So a blog that I recently found and am utterly fascinated by– How Not To Run A Game Business–occasionally chastises RPG companies for publicly bemoaning and bitching about poor sales. Which is exactly the thing that drives away customers. I certainly agree with this in general, but I’m afraid that’s not enough to overcome my natural instinct for candor. If it helps, this post isn’t really about poor sales. I don’t actually think our sales at Origins were poor at all (although the ghetto-like position of the entrepreneur program booth spaces behind a long gauntlet of huge retailers eager to remove customers of all their monies before they reached the indies and artists certainly didn’t help), so what this post is really about is that I am an idiot with no idea how to estimate demand.
So, notwithstanding a really decent gross for a small-press RPG company, Origins 2013 was a financial disaster. Now that I’ve had some time to process, I am less than shocked. I am a creative type, with all the business acumen of a capybara.
In spite of being a financial disaster, Origins was, experientially speaking, invaluable. We gave away a shit-ton of business cards to potential future customers. I got to talk business with IPR chief, serial gaming entrepreneur, and author Jason Walters and talk superheroes with (my hero on the level of prolific++ alone, if nothing else) Steve Long, both of which were super-duper nice and accessible in spite of my fannish overenthusiasm/moping about how much money ETG was losing.
I made who knows how many other valuable connections with industry people, creators, and fans, got to meet not one but two incredible gamers/cancer survivors, while spending the entire week with my booth parked right next to the guys from Castles & Chemo (who deserve your nerd-dollar more than any other charity I can think of). I bought a copy of second edition Shadowrun for a song and got Larry (motherfucking) Elmore to sign the cover for me. I wouldn’t necessarily say I had a good time in a “yay party funtime” sense, being at the con and selling games every day was hard work and an exhausting 9-5 grind, to say nothing of getting the books there (and getting all the crap I bought back), but I do feel like I’ve gotten enough XP to go up a level. And it’s a good feeling. But even gaining all that XP, we lost a lot of gold.
Let me back this up and say that Origins 2013 was our first time exhibiting at a major con and we had…close to no idea what to expect. It wasn’t the hotel fee or the airfare itself that really killed us, and the entrepreneur booth fee was actually pretty reasonable (and made back quickly enough) though, it was my inability to reasonably estimate demand for our products. See I had read that a small RPG industry print run was 3,000 copies. A tiny print run was 1,000 copies. I thought that going with a quarter of a tiny print run…250 copies…would be about right for a con with 11,000+ attendees for our “big” Origins 2013 exclusive release, The Singularity System. Assuming that 2.5% of the people there could be sold a copy of singularity system, we’d sell through all of that. Assuming only 1%, we’d still have plenty of copies left for GenCon. Among the things I had no clue about, one of them was just how much MASS 250 copies of a hardcover book, plus 100 copies of Splinter, 100 Copies each of Wild Talents and Biotech, and a few dozen leftover copies of Phantasm(2010) and Anathema would constitute. As it turns out, about 750 goddamn pounds.
For the first time, our tiny little indie company had to deal with big-boy words like Logistics, Distribution, and Shipping. With no time to make other arrangements, I saw no choice but to send a pallet with most of our stock via UPS freight to Origins. The cost was high, but not unreasonable or prohibitive. However, I was (rightfully) terrified that the stock would not make it there on time. In point of fact, it didn’t, and UPS Freight screwed up the delivery so terribly that I intend to seek a refund, but that’s a story for another day. So, my “brilliant” plan was to split off maybe an eight of our books and fly with them on the airplane. It’s not exactly that I completely forgot about overweight bag fees, just that I had no idea how absurdly they scaled. For the two 90-something pound mega-bags of merchandise that we checked on the plane, plus one regular piece of luggage, we wound up getting charged $485 goddamned dollars. $200 (!) for each bag in the 71-99 Lb. range (fuck you very much American Airlines), plus $85 just for having three bags to begin with. This was…brutal. Without verging into TOO much transparency, this was literally more than it cost us to ship the other 650 lbs. of books from Tarrytown, New York to Columbus, Ohio with UPS Freight (although at least the mega-bags we dragged with us got there on time). Still, I reasoned, 250 copies was a small print run. This con had 11,000+ attendees, their website even said so (I didn’t know then that they counted unique badges, not actual attendees)…surely 1% would want our product. Surely we’d need all these books to satisfy demand.
Welp…later on I learned that Shadowrun 5E (which, by the way, I wrote part of) had only around 250 copies at Origins…in spite of Catalyst having bought out the front cover of the program guide, gigantic posters and standees throughout the convention center, 20+ tables throughout the roleplaying room, and a gigantic (30′x30′?) booth RIGHT IN FRONT of the Exhibitor’s Hall doors. Now to be fair, CGL sold all of the copies of SR5 they brought within a couple days, so I think they might have underestimated their demand…but nowhere near as much as I overestimated mine.
We sold out of the stock we brought with us by air, and even then, only barely. The stack of boxes that formed the back of our display for the whole con, the one we’d wrestled with UPS Freight to get there, went untouched until teardown on Sunday, when they were sent on to GenCon (where hopefully, such a level of supply will not be totally unneeded).
In the end, End Transmission printed and brought as many copies of The Singularity System (1st Edition) as Catalyst Game Labs brought of Shadowrun (5th Edition). In spite of the fact that I know full-well the disparity in brand recognition between our brand new game and Shadowrun’s 24+ years of established brand loyalty and fan base. Of course, I assumed CGL would be bringing around 2500 copies of SR5.
Lesson #1: The RPG Industry is a lot smaller than I thought it was.