrepancies you perceive need to be handled between you and him, and aren't an issue here.

I say again, there is no dispute or bad will between me/Adept and IPR. Brennan, I am sorry that Fred's post forced my hand, and I do understand that he posted without consulting with you.

Jonathan, I greatly appreciate your comments as well as those you posted at One Thousand One. I hope this post clarifies that mine needed no correction.

Best, Ron
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iago
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« Reply #4 on: October 21, 2008, 07:39:31 AM »

Ron, I'm getting a lot of aggression from you in your reply, and I'm not sure where that's coming from.  I'll try to back off as delicately as possible here.

Your response does tell me that we have radically different ideas of what constitutes "management" and "significant compensation", both terms that you used and which I directly addressed in my comments.

For example, your version of "management" seems to be "replies to public posts with facts", whereas my version of "management" is "makes executive decisions about what the company does".  Nothing I've done here fits the latter version.

"Forcing your hand" seems to be casting a whole lot of drama on a very small thing.  Brennan did tell me he'd given you comments about your post before you made it.  I don't feel that I walked away with the impression that you took all of those comments into account, given the factually incorrect pieces that I felt needed clarification.

That said, I'm going to unsubscribe from this thread in the interest of not getting baited into more replies, at any rate.  It does not feel like you're interested in having a healthy conversation here, and that's the only kind of conversation I'm interested in.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: October 21, 2008, 08:28:35 AM »

It's good that you're not replying further, because otherwise you'd be moderated into not doing so. Your post pretty much illustrates the difference between "the internet" and the Forge.

I say again: I presented no factual errors and the proper person for you to discuss any of this with is Brennan. As in, your boss.

Further discussion about the thread topic is welcome and solicited, and certainly from anyone who is concerned about or uncertain with anything I'm saying.

Best, Ron
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greyorm
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« Reply #6 on: October 21, 2008, 08:44:08 AM »

The testosterone is getting a little heavy here. I think both of you need to back the hell down.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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Joshua A.C. Newman
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« Reply #7 on: October 21, 2008, 09:08:32 AM »

The fuck?

Ron, I'm with you. I'm excited about this development and how well it fits my vision.

Fred, I'm with you, too. Thank you for what you've done for us all in supporting our vision.

The experiment continues.
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the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.
Valamir
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« Reply #8 on: October 21, 2008, 11:38:49 AM »

Fred, as an IPR publisher, I appreciate your clarifications of exactly what the management structure and staffing levels of IPR is.

As the title of this thread specifically references IPR, making the facts explicit is a good way to stop the rumor mill and is good business practice.

It allows all readers to judge for themselves whether 2 people constitues staff and $40/week constitutes substantial paycheck.


For my part I'll continue to collect my monthly checks for doing absolutely no work whatsoever and consider your fees a bargain.
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Pelgrane
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« Reply #9 on: October 24, 2008, 04:20:00 AM »

Ron,

I'm intrigued as to why joining this fulfillment system means you are leaving IPR. Will you be leaving Key20, too?

Vincent's leaving IPR in order to give the new venture a kick start, ensuring that Meg has enough to do. That makes sense to me. Is this also the case for Adept?

Or, is it financial? Do you think that the sales you are currently getting from IPR will instead come through your mail order site, and hence you will make more money per book? In other words, the experience I've found (more sales and margin through two venues than one) will not be repeated in your case?

Or, is it ideological? In other words, you know you'll sell fewer copies, but that's fine because it's the nature of IPR's business model which doesn't fit with Adept, or you don't want to appear on the same site as some of the other games there?

Or something else?

I think your reasoning will be useful to other publishers.

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Meguey
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« Reply #10 on: October 24, 2008, 11:47:18 AM »

When Vincent and Ron approached me, on behalf of themselves and the other authors involved in the initial conversation, I had to see the plan and think it through before agreeing to be the fulfilling agent. I needed to know it was something I could fit in around my other work. The question was not 'how to keep Meg busy", but "would Meg be willing to help us with this new idea". Turns out I am.

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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #11 on: October 24, 2008, 12:06:08 PM »

Hi Simon,

You wrote,

Quote
Vincent's leaving IPR in order to give the new venture a kick start, ensuring that Meg has enough to do.

That's a bizarre and untrue statement. Vincent has posted nothing of the sort, and it doesn't match any statement he's made, or that anyone made at that dinner conversation I posted about above, or any dialogue or posts since then.

Vincent and I decided not to renew our contracts with IPR because the company isn't serving us in the way we want. Or to put it differently, Vincent and I both, among others, have expectations that can't reasonably be met by IPR, that's a fair way way to say it too. That's the flat-out, straightforward issue.

The "new thing" isn't Meg's whim which Vincent is altruistically enabling. It's a project that was conceived by those present at that conversation as something we urgently wanted, and which Meg happens to be willing to do. There isn't any kick-start; that concept does not even apply.

I posted about Key 20 in the linked "New Thing" thread. My until-recently arrangement with IPR and Key 20 was that the former handled my direct-to-customer sales and that the latter handled my distributor/retail sales. I'm pretty satisfied with Key 20 and the retail end of things, and so there's no problem to solve there.

