So, you want to be a tabletop publisher?
As I watch my little company enter its final death heaves, I want to write some advice for folks who want to pursue this themselves. "But Grant," you ask. "Why should we listen to a failure?" Well, I can save you some time, because I learned many lessons. If I had more willingness to continue losing money, I think I could turn this around somewhat. But, I feel it's time to move on, I've spent enough, so I'm not willing to put my theories to the test.
I'm going to try to provide some high level tips and back it up with personal experience and other examples from the industry. Hopefully this saves you some money AND leads you to success.
Above anything else, create a hit. You think I'm joking! If you look at the people who are truly successful, it's because they create a hit. Something that actually pays for itself, has sustained sales, and allows for new R&D and products. The problem is that there's no formula here.
You can joke and point out minis, but then go look at the thousands of games with minis that are complete duds. Minis are a big risk, with heavy up front investment in 3D modeling and molds. It's a very complicated form of production for a new company. For every CMON, there's a dozen "No, Mon" (said in a Jamaican accent).
You can point out the need to have tons of stretch goals and value. Tiny Epic <insert game> is a great formula! They captured lightning in a bottle, but I challenge you to replicate it.
Micro-games are surely the way to go. Love Letter paved the way for a whole new industry! But, Button Shy's games tend to cap out far below that level of success.
Why did Euphoria blow up? I have no clue. Kickstarter and retail is literally a graveyard of midweight euro worker placement games. This one breaking $300k when the others did not? It's just not something you can quantify.
Here's my point: there isn't a formula. There isn't anything you can bank on. The reality is that you need a hit. You probably won't get one. Plan your business against the reality.
You need some secret weapons. Secret weapons are ways to reduce costs and get a bonus that somebody else won't have. You are going to lose money left and right. You need to find as many secret weapons as possible to extend the life of your company, and therefore, chances of being successful. Hyperbole Games had a few secret weapons, which included:
- My wife's uncle owns a mailing retail store. I get a pretty significant discount on mailing things there. Also, I'm able to dump games there for fulfillment. Those 1700 copies I mailed for Hocus? I dropped them off a mile from my house at his store.
- I had garage space and made small games. I didn't have to pay someone to warehouse my products.
- I fulfilled my games myself. Had I sold 30,000 units? This wouldn't have been possible. But, I COULD fulfill 1700 Units. I bought the mailers and stuffed the games individually. I saved a LOT of money spending a little bit of time doing this myself. "But time is money!" Sure is, and I challenge you to find a way for me to save as many thousands of dollars as I did doing it like this.
- I worked with Josh Buergel, who is a computer programmer. He coded an API to work with EasyPost and we were able to print thousands of labels quickly from our KS backer survey. This saved a lot of money and time.
You need to find ways to save money. Can you do your own graphic design? Is your husband an illustrator? Are you willing to mail stuff? Find ways to get your hands dirty and save that money.
Don't form your business in California. This one is local, but it has implications for others. I pay $800 a year for the pleasure of having an LLC in California. On top of a few minor fees, and then sales tax. This is slowly killing me. In the 3-4 years of my business, I've spent $3000 and I have to tell you...I'm not making enough to cover that. People asked why I didn't establish my business in Delaware, and to me it felt dishonest, and I worried about doing the accounting dance as a solo business person. I made the choice to not invest so much time in accounting and to instead keep it simple, pay the fee.
But, examine your state's taxes. Know what they cost. Be prepared to deal with them. For most of us, this is going to be a money losing business, or a break even business, until you find your hit.
You probably won't succeed in stores. This one is closely related to the first one (Making a Hit). The reality is, you won't succeed in stores. You can, for a little bit, based on pre-order momentum and sheer luck. But, chances are you don't have a full time sales person calling and visiting stores (Heads up: they don't answer emails). Chances are, you don't have contacts in the distribution system, and furthermore, there's a good chance they don't want to represent you until you can demonstrate reliable sales numbers. It's a beautiful chicken and egg.
One of my biggest lessons is recognizing that I don't have the time, relationships, or skillset to be at industry trade events constantly. And, these are just so key. I tried desperately to do it where I could. I reached out to cafes and stores. I emailed and visited almost every local FLGS. I offered free games, to teach and demo, to provide promos. Most of them? Just didn't care. This is not me complaining about some conspiracy to keep the little guy out. This is just a recognition that there is a big, established network of people, relationships, and most of these entities are looking for games that are very likely to sell. At retail, you're competing with Asmodee, Renegade, Hasbro (Magic, D&D), and their shelf space is precious.
Again, this isn't some conspiracy theory. I was bad at it. It's tough. It takes a lot of time and effort. Do not expect this to work for you unless you have an actual hit.
There's a solution. This would be the #1 thing I would change.
Until you create a hit, and until you're able to build these relationships, you sell as a boutique publisher and leverage crowdfunding. With Hocus, we sold 1700 Units via KS, ordered 3600, and sold all of them in about a year at Retail. What we should have done is ordered 2000, sold 300 at a con, and in a year or two, held another KS for that amount. If we did that, we would have been profitable. I would still be in business.
