25 June 2009

Group Musings

A plaintive Twitter by one of the folk I am following lead me to consider the dynamics of the gaming group. Currently we have a core group of four on a weekly basis and one more every fortnight (we play our games on a biweekly basis, this being a happy medium between weekly Hosting madness and monthly Hosting doldrums). On a one off basis we number easily a dozen or more.

I don't think of any of the seven or eight people who don't come to every single game I play in to be any kind of slacker, or "not really part of the group", similarly I don't think of the hardcore four as being the "real group" or any of that nonsense. If you are a gamer reading this you may well be wondering how all this works. One thing having a gaming group is famed for is requiring a certain level of commitment.

I'm going to mention No Dice again, big surprise.

The fact is that one of the things that spurred me on to write down the No Dice way of doing things was that there are a lot of gamers who don't game any more because as they got older they lost the time required to be in a "proper" group.

I game on a weekly basis now but only because of an accident of scheduling. I game a lot more often that just the weekly session but only by being able to be flexible about who is there and who isn't.

Of course there are some things it's better to have everyone there for. No one likes to know their character is being NPCed without them. But No Dice was specifically designed to encourage "casual Role Playing". We are talking about one-off events and pushing one-off ideas because it's a feature of the system. One offs are awesome, a little taster of something that might be a little strong, strange or hard to sustain for a campaign.

We've also tried to foster campaign set ups where people drift in and out. We're working hard on allowing Hosts to cope with player characters who hardly ever meet, so if someone can't make it to a session then it's assumed their character is busily going about their life elsewhere.

All of these things have resulted in me having the largest group of gaming contacts I ever have, and it has also resulted in me gaming with a greater variety of people more often. It also has delighted me that people not traditionally attracted to the hobby have been open to getting involved because of the greater flexibility.

So as much as it does make me cringe to push the product again, if you're worried about maintaining a gaming group, or about starting one with many flaky members, then it might be you need to No Dice Up Your Life...

I can't believe I just said that.

16 June 2009

Bye Bye Lulu

Also to be posted on Lulu's Support Escalation forum.

Dear Lulu,

I've been a supporter and champion of your service for nearly five years now. So it saddens me to say it but this is the end of the road. I wish I were having some sort of momentary hissy fit, but it's gone beyond that. Way beyond.

To be honest the ins and outs of why the situation has ended up like this are too far in the past now for me to rehearse them again. Besides, it isn't really that there was some sort of problem that is what's lead to this.

It's the silence.

It's the inaction.

It's the fact that despite apologies and promises of improvement things seem to have got worse, not better.

I want you to appreciate the gravity of this situation. I have used your service to publish three books. They weren't books I wanted to push on people. They were books I wanted to be available to people if they wanted them. As it turns out hardly anyone did want them, but that wasn't ever the point.

The point was that when I had something I really wanted to push on people I knew at least one thing was taken care of. I would have a supplier for printed copies. It would print and supply, I knew the service and everything was okay.

That's a huge weight off the mind of someone trying to push a risky venture. If someone has gone to the effort of publishing novels to audition a service they want to know that service will be there for them when there might be more at stake. If someone's that concerned about the possibility of things going wrong you can see that they might be reluctant to turn away even when they do go wrong. So wrong. So very very wrong.

In the end I don't even want to do this. The thought of trying to get my money back off you and up sticks to a new and untried service fills me with apprehension, even fear.

You've actually managed to push someone beyond fear.

I realised that what you're doing isn't just sloppy, lazy, poorly organised, disrespectful and rude. It is all of those things. But more than that. It's wrong.

The people who are using your service are people who are not rich enough to pay a commercial printer to make print runs. The products you're producing are all, to some extent, labours of love. Even if people did write their text book to make money they spent the time to write the damned thing. They learned to use your file uploader. They worked out how to tell people about this book they wrote. They told people how to order it and they even expected that some people would buy it despite the ridiculous production costs and delivery fees.

They really have to love what they've done to expect people to pay over and above the going rate for whatever type of book it is they've written. You are dealing with projects that are highly personal to every person who writes and produces them here.

The apparent meltdown of your support services in the last couple of weeks just shows that somewhere along the line you've lost sight of that. The fact you had the brass balls to issue any kind of public apology for this and then continued for the next three working days to apparently do nothing to resolve these issues, and in fact allowed them to deepen and become more severe, just shows how lost you've become.

Your incompetence and failure would be serious enough if you weren't dealing with materials that people have poured tiny parts of their heart and soul into. The fact is that however unremarkable these products are in monetary terms every one of them is far more personal to their creators than a lot of other products which have made a lot more money.

Talking of which, every success story on your site however modest came from the ranks of those people. You didn't find them, they found you. Your recent actions communicate quite clearly that you don't care where your next success comes from, you don't want it, you don't need it. The chances are that it's just another loser who will never shift enough units to turn you a decent profit.

Usually, of course, you will be right about this. We all know that the successes are rare. Your company is built on a platform of giving people with the commitment to produce a print-ready file a shot at building a small business out of their efforts. These people come with nothing but hope and a work ethic. You have told them it's not too much to expect some sort of welcome. When you effectively spit in their faces this way it crushes them. It takes their dreams and rakes them through muck, mangles them and then shows the hideous wreckage of the basket they put their eggs in.

