So, Matt James* suggested that the good folks at Wizards of the Coast should start using Dungeons & Dragons Insider to provide new content for older editions of D&D. Personally, I disagree. I also disagree with the whole horde of people who think that Wizards should release their backlist of older-edition D&D material (including, yes, Zak Smith). A lot of the reasons for this are based in my understanding of how publishing works. According to a good chunk of the internet, I am deeply wrong, but no one has yet given me a really good reason as to why my position is incorrect.
The way I understand Mr. James’ proposition working is this: Wizards of the Coast would pay freelance writers, editors, developers, and a manager to oversee the creation and promotion of new material for Dungeons & Dragons editions one through four. That product would be published on the Dungeons & Dragons website as part of the company’s subscription site, Dungeons & Dragons Insider. It is his thinking that the amount of money brought in through new subscriptions to the service would more than pay for the cost to create that material and would provide a hefty boost to the company’s profits.
So about how much would the thing cost?
Let’s start with the freelancers. A new author makes 2-3 cents per word when freelancing, and most of the D&D insider articles are in the 5000 word range. An unproven author writing an article for Dungeons & Dragons first edition would make about $150. That might not seem like a ton of money, especially for a huge corporation like Wizards of the Coast, but there are other factors we’d need to be looking at.
How much does it cost to edit an article? First of all, you need to pay a slushpile editor to go through the manuscripts. Obviously, Wizards of the Coast already has a slushpile editor or three, so it wouldn’t be that hard to have them go through a few more manuscripts a week, yeah? Let’s assume our slushpile editors read a bit faster than your average reader, and clock them in at 300 words per minute. Let us also assume that these slushpile editors are getting paid minimum wage, and that they will go through four bad manuscripts before they reach a good one. Let us further assume that the slushpile editor will only make it 1000 words into an article before determining that it is bad, but will have to finish a good article to ensure that it is quality throughout. It would take about a half hour, getting paid $9.04 per hour (Washington State’s minimum), so we’ll tack on $4.50 per article. If wizards of the coast uses unpaid interns for this, shame on them.
Then it needs to be edited, which will probably take a little longer. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say that it takes an hour to edit an article (not counting rewrites, chatting with the author, whatever else). Let us further assume that this editor is getting paid a bit more than the slushpile editors. Let’s go with $12/hour, which is paltry and far less than Glassdoor would have you believe.
At this point, I think it’s really important to point out that I’m going with incredibly conservative numbers, here. Slushpile editors are probably getting paid more than minimum wage (unless they’re unpaid interns, in which case, they’re getting paid, well, nothing). Wizards of the Coast doesn’t tend to hire people without degrees, and people with university education are usually able to pull significantly more than nine bucks an hour. Wizards of the Coast’s editorial team likely make good coin. It isn’t Oprah dough, but it’s a sight better than $25k a year.
But so far it has cost us $166.50 to make this article. That is $166.50 that could have gone to pushing the product that is already the focus of the business.
Oh, but there’s more!
D&D articles have art in them. Your average illustrator makes some $24.34 an hour, though if you’re working with beginners, you could be paying as little as $10.08 per hour. How many hours does it take to make a publishable illustration? Well that’s going to change from illustrator to illustrator, but from the few reports I’ve heard, a few. Let’s call it 2, so $20.16 per picture. I’m sure the rates are actually quite a bit more expensive than that, but we’re being really generous with our estimates, here.
According to Glassdoor, the Wizards of the Coast graphic designers make between $46k and 51k per year. That’s about $23 an hour at the low end. Graphic designers lay out the articles so that they look pretty on the page. The only example of layout I’ve had the benefit of seeing myself took about four hours, but most of the layouts in D&D articles are a lot simpler than the layout of Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, so let’s call it two hours. That’s another $46.
I’m sure there are people I’m missing, and costs I haven’t accounted for.
We’re sitting at $232.66 on a very conservative estimate, for an article that isn’t related to the main push of our business right now. How many people need to sign up for D&D Insider because of this one article to make it a worthwhile investment? It would take roughly thirty people to break even. In order to be able to expand (by making enough money to publish more articles) and turn something of a profit, it would require closer to 80 people at 7.95 per month (the average of the three plans). You’d have sixty people paying for the article you’ve already written and another in the future, with $160 to go to other expenses such as servers, rent, and the heating bill.
I can’t think of a lot of industries where you can get nearly a hundred people to buy your product based on a single article. Obviously, I don’t know how many subscribers D&D Insider has, but I can’t imagine a hundred people reading Jared von Hindman’s article preview and immediately hitting the Subscribe button.
For most, the reason you join up with D&D Insider is for the cool toys you get to play with. I mean, Dungeons & Dragons Insider is offering a lot of tools (character builder, monster builder, that sort of thing) to people who currently play D&D 4E, which provides a much better reason for subscribing to the service than any single article could. Without a better reason to join up, the vast majority of consumers are going to shuffle right past your article and read some of the absolutely free material available online.
Even if you were publishing two articles per month, you’d be asking each subscriber who was there specifically for older edition material to pay $3.98 per article, and you’d be doubling the costs of getting the articles out there in the first place. And that’s before we start factoring in the costs of taking resources away from the horse Wizards already has in this race.
There is no good business reason to focus on anything that isn’t D&D Next right now. It’s their flagship, they’re building hype for it, they’re trying to convince people that it’s going to be worth buying, and they’re going to need people publishing articles about that. Publishing new product for older editions would be stealing thunder (and staff, and dollars) from the game they actually need to carry right now, which would hardly represent a “minimal impact to their current brand.” Every single page on the Daily D&D should be somehow related to how wicked-cool D&D 4E is, or how wicked-cool D&D Next is going to be.
Allowing other companies (like Paizo) to cater to the core audiences that believe a previous version of D&D is the “gold-standard,” makes much better business sense than spending their own resources fishing to get lost customers back. The majority of people who already play D&D will buy a new edition, and new editions serve as a great jumping-on point for new players, something that the Wizards of the Coast brand team has been pushing for a while now. D&D Encounters has brought thousands of new gamers to the hobby, and each of those gamers represents hundreds of dollars in the sale of new books, D&D Insider memberships, and word of mouth advertising.
And that word of mouth advertising carries to even more new players, which is worth way more than whatever good will Wizards could drum up for catering to a very vocal minority of players who believe the company abandoned them with Edition X. Whether or not your 2nd Edition buddy would take a glance at what Wizards is putting out right now doesn’t matter half as much as a university kid who has never played D&D before excitedly telling her not-yet-gamer friends about this kick-ass new thing she’s found. Those friends will spend money, and they’ll spend it on the edition that Wizards of the Coast is backing at the moment.
*Yeah, I did read your article, I just didn’t see how it made any sense at all.