Writing Basics: Bringing Your Publisher Concerns
In part one of my recent ongoing series of articles looking at converting every feat from the PF Core Rulebook that doesn’t already have a namesake in Starfinder to the Starfinder game system, I mention that if you think a project you are being hired for has bad decisions behind it, you should bring those to your publisher. I also mention that once you agree to do the job you should do it, without offering any exceptions for cases where you have moral or ethical concerns about completing the work. these can be tricky waters to navigate, but it’s worth discussing some best practices for bring your concerns to your publisher/editor/developer/producer.
Some of the following examples are going to sound extreme, and I don’t want to give the impression that every project is filled with objectionable, harmful, short-sighted material you have to fight back against. But I can’t pretend it never happens, and obviously it’s when the stakes are highest that this is both the most important, and the most nerve-wracking.
Also, I am aware of my own shortcomings enough to know I don;t always see the ways in which material can be harmful. So if you are writing for me, and you have concerns? LET ME KNOW. Push back. Point to this article if you want some back-up. I ASKED you to tell me if I’m requesting bad ideas from you.
As always, I’ll also note that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. Also, I come at this as a writer, developer, and publisher, as those are the kinds of roles I have filled for RPG creation. Artists, graphic designers, editors, and layout artists face similar challenges at least as great, but my advice may not work as well for them.
Try Not To Create Any Surprises
Ideally when working on a project you’ll have access to an outline and a general vision of the project prior to agreeing to write for it, so if you have any concerns you can bring them up early on. For example, if a project’s outline suggests covering topics you don’t feel are appropriate for an RPG, you can discuss that at the beginning with your contact. Even if that means you backing out of the project because you just can’t get on the same page as the publisher, it’s much better for all concerned if you do that early.
If your project is going to involve a lot of discrete bits, it’s worth scanning those for potential trouble spots extremely early in the process. For example if you are asked to do expanded write-ups on six cities, go through the existing material at least briefly as soon as you can. If one of the cities is mired in material you see issues with (whether those are as simple as it having a stupid name or as complex as having an explicit social set-up filled with stereotypes you find harmful), bringing those to your contact as soon as possible both allows everyone plenty of time to try to figure out a solution (while the rest of the project moves forward), and proves you’re taking your responsibilities seriously.
The closer you are to deadline, the less flexible your publisher is likely to be. While that is often because the publisher places money over your concerns, it’s worth remembering they have mouths to feed as well, and people counting on them. That doesn’t excuse making money on harmful material, but it is worth remembering if you’re trying to build a working relationship.
Of course sometimes things develop you could not have foreseen. You may only be contracted to write part of a project, and when you see someone else’s section it’s full of material you have issues with or, worse, it changes the context of your own material in harmful ways. Or you might be shown cover art you dislike so much you don’t want your name associated with it. Or you might get developer feedback that explicitly asks you to alter things in a way you have problems with. The point is that the sooner you can raise a flag, the easier the process is likely to be for all concerned.
There’s A Thing Line Between Asking for Clarification and Passive-Aggressive
A great first step when something from the publisher seems like a bad idea is to ask for clarification. Going back to my series of articles as an example, if a publisher told me to convert *every* missing PF feat from the core rulebook to Starfinder, I’d pretty quickly ask if they meant even feats that refer to rules that don’t exist in Starfinder and already have their basic concept covered, like Exotic Weapon Proficiency. The publisher might come back and agree that some feats don’t need conversion.
However, once I get told that yes, EVERY feat needs to be converted, constantly asking if that’s the case even if the end result is dumb, or even if that means confusing people, or any other objections, I’m moving beyond just asking for clarification. Once you have your answer work with it, for better or worse.
If the answer means you can’t work on a project for personal or ethical or legal reasons, at that point just say so.
Be As Polite As The Situation Allows
Ideally, you’ll always be in a place where you can be polite and considerate to your publisher. If nothing else, with luck you’ll have some idea what kind of material the publisher produces before working for them (or even pitching them ideas) and will have just avoided anyone who is going to ask for things you think are stupid or problematic.
Even just five years ago, I’d have made this advice to ALWAYS be polite. And, honestly, my privileged and luck have meant I have always had that choice (though I haven’t always used it, to my regret). But I have seen other writers put in situations where I confess, polite might not convey how serious an objection is.
