The Isle: A Pre-Postmortem

Posted by Jared Sinclair on

At the risk of putting the book in the ground and covering it over, I wanted to talk a bit about The Isle, how it came to be, and why we made the decisions we made in putting it together. Normally I'm not much for this kind of thing, but a lot of what we did with this book runs counter to common wisdom and common sense in RPG publishing, in some obvious and some more subtle ways. 

How It Happened

Luke (the author) and I are friends, and occupy a few internet spaces together. At some point he cold-called me with a manuscript he had laying around that he wasn't sure would be appropriate for or attractive to most publishers. Of course I loved it immediately, and after some discussion about how to work the logistics of it, we decided to convert it to The Vanilla Game and get it to print. So I started editing the thing, and working out the production decisions on the side.

Editing and Ethos

Now, I'm a fairly opinionated guy. Just in general, but especially with RPG books. Comes with the territory, I suppose. So I saw this as an opportunity to really go as hard as possible on a lot of the things I want to see more of in the space—luckily, Luke agreed with most of what I wanted to do, and had plenty of ideas of his own. We decided to make a book with no internal art, focused completely on the text, and that doesn't step out of its internal logic and voice at any point.

One big outcome of that ethos is there are no summaries, and no bullet points. This requires a very careful hand in how and when information shows up in the adventure: it has to tell you exactly what you need to know, and only that, at every moment. It's a huge editorial undertaking, and honestly was only really possible because Luke's original manuscript was so strong and so opinionated to begin with. He had obviously written it to work and present a certain way, and I wanted to be as true to that as possible, and expand on it. 

In some ways, the book serves two masters—but in another, truer, way, those two masters are the same. It's a book that's good to read, and also one that's easy to run. These two goals are surprisingly compatible. When you avoid revealing information until exactly the moment when it's relevant to someone running it, you get a book that works very much like how books normally work. It's formally familiar, in ways you might not expect. As an approach, it's very different from the industry standard at this particular moment in time. Instead of presenting pages and pages of executive summaries that never quite coalesce into a living, breathing location, The Isle presents the location first and only, and lets the details speak for themselves. You always know what happens, and what is there, even if the why is often mysterious. These things speak in aggregate. The GM develops a working understanding of things based on the physical information available to them, and the players develop their own. This has a convenient parity with the way we, as people, move through our actual real world. And the "truth," as handed down wholesale from some omniscient narrator, is unimportant compared to those things. So we mostly left it out. 

We left a lot of things out, in fact. A big example is the book doesn't mention that it's written for The Vanilla Game—that's obvious from the ad copy, and anyway it's not like the stat blocks are meaningfully different from whatever FRPG you're running already. Anything that wasn't adventure, that didn't stay in the fiction, we mercilessly cut out of the book. The final product is as distilled a potion as we could manage.

This approach pervades the book, even down to the only non-text inclusion in the interior of the book: the maps. Maps are very important as a way to anchor the various entries to a place, to a geometry. The maps provide a spatial logic, and that gives us some leeway to allow the rooms to focus in on their interior concerns. Instead of spending precious words enunciating the relation of one entry to another, we let the map carry that weight, and the room descriptions got richer and more particular as a result, more free to be merely themselves without further explanation or apology. All the same information is there—what rooms lead to what others, how the denizens presumably move around, what types of things find their homes at each level, what they seek to accomplish—but it's thoroughly broken down and sequestered such that each individual component can be fully itself, and maximally impactful. We took advantage of that as much as we possibly could in putting the book together, and I think it shows through in the final product. 

Production and Distribution

This is the boring logistics section, feel free to skip it.

This was my first "real" book, as a publisher. Of course I've made plenty of books at this point, but I'd never contracted another writer, and I'd never done a print run of the size and quality that I had planned for The Isle. I wanted to do something remarkable but restrained, and I spent a long while gathering ideas and quotes from various places. My initial plan was very different from what we ended up with in the end, and that's mostly down to the international freight meltdown that happened to coincide with our production schedule.

