The Perils of Penniless Publishing
by Aaron Rosenberg
Running a business is all about making ends meet and resources count, and not letting anything useful go to waste. When I founded Clockworks, I already had a game in hand -- our first product, the science-fiction game Asylum. I also already had an editor, a designer, a logo, a phone number, an answering machine, and a Post Office box. What I didn't have was money. We started out broke, as many tiny, homegrown businesses do -- we got a small loan, but it wasn't much and we had to watch the costs very carefully. We've been in existence for a year now, with Asylum selling fairly well and getting positive reviews, and we've got both an Asylum supplement (the Staff Manual) and a new game in the works, but we're still just edging along in terms of our finances. Fortunately, this last year has taught me quite a bit about what to do -- and what not to do -- in order to publish games without much money.
First of all, it's crucial to get homegrown talent. Hiring a big name like Brom or Bradstreet to do your cover is great -- if you can afford it. But don't blow all of your money on a cover, because then you won't have enough left to print the book at all. Look around you, instead -- a lot of gamers are artists, and some of them are pretty damn good. You may even have friends who game with you and are good artists. And those friends might be willing to contribute some art to your game for little or no money, both to help you out and to get some experience and some professional credits. The same goes for writers -- a lot of gamers write, especially game-based stories and adventures, and you might be able to get them to contribute, especially if they're in on the playtesting and have a chance to get to know your game, and to get excited about it.
DO NOT, however, let just anybody handle the editing or the layout. These two functions are crucial, and you need someone who really knows what they're doing for both of these -- otherwise you may have great ideas but they won't be clearly expressed, and you may have excellent art but it won't be placed well or used to maximum effect. Someone who's "pretty good" at English is not an editor, and someone who "enjoys playing with Quark" is not a designer. If you don't know anybody with actual experience in these areas, try nearby schools -- put up signs in the design department and in the English department. As with the artists and writers, you may find someone who has the skills and who likes gaming, and who is willing to work for little or nothing in return for credit. Be sure to see samples of their work, though -- anyone can answer an ad.
Printing is also an area to be wary in. Some printers offer great rates, but they take forever and make so many mistakes that it isn't worth it -- especially since they'll charge YOU for the added effort to correct THEIR mistakes. Often you're better off with a printer that is known for reliability and for being reasonable and approachable, rather than being cheap. Also, don't get too far ahead of yourself with your initial print run -- you may think this is going to be THE big new game, but don't print 10, 000 copies to start with. If you turn out to be wrong, or even if it takes a little time to get noticed, you'll find yourself in debt and out of business. Start out with a smaller run, probably 500 or 1000 -- you can always order more, and subsequent print runs are both cheaper and faster. Also, check with the printer about print sizes and book sizes -- certain page numbers are cheaper to print, because of the way the presses work (a 160-page manual can be cheaper than a 155-page manual, for example, because printers often print in 16-page batches and it's easier to have an even set than to have to do unusual sizes) and certain print runs are also cheaper for the same reason.
Advertising is also an important aspect, of course. Most people assume that you need big fancy ads in all of the magazines in order to get anywhere, and those are certainly nice if you have a big budget available, but otherwise such ads cost too much and don't have any guarantee that they'll work at all -- you could put full-page, full-color ads in every major gaming mag for two months and have people simply flip past them and never even realize they're there. Asylum had no ads run, except for one in the GenCon booklet last year. We couldn't afford any others. What we can afford, however, is free advertising, and there's quite a bit of it if you know where to look. One place is in press releases. Most gaming magazines, and a few webpages like RPGnet, solicit press releases from companies. There aren't any pictures, but this is your chance to get your name out there, and to mention what your game is and when it will be out. Take advantage of it.
Another great avenue for recognition is reviews. You can either go to a major convention like GenCon, in which case reviewers will usually stop by your table for copies, or you can select magazines and web pages you like and send them copies. Either way, it will take a few months but eventually reviews will pop up, describing your game and showing its cover and extolling its virtues (as well as exposing its vices). This is a bit more nerve-wracking than a press release, since each reviewer will have his/her own opinion and may not even like the game, but it's also a lot more valuable to have a respected gamer like the game than it is for you to say how great it is.
The other big concern and money-eater is conventions, of course. Most small companies cannot afford to go to a lot of conventions, so the best bet is to hold out for the ones that count the most. Clockworks only went to one convention last year -- GenCon. And that's where we debuted Asylum. We chose GenCon because it is the biggest convention by far (something like 30, 000 attendees, according to TSR) and people come from all over the country, plus a lot of reviewers and distributors are there. Those people then carry word back home, and hopefully copies as well, and stores start getting requests for the game. Local cons are also a worthwhile venture, just because they're close to home and so not too costly to attend. Not as many people will attend, of course, but you can build up a strong local fanbase, and those fans often have friends in other states who will eventually hear about the cool new game they found.
There is also another inexpensive way to get more recognition, and to boost interest (and thus sales) and that is through the Web. Setting up a web page is fairly inexpensive, especially if you have a good local provider or already have an account somewhere, and a lot of people are constantly searching for all sorts of things. RPGnet will list any and all company sites in their Company Directory, so anyone who accesses them can get to your page. We've just relocated and revamped our page (it's now at http://www.iloveusa.com/Clockworks,Inc/) to provide more information about Asylum, about our upcoming supplement, and about future plans and endeavors. The great thing about web pages is that you can reach thousands of people without any printing fees or distribution costs, and you don't even need to find them -- they find you.
Of course, there are a lot of other things to keep an eye on when starting a new gaming company, and you also need a good game to get things going. But unless you watch your pennies, it won't matter if you've got the best game in the world -- you won't be able to print it, which means it will never see the light of day. And that would really be a waste.