I’m going to briefly tackle some of the different styles of RPG Publishing I’ve seen over the years. Some have proven successful, others have proven potential. This list is not exhaustive, but it is extensive. Hopefully, if you are getting close to publishing your book, these ideas will prove useful to you.
Method 1: Traditional Publishing
This is probably the worst way to do it. In Traditional Publishing, you (the creator/owner) send the book to a printer and order probably 2,000 copies or so. Then, after going through all that pain and suffering (really, printers are a total pain in the ass, I can’t stand them) you have to line up some type of distributor. The most famous is Alliance, but there are others. If you can get a distributor to carry your game, it gets added to a humongous catalog where brick-and-mortar stores might decide to buy a few copies at a 50% to 60% discount if they have some extra cash lying around (most don’t). If the stores choose not buy it, the games get sent back to you (I assume at your expense) or do nothing but collect dust in a warehouse never to be seen again.
The risks of publishing this way are massive. The publisher (that’s you) assumes almost all costs. You pay for printing, shipping, and in some cases, warehousing costs. Then, you have to wait for the distributor to find a few stores willing to take a risk on your new game with little to no name recognition or support. Then, you have to wait on the distributor to get around to paying you for whatever games it managed to sell, and remember, the distributor sells those games at a steep discount to the stores (50-60%) taking a cut of whatever it managed to get for you. I don’t have hard numbers on this because there is no way I would ever publish this way and no reason you should either. This method of publishing is a death trap. Stay away!
Method 2: Using a Fulfillment Service
I talked a bit about this method in a post from 2007 called “What is a Fulfillment Service?” Most of it is still true. You can read about it there. The Fulfillment Service route is one that has been taken by many successful independent RPG companies and worked fairly well for them. Fair warning up front, you may take a steep loss if your fulfillment service goes out of business and has no way to return your stock. Risks here are mostly low, but real.
Method 3: Subscription Service
Back in 2007-2008 I published four RPGs. I had them all playtested and ready to go before I released the first one. I decided to try a new model of publishing. Back then, I overestimated my skill in design and figured I could pump out four short games a year. Based on that assumption, I offered my customers a change to buy all four of my finished games at a discount. They would receive a game quarterly (every three months). The one time “subscription” fee would guarantee them games for a year.
This actually worked quite well from my perspective. I got a lot of money up front that covered my printing and shipping costs. I had customers waiting and excited about my games coming in the mail. And it gave me enough margin for error when it game to getting my books back from the printer that any printing mistakes could be corrected before the next shipping deadline. So this model showed a lot of promise.
Unfortunately, the margin for error wasn’t large enough. I had all sorts of trouble from my printer. I had to delay sending out several games by three to four weeks, and I found the publication schedule actually difficult to keep up with. That was partly due to me being in grad-school at the time, moving to a new city, and changing jobs, but that sort of real-life happenings plague every book publisher. So that’s no real excuse.
In the end, I think this model held some promise, but it’s best for someone who has a lot of games ready to go- preferably short games that are relatively cheap to print and easy to learn to play.
Model #4: The Ransom Model
Greg Stolze pioneered this model. It’s mainly just used for PDF games. Basically, it works like this: first, the publisher creates a game or some other game-related content. Then he sets a target dollar amount he wishes to earn for his work on the game. It might be $100 for instance. Whatever the number, it is enough for the author-publisher to recoup his costs and have a little left over. The publisher then posts a notice on his or another’s website that he is accepting donations for the game. He might provide a little teaser and maybe a sample chapter which are helpful enticements to get people donating. Over time, people donate however much they want to the publisher. It can be a penny or it could be the full $100 amount. Once the target dollar amount is achieved, the donation window is closed and the publisher puts the game up for download FREE OF CHARGE for everyone. So the whole community benefits from the generosity of others.
This system works best if the designer has either A) a lot of buzz about his upcoming project or B) a terrific track record of making fun games. If people don’t think that their donations will ransom a good game, then they won’t donate. And a failure to achieve the target number and consequently failure to release the game can do lasting damage to a publisher’s reputation. Approach this method with caution.
Model #5: Pay What You Want
This method is used by Ben Lehman, and I think it’s great. The publisher designs a game and then makes it available via PDF through e-mail. Anyone who wants the game can get it for free, if they like, or they can donate any amount of money to the publisher. It’s similar to the ransom model in that respect, except there’s no minimum threshold the community has to reach to ransom the game. The publisher will email a PDF copy of the game to anyone who wants it. You only give the publisher money for the game if you want to.
This method has some great benefits, but also some risks. One great thing about it is that it can get your game in the hands of lots of people quickly. Some people wait for a game to come out for a while and be reviewed (or talked about in Actual Play reports) before investing their money. Others don’t want to spend any money on a PDF game, even if the content interests them. The best advertising for your game is people playing it. So giving them an opportunity to get your game cheaply can lead to future sales as word of how your game plays is spread. I think that Ben has found this method very successful in promoting his games.