That kind of behaviour goes beyond disrespectful and edges into cruelty.

Maybe you are having problems. This is what you claim. Well, since you started having problems your communication channels seem to have closed further not opened. This is the time you need to be telling people what's going on not shutting them out.

If you want to come back on this and ask "What could we have done?" there is your answer. As long as things are not getting better you need to be telling people how they are getting worse.

As it is it looks like you just don't care about the hordes of people standing at your gates, clutching manuscripts, hoping to see them printed. Maybe they'll be lucky and see their dream realised but woe betide them if they have a single problem between ordering and postage because if they do all they will get for their enquiries about the situation is silence.

So for that reason as soon as possible I will be taking my projects away from Lulu and looking for some other similar service. I don't want to do it but I don't want to continue standing behind this betrayal of basic expectation any longer.

If you are wondering whether to feel ashamed. Go ahead. It would seem to me that you are way overdue.


Leo Stableford
Unanswered tickets: 00256706, 00257496, 00258566, 00261411

9 June 2009

What Has Happened To Lulu?

Thanks go to Charles Causley for the title of this entry. How a man who died in 2003 knew that we would experience difficulties with a recalcitrant POD publisher 6 years before they started to manifest I don't know.

What I do know is that I foolishly assumed that self-publishing three novels through Lulu.com would prepare me for the day that I wanted to do something "proper". I hold my hands up that I wasn't entirely prepared for some of the issues that arise from having a book with illustrations, even black and white and grayscale ones.

These technical issues are almost entirely down to me and trying to keep as much information in Justin's images as humanly possible. I was unaware that 98% of that information was completely useless and, further, somewhat incompatible with high speed POD printing presses.

So, I have no beef with Lulu regarding that side of things.

Between myself and a couple of geeky friends we have taken in the new requirement, rendered the documents to that standard and reissued the PDF a fourth time. According to the initial problem report there is now no way the problem that dogged the first three versions can reoccur.

The problem I am having is that Lulu are not very communicative. All the fixes I have applied have been the result of assiduous Googling. I submitted two trouble tickets asking for help and have heard nothing regarding either of them. I also received an offer of a specific breakdown of the errors the printer had rendering the publication. I received this five working days after the first problem had occurred.

Although in five working days I had managed to work out from the gnomic communiques issued thus far what I thought would be the best solution and applied it. Still, I felt that it might be useful to take a look at that report and perhaps anticipate any future issues should such exist. Maybe dash out another version before another failed run.

So I said "yes please".

Apparently I am expecting a mail sometime before about 11PM tonight from some kind of POD case worker to chat this over. I'm not really sure what they could do for me. I know that they've had one working day to attempt to print the outstanding books and mail them out and they haven't bothered. Not that I feel that I deserve preferential treatment for fixing badly formatted manuscripts, but I have no indication at all when or even if they will try to print the latest, untested version of the file any time soon.

It's possible they already have tried to do this and it's failed for some other reason. I wouldn't know, they have no protocol for releasing this information to me. I am a little confused as to what the turnaround between an attempted print and the issue of the error message is. In fact once you have uploaded and paid for a "project" to be printed and delivered by Lulu the work enters a limbo of vague information. There is no one to talk to, there is no way to check what's going on, if something does go wrong you're lucky to receive a seven word explanation of what it is and as for finding a solution it's down to yourself and Google.

I've been a long, long, long time champion of Lulu. I used to feel that their service was the future, that it's production model was going to win out and it was only a matter of time.

Technically this may still be true. But their communication protocols remind me of the very worst of old school bureaucracies, they're worse than most UK banks and that's saying something.

At present I don't believe there is a better alternative to Lulu, Amazon's CreateSpace was just two bound up in legalese upfront to even get through the front door. But would I *recommend* people use Lulu? Not unless, like us, they have no alternative and they are trying to get something started.

I am deeply disappointed with Lulu and only a few more days of poor communication and abysmal service stand between disappointment and hate.

4 June 2009

Farewell Black Wednesday

I don't know why exactly but yesterday was the most stupidly bad day for the Mrs and myself for quite some time. The front door on the house is not working and I'm the only person who can lock it so I had to spend my lunch hour coming home to make it lock so the Mrs could go to work which meant having to spend an extra half hour in work.

This wouldn't have been so bad but halfway through the day Lulu wrote to kindly inform me that there was an issue with transparency artefacts in some images in the Core Book and as a result they couldn't print or fulfil any orders yet. So I had to run home to spend a cheery evening print optimising all the pictures, re-inserting them into the document and then republishing the project on Lulu. I didn't know, at this stage, whether my remedies would work. The only benefit I received straight off the bat was that the PDF, previously an encumbering 47MB was now a sprightly 6MB.

Not that my travails were anything like as bad as those of the Mrs who had to put up with death threats at work. No, seriously. And came home early in the least good a mood as can possibly exist to find her rubbish other half frantically uploading new PDFs to Lulu because a few real people actually want their copuies of the actual book on actual paper with actual ink.

Thankfully Ian's order has shipped, and I guess this means the issues are over with. Although Lulu didn't actually get back to me at all even though I submitted a trouble ticket asking how long it might be before they attempted printing again. I tried mailing back to the address they mailed me from but the mail bounced.

Lulu is becoming a proper corporation that acts just like one too!