Note: I originally wrote this post for the publishers of the Indie Game Developer Network, but thought it informative enough to make it generally available.
Congratulations! You've managed to write, layout, illustrate, and print a roleplaying game book, either using your own money, funds acquired through crowd-funding, or through investment. The initial copies have been sent to backers, your creative team, investors, reviewers, and friends. It took a lot of effort and you're proud of your game. But now you have boxes of them crowding the living room of your home, and your significant other is threatening you with a cold night sleeping in the dog house if you don't do something with them.
You, my friend, need distribution.
However, the world of roleplaying game book distribution can be a confusing and often disheartening place, filled with unexpected expenses, unrealistic expectations, confusing terminology, and closed doors. This article is intended to be a primer to help guide you through that world so that you have some idea of what to expect when you enter it. While it's not possible for me to touch upon every possible aspect of roleplaying game distribution here, after reading this article you should be armed with the basics necessary to make informed choices about where – and if – to send the precious fruits of your labor. It is intended only for publishers of roleplaying games, and not for those publishing board and card games that are not also roleplaying games. (The format of the game does not matter as much as the substance; though board games are considerably more expensive to ship for various reasons than books and cards, and are thus not an ideal format for roleplaying game products in most cases.)
And, of course, I only know about the things I know about. There are a lot of ways to get roleplaying games sold, and you may very well know things I don't. So never hesitate to act on a good sales idea nobody else has ever thought of!
Before we begin a quick glossary of very basic terms:
Publisher: That is literally you, or your company. The person or business selling the game into distribution.
Distributor: The company that receives those games, sells them to retailers, and sends the publisher money for them – though not necessarily in that order! Alliance is the largest distributor or roleplaying games in the United States.
Retailer: The store that sells the game to the public. These fall into the two general categories of brick-and-mortar (meaning physical) retailers and online retailers. Amazon is the largest and most famous of all online retailers for roleplaying games, but there are many others.
Three Tiered System: This generally refers to the publisher-distributor-retailer method of getting your game sold to the public and getting you paid for your trouble. Though still useful in practice, it's a somewhat antiquated system that has grown a lot more complex – and controversial – since the turn of the century.
Printer: The company that physically makes your roleplaying game.
Consolidator: A business that “consolidates” a lot of smaller publishers into one location, solicits retailers on their behalf, and then sells copies of the game to distributors. This transforms the three tiered system into a four tiered system of publisher-consolidator-
Fulfillment House: This is a generic term covering a variety of businesses that provide a variety of different services. Some fulfillment houses are also consolidators, some are printers, while others are distributors, online retailers, or provide crowd-funding related services. Well-known fulfillment houses for roleplaying games include PSI, Studio 2, and Indie Press Revolution (where I work).
Print On Demand: The process by which a single copy of your book is printed and sold to an individual customer over the internet. It also refers to printers that will do print runs of less than 500 copies of a book using an electronic press, generally for more per copy than one would pay using a traditional printer and at a lower physical quality - though the prices has gone down a lot in recent years, while quality has gone up. Well-known print on demand printers include Lightening Source, CreateSpace, and Lulu.
Now that we've gone over some general basic terms, let's examine several in more detail.
Hypothetically, a traditional distributor should order copies of your game (usually quarterly) and send you payment for them, typically within thirty to sixty days. Their payment to you should not be based on actual sales to retailers; they've bought your game, and selling it is their problem. Payment rates to you from traditional distribution will vary between 36 to 41 percent of the cover price. Don't offer any of them lower percentages for quicker payment! Typically they'll take you up on the lower percentage and not pay you any more quickly.
In practice, traditional distributors spend only a small portion of their budget on roleplaying games, and take an enormous risk when purchasing any product not published by one of the industry's major publishers (such as Paizo or Wizards of the Coast), or a company that has run a ground breaking crowd-funding project (such as Evil Hat Productions). So generally they don't. Instead, they allocate a small portion of that small portion to purchasing small press roleplaying games from a consolidator a few copies at a time, based on input from brick-and-mortar retailers. So odds are you will be turned down when submitting your game directly to a traditional distributor.
In the United States traditional game distributors include Alliance, ACD, Southern Hobby, Golden Distribution, and PHD. These vary in size and quality from large, clunky corporations to small, nimble businesses. The United Kingdom has an excellent distributor called Esdevium with a shipping location in New York, while Canada's Lion Rampant has one on the American side of the Great Lakes. Alas, there currently is no traditional roleplaying game distribution to Australia and New Zealand! (Though at Indie Press Revolution we work with one brick-and-mortar retailer in Canberra).
