The Spanish Inquisitor

October 24, 2008, 2:08 pm
Filed under: Ron Edwards

This is the final segment of a three-part interview with Ron Edwards.
Have there been any other new avenues of promotion or marketing that you have pursued with Spione?

I should explain the original plan and audience for the entire project. Here are the steps I planned to follow.

1. Promote the book to bookstores in Berlin, specifically those associated with Cold War issues in the city such as the Wall Memorial, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, the Stasi HQ Museum, and others. One important factor was to publish it simultaneously in English and German, in two different versions.

2. Generate a small community at the website to get the basic functions under way.

3. Publish the two versions of the book through Books on Demand, which is a POD publisher in Europe. The key feature is that, unlike the situation with American POD companies, being listed with BOD automatically makes the book available for distribution to retail.

4. Continue European promotion through activities at those locations and generally become a regular visitor in Berlin; if any public or media interest develops, work with that too. (I’ve found that the views expressed in Spione are quite a draw, actually; “this crazy American” is at the very least interesting.)

5. Continue activities and discussions at the website, in hopes that people who’d purchased the book might show up there out of enthusiasm or at least curiosity. Also, expand promotions to other European bookstores if the sales at the initial locations are good.

6. Open the whole thing up to the gaming community (the Forge, et cetera) for those who’d be interested, who I assume aren’t that big a proportion.

Reality struck my plan a rather hard blow when I discovered that the initial translators’ work was inadequate. I’d done quite well with #1-2 by the end of 2006, but #3 was basically harpooned in the middle. I should point out that #1 was stunningly successful, including commercial chain bookstores in Berlin that I’d never expected to penetrate at the outset. However, at every store, the people who ordered books stressed to me that having it in both languages was an absolute necessity.

So where am I now, in early 2008? Well, the English version has been available at BOD for a year, and I made a version more easily available to Americans through Lulu. The good news is that another group of translators did an amazing job, and that text is in layout right now. I hope to have the German version available at BOD within a month or two. Other good news is that the small community at the site is fun, and although I’m way behind in posting videos of real games, at least that’s under way.

Therefore the current 60% success situation arises from steps #4-6 being thrown completely out of whack. I have achieved #1-2, half of #3, and was forced to skip to #6, basically so as not to screw over the small community that had been involved so far. I went ahead and opened up the dialogue about the game to more interested role-players, which is only fair now that the book is available. But the larger context of the physical presence in the stores (quite realistic, given the response to promotion) remains unfulfilled. You can bet that the second the German version is available, I will be burning up the phone lines to all those stores in Berlin, and planning my next trip immediately.

Do you handle the layout yourself? What kind of software is employed?

I don’t know layout procedures from your Aunt Jane. I have always relied on professional help. I do have a very strong sense of what aesthetics and reading experiences should go with a given book, and so the layout person and I often proceed through multiple drafts using a single chapter, until we arrive at what works best. In many cases, the professional’s expertise leads to something other than my first ideas, but which expresses their purpose better. It’s extremely synergistic.

You cited a number of stores in Berlin that are interested in carrying the book. Are you targeting similiar shops across Europe, or do you have a different target in mind?

I’m definitely a one-step-at-a-time strategist. For now, it’s just a matter of getting into the Berlin stores. If that happens, and if sales are good, then I’ll learn more about wider markets.

One thing I’ve always considered about book sales, though, is to be open to existing networking processes rather than to try to use aggressive promotion. In other words, if social and professional mechanisms are already in place which alert other stores to successes at the initial ones, then showing up with a glitzy promotion package and no reference to those mechanisms is actually counter-productive.

I figured that was the case, in miniature, for role-playing games, and I was right. That’s one of the reasons that I don’t bother hyping my games with magazine advertising or similar stuff. I’ll do better with Spione, in the long run, if I learn about and respect how the informal processes work, starting with, I hope, a strong success from a modest presence.

Did you study le Carré’s work when you started working on Spione, or were you familiar with it before you began writing the book?

As I mentioned before, I had read his most famous early work, and as it happens, I’d also read a couple of his earliest books –in particular, Call for the Dead, which I think is brilliant and ruthless. However, as far as his blockbuster novels or the whole subculture of similar authors were concerned, I was pretty ignorant. I hadn’t seen any of the movies or TV shows.

I did understand and seek out Cold War issues in my readings and general interest in pop culture, but not espionage specifically. I saw No Way Out shortly after it was released, but thought it was merely a fun thriller with an imaginary premise, not realizing it was as close to reality as unofficial censorship would allow.

It’s interesting, however, that a lot of my readings overlapped with espionage material without me really understanding at the time, or at least how specifically. One example comes from two novels by one of my favorite authors, Anthony Burgess: Honey for the Bears and Tremor of Intent. I enjoyed them as a younger reader, and certainly saw the presence of Cold War issues in them, but did not realize how much direct, pointed commentary about the British Secret Service they included. Other examples from science fiction include All My Sins Remembered by Joe Haldeman, and a number of stories by Cordwainer Smith, all of which represent extremely serious and specific commentary on the CIA’s covert operations. I’d only understood them in my initial readings as being generally about espionage and intervention, but that was naïve.

The Spione Wiki is obviously a large component of the core experience — is this a new approach for you?

Yes, and I wish I’d been using wikis before this. I’d been under the impression that they were wide-open, anything-goes, anyone-edit devices, and was pleased to learn that the edit feature can be customized and monitored. The Spione wiki is actually pretty open in this regard, but it does have a few restrictions. I’m not surprised that Wikipedia is effectively moderated at this point, actually, counter to its reputation.