There are some risks, though. It is very possible that you will make little to no money on your game using this method. If you’re okay with that, then this might be the model for you. However, if you are looking to be compensated for the time and effort you put into making your game, the Pay What You Want model probably isn’t going to work for you- especially on your first game.
Model #6: The PDF Warrior
For some people, just starting out, they are interested most in exposure- just getting their games out there where people can buy them regardless of the fees associated with doing it. If you just want to sell PDF versions of your game without having to worry about running your own software, website, or payment scheme, there are four good sites for this: Onebookshelf.com, e23, IPR, and Lulu. Onebookshelf is actually a merger between Drive Thru RPGs and RPGNow. Most gamers are familiar with these sites and they have thousands, if not tens of thousands of titles available. e23 is owned and operated by Steve Jackson Games. By listing your game there you are not associating yourself with SJG, so if that’s a concern, don’t let it be. IPR has changed ownership and business models a couple of times, but it’s still a great place to shop for smaller titles. It has fewer games than the other three, so the market there isn’t as crowded. Finally, there’s Lulu. One of the benefits of Lulu is that if your customers want a printed version of your game, you can set it up for them to order such a thing without you having to get your hands dirty with warehousing, tracking, and sending stock. If you’re really new to RPG publishing, Lulu might be your best option.
Each of these outlets, though, have some problems. First, all of them take a cut of your sales. That means less money for you, and if you’re serious about developing your game company, you need every cent you can get. Also, with the possible exception of IPR, these websites carry thousands upon thousands of titles. There’s no real way your game will get noticed by someone browsing the site. In other words, you’re still responsible for sending people to those sites to find and buy your game. It’s not going to happen magically on its own. If you are looking for a no-muss, no-fuss way of selling your game on PDF, these sites might work for you. If you’re looking to grow your business, the next option is where you probably want to be.
Model #7: The Independent RPG Model
This method of publishing a game was pioneered by John Wick and Ron Edwards and later perfected (IMHO) by Vincent Baker. This is the ideal, best way for you to sell your game to your audience in the modern RPG publishing world. I recognize that we don’t live in an ideal world, so it might not be the best way for you, but if this model can fit your goals, you should really try it.
To use the Independent RPG Model, you’ll need several things. You’ll need a book printer you can rely on. Those are hard to find. Ask in the Forge’s Publishing Forum or the Story Games Game Design Forum for advice in this area. Second, you’ll probably need your own website. Right now I’m running RPG Crossroads and RPG Crosstalk through Webs. I wish I weren’t, so I can’t recommend them. I’ve heard Intuit is good for novice web designers, but I have no experience there. If you contact Ron Edwards, Andy Kitkowski, or Vincent Baker, I’m willing to bet they’ll point you in the right direction on this topic. They won’t do any of it for you, nor should they, but they have lots of good advice on running websites. Finally, you’ll need some infrastructure. What I mean by that is a system for accepting payments, tracking customer orders, mailing books, emailing PDFs, and interacting with potential customers. PayPal is the standard for accepting online payments. When it comes to checks, cash, and money orders, you’ll have to decide if you want that to be part of your business model. You might use Open Office or Google Docs to track customers, orders, and payments, or Microsoft Office if you own a copy. Avery Labels are helpful for shipping. But all of this you have to do on your own. This model is all about you: the creator-publisher.
The Independent Model does not rely on a fulfillment house or third party storefront such as IPR or RPGNow. Instead, the creator-publisher assumes full responsibility, and therefore full profits, for selling his game. The publisher creates his own website, his own Paypal account, and his own system of delivery for his games.
This is a lot of work! You have to go to the post-office every couple of days, buy the stamps, envelopes, and boxes to send your games. You have to Hand write or print off the address for each of your customers, email each customer your PDF individually, track your stock, and answer questions on a multitude of Internet forums about your game. You have to keep up with customs if you ship internationally. It’s hard. If you haven’t read the posts I’ve made about how tough it really is, you need to. BUT (and that’s a big BUT), it is so rewarding. You get to keep every dollar you earn. You get to reinvest that money in your company to buy better art, better covers, and maybe even booth space at a convention. And it’s not just the money that makes this model so great; it’s the satisfaction that you are running your own small business. My career as a game designer is filled with many regrets, but I cherish the time I spent running my own business. It gave me the confidence I needed to tackle so many other challenges in my life.
This model is not for everyone, especially if you feel you don’t have the time and patience to deal with the headaches of printers, postal workers, and damaged stock. I’ve used this method, and it is tough, but I’ll say it again, running your own business is very rewarding in many ways and it’s the best way to make the maximum amount of cash.
I hope this post has been helpful to you. At the very least, I think it will enumerate the many different methods of publishing that are available to an independent game publisher. Publishing a game is a tough road to walk. There are many pitfalls along the way, but if you stick to it, and truly believe in your game, then the rewards definitely outweigh the heartache.