The first online retailer you should do business with is... yourself! Set up a webstore, get your physical and electronic games up for sale there, and try to talk gamers into shopping directly from it. Many of them understand that the more you get for each game you sell, the more likely it is the game will be profitable, and the greater the likelihood you will create more. While it can be a hassle to run your own store, it's worth it. And if you really don't want to run the putting-things-in-boxes part of the store yourself, you can hire a fulfillment house to do it for you as one of the services they provide.
The largest online retailer in the world is Amazon, which not incidentally makes them the largest seller of physical roleplaying games in the world. There are three basic ways you can sell through Amazon. First, you can pay a fulfillment house to sell to Amazon on your behalf (generally for a percentage of sales). Second, you can open an Amazon Advantage account, and ship them books yourself or have a fulfillment house take care of the shipping. Third, you can set up your book in Lightening Source or CreateSpace, and Amazon can sell them one at a time via print on demand. The basic payment from Amazon is 45% of cover. This is actually a good price - though it gets a lot lower when you consider shipping, fulfillment services, or using print on demand.
The largest online retailer in the world for electronic sales of roleplaying games is One Book Shelf, better known as RPGNow, DriveThroughRPG, and a variety of other names. They also provide direct to customer print on demand services via Lightening Source. The percentages are good, payment is monthly via PayPal, and they do so many different things that I would have to write a second essay to address all of them. (Which I won't because I don't work for them!) However, their websites aren't curated or specialized, so it's possible for your game to get “lost in the shuffle” if you don't pay close attention and learn how to use their promotion system.
There are a variety of other online electronic and physical retailers you can work with, many of which specialize in one thing or another. Indie Press Revolution specializes in selling storytelling and experimental small press games in both physical and electronic form, while Studio 2 is the home for the consolidation and sale of Savage Worlds games. Steve Jackson Games's e23 is perhaps the granddaddy of electronic game sales, and is still used by a lot of gamers. Paizo also allows non-Pathfinder products to be sold their website. Their are undoubtedly others I'm not familiar with.
While consolidation is a perfectly viable way to get your game into a retail store, I have some personal reservations about it, which is why Indie Press Revolution never consolidates. (Though, to be completely transparent, several foreign distributors purchase games from us at our basic retailer price of 55% of cover). While consolidators often work very hard for relatively meager returns, their presence as another middle man between you and the middle man means that average payments can get as low as 26% to 28% of cover before deductions for storage expenses. This is in my opinion way too low – though possibly it will work with your business model. It definitely does for some important and intelligent roleplaying game book publishers I know.
A good consolidator will work hard for his or her 10 or 12 percent of cover. They take games to conventions, promote them through physical and electronic in-house magazines, watch the overall game market carefully, and maintain relationships with numerous brick-and-mortar retailers.
This somewhat nebulous category includes companies that provide a number of services within the roleplaying game industry, but don't fit neatly into any class of business. Basically, a fulfillment house stores your books and does various things with them that turn them into money. They may charge you to store them, or they may not. They may purchase them outright, or they may work on a consignment basis. Each one is different and unique, and it's best to inquire with them individually to see if they meet your business needs.
PSI is a printer that provides consolidation to customers whose books it prints, but isn't a retailer – though it will sell to Amazon on your behalf. Studio 2 acts as a convention presence, an online retailer, a consolidator, and a distributor. Indie Press Revolution is a convention presence, online retailer, and distributor that provides crowd-funding fulfillment services, but doesn't consolidate and isn't a printer. There are several others I'm less familiar with.
In conclusion, the early 21st Century is in many ways an excellent time to publish a roleplaying game. There are a lot of ways to get them funded, printed, and distributed to a surprisingly large, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable fan base. Ask around, look at your options, and consider what will work best with you before selecting the channels you'll use to get your product into their hands. Don't be discouraged! While it can be confusing, it's better that there are a lot of options for you to choose from than just a few. Believe in your creative vision, the quality of your game, and make good choices like the intelligent person you know you are. While the financial rewards may never be as large as any of us would like for them to be, if you've created a good game you'll be working in an industry that's not only endlessly interesting and diverse, but provides an important service to intelligent and creative people that enriches their lives.
You help them have fun!
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