Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Publishers Who Will Destroy Your Career

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 24, 2016

A publisher can be awesome. Even as an “indie” – having someone else manage the crap you don’t want to may be absolutely worth it. Things are changing, and the role of a publisher is changing along with it. And in many cases, a publisher can really make a tremendous, positive difference in your sales and your career.

The best part of all is that a publisher is no longer semi-mandatory. Back in the old days, direct sales sucked, and it was either sign on with a major publisher or almost nothing. There was no other way to get in front of the mass market. Nowadays, a publisher is optional. They know this. You know it. That means you have the freedom to turn down any deal. And many times, you should. While negotiating a contract may be very stressful for a few days, signing a bad contract can screw you up FOREVER.

Some of the big publishers will bring their power and prestige to bear against you, and will try to get you to sign onerous – perhaps even ridiculous – terms. And they CAN BE SNEAKY. Don’t assume that just because they are a big, well-respected company with a long history of working with people just like you that they won’t put some sneaky language into a contract that will wreck not only this deal, but your whole career. Companies aren’t people – they are made of people who constantly change jobs and put their own mark on things. Maybe a new guy in the legal team has a chip on his shoulder. Maybe the new VP in charge of third-party relations has decided to get more aggressive with contracts and you are the first guinea pig. Who knows?

But that doesn’t mean the little companies can’t be even nastier predators. I have heard some fairly hair-raising stories over the years… both about game publishers and book publishers. There are plenty of good ones out there who are a delight to work with. But definitely treat any contract offered to you with an eye towards how it could be used to hurt you.

There’s an old story over at The Digital Antiquarian about how a clause in Origin’s contract with EA allowed EA to play hardball and nearly destroy Origin back in the 1980s. The use of overstock was the sticking point… something a publisher and distributor would be very familiar with, but a small software developer might be clueless about:

“This provision gives EA the ability to crush Origin, accidentally or on purpose, by over-ordering. Origin can honor the order, only to have it all come back to them along with a bill big enough to bury them when EA doesn’t sell it on. Or Origin can refuse to honor the order and get buried under a nasty breach-of-contract lawsuit. Or they can come back to EA hat in hand and ask nicely if both parties can just forget the whole thing ever happened and continue that third year of their agreement as was once planned.”

But this isn’t just ancient history. We have small “publishers” who sound like they might be the kiss of death to a game studio today, as explained in this recent article:

Game Publishers in 2016: How to throw your life’s work away in seconds.

Book publishers are no different. I thought we got away from the bad-ol’-days of the 1990s where publishers liked to create a fiction that an author’s novel was retroactively considered “work for hire” and all the property rights went to the publisher. But no, it can get even worse, even with an established, respected publisher:

Long-Term Thinking: The Non-Compete Clause (Contracts / Dealbreakers)

According to the best-selling and prolific author, Kristine Katheryn Rusch, it’s bad and getting much worse:

“Around 2012, publishers started requiring non-compete clauses in almost all of their contracts, and are making those clauses a deal breaker from the publisher’s side. In other words, the publisher will cancel the deal if you do not sign a non-compete. The choice you are given is this: either you let the publisher control your entire career just because you sold that publisher one book for $5000 or you walk.

“If that’s the choice you’re given, walk. Hell, run.

It’s dangerous out there. Temper your excitement with some well-deserved caution. It’s not paranoia when they really are out to get you. Some of them really are.

Filed Under: Biz, Game Development, Writing - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Cuthalion said,

    The idea of signing an agreement that says, “Your career is over, except for whatever we feel like giving you,” just sounds monumentally appalling. I mean, why would I want to work at a place where I’m not allowed to use it as part of a career in the field? Non-competes, whether for a publisher or a traditional employer, are absurd unless they only apply when you’re hired full-time and expire almost immediately after termination.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The only form of non-compete I would consider reasonable would be something where they continued to pay me some kind of compensation during the non-compete period. You pay me to do something else with my life for a while, and sure. I’ll do something else. Work on my golf game or teach classes or something.

  • Modran said,

    It’s dangerous out there, take this:

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That’s so wrong.