The Creative Imprint Agency—or CIA, as they like to call it—was launched in March by Mark Cathro of Skortched Urf’ Studios, Louis Porter Jr. of LPJDesign, and Steven Russell of Rite Publishing. The firm’s goal is to act as an umbrella publisher of RPG products, offering to new designers a variety of professional services such as art selection, graphic design, editing, layout, and mentoring. Basically they’re providing aspiring game professionals a way to be published without becoming the publisher. In an email interview, Mark Cathro described the motivation behind the venture:

One of the greatest things about the RPG industry is the love and dedication of the players. Creative people tend to gravitate to RPG’s, so we are in good company. The industries greatest strenght can also be one of its deterrents. Creative dedication to a new game does not always translate into a professional product. The main goal of the CIA is to help creative RPG publishers add production value and professionalism to whatever they offer. Part of that is training and advice. We want to help bring the quality and professionalism of the industry to a higher level, and that this will benefit the entire industry as a whole.

The CIA focuses on electronic publication through OneBookShelf (DriveThruRPG/RPGNow) and negotiates individual arrangements with each partner. On the process of selecting partners and projects, Mark explained:

Anyone is free to join the CIA, so long as they agree to maintain a standard of trade dress and production value. (The CIA is able and willing to help publishers with this, of course.) We have no desire to exert editorial control over any of our partners. In fact, I think that would be entirely counter-productive! One of the main benefits of electronic RPG publishing is the ability to address subject matter that would not be possible economically under the traditional print-to-distribution method. If you want some high fantasy setting with a twist or two then you can have your needs met by dozens of top name publishers and hundreds of small independent brands. But if you want something truly different, edgy or just plain “out there” then the electronic RPG route is the way to go. This is one of the great strenghts of the RPG marketplace.

In addition to CIA’s openness on partnerships, the company’s revenue model includes royalty-type fees (typically in the range of 15 to 35 percent of sales) but no up-front charges. In light of this, I asked Mark if he thought there was much of an opportunity for new electronic RPG publishers.

Of course we do. If we didn’t, we certainly would not have started the CIA.  Clearly the entire industry is in a state of flux, but I feel that is more of an opportunity than a deterrent. If you go the RPGNow right now and sort by rule system you will find over 5,000 titles for sale under the OGL/3rd Edition category. Pathfinder has only 232.  Traveller has 349. M&M Superlink has 224. Is there room for growth publishing third party material for each of these open game systems?  Yes, absolutely. (Not to mention new systems, accessories, applications etc.)

Part of mentoring with the CIA will also be market research, setting reasonable expectations and identifying what projects are likely to meet with the most success. The market has changed quite a bit from when 3E and PDF’s were new. But the advent of e-readers, the iPad and other devices just over the horizon, along with the Print-on-Demand roll-out through OBS will change the market even more. Nimble publishers will be able to take advantage of these changes more effectively than those wedded to older business methods.

Honestly, I have to wonder how long these guys can afford to maintain this approach. However, I wish the company and its partners the best of luck and look forward to seeing what they produce.