A couple of days ago I signed off on the final proof of the N64 Encyclopedia, meaning it’s finally good to go to the printers, with the aim being to release it in September this year.
It will be my fourth Encyclopedia in four years, and the aim going forwards is to continue releasing one a year, with the exception of some books which may take longer (PlayStation Encyclopedia, I’m looking at you).
Every time I talk about my books on Twitter, I regularly get people asking me how I managed to pull it off. After all, these books aren’t small, so pulling them off on an annual basis can’t be easy, surely?
Well, it is. Nah, just kidding, it’s intensely stressful. But it’s made a little easier with proper preparation and a great publishing team helping me out along the way.
For those curious to know how I make these books, then, I’ve decided to put together this article detailing the entire process, from the initial concept all the way up to the book arriving at your home.
Specifically, this article will look at how I put together the SNES Encyclopedia, but will also point out any times where the process differed for other books in the series.
The SNES Encyclopedia was greenlit as a direct result of pre-order figures for the NES Encyclopedia, so let me go back to that first book for a second.
I had already pitched the idea of an NES Encyclopedia to a number of other publishers, each of whom took the idea to a certain stage before ultimately choosing not to bother with it.
One publisher who will remain nameless (though one video game character has their initials on his clothing) took it as far as one of its quarterly board meetings before it was shut down because the bigwigs in charge didn’t get the appeal of a video game book.
Been trying to pitch a book that I know loads of gamers will love, but keep being hit with execs who don't get gaming. ARGH.
— Chris Scullion (@scully1888) August 27, 2017
These constant rejections were becoming increasingly frustrating, so I took to Twitter and asked if any of my followers – many of whom are fellow writers – had ever had a book published, and how they had gone about it.
Did they need to have the book fully written first, or was the pitch enough to get the ball rolling? To be completely honest with you, I had no idea how to get a book deal.
As sheer luck would have it, one of my followers – a chap called Jon Wright – introduced himself as a publisher for Pen & Sword Books, and asked me to pitch him the idea I was thinking of.
I told him about the NES Encyclopedia and how the NES Mini selling out proved that there was still a market for retro Nintendo games, to which Jon enthusiastically agreed. Just 24 hours after I had sent that tweet, I had been sent a contract to write the NES Encyclopedia.
Pen & Sword is a publisher that mainly specialises in military books, but one of Jon’s roles is commissioning books for White Owl, its non-military imprint. Jon plays video games (which is why he followed me in the first place) so he instantly understood the appeal when I pitched the NES Encyclopedia. It’s safe to say that hadn’t been for him, these books wouldn’t exist.
As the NES Encyclopedia neared the end of production, Jon asked if I fancied writing a second book, with the aim of maybe turning it into a series. To be honest, I hadn’t given it much thought because my ambition had simply been to write a book, and I’d done that.
I was so happy with the sample pages I was being sent for the NES Encyclopedia, however, that I was definitely keen to work with Jon and the publisher again for future projects. After that discussion with Jon I suddenly had a new ambition: to write a series of books and keep it going for as long as I could get away with.
Which brings us to the SNES Encyclopedia. The idea was to wait and see how well the NES Encyclopedia sold before starting work on a sequel, but the pre-order numbers were strong enough that Pen & Sword could already tell it was going to make enough money to justify a follow-up book.
It was fairly obvious what system we were going to choose for the second book. During the early planning meetings for the NES Encyclopedia, I mentioned to Jon that the NES was a popular console, but a book about the SNES would potentially sell more.
Nevertheless, I wanted to write about the NES because it was the first console I fell in love with, the one that shaped my love for games and ultimately my career. Writing an NES book was always going to be the first one I wanted to do, because it was a way of bringing my career and my life full circle.
The second book pretty much had to be about the SNES, then, because it was an obvious follow-up in more ways than one. We had already discussed the likelihood that it would perform better, and it just makes sense that you would follow up on an NES book with a SNES one.
Of the eight Encyclopedias I now have either written or lined up, choosing the SNES one was the biggest no-brainer. Others have been slightly trickier because you have to balance what you want to write with how well you think they’ll sell at that stage in the series’ life.
After agreeing that we would go with the SNES Encyclopedia for the second book, Jon and I agreed an advance payment (none of your bloody business) and I was then sent the contract to sign.
Pen & Sword’s contracts, like most literature contracts, are absolutely massive bastards and can be pretty intimidating to read through, but it’s all fairly straightforward.
