As a publisher that tries to make my books as attractive to game stores as possible I do quite a few things to help them out. Most notably, I have a PDF guarantee where a customer can get the PDF for free no matter where they pick up a print book. And game stores can give out the PDF via Bits and Mortar. However, I only know of a few game stores that really tout this kind publisher/game store cooperation. The general attitude I have encountered from game stores is that they find it annoying that they have to do additional work keeping track of a PDF for a book that doesn’t sell all that many copies. Sure they are glad to handle it for big selling game companies, but for game books that may only sell 2-4 copies ever in their store, they do not want the additional work. And on more than a few ocassions I’ve heard game stores just ignore it and tell their customers to contact me personally, which I am happy to do. While this is not exactly helpful, I do understand the position. We are all busy and extra work is not always welcome.
However, this position blindsided me. The author of the post and owner of the blog is Gary Ray of Black Diamond Games. He’s a good guy whom I value his insights into the retail side of the industry considerably. The short version of his blog post is that he will no longer be carrying books that are funded via Kickstarter anymore from small and medium publishers. “So my answer is always going to be ‘no’ now, I do not want that product, and thank you for sharing your efforts to bypass traditional mediums that I happen to use to feed my family.” While I do understand (and agree) that business is business and if he can’t sell a product (regardless of how it was funded) he shouldn’t carry it, a blanket attitude like this does not help me at all. As one of these publishers that had a Free RPG Day book funded via Kickstarter, I produced a book that would otherwise be impossible for me to do so without Kickstarter funding. The minimum print run to participate in Free RPG Day is larger than any other print run I do on a for profit book. I cannot do that on a book that is nothing but a total loss. It is just not possible.
But factor this in for a moment: Kickstarter is used by a number of small and medium game publishers for games that they themselves are not sure if there is a market for it. So the game publisher is not sure if they should 1) make the game at all, 2) how large the initial print run should be, or 3) plan to make expansions. Kickstarter can give you definitive answers to some and points to others. It can clearly say if there is enough interest out there to actually make it. A funded Kickstarter project means you should produce the book. While it won’t say exactly how many to produce, you know you have to produce copies for those that bought the game early and you have additional money to make more. Just don’t spend more than you brought in and you’re good. And if you did goals beyond the minimum, you may have funding for expansions as well. On top of all that certainty in the very uncertain market that game publishing is, it generates excitement among those that will become the alphas of the game.
Compare that with traditional distribution. You do not know how many to produce if there is a market out there at all. You are relying on game stores and distributors that are so flooded with other games and books that unless your name is Paizo, Fantasy Flight, Game’s Workshop or Wizards of the Coast, there is no guarantee a single store in the world will hear of you and (even if they do) order a single copy, let alone more than one. You also don’t have any indication if there is reason for you to work on expansions for the game or how well they will sell either. Oh and you are using all your own money to design, playtest, and produce this game.
Comparing the two, Kickstarter has a considerably amount of certainty while traditional distribution has almost none. So an attitude like the one in the blog ties an arm behind my back. I can say with certainty that because of attitudes like the one expressed above I will not be participating in 2013’s Free RPG Day. If my books are going to be banned from their store because it was funded with Kickstarter, then I do not have the funds to create such a book. Its that simple. I can’t do it. If the attitude expressed was, “I have to use more discretion when ordering books that were funded with Kickstarter,” is completely understandable and good business.
Consider the future for a moment. If a game company sells through direct marketing, print on demand, Kickstarter and other non-traditional methods, having never touched the traditional distribution system and makes it big (a distinct possibility in the 5-10 year time frame), what incentive do they have to ever sell through game stores. Lower profit margins, no direct access to their customer base, no direct feedback from customers, no certainty that the game store will pick up the game “because they didn’t sell through us game stores before, why should I sell their products now,” (yes I got that attitude when I went from PDF to print publishing), and many more reason against selling through traditional distribution. However, if game stores are (at minimum) not against selling a game that was funded or produced through non-traditional means, they can be part of the game company’s strategy to reach customers and seen as indispensable. Attitudes like the one above do not help.
For the time being, I can say that I am not going to be making changes. However, I am getting that much closer to reconsidering my distribution strategy. I am content the way it is. However, the more push back I get from any one distribution channel, the more I want to look for alternatives.