This meant I wouldn't have had to mail copies to my distributor, manage inventory, and chase a lot of folks. I also would have had more money and time to go to trade shows and more cons around the country. I tried to enter the Major Leagues too quickly. I should have been a boutique direct seller, where the only threshold to clear is 1000/1500 copies.
Don't overvalue your brand aka be careful when altering your behavior. This is one I see often. Don't overvalue your brand or your customers' willingness to support you. Typically, you'll see a publisher be successful once, twice, many times, then you'll see them break their routine and...their customers aren't interested. Remember what got you to where you are, and stick to that plan. Here are some examples:
- With Hocus, we planned for a long time, incorporated reviews, ads, podcast appearances, and used Kickstarter. We sold 1700 copies. This was a huge success.
- For Farmageddon, I assumed my brand, its brand, my newsletter, and doing all the stuff I did previously EXCEPT Kickstarter would be fine. I sold 130 copies.
- For Druids and Solstice, I did literally nothing, used Kickstarter, and doubled and quadrupled Farmageddon's sales, respectively. This is with far expensive, far less promoted products!
Let's look at a few other examples. And, quick disclosure because I'm sure this will get me in trouble - these are two great, highly successful companies. I'm calling out some observations. I can do this vaguely, or I can just use them for reference.
Gamelyn Games has built an immense brand off of the Tiny Epic franchise. They perform phenomenally with any theme because they offer immense value, have a delightful, thrill ride of a campaign with lots of stretch goals, and they play quickly. Recently, they launched Heroes of...various geographic features. It's a long name. And, it didn't take off. They cancelled it twice. Now, it's doing much better on round three, but they changed a lot of things. I think they hoped that their Tiny Epic Quest audience would be 100% on board.
Let's look at one more. Tasty Minstrel Games has been doing some really great stuff with many of their games, especially their deluxe editions of established Euros. Recently, they tried to run a campaign via IndieGoGo. I don't know why. But, their audience didn't follow. I imagine at this point their newsletter is immense. And yet...nobody showed up. Now, back on KS? They've doubled the numbers in just a few days.
Experimentation is good. But, it's risky. Be careful to assume your customers who showed up or are used to A will be just as thrilled when you show them B.
It'll be interesting to see how Stonemaier succeeds without crowdfunding. My guess? They'll do just fine. Why? Jamey has been incorporating retail into his business for a long time. He's put in serious time and effort into making his partnerships with retail the new way he crowdfunds and reaches consumers. He's built the foundation to change. Will he see Scythe like numbers on Charterstone? I would wager no. But, will he see them on the next one? I think it's possible.
Customer Service is everything. This is something I did well with Hyperbole and it has paid dividends. Whenever people have questions on BGG? Answer it. If a box is dinged or a card is bent? Replace it. The costs you incur will add up over time, but they are tiny individually and they go so far. Customers you support will stick with you. Again and again. They'll be a voice for you. They'll spring for the deluxe version.
Take care of people. Be the customer service you yourself want. Do it over and over again. It pays off, it feels good, and it matters.
Value is also everything. Initially, I was obsessed with the price to consumers. With a background in economics and various businesses, I was obsessed with price. Here's the thing: board games are a luxury hobby, that's a niche, that has never been cheap for consumers. If you look at the most successful games, a lot of them aren't cheap. People are buying boxes of Destiny. Armada and its updates. LCGs left and right. $100 Rising Sun. $100 Gloomhaven.
And, on the cheaper side, when people truly freak out? It's at $15 games like Tiny Epic that are packed to the gills.
Customers don't want cheapness. They want value. Always find the way to create a product that feels like it's more than it's worth. Make sure it has the trimmings, great components, and a great sense of value. Value is everything. Value brings people in the door. You keep them with great gameplay and great customer service. But, value is everything.
Know what you can control. If you are a publisher, you can only control so many things. Cling to those, nail them, but be prepared to lose control over the rest. At Hyperbole Games I could control:
- Quality of the design
- Quality of the components
- Quality of the art
- Quality of the graphic design
- Quality of the rules
- Quality of customer service for people who follow my feed/newsletter, reach out to me, or I find on BGG
This means that if your game comes out and you have sloppy rules? It's on you. If your game feels and looks cheap? That's on you. If your art looks like a bad DeviantArt think piece? You.
It also means that you need to invest in things you cannot control in order to have more leverage. That means investing in relationships with distribution and retail to improve your chances there. It means building a great community and newsletter to improve your outreach. You need to attend cons to interact personally with customers and retailers. It means you need to play a LOT of games to know what your competition is. You need to latch onto the 4 people who will test your games for you.
Be ready to lose money. Success takes time, and luck, and a hit. You will lose money constantly until you succeed. Be prepared to lose money. Like folks going to Vegas, set aside your investment up front and when you hit that? You need to shut up the shop and try something else.
Know when you need help. Recognize what you're good at, but also, where you aren't good. Hire editors if you hate rules. Hire good fulfillment folks if you can't do it yourself. Be prepared to pay for quality, always remember you get what you pay for. This money will help you spend more time and effort on what you are good at. Don't try to succeed everywhere...you won't.