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Saturday, May 16, 2009

THE PRIME PROBLEM WITH ADB, INC. (and any small game publisher)

Steve Cole reports:

I publish games (hex and counter wargames, RPGs, card games, miniatures). I think I do a decent job. One of my great friends also runs a game company. I don't really think he does a better job than I do (and neither does he), but he has TEN times the sales my company has.

This isn't because his games are ten times as good, it's because he's in ten times as many retail stores. That ten times factor affects everything, from the hours I work to the number of jobs I do. (My friend's company has FIVE people doing what amounts to my job(s), which easily means I am not doing any of my five jobs as well as I should be, but I am doing them as well as eighty hours a week will allow me to do them.) It's all about the stores, guys, the stores.

In every store my games are in, I sell as well as anybody. I'm only in ten percent of the American retailers, and that's why I'm working eighty hours a week and the manager of the local McDonald's where I have breakfast makes more than I do. I could shut down my company and dust off that license I have as a registered professional engineer and go to work Monday for triple my salary. I don't do that because I want to be in the game business more than I want to make money. My wife and I have no debts, no kids, and don't live extravagantly. I can afford to make what I make and be a happy person. I'd be happier if I could make three times as much salary and still be in the game business. (My friend does that.) If I quit games to be an engineer again, I'd be miserable (and probably drink).

Why am I not in more stores? Because any given retailer fills up his store with the top five, or top ten, or top fifteen companies. Then he fills up that last shelf with whatever happens to come to mind, come to his attention, be his old sentimental favorite, be requested by a few diehard customers, or was the favorite game of the Alliance customer representative he deals with.

The retailers aren't stupid. The retailers aren't evil. The retailers don't hate me personally. (Well, maybe one or two of them.) The retailers, like me, are busy people working eighty hours a week making half what they could make doing anything else because they, like me, really could only be happy in the game biz. They don't have TIME to notice one of the 100 or so companies that fit into that quarter-million-dollar-a-year sales niche in between the “top ten” and the “itty bitty guys” (and the PDF-only publishers who cannot get into distribution).

How do I get noticed? How do I get out of the crowd? How do I claw my way into stores? I don't really know. I know that buying $700 full-page, color ads did not work (nobody seems to even notice these ads, which is one reason why at least one game magazine went bankrupt). I know that mailing a thousand postcards did not work (a retailer friend at a local game store showed me fifty mailers he received in one week from small-press game publishers and big-press game publishers and no end of other folks. I know that cold-calling retailers DOES work, but it's very labor intensive, and you have to have somebody who loves doing that kind of work. I had a college intern do it (and nothing else) for two weeks and picked up a store or two per day. Small gains, but they add up. She moved on to another job, and the next two interns I had doing that cold call thing scored zero. They just were not very good at doing it. I see out-of-work game guys trying to make a living as "consultants" and tell them "I will pay you $25 for every store you talk into adding my games" and none of them want to do that. They want to charge me $1000 to tell me what I already know. If any of them were actually finding work, I'd quit publishing and be a consultant.

Now, it's more complex than that, but that doesn't change the facts. My friend (with the bigger company) sat me down and slapped me in the head and showed me my games and his games and said "see my point?" and we will be doing some new kinds of games over the next year, but my mind wanders back to the last time I did just exactly that kind of game, and the ONLY stores that carried it were the stores that already carried my older product lines. The other 90% of stores either never noticed the “new” product line, or they blew it off thinking that if I did it, it must be just like the old product line. I still have a few thousand of those games in the warehouse. They sold like crazy in every store they were in, but the only stores they were in were the ones who buy anything I print. The stores that blew off my product lines (or never noticed me among the other 100 game publishers of my strata) missed out on some fairly huge profits. Later, I did another new product line. Colorful. Designed for profit. Simpler. They sell like crazy in the stores my old product lines were in, and they sell like crazy in maybe fifty stores that I personally contacted and made presentations to.

The biggest problem I have is time. I'm working eighty hours a week and right now I'm supposed to be working on a product that ships next month. not typing this, but I just have been building up a need to philosophize. I have got to make some hard choices, some tough decisions, stop doing some of the things I'm doing (such as sleeping) and focus on building markets, by all of the means I have mentioned and some more that I haven't (and some more that I haven't thought about yet). Yes, we do it all. Internet banners, newsletters, press releases, conventions (all of which but Origins are money losers for us), new kinds of products, demonstration teams, demo kits, you name it and I'm already doing it, as much as I can. And I'm going to have to do more. There is no magic solution for those of us in slots #21-#150 in the game publisher pecking order. Just a ton of hard work we don't have time to do but have to do.

If you read all of that, thanks for reading it. I hope it explains things. I hope you understand that I just do not have “a few hours” to go look up something for you. I hope you understand that I don't have the time, or money, or employees, to come to a store in North Carolina and demonstrate my games. I hope the people who make business deals with me (and RPG authors) understand why it can take a month or three to get a contract. I need to revamp the banner campaign but I haven't had time. I hope you guys who want me to whip up a few playtest decks of SFBF expansion cards can understand that it might take me an entire day to find a short-run card printer and get the technical answers out of them to prepare the card sheets, and that I just haven't HAD an entire day to spend on that project. I hope people can understand why Communique can be a day or two late sometimes, or why I haven't read the latest 400-page draft of Federation Admiral, or why I won't do the starbase ammo diagrams before Origins. Guys, I am doing all I can in my 80 hours a week, and if there were anything I could delegate that I haven't delegated yet, I'd delegate it right away, but when it takes more time to check something somebody else did than it would take to do it myself, and I don't HAVE time to do it myself RIGHT NOW, then complaining about how I won't delegate things or do the one thing YOU want isn't really helping.