Originally, the book was going to be (warning: jargon ahead) softcover, with a Swiss binding and French flaps. This kind of binding has the double benefit of being uncommon and special, but also fairly inexpensive. And since we decided not to use Kickstarter to fund the book, I needed to keep print costs to a manageable level. Having no interior art, and a black-and-white interior helped on this front, too—and matched the text-focused ethos of the book perfectly. 

But things rarely go to plan. We had a long-time delay in the production schedule (ultimately due to my own inexperience as a project manager), and in that time international freight costs for the shipping from the printer more than doubled. And it wasn't cheap to begin with. 

I'd decided to go with an overseas publisher (in Estonia) for a variety of reasons, but mostly that they offered the binding and paper options I wanted at reasonable prices. I had solicited quotes from quite a few domestic printers, and their options were much more limited, much more expensive, and in all honesty a lot of the conversations I had with them didn't fill me with confidence that I was going to get the product I wanted. One American printer didn't understand what I meant by "A5," and after a long series of explanatory emails with long response times, they sent me two separate quotes for books of an entirely different size before we got it right. Which is a bad sign. Plus, they were generally much much more expensive, even considering international freight costs at the time.

But with the huge inflation of freight prices over the course of just a few months during our production, I needed to talk to domestic printers again. I was not able to work out Swiss binding, French flaps, or even a softcover option that wasn't perfect-bound. I absolutely despise perfect-bound softcovers. So I decided to bite the bullet and pay the premium for a hardcover. I looked at all kinds of options—I really wanted to do a foil-stamped bookcloth cover with a dust jacket, and I even asked about getting the inside of the dust jacket printed so I could get the maps on there, perhaps. But after a lot of number crunching, I decided that the best option for us, financially, was to make a simple, printed hardback cover with no dust jacket. I was pretty crestfallen about it for a while, but ultimately I really love how the book came out. Boy, I would have loved to get the Swiss binding, though. Maybe next time. 

In some ways, this all would have been immensely simpler if I'd just done a Kickstarter. The freight problem would have still proved an issue, of course, but it wouldn't have been nearly as dire, and I likely wouldn't have needed to change the production so thoroughly as I did in the end. But it's important to me that we, as an industry, explore avenues of production and funding that aren't tied to the same single platform, when we can, so we ran it as a simple preorder here on Spear Witch. It was more work for me, and in some ways a bigger risk, but I'm glad we did it the way we did. If you're a publisher who's interested in chatting a bit about how and why I avoided Kickstarter, and what the results looked like, I'm happy to talk with you about it. Just send me an email to [info@spearwitch.com], I'll get back to you.

Where We're At Now

At some point in there, I decided to declare The Isle the first book in the "Spear Witch Adventure Writers' Series," which is a thing I made up when I was writing the ad copy for The Isle and in all honesty I don't entirely know what it is just yet. I have some ideas, and there's a second book in the works, but the full picture will only come into focus over time, as the line grows. I want to commit to doing more of this kind of work—not the same as The Isle, but just as opinionated, just as particular, and just as humble as we can manage. 

The preorder went spectacularly, much better than I expected, and sales have been strong and steady since. We don't have the advantage of huge ad campaigns, or even small ones, and we didn't benefit from passive Kickstarter eyes or any hype-generation engine before going to print. Maybe that was a mistake, maybe we could be millionaires by now if we'd just conducted ourselves differently, but we didn't. I'm glad we did things the way we did. I can't say "no compromises," because we absolutely did make compromises, as you have to no matter what when you're bringing something like this into existence. But we chose which compromises we made carefully, and I'm proud of that.

I hope you read The Isle, and I hope you run it, and I hope you enjoy it. It's not perfect, but it's as audacious and bullheaded as we could make it. 

The Isle is currently available here.


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