It basically explained how my royalties worked, what would happen if there was ever a film deal done (which will never happen for my type of books), that sort of thing.
Most notably, the contract includes a deadline by which the final manuscript should be ready to send over. While the publisher is generally quite relaxed about this and has in the past given me an extra month or so when it’s been needed, this is still an important thing to have in the contract because it makes sure the author doesn’t just sit there twiddling their thumbs.
Wanting to write a book is one thing, but the actual act of writing the thing can be quite an undertaking, as you’re about to see, so it’s important for the publisher to sort out a contract to make sure you’ll deliver as promised.
Incidentally, for those curious about how an advance works, let me explain. It basically means you get some of your royalties before the book is released, as an advance payment. It’s a bit of security for both the publisher (because they can come asking for it back if you don’t write the book) and the writer (because if the book’s a flop you don’t have to pay the advance back).
When the book comes out you get a percentage for each copy sold, which changes depending on the circumstances. Hardbacks, paperbacks and e-books give me different percentages, for example, as do the region in which the book is sold and the retailer who sells it.
Buying a paperback from Amazon in the US makes me far less money than buying a hardback from WH Smith in the UK, but to be honest I’m just happy people are buying them at all. Trust me, if you want to get into writing books for the money you’re going to be disappointed. Not everyone ends up being the next JK Rowling (thank Christ).
Every few months I’ll get a note from the publisher telling me how many copies my books have sold and what my royalty payment is for that period. These royalty payments are taken off the advance until it’s cleared, and then anything after that gets paid to me.
So if, for example (and I’m making numbers up here so don’t get any ideas), an advance was £1000 and you got a £1 royalty for each book sold, the first 1000 copies sold would pay the advance off. So if you sold 4000 copies you’d end up with £3000 (bearing in mind you’d already been paid £1000 before you wrote it).
Once the book’s subject has been chosen and the contract has been signed, there’s just the small matter left of actually writing the bloody thing.
The game list
Before you write an Encyclopedia, you really have to know how many entries it’s going to have.
The first thing I do when starting a new book, then, is put together a spreadsheet listing every known game for that system.
You may think this is a pretty easy task, but it really isn’t. Wikipedia has lists of every major console’s games, and these are a great resource… if you want to have a book that’s about as accurate as a Donald Trump campaign speech.
Anything that could be wrong about those Wikipedia lists usually occurs at some point as you work your way through them. Some games are listed by their North American name, sometimes their European name, and sometimes their Japanese name for seemingly no real reason. Sometimes you’re given their alternate names in other regions, sometimes you’re not.
Sometimes games are listed twice under two separate names. Sometimes it says the game was released in North America but not Europe, when I blatantly owned a PAL version back in the day. Sometimes they list a game that was never actually released, because the prototype exists online. And sometimes they just won’t list a game at all.
The reason for this is obvious: Wikipedia is a volunteer-run site, and people are capable of human error. An enormous list many hundreds of games long can’t always be met with the same level of scrutiny that some Wikipedia articles are, so it feels like there’s a lot of guesswork at times with users (many of them based in the US) simply making up details for certain games.
I noticed that this is particularly awful in Wikipedia’s list of PlayStation games (I’ve been starting my PlayStation Encyclopedia list early). It’s so riddled with errors that you would think Europe barely had any PlayStation games at all. There are something between 50 to 100 games that are listed in Wikipedia as having never been released in Europe even though they had.
Wikipedia lists are a load of old arse, then, but that’s not to say they’re completely useless. Being 90% accurate is still a good start, and given that it’s already laid out, that initial list of games still serves as my first run for my spreadsheet. So I’ll meticulously copy over the game title, publisher, developer, release year and regions to my own spreadsheet, fully aware that I’ll be going back to each of those entries and doing my own research to make sure they’re actually accurate.
Once that initial list has been pilfered from Wikipedia, I’ll go searching for other lists and cross reference them to see if anything is missing or if any information clashes. There used to be a fantastic site called Nintendo Age which had another user-made database of Nintendo titles, and was far more accurate than Wikipedia was. This was a great help in checking through my existing Wikipedia list and making corrections to its many mistakes.
To triple-check, I also went through romset lists from the likes of No-Intro. These have been put together and refined over years by archivists trying to log every known release on a console. Essentially, if a game isn’t on Wikipedia, isn’t on any community lists and isn’t on a No-Intro romset, then there’s a good chance it never existed and shouldn’t be in the book.
Getting the full list of games is one thing, but then you have to figure out how you’re going to fit them into the book. That’s where the flatplan comes into play.