Anyway, as you’ve probably noticed, all of my game publications have included a very strong relationship to some body of text. I think it’s a little different from the two usual ways found in RPGs, (a) direct license of specific material or (b) a very strong influence that informs a pastiche, game-specific setting. Neither of these appeals to me very much. I prefer to introduce the reader to the actual body of text to let them be inspired from it in parallel to the way I was inspired. The most successful book I’ve written, in this sense, is Sorcerer & Sword, and I deliberately wrote Spione in exactly the same way. Not only is the genre introduced, but its unique and fascinating features are brought forward, and I continually demonstrate through the book how the source material is being referenced.

The strange and unique feature for spy material is this: fiction has often been utilized by dissenting insiders as a means of disclosure and judgment –literally, subversive work –and non-fiction has often been utilized by true-believer insiders as a means of reassurance or loyalty-building –literally, propaganda. Many books “inside the CIA” or similar are actually puff-jobs built to support the agency through trying political circumstances, whereas many spy novels featuring the CIA are highly critical, written by agents or journalists who would otherwise be muzzled. There are reverse efforts in both directions as well, but those trends are strongest.

What that means is that through stepping back and looking at authors (with and without pen names), spy history including specific people, historical events such as court cases, and characters in fiction, one can very quickly see “who is who” across the whole Cold War, in a kind of shadow war of ideas represented by books. It also helps a great deal in judging claims and counter-claims, when for instance, some particular description or event gets repeated a great deal and often presented as multiply-validated fact –but from this perspective, one can see that it only has one source and only derivative repetitions, not corroborations.

Has it been as productive as you’d hoped?

Well, its most important feature is arriving at connections among titles, people, authors, agencies, and events. At this point, some of the most interesting patterns are coming together, and I modestly think that the summary of CIA and KGB material, as organized by cross-linking and topics pages, is about the very best available. (Of course, that is cheating a bit, since it also includes links to the excellent material at the Intelligence Library.) When the SIS and German agencies get beefed up in terms of those cross-links, I think the wiki could become a major resource for anyone doing serious work on the issues.

The second most important feature is the Reflections concept, and that’s been great when implemented, but not implemented as much as I’d like. That’s not too surprising. I’m asking for something that people don’t have models for: stating what the book or film meant for you at the time, and never mind reviewing it or summarizing it. Although if certain plot or subject points, or judgments, are necessary to stating how it struck you, then that’s OK. It’s hard to get into that head-space, and even some of my Reflections end up looking more like reviews. But overall, I really like seeing them appear slowly and steadily, and I look forward to more people contributing. It’s exciting and interesting to see a string of personal, revealing commentary on some of the more well-known titles.

You’ve published several games; was there anything different about the publication process for Spione?

The vision of audience and venue was different, as I described earlier. Also, it’s the first time I actually took language courses as part of writing and publishing anything, much less traveled repeatedly to another country, or became invested in its issues and history. I established a Berlin branch for Adept Press, actually, so my little company is literally international now. I’d say it’s actually a quantum leap for me, both in technical publishing terms and in terms of transforming aspects of my own life.

The downside, unfortunately, is that the quantum concept also applies to expense. Travel, translations, various fees, promotional pre-publication copies, and other such things aren’t cheap. Before now, Adept Press never sank money into something without a very strong basis for expecting return, whereas Spione is definitely a risk. It’s not an unrecoverable risk in terms of my life and livelihood, but the “dip” in the process is not trivial. That’s a concrete reason to stay committed to the primary goal of getting it into the physical stores of Berlin, and making it available to stores across Europe.

Is this your first title published via Lulu?

Yes. The main reason I haven’t done so before is that none of my books’ physical format quite matches their options, and even if I were to alter that format, the cost would not be competitive. That’s a function of being ahead of the curve, you see –at this point, reprinting Sorcerer supplements with the same company I’ve worked with since 2001 is pretty cost-saving, as they have the necessary materials and I’ve gained good will over the years that saves me money on certain secondary costs. So switching to Lulu wouldn’t be effective for me now, although if I were just starting out with those books, it would be. I might switch over for the next print run of Elfs, though.

Now, none of that actually has anything to do with Spione and Lulu, though. That was more of a desperation move when I found I had a small American audience and needed to make something available for them. It’s a good deal, though, and I’m quite happy with the result even though the European printing yields a slightly sharper, punchier result for the cover. I may actually stick with it for the long term, for sales on this continent. Or, if BOD turns out to have a good deal available for American fulfillment, I may switch over.

What’s the single most important piece of publishing-related advice that you’d give to an aspiring game developer?

Vision comes first. The vision must certainly be grounded in the reality of play experiences. You must temper it with brutal, accurate critique, which includes resisting the more common unthinking critique. You will have to apply it in the reality of existing economics and logistics. Still, your personal vision matters most — if you lose that, then everything else is posturing.

Thanks for the interview, Ron, and congratulations on the success of Spione!


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

You say,

If you’d ever like to do a guest post on my Cordwainer Smith blog about this, I’m sure people would be really interested.

I’m his daughter, and I didn’t know that he himself had been doing things for the CIA till years after his death, when my stepmother casually mentioned it.

Rosana (Linebarger) Hart

Comment by Rosana Hart

oops, did the formatting wrong above but I don’t see how to fix it.

Oh well!


Comment by Rosana Hart

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