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Behind the Curtain: Starting and Running a Small Press Company

Part IV: Quite A Production

by Patrick Sweeney
Jul 25,2002

Behind the Curtain

Part IV: Quite A Production

I established Firefly Games in January, started organizing work on my first game in February and began my promotional campaign in March. By late April, I've received the manuscript and artwork for my first product, Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat, from my freelancers.

It's time to put the game into production for its early July release date. I have to edit the draft, get the book laid out and send it off to print.

I'll edit the draft myself. I'd like to hire an editor, but I do need to save some money where I can. The editor I'd prefer to hire has been booked on another project, anyway, and won't be available until after Monster Island is supposed to be at the printer. Editing takes a few days.

I've arranged with Mark Arsenault of Gold Rush Games to lay out Monster Island in exchange for some writing I did on a project for his company. I know a little about Adobe PageMaker, and I design newspaper pages all the time in my day job, but I'd take an awfully long time to figure out how to lay out an entire book - even a 32-page one - and it wouldn't look nearly as good. Plus, I'm afraid of making some tiny technical error that could create delays at the printer or botch the whole project.

Adobe PageMaker and Quark are two of the top desktop publishing programs used in the game industry. There are plenty of others -- in a pinch, you can even lay books out in Microsoft Word. Well, sort of. But those are probably the two most common programs. And both are extremely expensive, by the way, which is another reason I'm happy to have someone else do my layout.

First off, I need to get the draft and art into the proper format for Mark to do his work. I don't really format the draft at all - I leave it as plain text. Adding italics, boldface, header sizes and so forth actually makes more work for the graphic designer, because first he has to strip all your garbage formatting out in order to properly format the text for his layout software.

Instead, I mark headers, text formats and so forth with bracketed notations - such as [CHAPTER-HEADER], [A-Header] and so forth. This helps the designer know what size headers to use for the proper organization of the book without hindering his ability to format the headers correctly in PageMaker.

The final draft checks in at 18,585 words. This includes the table of contents, monster record sheet text, back cover blurb and so forth. This is a bit long for a 32-page book, so I'm a little concerned that I'll have to cut the Filmography at the end to make the rest fit. But we'll see how things go.

Freelance artist Bryce Nakagawa turns in his interior artwork as *.jpg files with a 300 dpi resolution. He sends them to me on a CD, which I pass along to Mark. I assigned Bryce 4 pages of interior art, mostly split into a bunch of one-quarter page illustrations and a couple half-page illos. This is slightly more than a 10% art ratio to the page count, which is fairly standard in the industry. I'll be able to have one illo every four to six pages, which will make the book look nice.

Now Mark and I have to make some choices about the fonts, type sizes, use of sidebars and other layout details. I listen to his advice, look over the samples he prepares and make some decisions. I go with a sans serif font for the main text. Normally I prefer serif fonts, but sans serif seems to make sense for a light-hearted product like Monster Island.

Headers will be the same jagged-looking font that Mark discovered for the cover. The numerous monster movie quotes scattered through the book will be in a more comic-book looking font. Mark designs a "ripped paper" graphic for the quotes to help them stand out better and liven up the pages.

Other than a few specific illos, I let Mark decide where to put the individual pieces of artwork. I trust him to put them near relevant text as much as possible. So, for example, the lava monster winds up on the page with the rules for molten lava.

Mark gets down to work on the layout in late May. All told, the layout process takes about a week. On the first try, Monster Island ends up being 33 pages long. Oops.

Actually, it's not unexpected. Books almost never come out at the right page count the first time - there are just too many variables involved even when you hit your word count right on. You almost always wind up going back to tinker with things to get the right number of pages.

By the way, the choice of 32 pages isn't arbitrary, and isn't as easy to change as you might think. Most printers require books to be based on 16-page "signatures." A 32-page book, the smallest most printers can handle, is two signatures. The next size up is 48 pages, or three signatures, and so on. This is why 96-, 128- and 256-page books are standard in the roleplaying game industry. It's all in the signatures.

It's also why I can't just print a 33-page book instead of a 32-page one. So it's time for some changes. The blank page on the back of the credits page has got to go - now the Introduction chapter will start there. I could have dropped the back-page ad for the sequel game, Escape from Monster Island instead, but I need to promote the expansion. After all, people playing Monster Island are exactly the people I need to reach - someone who doesn't even own the game won't have much use for the expansion rules. There's no better place to grab their attention than in the book itself.

Mark revises the layout. Now I start proofing the pages. And proofing. And proofing. Every time Mark sends me a corrected copy of the layout, I send him back more corrections. By the end, I've sent three sets of corrections, and I still miss some typos.