The flatplan comes directly from my magazine days: learning how to put one together was one of the most useful skills I ever learned when I was at the Official Nintendo Magazine.
Essentially, a flatplan is a giant table showing you every page in your book at a glance, allowing you to write what’s going to go in every page. In the world of magazines this makes it easier to shuffle features and articles around as ads are booked in, new games turn up for review, etc.
There isn’t a lot of shuffling that goes into an Encyclopedia flatplan because it’s obviously in alphabetical order, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a very tricky process.
In an attempt to make it a bit easier – as you’ll know if you’ve read any of the books – I split games into three ‘levels’ of priority. The biggest games get full pages, other important games get half pages, and other games get quarter pages.
This was a deliberate decision to not only make it easier for the designer to lay out the pages without having to keep asking me what I wanted, but also to make it easier for me to lay out the flatplan.
Basically, then, I went through my list assigning each game a full, half or quarter page as I did, and slotting them into the flatplan like jigsaw pieces.
There were moments that proved tricky. What do you do when you have a half-page game, followed by a quarter-page game, followed by a full-page game? How do you fill that other quarter page? Questions like this kept me up at night (literally) as I tried to figure them out.
Sometimes the solution was something I wasn’t entirely happy with. Some full-page games were demoted to half pages just to let me make another game a half-pager, for example.
In a couple of extreme situations, when I was completely stuck, I even sneakily messed up the alphabetical order to fit a game into a quarter-page in the hope not many people would notice or care.
Eventually, I had a finished flatplan, meaning I could tell Jon roughly how many pages the book was going to be (not counting the index, which would come later).
Writing the Thing
Once I had my list of games it was finally time to start actually writing the book.
Because these Encyclopedias are a reference guide rather than a buyer’s guide, the aim here isn’t to review each game, but simply to describe what it is and what it’s like.
Thankfully, this means that while I do have to play every game in the book to get a feel for it (and fulfil my own personal goal to play every game on the system), I don’t have to try to finish them all like I would if I was reviewing them.
As with any reference guide, any sources I use for information have to be analysed properly. I could easily find blogs with reviews for most of these games online, but there’s no guarantee that any of the information provided in them is accurate. Same deal with Wikipedia articles about them.
That’s why I play the games myself to get a feel for them, then go to trusted sources for accurate, authentic information that can be used to help put each entry together.
Preservation is very important to some players, and as a result there are some great resources online where communities have uploaded scanned PDF versions of most games’ manuals. This is invaluable, for example, for finding out the plot of a game without worrying that an online synopsis isn’t accurate.
Online archives of vintage games magazines are also a godsend when it comes to gauging what the general reaction was to these games at the time (because many modern reviews online critique them by today’s standards instead).
YouTube is also packed with full playthroughs of most retro games, meaning you can very easily skim through a video showing the game in its entirety if you want to double-check a specific level or moment.
Each entry, then, is put together with a combination of:
- my own time spent playing the game
- any information gleamed from the manual
- as many magazine reviews and previews from the actual period that I can get my hands on
- finally, of course, any previous knowledge I had about the game beforehand
Multiply that by about 800 games, and job done, you’ve just written a book. Easy.
In practice, it can be extremely difficult to write hundreds of entries for games and try to make it interesting from cover to cover. It’s inevitable that some entries will follow a similar structure, because there’s only so many ways you can write about, say, an American football game or a platformer.
It’s also important that I try my best not to add any personal opinion where possible, although on occasion I will throw in the odd bit of praise if I feel a game deserves more attention than it gets.
99% of the time, however, the book should be objective and simply give information on the game. Most of the time any comments on the game’s quality are based on what magazines said at the time, and I make that clear in the entry.
This is generally fine because it’s not me giving my opinion, it’s part of the historical context of the game: “Did you know that back then people thought this was shite,” etc (or words to that effect).
When I wrote the NES Encyclopedia, roughly half of the book consisted of my own screenshots and the other half consisted of screenshots taken from various screenshot resource sites online.
Someone who contributed to one of these sites sent me a DM, being quite arsey about it, and telling me that I was stealing their work, before going on a big lengthy rant about the art of taking a screenshot (as if I hadn’t already been taking them as my day job for a decade by that point).
In reality the guy didn’t have much of a leg to stand on: why set up an online screenshot resource – of images you don’t own the copyright to, I should stress – then get arsey when people use that resource?
