Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Sky Is Falling! The Industry is DOOMED!

... this one is a golden oldie by this point, isn't it?

Here's the way I see it:

There is a ton of money in role-playing.

Sure, your definition of "a ton" is going to be very subjective. If Joseph Goodman's got a decent position with a Fortune 50 company, of course roleplaying is a side job for him. If Clark Peterson is a lawyer, well, maybe giving that up to go full-time into the gaming biz is a bad idea.

But companies still survive and thrive, whether "full time" or not. Kenzer & Co. and Paizo and Green Ronin are all launching major fantasy role-playing game lines and I bet they're actually confident (not just projecting confidence) about how those games will do. Their sky is not falling.

There's even a ton of money in the OSR.

Labyrinth Lord sold $1500 in books for their distribution drive last year in just a few weeks. Fight On! and Swords & Wizardry won Lulu monthly sales contests, with one of the publishers giving a sales total in the many hundreds - over a 31 day period.

How many copies of the S&W, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, and OSRIC print versions do you think have been sold, even with the full contents of those books being given away for free in pdf format and even with just about every cent of that purchase price going to people unconnected with the content of those books or gaming at all? The people who know aren't telling, but we're talking hundreds.

Even Carcosa sold a fair number of copies, and that's with it being an entirely homemade product with not one single sales outlet beyond a blog and no intention of being a continuing publishing concern, and no publicity beyond people wanting the author strung up and/or arrested (which can't be understated as far as publicity goes).

And at this point the OSR is entirely an "underground" phenomenon, and all these sales are coming from the same general group of people. If Swords & Wizardry hits distribution as previously talked about and if the publisher manages to market it well at all, then this whole thing is only going to get bigger. This "niche of a niche" stuff people talk about - it's a self-fulfilling prophecy if that's how you go forward and that's how you think of yourself. Wasn't this whole role-playing thing merely a niche of a niche to begin with in 1974? "Well, we'll just be selling to the subset of Chainmail fans that want..." That would have been a wonderful attitude. Things can grow.

Look, I know I have the business acumen of an unripe turnip and material costs for things in Finland are more than in the US (not to mention the cost of exporting the things) so it's mighty difficult to price competitively, but I'm not registering a business with the intent to sell RPG products because I plan to utterly fail or that I think success is not possible.

My general strategy, out there for everyone to see and point and laugh at:

  1. DIY. My outside costs are artwork and accounting. Accounting's going to be the biggest fixed expense month-to-month. Everything else is in-house.
  2. Build a catalog. No one thing is going to sell a bunch, so it'll be important to keep a steady release schedule. Because this is a bottom-up business and a growing scene, I'm going to be continually exposed to people who weren't aware of me, or weren't into traditional gaming, the day before. After my first few releases are out and I have got a feel for what I'm doing (and after I've made the beginner mistakes I know I'm going to), I'll be willing to take paid submissions to keep a release schedule going. I'm not insane enough to think I've got a continuous, unlimited stream of great salable ideas, you know? I'm just hoping I have a few!
  3. Don't overreach. I'm not printing mass amounts of a fancy product at a time. It starts with manufacturing each order as it comes in, and if sales climb over time I'll have actual information to guide print runs. Start small and grow, not make assumptions about the level I should be at. And with each release and the feedback it receives, the next release should be better quality as far as graphic design and other practical issues, while at the same time figuring out how to better reach people (and avoid ineffective marketing :P) with every release.
  4. Ignore the market. Well, not ignore the market, but I've been going crazy thinking about pricing, seeing that Brave Halfling or Goblinoid Games or Mythmere Games was releasing this many pages for that price, oh dear if Pathfinder is releasing 500 pages for $10 what do I do about my pdf prices... and Joe is releasing his stuff as a free pdf and Timmy has a Lulu book at cost and... AAAHHHH! The solution? I know my costs. Add a small profit margin to that. Set a final retail price based on what the outside sales outlets need for their margin. PDF will be priced 50% of print (less for Green Devil Face of course). Stop worrying, be confident in the quality of the material, and let the people decide after that.
  5. Hope I can keep busy enough with the business to keep my temperamental bloggy/forum outbursts under control. Because I realize that's counterproductive. :)

A couple things I have going for me as well.

  1. I enjoy processing and fulfilling an order. "Ohhh, a sale! Let me pack it and take it to the post office!" That's pride and joy and a little bit of exercise, right there. I know a lot of people hate that part of it, but in a lot of ways that's my favorite part. The creation process is difficult, and going from the initial concept to final product is work. The fulfillment process is entirely a celebration that somebody out there thought my product was worth some of their money.
  2. I'm not trying to match a professional salary with a role-playing salary. I was born poor and I'll probably die poor. Getting my sales to the point where they can cover the business expenses, my share of rent, and Ramen noodles? I don't care if that's less than the janitor at McDonalds earns, it would be enough for me (and a starting point to work to move on up from sustenance). Getting to that point is not pie-in-the-sky wishing, but will take lots of work and keeping a steady schedule releasing only quality and no junk... and a good bit of luck on top of that. There is no "Do X, Get Y" guarantee, but the first step to achieving a goal is to try. What's the worst I can do, not sell enough to do that? The horrors.