Regarding your financial/ideological choice, I don't see them as separate, although I can say that I'm not aiming at losing sales or money. Nor have I ruled out using more than one venue; that idea was not in any part of my post.

Let me know if I didn't cover all the angles regarding your questions; it was a bit tricky to sort them out.

Best, Ron
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Joshua A.C. Newman
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« Reply #12 on: October 24, 2008, 12:22:26 PM »

Here are my reasons. (I don't speak for Ron, of course.)

I signed Under the Bed with IPR years ago now, before Shock: was published. It was great. Brennan did a bunch of work that I didn't want to do, and I wanted to participate in an interesting experiment. It was an experiment then, and it continues to be an experiment. The fact that there is a *better* way to pay someone to do what I don't want to do, that's meaningful.
 
"Independence" is really important to me. I want to do all the parts that are fun to do, from game design to typesetting to illustration and publishing. Talking with people who want to make their games better, taking in feedback to make my designs better. Then there are the logistical parts that I suck at ó actually shipping stuff, for instance. I love paying people to do things I can't. It makes me happy. But when paying them is in proportion to my own commercial decisions, that's a closer relationship than I'd like.

There's another problem: when I started wth IPR, there were maybe a couple of dozen products. Now there are hundreds. The bestseller list used to be 20 items long, and now it's 12. The moment I dropped to 13th, I was off the front page for good and my sales dropped through the floor. This has made a situation with which I'm not comfortable: being in competition with Judd for screen time. Being in competition with Eppy for screen time. Being in competition with John Harper for screen time. I like these guys, I like what they do, but that #12 spot is a hot commodity, and I don't want to resent their successes.

If I'd been in 20th position at the start, then gone to 21st (as I'm sure happened) I would have had the same issue. I'm sure someone was in that position.

So I'd like a place where my publications are alongside other, similar things. Other SF games, perhaps, or other games from the Western Massive krewe of designers. Someplace where the room's not too crowded.

(I'm not concerned with keeping Meg busy. If I were, we've got better things to do together. We could be designing costumes and setting for our game right now, for instance. That would be good fun. But fun has to wait, cuz I gotta ship books.)
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the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.
Pelgrane
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« Reply #13 on: October 24, 2008, 03:21:45 PM »

Hi Simon,

You wrote,

Quote
Vincent's leaving IPR in order to give the new venture a kick start, ensuring that Meg has enough to do.

That's a bizarre and untrue statement. Vincent has posted nothing of the sort, and it doesn't match any statement he's made, or that anyone made at that dinner conversation I posted about above, or any dialogue or posts since then.

Vincent and I decided not to renew our contracts with IPR because the company isn't serving us in the way we want. Or to put it differently, Vincent and I both, among others, have expectations that can't reasonably be met by IPR, that's a fair way way to say it too. That's the flat-out, straightforward issue.

The "new thing" isn't Meg's whim which Vincent is altruistically enabling. It's a project that was conceived by those present at that conversation as something we urgently wanted, and which Meg happens to be willing to do. There isn't any kick-start; that concept does not even apply.

Oh, I must have misinterpreted something that Vincent said in an email. I thought it was quite sensible rather than bizarre, but it's not really relevant. I hadn't thought, suggested or even implied it was Meg's whim.

You can imagine that I didn't make reference to Vincent.I'm sorry I did.  I think you've answered that. You aren't leaving IPR to help the new venture get going.

Quote

I posted about Key 20 in the linked "New Thing" thread. My until-recently arrangement with IPR and Key 20 was that the former handled my direct-to-customer sales and that the latter handled my distributor/retail sales. I'm pretty satisfied with Key 20 and the retail end of things, and so there's no problem to solve there.

Regarding your financial/ideological choice, I don't see them as separate, although I can say that I'm not aiming at losing sales or money. Nor have I ruled out using more than one venue; that idea was not in any part of my post.

Let me know if I didn't cover all the angles regarding your questions; it was a bit tricky to sort them out.

So, you are presumably pulling your mail order from Key20, too, on this basis? I'm a little confused as to why you have ideological objections to IPR's business model, and yet embrace sales through a fulfillment house which sells through the three tiers. Perhaps you could enlarge on that. Is there any reason why, if you are happy to make additional sales through a commercial channel at a substantial discount, you might not return to IPR in the future?

I understand the new idea. What I don't understand is why you are leaving IPR? Why are they mutually exclusive?
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Pelgrane
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« Reply #14 on: October 24, 2008, 03:24:01 PM »

Here are my reasons. (I don't speak for Ron, of course.)

So I'd like a place where my publications are alongside other, similar things. Other SF games, perhaps, or other games from the Western Massive krewe of designers. Someplace where the room's not too crowded.

(I'm not concerned with keeping Meg busy. If I were, we've got better things to do together. We could be designing costumes and setting for our game right now, for instance. That would be good fun. But fun has to wait, cuz I gotta ship books.)

I get all this, but I don't understand why this means you are leaving IPR. Do you not think you'll get additional sales through the IPR channel?
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