Ultimately, from that point on I decided that 100% of the screenshots in my books would be taken myself, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it would stop more people trying to claim at least some responsibility for the content of my books.
Secondly, it would give me more control and consistency over the quality of the screenshots, because finding screens online can be a bit of a mess.
Finally, it would also enable me to take accurate, authentic screenshots. The vast majority of retro screens online are taken from emulators, which aren’t 100% accurate: I don’t do that in my books.
For each system I cover I use either original hardware or an FPGA recreation. If you’re not in the know, FPGA systems accurately recreate a console’s hardware, instead of emulating it, meaning they behave practically the same as the original system.
For the SNES Encyclopedia I used the Analogue Super Nt, which is an FPGA recreation of the SNES which includes HDMI output and integer scaling. The latter means it takes each SNES pixel and simply makes it 4 or 5 times larger (depending on your setting), giving you a crisp image without applying any of the daft smoothing filters you sometimes get in emulation.
The only way I can realistically play through every game in a console’s library is by acquiring game ROMs. It’s not ideal and I’d rather use original carts, but the retro gaming market has been so obscenely overinflated in recent years that it’s not practical (or financially possible) for me to spend $1000 on a copy of Aero Fighters just so I can give it a quarter-page write-up.
So, my solution is a flash cartridge – the SD2SNES, to be specific. This lets you put game ROMs on a Micro SD card, insert that card into a SNES cartridge and then run them on original SNES hardware. This results in a far more accurate experience than emulation.
My full set-up for each game on the SNES Encyclopedia, then, was as follows:
ROM → Micro SD card → Flash cartridge → Analogue Super Nt → Elgato HD 60 S → Laptop and TV
I run the console through my Elgato HD 60 S capture thingy, which means that every time I play a game I can capture near-perfect footage of it at the same time.
This is useful for a couple of reasons: it gives me my own footage that I can check back on to take notes on things I may have forgotten (like main menu options etc), and lets me take clips to post on Twitter like I’ve been doing with my Dreamcast book.
Most importantly, though, it lets me take screenshots by going back through the video frame by frame and choosing the exact frame I want, rather than other methods that would involve pressing a screenshot button and hoping for the best.
This results in cool split-second screenshots like these ones I took for my Mega Drive book:
While the writing is taking place, the publisher is preparing in advance by getting the cover ready, as well as all the other things you need to do to release a book which I’m usually not privy to: registering ISBN numbers, creating database information etc.
At some point I’ll get an email asking for cover ideas: the publisher knows I like to make the Encyclopedias look at least a little like the original console’s packaging (but not to a copyright infringing level) so I like to get involved in the cover process too.
I’ll send them hi-res images of the system (sourced from the incredible Evan Amos who’s doing God’s work by taking all these photos and making them freely available to everyone), along with old photos of the original box art for the system in question.
The SNES book had an extra level of complexity because we decided to do two covers: one for Europe and one for North America.
There then follows a back-and-forth as they send over cover designs and we tweak them until we’re happy with how they look.
The SNES book was pretty painless because we’d already gone through a lengthier back-and-forth with the NES book. By the time we got to the second book we had a rough idea of what we were going for.
Just for fun, here’s the draft cover of Jumping For Joy, which we both hated so much it gave us the inspiration we needed to go asking the lovely folks at Playtonic to use their art instead.
No, I don’t mean the moment where I decide to give up and throw my PC in the bin (though that does come close to happening sometimes).
Once everything’s written it’s time to put it all together and send it over to the publisher.
Because my books are quite hefty tomes and there’s a definitive structure to them, I try to put as many art notes in there as I can for the designer. This is another habit I’ve taken with me from my magazine days, where we’d often drop art notes into each article we wrote so the designers weren’t just fumbling in the dark and guessing what we had in mind.
The entire manuscript (all the words and art notes) is pasted, in order, into a huge Word document – the Mega Drive book’s manuscript was 206,000 words with the art notes taken into account too – and bundled along with the screenshots.
Each screen is also cropped from the video captures I took (which included black borders) and renamed to make sure the designer knows exactly where they need to go. So, for example, 109-4-the-lion-king.png would tell them it’s page 109 and the fourth game on the page (lower-right corner).
I also attach a PDF version of my flatplan so they can see at a glance where each game should go.
So that’s a big Word document, a flatplan and 800-1000 screens in a zip file, all cropped and renamed. Once that’s all sent over… I wait.
I also rest for about a month, before I get started on the next book. So if you ever notice that I’m a bit cheerier on Twitter in late December / early January, that’s because I’m not writing for once.
Once I submit the manuscript to the publisher, they then pass it on to one of their contracted sub-editors (or proofreaders, if you’d rather).
It’s this poor sod’s job to read through my entire book fixing all the typos I accidentally wrote during Lucozade-enhanced 2am writing sessions.
I’ve been extremely fortunate in that the NES, SNES, Mega Drive and N64 Encyclopedia have all been edited by a chap called Graham Smith.
It’s clear that Graham doesn’t really play games – like I say, Pen & Sword usually deals with military books and it’s clear by Graham’s communication with me that this is his area of speciality too – but importantly he doesn’t pretend to know his stuff and doesn’t take gambles correcting names or terms he’s unfamiliar with.
Once he’s finished fixing the obvious typos, then, he’ll email me with a list of questions about things he was unsure of. This sort of thing (click to embiggen):
Then all I have to do is answer those questions, which takes 10 minutes, and Graham will then send the corrected manuscript to the publisher.
I can’t stress how smooth this process is, particularly the way Graham does it. Without going into too much detail I’ve had a very bad experience with a sub-editor recently which resulted in two weeks of my free time being taken up as I undid all the corrections he made (he basically wanted to take out all my jokes because he didn’t think they were suitable, and made constant changes to my writing to make it less conversational, which is my style).
Every time I realise that Graham is subbing the next encyclopedia, I breathe a sigh of relief. I’ve never met you, Graham, but thank you so much.
Design and Proofs
After the manuscript has been edited and sent back to the publisher, the words and images are all sent to the designer who starts laying it out.
Naturally, this can take quite a while, so this happens while I’m busy writing the next book.
Eventually, they finish the first ‘proof’ (a draft of the finished thing) and it’s sent to me for another checking process.
Sometimes, as was the case with the NES, SNES and Mega Drive books, the publisher sends this to me in a big envelope containing the whole book as a huge stack of printed A4 sheets.
I then sit in a coffee shop or something over the course of a few days and read through the entire book, cover to cover, with a pen in hand.
I’m looking for a few things when I do this. I’m looking for any typos that Graham missed before – no matter how many people read an article there will always be mistakes that are missed – I’m looking for any other weird sentences or other weird shit that I may have missed the first time around, and I’m looking for any potential issues the designer may have accidentally added.
This could be two games with their screenshots mixed up, for example, or a typo in the game title, that sort of thing. Sometimes if a screenshot is tiny (because I’ve written too much) I’ll try to find sentences to remove and add a note to the designer asking them to see if that makes the screen bigger as a result.
I’d then take my comment-riddled copy and write up a list of changes, which I’d send back to the publisher. More recently, though, this process has become a bit easier.
My Adobe subscription (paid for by my lovely Patreon people) lets me directly edit PDFs, so for Jumping For Joy and most recently the N64 Encyclopedia, I instead sat down with the PDF of the full book on my iPad and directly highlighted errors on the screen, adding comments telling the designer what needs to be removed.
Here’s how it looks now when I’m doing it digitally:
The Index and Final Steps
At this point we’re nearing the finish line, but there’s just one more thing for me to do.
Although there are still tweaks to be made, we at least know at this stage that nothing drastic is going to happen in terms of moving games around or anything like that: the book’s structure is set in stone now.
Because of this, I can finally write the last part of the book, the index.
I once again go through the whole book, writing down every game and the page it’s found on. I then list all the alternative titles for these games and add them to the list too, so people who know them by other names can find them.
When the index has been written I’ll send it to the publisher, along with my list of changes from the first proof.
I’ll then be sent a second proof, which is just another PDF with those changes made. I’ll give it another skim to see if I spot anything else, and if I do I send those changes back.
This keeps going back and forth with new proofs until, as was the case with the N64 Encyclopedia last week, the book is finally good to go. Thankfully Pen & Sword are usually pretty great at sorting changes out so it’s rare that I’ll need to go beyond the second proof.
And then we’re done! The book goes to the printers, then after a few months it’s shipped over to the publisher’s warehouse, to distribute to customers and retailers.
And so the circle of life is complete, or at least that one is. The entire process takes around 10 months, so by the time one Encyclopedia comes out, I’m already in the “oh shit” stage of only having a couple of months left to finish the next book.
In a way this works out well, though, because the messages I get on Twitter from people getting their new books come just as I’m running on empty, and they give me that final drive I need to finish the next one.
So when I say “I’ll keep writing them as long as you keep buying them”, I mean it in more ways than one.