Meet the Publisher: Philip Reed
Philip Reed is a prolific author and has been active in the role-playing community for decades. He is currently the Chief Executive Officer with Steve Jackson Games and regularly runs Kickstarters for his own projects. He also has extensive experience with printing, and I thought he would be a good person to talk to as folks start to gear up for producing content for August's ZineQuest.
Question. To start off, can you broadly explain the different kinds of print options that are typically available to the smaller gaming publisher? POD versus offset, and the variety of companies that offer these services.
Answer. I personally prefer to go with saddle-stitch or sewn-binding when it comes to books, which often rules out print-on-demand operations. My opinion is that game books are reference works and the ability to lay open flat on the table is a huge benefit when using books at the table. For that reason, I turn to print-on-demand options only as a last resort; unfortunately, today's world of international shipping costs and new requirements forces me to turn to print-on-demand more than I would like.
It isn't that I am opposed to the quality of print-on-demand books. In fact, many are excellent works and absolutely of a high enough quality to work. My aversion to print-on-demand is entirely surrounding the binding options. Lulu offers saddle-stitch print-on-demand, so I have been exploring that.
In terms of print quality, going with a short-run or offset printer will often lead to a superior book, but not everyone wants top-of-the-line when it comes to printing. In my experience, going with an operation like Mixam or Uprinting can lead to wonderful finished works. If you're printing 500 or more, and you don't mind spending the cash, Taylor Printing in Dallas can handle sewn-bound hardcovers that look spectacular.
Ultimately, the decision to go with short-run or print-on-demand is one of necessity as well as preference. I offer print-on-demand books through DrivethruRPG primarily for those outside of the US who want to get their hands on my work in print and not because that is my preferred method of production.
(That said, print-on-demand quality is infinitely better than it was 20 years ago. If today's print options had existed in the 90s and early 2000s, we could have seen many more RPGs than we did. Which, I suppose, is part of why the market has so many titles being published each year these days. The improvements in POD technology have made it easier than ever to publish books that look and feel good.)
Q. Can you talk a bit about the various book sizes? It's something I never really thought about until I started printing my own stuff, and now it's something I'm much more aware of: A5 is the typical 'zine size, letter for bigger books, and so forth. I know one of your recent Kickstarters was for a small book, but I'm curious to hear your thoughts on how book size can drive the feel of a project.
A. I'm very visual and can admit that page size impacts my creative decisions when starting a new book. I've been known to craft projects specifically around a selected page size. (Calo's Book of Monsters, designed initially as a 6.25" x 11" hardcover, was created after I decided on the physical format. The page shape -- especially the shape of the page spreads -- greatly influenced the book's visuals.)
A5 is popular with zines, but don't disregard the standard 5.5" x 8.5" and 6" x 9" book sizes that are common in the United States. For many, though, the classic 8.5" x 11" format still holds the crown as favorite book size. I find more and more than I like smaller books (and books under 70 or 80 pages), so my recent experience with this common RPG book size is limited.
As for Gregor's Guide to Gates, the tiny hardcover I designed earlier this year, that came about after I stumbled across a 1920s book and fell in love with the 4" x 6" page size. My own experiment at that size met with failure and I was forced to redesign the project, shifting to an A6 format and reprinting the work at Mixam. (The initial run of 1,200 books were defective and unacceptable, so I had to rework everything to go with a printer I could better trust.)
And it isn't just book sizes we need to consider. Print-on-demand cards at DrivethruRPG are totally an option and can lead to some fun experiments. (The Deck of Corpses, for example, was created because I wanted to give the print-on-demand cards a shot. I will absolutely make more card decks!)
Plus, if you decide to go with a short-run or offset print job instead of print-on-demand, you can really have fun with format. The Mimics project I launched earlier this year offered up four different "pocket" maps, almost 30" wide by 15.75ish" tall supplements that fold down and are pretty portable.
One of these days, when I get the right idea, I'm going to create a 12" x 12" book because I want to.
Q. What are your thoughts on the current state of printing? I've been pleasantly surprised with the quality of POD books recently, but I know some people refuse to have anything to do with it. Do you see print prices and delays easing at some point, or is this the new normal?
A. Printing costs have shot up over the last year or two in unexpected ways there are more delays than ever. The shortage of paper, print operations closing because of outbreaks, and an increased demand in domestic printing as publishers shift their plans has completely shattered many of the norms when it comes to printing books. (I was chatting with one printer who has gone from a five to six-week manufacturing window to four or five months . . . and even that isn't guaranteed!)
I wish I knew where the prices and delays are headed! We're estimating more time than ever for manufacturing and shipping at the office, and things are still running behind.
I can't see the prices coming down much, if any, because the increased costs of manufacturing haven't exactly slowed the demand. How many printers will willingly cut their costs if they can get more for their services than they once did?
I think my recommendation to those working with small runs (of a few hundred copies or less) would be to seek out a local print shop and try to cut a deal. I've talked with some printers who offer volume discounts if you print two or three different titles simultaneously, provided that they all fit the exact physical specifications.
Q. Finally, I'd like to hear about some of the stuff you've got in the works. It looks like you shoot for about a Kickstarter a month, and have done some really neat stuff (fold-out pamphlets, tiny books) for systems like Mork Borg and others. What do you have coming down the pipeline?
A. At the moment, the bulk of my work is focused on office projects. We're running a Kickstarter campaign for a micro-RPG adventure for Steve's One Roll Quest roleplaying game . . . and you really have to see the game to understand what's happening. It's more of a lightning-fast storytelling game than a traditional RPG, and the adventure builds on the core while providing players with even more storytelling prompts and guidance.
For my personal projects, I have a storage box in the works that I think some will find entertaining and useful. I've also been crafting three 7" vinyl records that each come with a set of rules as well as a micro-dungeon. Unfortunately, vinyl records have also been hit by supply chains problems and an increase in demand; what once took three to four months to manufacture now takes nine or ten months. I'm not sure when I'll be ready to take those three records to Kickstarter.
My goal for the year is a dozen Kickstarter campaigns. I've fun eight so far and June was the first month of the year that I did not run a project. Once Gregor's Guide to Gates ships to backers then I'll be ready to return to Kickstarter with something new. What will that be? Even I am not sure, but I'll try to make it slightly different from what's typically produced for RPGs.