Also, Mark has been designing the cardstock insert in Monster Island that will include the cut-out monster figures. Bryce turned in line-art drawings of about 16 creatures for the figures. Mark does the coloring in-house, which saves me money - color artwork costs more - and lays out the sheet.

Finally, everything is ready. Now it's time to go to print. But where?

Earlier - much too early, as it turns out - I began looking for a printer to produce Monster Island. Here's another case where joining the Game Publishers Association pays off. The GPA has a request-for-quotes program on its website. You enter the specs for your project and your contact info. The info is mailed to a few dozen printing companies interested in working with game companies. In a few days, they start contacting you with quotes to print your game.

I sent out a request for quotes back in March because I started getting nervous about figuring out just how much it was going to cost me to print Monster Island. I got a better idea of what I'd have to pay, but because I didn't need to choose a printer until two months later, I had sales reps for various printers after me for weeks asking if I'd made a decision yet.

In the end, I go with Morgan Printing in North Dakota. They have one of the lower estimates, and Gold Rush Games printed The Legacy of Zorro with an almost identical format at Morgan Printing about a year ago. So dealing with their technical requirements and making sure they understand the format of Monster Island will be a snap.

I also need to figure out how many books to print. Monster Island costs a bit to print, mostly because of the color cardstock insert. It's almost like I'm printing a book with two color covers instead of just one. I'm going to pay more than $2,000 even to print 1,000 copies, and only a few hundred dollars more to print 2,000 copies. Toting up my expenses - chiefly the print bill, but also my freelance costs - I can see that I'm going to need to sell nearly 1,000 copies just to recover my costs. If I only print 1,000 copies, that doesn't leave much for profit.

The other factor here is the pre-orders by retailers. I've been promoting and soliciting Monster Island for months. Retailers who think their customers might buy the game place pre-orders with their distributors, who pass the orders along to my sales rep, Woody Eblom of Tundra Sales Organization. But, as I mentioned in an earlier column, my decision to release the game at the start of July instead of the end of the month means I won't have accurate order figures - most retailers don't get around to ordering until the month the game is supposed to be out. This is partly the fault of manufacturers, though. So many retailers have been burned by slipping release dates that they simply don't believe us anymore.

I'll print 2,000 copies of Monster Island. The enthusiastic reaction to the game seems to indicate I'll be able to sell that many. Even if pre-orders don't reach 1,000 books, I'm not too concerned about overprinting - I can carry the print debt for a little while if I must, and this way I won't have to reprint when Escape from Monster Island comes out in September.

After all, the whole point of a supplement is to drive sales of the core book, which is hard to do if you've let the core book go out of stock. Also, retailers are reluctant to order a supplement if the core book isn't available, since they'll wind up with frustrated customers who can't play the game.

Now it's time to talk terms with Morgan Printing. When am I going to have to pay them all this money?

Terms for payment vary from printer to printer, but not that much. Most require 50% up front and the rest before they ship your books. Some printers offer credit terms to trusted customers, but these generally require payment within 30 days. Since most distributors operate on 45- to 60-day terms, you still don't have the income from your sales when the printer bill comes due, even with the credit terms.

I arrange things with the Morgan Printing sales rep, and Mark ships the files for Monster Island off in early June. About a week later, I receive the proofs from the printer. I receive a digital printout of the cover to check the colors, and "bluelines" of the interior pages. These are printed in blue ink on special paper from the films they will use to print the book. This is my final chance to make changes.

Fortunately, I proofed the book pretty thoroughly during layout, so I don't have any corrections. And the color key for the cover looks fine. I call my contact at Morgan Printing and tell them to go to press.

A few weeks pass, and in late June I get the word from Morgan Printing that the books are done. I make arrangements to ship most of the boxes to the Tundra Sales Organization warehouse in Minnesota. One box will come out to me in California for filling direct orders, sending review copies and sales at local conventions. The final box will be shipped directly to the hotel where Woody Eblom of Tundra Sales Organization will be staying for the Origins game convention July 4-7.

Chances are good that Monster Island will reach Woody in Minnesota before he leaves for the convention in Columbus, Ohio, but I don't want to take any chances on the books not making it to Origins. After all, debuting the book at Origins is the whole reason I picked an early July print date in the first place.

As it turns out, I don't receive my box here in California until about a week after Origins, so some customers who picked up the game at the convention actually see it before I do! That's the crazy world of publishing. After he gets back from Origins, Woody fills the orders from distributors, who then ship the books on to retailers. It starts popping up in game stores in mid-July.

Sales through distribution are key to making Monster Island a success, but I've pretty much done my part there. Now it's time to promote and sell the game at conventions like Origins and GenCon. But that's another column. See you in 30.

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  • Part VI: End Game by Patrick Sweeney, 24sep02
  • Con Game by Patrick Sweeney, 28aug02
  • