Ask a Developer: Finding a Publisher

"Mr. Johnson" wrote to us recently with this question:

As a Developer, how do you go about getting a publisher for your game (publishing services only)?  Do you send out letters to game publishers requesting for publishing services, and wait for a response containing instructions or do you send in a package with a demo of your game and request publishing services?

Is this something one can do on their own, or should they have a lawyer (if so, what kind)?  I’ve looked all over the Net for info on how to contact and deal with a publisher, but have found nothing.

If you have dealt with publishers yourself, what can someone doing so for the first time expect?

You're not alone, Mr. Johnson -- a lot of new game developers (and experienced ones) grapple with this question.  

There are basically two things you might want a publisher for:  One is to provide funding for your development.  If possible you should try to avoid this -- typically a publisher that pays for development will want to own the Intellectual Property (IP) rights to your game, and will take the lion's share of any royalties.  It makes sense for them, but is not a great deal for the developer unless you really have no other way of funding your game.

The second -- the one that you asked about -- is to help you with distributing and marketing your finished product.  Marketing is something that smaller devs have a hard time with, and many publishers can do really well.  You have to negotiate the rev share, but typically we've heard of deals where the publisher takes maybe 30% of the net revenue in this kind of deal.  Generally you get to keep the IP.

The best way to contact publishers is to have somebody on the inside you can contact directly -- this is why networking at GDC, Games Connection, and other such events is really important.  If you don't have a direct contact, you can go in through the front door with everyone else.  Most publishers have email addresses on their websites for submissions, along with guidelines for submission.  

You don't need a lawyer to contact a publisher, but if a publisher is interested in your game, you'll need to sign a distribution agreement, and you might want to have a lawyer look at that before you sign it to make sure you're not giving away more than you expect.

As far as what to expect, realize that most publishers see dozens of game submissions a week -- maybe even hundreds.  So you need to show them something that stands out, and that seems like it would fit well with their existing portfolio.  I don't think any publishers these days are signing games based on a paper pitch or a powerpoint deck -- you really need to have a playable demo, and if you're new to the industry you might have to have a completely finished game before any publisher will talk seriously to you.

There's a lot more to say about this subject, but there are resources out there to help you.  You can find great info about pitching ideas and negotiating with publishers on game developer websites such as GamaSutra and 

Good luck to you, Mr. Johnson!