2011-03-17 : My First-time Publishing Advice

I wrote this (slightly edited) for somebody who hadn't made it to our panel at PAX East but asked if we could give him some advice anyway. He said that he's thinking about printing with Lulu so that's where I start:

Lulu or the like is a good first option. It's not very profitable, but it's zero risk. What I'd recommend sight unseen is two-pronged: sell a PDF direct from your website, and sell in print from Lulu or wherever. Save the money you make from this toward a small print run. Find a printer who'll charge less than Lulu - my friends all like 360 Digital, I believe - and print as many as you can afford to, but no more. At no point spend any money you'll miss. Invest your game's profits back into your game (skimming lunch money off the top, of course, when you can; that's why you're doing this in the first place) but after your small initial investment, don't give your game a penny of your own money. If it's not profitable out the door, sinking more money into it won't turn it around.

Once your game's selling well, you might think about a marketing/fulfillment/distribution service like IPR. I'd strongly warn you away from IPR or the like while you're still establishing your game in the public eye, though. You might or might not find them useful once you have a dedicated fan base and growing demand - I don't, personally - but either way, before that, they're worse than useless. You'll work just as hard to promote your game and they'll make money off of it before you do. You can probably afford to go with a PDF marketing/fulfillment outfit like RPGNow a little sooner, since the stakes are lower, but I'd recommend doing your own marketing and fulfillment just as long as you can, until demand swamps you.

Before you invest even your time into publication, though, you'll want to start talking about your game in public online. This'll do two things: it'll get you some name recognition and buzz, and it'll give you a sense of public interest in your game. Wherever you do this, participate, don't just pitch your game all the time. People love to support their friends' work and hate to give money to shills.

Once you've done some thorough internal playtesting and gotten together a good, complete prototype, open it up to external playtesting. What I like to say is that getting external playtesters is like a test run for publication - if people aren't lining up to try your game out in late-stage playtesting, people won't line up to buy it when it's finished. It's troublesome, because when people don't line up, they don't give feedback, so you have to figure out for yourself what's not grabbing them. If people are going blank during your pitch, change your pitch; if people are excited by your pitch but go blank when they look at your game, there's nothing to do but go back to design. If you publish it as-is you'll just get the same response.

I know people who've spent money on illustrations for games that didn't survive to publication. Wait until your game's ready to go to market before you get excited about hiring illustrators, editors, and book designers. For your first game, you might not have the budget for them at all; do the very best you can.

Good luck! Let me know if there's anything I can do to help.

1. On 2011-03-17, Vincent said:

When I get excited about money, it's because money is water and sunlight to your game. Remember that you're investing your game's profits back into your game company. Making smart money decisions means that you get to print bigger runs, go to conventions, hire illustrators editors and book designers, think big and expand your endeavors.

When IPR (for instance) makes money off your game before you do, it's kind of tragic, but not because they're taking away your lunch money. It's because your game needed that money to grow.


2. On 2011-03-17, Tim Ralphs said:

Probably not the best place to ask, but do you hear of any recommendations for small print run providers in the UK?


3. On 2011-03-17, Vincent said:

I don't, sorry.

You might try the publishing forum at the Forge.


4. On 2011-03-17, Gregor Hutton said:

In the UK I use LULU for very short runs (<40) as the market isn't that big here to print more than that for me. I know of someone who went to Anthony Rowe (who do LULU stuff) directly and got a better price on a significant short run (from what I understand).

Other than that some have gone with Lightning Source. My own experience with them was a number of years ago, and their admin/communication was tortuous, and they flat-out lied. But they're a big company and I'm sure it's not been like that for everyone.

It's notable for colour printing I've used here in the UK with great quality, customer service and price. They've been great. Unfortunately gamers seem to prefer a different format/price point for games than can be facilitated by alocalprinter.


5. On 2011-03-17, Tim Ralphs said:

Thanks Gregor, that's worth knowing.


6. On 2011-03-17, Andy K said:

>>> You can probably afford to go with a PDF marketing/fulfillment outfit like RPGNow a little sooner, since the stakes are lower

I think IPR's cut is shallower than RPGNow's IIRC (haven't looked back into RPGNow for years). It led to things like people posting the product on both sites, with a cheaper purchase price at IPR etc.

I agree on all counts. If you just really really really want to throw your printed product on IPR, I'd still say to ride out the first three months after your game's release through direct sales fulfillment (that means you mailing the game out yourself, taking a bunch of them to the post office 1-3 times a week). That way you keep most of that initial buzz money, and leave IPR for sustained fulfillment (right around the time you're sick of going to the post office constantly).

But for PDF sales, they are easy to use and administer and don't take as much as others off the top. If I had to do Maid again, I'd still do direct sales for the first three months like I did, but I'd have pushed the PDF through IPR, it was just that much easier to send vs coordinating all the PDF only purchases by hand.

Oh, and don't forget the option to avoid retailers with your printed product. You don't *have* to sell to retailers through IPR, and stand to lose a lot (in the hypothetical situation of "Guy who wants your game, but buys from the local game store rather than IPR directly) if you don't think about this going in. We don't sell Maid direct to retailers anymore through IPR in order to keep the cover costs down as much as possible, but directly we deal with retailers all the time.


