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Friday, September 27, 2019

James Lowder Talks About TSR in the Early 90s (From Facebook with Permission)



James Lowder was kind enough to allow me to repost his Facebook post and associated comments regarding TSR in the early 90s. Enjoy :)

James Lowder
September 25 at 12:50 AM ·
1994. Facing brutal competition in the tabletop game market from Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, and others, and a potential design staff drain to the blossoming computer game industry, TSR management responds by cutting the rates the staff received for company freelance projects. Given that TSR would, within two years, start missing regular royalty payments to authors, I have to wonder if this ill-conceived cost control measure was an early warning sign.

Addendum: The other agenda being forwarded here is TSR management's desire to own everything created by staff, even for company projects that should have been creator-owned, like some Dragon articles. (I owned my "Into the Dark" video review column in Polyhedron, for example.) Hence the routing of payments for freelance through payroll.

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The company was terrible at framing these kinds of things, which frequently made bad decisions come across as purposefully insulting.

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And while the royalty rates the fiction paid were not competitive with New York houses on the surface, the relatively guaranteed sales for the major lines, at least through 1995 or so, made the books very lucrative. Of course, as sales in the book lines declined, they didn't bump up the royalties, so they became a lot less lucrative over time.

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TSR was selling a lot of product at that time. In fiction, the average Realms and Dragonlance novels were still selling over 100,000 copies in their first year. Dale Donovan, circulation for Dragon in 1994 was still around 30,000, right?
TSR's sales slowing down after the 2nd edition boom, and the rise of CCGs, likely played a part in prompting the rate cut.

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Management followed this genius move by limiting freelance work even part-time staff could do with other companies. I was already halfway out the door because of the miserable way the book department was being run, but these financial restrictions made it impossible for me to remain a satellite employee and keep paying my mortgage.

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I resigned less than a month after the memo posted above was issued, though work conditions were a greater concern. The freelance policies were just a final kick out the door. I recall some other longtime game department staffers leaving for computer game industry jobs around the same time.

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upper management at TSR did not understand how to work with creative staff. They were actively terrible at it.

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There was supposed to be some flex in start time and end time. I rarely made it in by 8, driving down from Greenfield and then New Berlin. Thus the wider than 8-hour window. That said, some of us did take long lunches to fit in games, and stayed later to make up for it.

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Many of my fondest memories of TSR are playing games or talking industry news or music or whatever in the Games Library over lunch.

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Shortly after this memo, management demanded first look at pretty much anything I did for anyone else, with some exceptions, even though I was part time and had a standing deal that there were not supposed to be restrictions on my freelance elsewhere. Given my problems with Brian Thomsen at the time, that was a poison pill. There was no way I could route all my potential freelance work through him.

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I first resigned at the start of 1992 and the deal the company offered me to keep me on as a satellite editor was limited office time, increased freelance opportunities in house, freedom to work elsewhere at will, but a cut in pay and no benefits. Overall, it was a fair offer. In 1994, my TSR fiction freelance went away and was unlikely to return so long as Thomsen ran the department, the rates were cut for TSR game freelance, and the company said it was going to put the brakes on a lot of my external freelance. There was no way I could afford to stay, even if I had wanted to.

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The sales numbers TSR was making for many of their products at that time supported the pay. 1994 was also a period where sales had started to slump, though.

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The expectations for TSR freelance game design were certainly rigorous. You always had editors, but you did have to turn over your text with an eye toward the overall layout, which makes sense to me.

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A lot of writers were turning things over as files by 1994, but there were authors who did not. A good desktop was pricey. From everything I have heard, TSR was ahead of the New York houses, as far as publishers using computers.

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I did some writing work for a law firm once and they paid me more to watch their orientation videos than I'd gotten for a lot of game design freelance. No one works in game publishing for the money. :)

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Oh, TSR had some issues with internal freelance that were not financial, but one of them was not Bruce Heard handing out assignments in games as spoils. And in books we put processes in place in 1990 or so where auditions were considered blind, so staff without fiction credits had no advantage. Brian undid those eventually.

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some of the projects I worked on--early Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Spelljammer, and Realms stuff like Avatar and Empires--were steps in the right direction. Some solid coordination went on with those. But I was the unofficial liaison with games, so after I left fulltime in 1992 and Brian Thomsen took over books, there was a sea change in the management's attitude about the relationship between books and games, and not for the better.

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It was not a formal policy. The "no stars" idea was applied to various people at various times, usually whenever management wanted someone to do something and was refused. Around 1990, the book department had to fight to keep author names on the spines of books, because management went through a phase where they thought author names only caused distractions in bookstores. (Everything should be shelved and bought based on the product lines.) Around the time of this memo, Bob Salvatore ran afoul of the head of the book department, who targeted him as a unwelcome "star" and started separating him from Drizzt. Fortunately Wizards stopped the worst of that campaign after they bought the company.

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The really dumb thing about the lack of advances was that it weakened the company's claim on the material covered by the contract, if things went off the rails. No consideration, no contract. I am glad for that, as it was one of the things that helped me claw back some material originally intended for Ravenloft when my relationship with TSR soured.




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