Josh Yearsley is an editor, which isn’t particularly strange. But he makes his living editing rulebooks for tabletop games, which, you know, kind of is. That he finds much of his work on Kickstarter only adds to the intrigue. We talked to the former scientist about making a living in a profession that didn’t exist even five years ago.
How did you get into this in the first place?
I was originally in grad school for engineering. Most of the people that I was around loved the research and hated the writing. I was iffy on the research but loved the writing. When I mentioned that to someone, they would look at me like I had three heads. As I was going through grad school, I knew that maybe the research business wasn’t for me.
Growing up, I was always around classic board games like Monopoly and Risk. But in college, I realized there was more out there than the stuff you see on Walmart shelves. I’m always hesitant to call something “underground” because it makes me sound like a hipster, but there was this kind of underground world of board games out there. A lot of them were imported from Germany. There was a big-board-games re-awakening in the U.S. in the early- to mid-2000s. In college, I started doing a board-gaming club and getting really involved.
After I realized that maybe science wasn’t for me, I started with a lot of science editing because I had the technical background for it. I still do some of that to keep a little bit of my science brain going, but because I had all this experience playing board games and reading rulebook after rulebook, I started to pick up on a problem. A lot of these games were coming over from Germany and being translated into English, and some of the rulebooks were really, really bad to the point where you could read it and you wouldn’t know how to play the game. I started to think maybe that was why board gaming isn’t a super-popular hobby. One of the reasons I love my job is that I can hopefully make better rulebooks, so that people aren’t completely dumbfounded when they open a box. That was a problem I had a lot in the early days of my gaming experience.
What was your first game?
“There are a large number of people who realize that tabletop gaming is becoming more mainstream. We’re not stuck in the 1980s, where Dungeons and Dragons was for weird people and Satanic worshipers.”
About 18 months ago, I was trolling around Kickstarter like you do, and I noticed that there was a really big push for game projects. It started in the video game sector, and it bled into tabletop games. I figured if there was any opportunity for me to get into something as niche as editing board-game books, it was going to be through something like Kickstarter. There are so many start-up companies or individuals who are trying to get their foot in the door but don’t have a lot of experience doing this type of thing.
The first game I did was a role-playing game. It was a hard sci-fi RPG. I emailed the guy who was running it and explained that a lot of my previous editing experience had been science editing. He wrote back and said that he loved my graduate degree in science. It was kind of ironic that my first tabletop editing job came on the strength of my science background.
How do you find new jobs now? Do people find you? Or are you just constantly checking Kickstarter and shooting off emails to people whose projects get funded?
It’s a healthy mix. It’s not really spelled out in their terms, but Kickstarter really doesn’t like people like me contacting people who are running projects. That’s kind of odd to me because so many people who are doing these projects really don’t know how to find editors.
I have a few steady relationships with tabletop publishers. A lot of that has come through going to conventions. Even with all the great Internet stuff, there’s nothing that can match meeting someone face-to-face.
When I see a really interesting Kickstarter project that I want to work on, I’ll try to find contact information and go from there. The coolest stuff is still coming out of Kickstarter, where people are taking larger risks and doing things that are a little bit crazier than some publishing companies might be doing.
Is it a tough sell to convince a person they need an editor for their rulebook?
It’s a double-edged sword that so many people on Kickstarter are individuals or small companies. In most cases, they are going to be working with $1,000s or $10,000s, which doesn’t leave a gigantic amount of money to throw around after the cost of producing the game, shipping it, and everything else. Going up to somebody and saying, “I’m not sure if you’ve ever thought about this, but editing can really help your rulebook” can be quite a hard sell.
Some designers think that the game will stand on its own, that there’s a market of hardcore hobby gamers out there. An “if you build it, they will come” kind of deal. My role when trying to sell my services is to tell them that there are always going to be people out there who will wade through anything to play a good game, but at the same time, don’t you want to reach a wider market, to have your rules accessible, to have your game be easily played by as many people as possible? Sometimes, I have to pitch it from that angle.
But there are also a large number of people who realize that tabletop gaming is becoming more mainstream. We’re not stuck in the 1980s, where Dungeons and Dragons was for weird people and Satanic worshipers. It’s more mainstream, so there are a lot of people who understand that the more accessible—and by that I mean easy to understand, not dumbed down—a game is, the more people are going to enjoy it, buy it, talk about it. Ultimately, I think the sell is going to become easier over time.
What is your role as the editor? Are you thinking about the game dynamics or is it more about style, form, and content?
Rulebooks can come to me in all kinds of conditions. I’ve seen rulebooks where it really doesn’t seem like the game is done. I’ve seen some that are really, really polished. When I see rules that aren’t quite there yet, I might give high-level comments, but I tell the creator that I can do a better job if everything is there to see. I am not a playtester. I’m not going to sit down with the rules and a copy of the game and play it five times. My role is to sit down with the rules as written and make sure that if I read it for the first time, I never hit a point where the rules start to talk about a concept I don’t understand.
If you sit down with a biology textbook and all of a sudden it starts talking about cell division, you won’t understand what it all means. That is a common problem that I see in tabletop rulebooks. The designers have worked on the games for so long that the concepts of the game become second nature to them. They look at the rules, see concepts, and they make sense, but I can pretty immediately see whether or not the concepts of the game are organized correctly.
The use of language in rulebooks is extremely important. The difference between saying that a player activates something or resolves something or other little changes in the words can have really big ramifications in terms of how well a reader understands what you are trying to say. The copyediting is extremely important to make sure that all the terms are consistent. The most surefire way to confuse your reader is to start talking about the same thing in different ways.
How do you decide what to charge for something like this?
Rulebooks can totally vary in size. Smaller ones can be five to 10 pages, whereas that very first project that I worked on—the sci-fi role-playing game—was over 300 pages. I usually go on a per-word basis. I like giving my clients exactly what they are going to be paying. For smaller projects, it’s going to be more per-word because of all the overhead involved.
I stick to fairly consistent rates, but I like doing these projects, so if I see a project that I really want to do, I will be more flexible on my pricing. I have unsuccessfully tried to design some games myself, so I know how hard it is. It’s inspiring.
How many projects are you working on at once?
I usually have a few projects going. There is usually something that I’m doing or will be doing imminently from one of the publishers I work with. I try to get a healthy mix of work coming from the publishers to pay the bills and put food on the table, and then try to go out and get some perhaps riskier projects. I usually have one 300-, 350-page thing going and then some smaller game on the front burner.