And who knows? Maybe this "Old School Renaissance" is the next big thing. Even if it is the last gasp of a dying industry, there's the potential for quite a bit of air before it expires. Or maybe role-playing is naturally just a small cottage industry that was never meant to support a large full-time staff. Or... Or... Or... There are a million possibilities and none of them say, "Why bother at all?" to me.

As I said, the "death of the industry" has been a continuous mantra ever since I became aware of an industry behind these kooky games I was playing, and yet new people continue to cycle through and new games continue to be made and companies that didn't exist yesterday will be movers and shakers tomorrow.

What does this mean for the gamer on the street? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

You should run what you want to run, play what you want to play, and buy the things that you think will be useful to you. I am not asking for your support, but I do hope that a couple of the things I release sound appealing to you, and for those that do, that you consider purchasing them. I think I've got some things coming out that are interesting and worth using at your table.

Now we just wait and see if the reviews agree. :)


  1. Here's to catching Black Swans. I hope you get one.

  2. "I enjoy processing and fulfilling an order. "Ohhh, a sale! Let me pack it and take it to the post office!" That's pride and joy and a little bit of exercise, right there. I know a lot of people hate that part of it, but in a lot of ways that's my favorite part."

    I sell used RPGs in my spare (and not so spare) time. The day I don't get excited by a sale (going on 15 years now) is the day I give it up. The problem is a lot of creative types don't understand that this goes hand in hand with the creative aspect of the endeavor. I hope you stay excited by every sale.....

  3. I'm learning that while I'm interested, I'm not that fond of 'health of the industry' discussions. Whenever the discussion refers to the industry at large, you get a whole bunch of opinions from people who are speaking out because they disagreed (and are a little peeved) with the previous opinion that went out.

    At the end of this entire debate, it's the market that you and a few others are addressing and even growing that really captures my imagination and admiration. DIY RPG hobbyists producing and sharing their own materials for the love of it and if they're careful, a little coin too.

  4. Of course the industry is doomed?! It always is, it keeps you on your toes. :)

  5. Just as a point of correction, James, the monetary goal of the Labyrinth Lord distribution drive was around $750 dollars, not $1,500. I probably could have hit that higher amount if I had needed to, though. Those kinds of sales are not sustainable, at least not in this way. Those kinds of sales would only become consistent if the audience can be increased. As we saw with that sale and with the recent Lulu sales, you can motivate the existing internet audience to buy multiple copies and at the same time, artificially bumping up sales for a period of time. I just don't think that can last. There just are not enough people at the moment.

  6. hmmm, I thought you sold 30 copies at $50 each.

    And I realize what you're saying for the rest of it. The audience needs to grow, and I fully believe it can grow and will grow in the next year. How much is the question though.

    It's up to you rules publisher types to get the bulk of that done though. My job is just going to be to support the systems and provide some damn cool moments around the game table. If I can make an adventure that gets a reputation of being so cool that GMs feel the need to try one of the systems, bonus. :)

  7. Ahh, I see where the confusion is. Yes, $1,500 in total sales, but by the time you deduct the cost of printing and then Lulu's additional percentage, that cut the actual "profit" in half.

    As for increasing the audience, I'm working on it. ;-)

  8. I released CARCOSA on Oct. 8, 2008. In the 9 months since, I've sold:

    198 copies total
    132 print copies @ $9 each
    66 PDF copies @ $6 each

    Multiply that out and you get $1584. My costs consist of:
    1. paper
    2. cardstock
    3. ink
    4. paying a printer to staple and trim the books

    While $1584 in 9 months is certainly not enough money to live on, it's enough to make my wife think my RPG hobby is a profitable thing rather than a waste of time. :)

    As for the "industry": I wish it would hurry up and cease to exist. I much prefer "made in your basement" products with low production values...made with a lot of love.

  9. I think the problem with James Mishner's original assertations in his post is that nowhere does he mention his solicitation of paid in advance subscriptions for products he was not able to produce past the first one.

    15 years of experience in the business side of the industry apparently didn't prepare him for the actually running a business in the industry. As I've said elsewhere, James makes some really great products, he's a great writer, but his business intuition failed him.

    Jim's ideas of starting small and managable, learning from mistakes and growing the business if / when possible, as well as realistic expectations has a greater chance of success.

    Only time will tell, but I expect I'll be closely following, purchasing and reading the results.

  10. A great Huzzah to you sir!
    I feel like a OSR soldier on a battle line ready to face a horde of orcs after that speech!

    I think I shall finish up my Temple of the Monkey God module now!

  11. "And who knows? Maybe this "Old School Renaissance" is the next big thing. Even if it is the last gasp of a dying industry, there's the potential for quite a bit of air before it expires."

    Oh yes, and we will eagerly rip you a new one when the corrupt and complacent LotFP Enterprises, Inc. finally sells out to the lowest common denominator. That is, if we get through your armoured limo and the ranks of motorcycle-mounted henchmen.

  12. >>That is, if we get through your armoured limo and the ranks of motorcycle-mounted henchmen.

    Advanced Dungeons & Car Wars.

    Mad Mordenkainen: Beyond Thunderdome!

  13. Another insightful (into your mindset) post. I like your jump in attitude and although I am hesitant to kick off yet another old school publishing outlet, I think I will end up doing so with my little project and using your business advice/model/attitude because really, when starting a little publishing endeavor, i believe that you have the right angle.