I strongly recommend defaulting to as polite as you think you can possibly be, and reserving more stringent language and complaints for serious legal or ethical objections, but that has to be your call.
Explain Your Concerns
Saying “this piece of art is terrible” isn’t helpful to a publisher. Be as specific, and as nonjudgmental, as the situation allows for. Does the art depict the 8-armed Klyzon species as having 6 arms? Are the colors so muted and fuzzy that from 2 feet back it just looks like mud? Does the Klyzon look EXACTLY like a character from the Trek Wars animated series? It it’s tattoo of a symbol with real-world religious or political meaning? Is the Klyzon man a horrific monster in full armor, and the Klyzon woman a near-human with tiny horns wearing sexualized attire?
Specific details on what is your concern, and why it concerns you, helps move quickly to seeing if improvements or resolution can be found.
If there is a broader social issue in play, it may help to link to resources education on that issue. Yes, this is asking you to do extra work, and that’s both unfair and not your ethical duty. I offer the suggestion because I have found it effective, but you have to decide how much effort you’re willing to put into any issue.
If you can think of an easy way to address your concern, pitch it. Publishers love solutions to problems, especially compared to problems they have to spend time working on themselves.
In fact if approving your solution is less work than figuring out some way to get what the publisher originally asked for, the publisher may just agree to save time and effort.
Try To Do It All At Once
This isn’t always an option, but a publisher can much more easily deal with a unified, concise list of 7 issues with a project, than getting a new issues brought up 7 different times during production.
Pick Your Battles
There’s nothing wrong with noting you think a sketch of a monster you are writing up is too goofy to convey the theme of menace and fear you have been asked to write… but that’s also not something I’d ever take beyond the bringing-it-up stage. The publisher has people they trust to make publication decisions, and they are unlikely to take your freelance opinion over that of their staff or trusted contract producers.
Even when mentioning concerns, it can be worth it to note when you are just bringing something up for consideration, (and will finish your work as agreed, on time, to a high standard of quality even if nothing changes), and when you think there is a serious issue you need to find clarification on before you can continue, or that you fear may impact the value of your work.
To Thine Own Self Be True
I wish I didn’t even have to cover this, but that’s not the world we live in. Your own sense of ethics, morality, and right and wrong should take precedence over giving a publisher what they want… to whatever degree you decide you’re willing to pay the price for making a stand.
It’d be nice to claim you’ll always be rewarded for doing the right thing but again, that’s not the world we live in. Only you can decide what to do when legal obligations (such as a contract), financial obligations (such as looming rent payments), and moral obligations (such as creating work you think might harm others) aren’t in alignment.
But I don’t personally think advancing your career, or getting one freelance paycheck, is worth feeling you have made the world a worse place. Be honest with yourself, and make the best call you cab.
Don’t Assume The Publisher Is Making a Change Until They Say So
Some freelancers will write in they have a concern, propose a solution, and then immediately continue their writing as if their proposal had been accepted. In some cases this has included things such as saying a topic can’t support 1500 words, so they are going to write 1100 words on it, and 400 words on some new topic.
Don’t. Do. This.
The project outline and remit hasn’t changed until the publish says it’s changed.
Be Clear On Your Position
I never recommend starting with ultimatums or even making threats, but especially once you have voiced a concern, if you are dissatisfied with the publisher’s solution, it’s worth talking about how you would like to proceed.
You may just note you won’t want to take similar projects in the future. You might ask that your name be taken off a project. You might need to ask for extra time because you feel the scope of the project has shifted or requires more research than you expect.
I personally have never, on ethical grounds, backed out of a project without the publisher’s approval once I had signed a contract. But I’m not going to claim there are never circumstances where that might be the moral choice. Myself I’d always finish wordcount and turn a project over by deadline, even if I had to write something that wasn’t exactly what was asked for because I have conscientious objections to what was asked for.
I have asked a publisher if they would approve of my walking away from a contract for various reasons, and had them agree to it. In general, that means I don’t get paid for work already done (which the publisher then cannot use), and that’s often the cost of doing business.
Don’t Freak Out
As a socially awkward introvert with depression, I know it can be overwhelming to tell a publisher you think they need to change their concept. But it happens, and most publishers are used to it, and many even appreciate it. By being prompt, polite, and specific, you can generally get a dialog going on issues without having to take on a huge emotional burden.