7. On 2011-03-17, jenskot said:



"if people aren't lining up to try your game out in late-stage playtesting, people won't line up to buy it when it's finished. It's troublesome, because when people don't line up, they don't give feedback, so you have to figure out for yourself what's not grabbing them. If people are going blank during your pitch, change your pitch; if people are excited by your pitch but go blank when they look at your game, there's nothing to do but go back to design. If you publish it as-is you'll just get the same response." amazing advice!

I spoke to a few people at PAX who printed 500-1,000 copies of their game that no one outside their personal gaming group had ever played. One of the reasons to print games is to supply demand. But if there is no demand, why are you spending money? I asked...

1. What problem does your game solve?
2. Whose problem?

...most people couldn't answer these questions. It's totally cool if your answers are we want to fix X issue with D&D for our own weekly gaming group. That's great. You don't need to print 1,000 copies if your gaming group consists of only 6 people.

One person asked, "how do you sell a game no one seems to want?" I asked, "why would you want to?". "Because we spent money." "So why don't you sell your game at cost?" "Because we want to make more money." "Then you need to sell something people want."


8. On 2011-03-17, Vincent said:

My first-time publishing advice about retailers: ignore them. They'll be very good for you once you have a solid fan base, name recognition, demand, and at least a couple of games, but until then, they can't do anything for you. Cultivate your games instead of pursuing retailers.


9. On 2011-03-17, Vincent said:

My first-time publishing advice about editors: what your game needs isn't necessarily a hired editor. What it needs for absolute certain is an editing process, which means a critical and unsentimental look at how your words achieve or fail to achieve your goals.

If you have friends who are good critical readers and who'll be honest with you, that's great! Take their feedback very seriously.

Hiring an editor who doesn't get your goals won't help you. Your goals might be pretty non-obvious, too, so don't count on an editor to intuit them. (Go read the archives of Creating Passionate Users to see how non-obvious your goals might be.)

Find the best editing you can get on your budget. It may be you. If it is, kill your sentimentality and do your very best.

No matter what, the details of your text will lose you some of your audience. Try to lose as few as you can, and try to lose the ones you'll miss least.

(Thanks to Ben and Elizabeth for a couple of these points.)


10. On 2011-03-18, ndp said:

Re: Editing. Adam Dray edited Annalise twice, once for the initial release and again for the re-written and re-organized Final Edition. Before the first release, he only had the text to work with; in between, he not only had the chance to play the game himself, he had the opportunity to watch me play it as an outside observer. There were elements of the game that he understood from watching me play that enabled the second "round" of editing to be much, much more effective than the first!

I offer that as support for the point that having someone who's aligned with your goals for the game is probably going to be more of net gain to you in the publishing process, regardless of how formal of an editor they are or how much you pay them.


11. On 2011-03-18, Bret said:

Vincent you can help by going HEY BRET WROTE THIS GAME when it's published and getting me a MILLION SALES.


12. On 2011-04-08, Simon R said:

Another perspective for first time publishers.

IPR charges 15% for selling PDFs; rpgnow charges 35%. rpgnow will sell more copies.

You do not have to sell print games through IPR, nor do you have to sell through retail.

All in all, IPR charges about 28% of cover for selling your print games, and is an additional channel - that is, it does not cannibalise your mail order sales. To be clear - you will sell additional books.  When you are using IPR, you are paying for someone to pack and ship your books. IPR works on very thin margins, which is one of the reasons when you sell through a retailer, they'll expect 50%, not 28%. The other reason is that IPR doesn't buy your stock.

I certainly recommend that publishers set up their own PDF/mail order store and get it established first, but IPR is a good next stop. This of course depends on the price point and print cost for your book, and how much you value your own time when it comes to your games. Most publishers don't price their own time for doing mail order, as they consider it a pleasurable part of being a creator-owned publisher.


13. On 2011-04-08, Vincent said:

Oh, I wouldn't say that! I know only one or two people who like to ship their own books. Practically everyone finds it a gigantic pain and ordeal.

If all you're looking for is fulfillment, though, you don't need IPR, you can just hire a fulfillment service. A fulfillment service will charge a flat fee per book fulfilled, plus often an ongoing warehousing fee. I pay my fulfillment service $1.00 per book fulfilled (plus the real packaging and shipping costs, of course), and I gather from asking around that $1.00 is a common per-book fee.

IPR isn't a fulfillment service. It is, as Simon says, a sales channel. That's why you pay IPR a percentage of your cover price instead of a flat fee. I personally haven't found IPR's additional services to be worth their additional cut, especially on their terrible quarterly consignment terms, even as a well-established publisher. If you're just starting out, damn, seriously, hiring IPR means that your game supports them before it grows itself. 28% of cover is your next print run.


14. On 2011-04-08, Simon R said:

It's not widely known, but IPR (or rather the warehouse) will act as a fulfilment service for about $1 a shipment + 50c a book, either in conjunction with, or instead of their sales channel. If it wasn't for legacy, I'd be using the for that for ProFantasy, and we don't currently sell through IPR.

I loved doing my mail order to start with for ProFantasy. That was when half the orders were placed by phone, and there was no internet ordering at all. It was so exciting. It got old eventually.


15. On 2011-04-08, Vincent said:

I didn't know that about IPR. Cool.


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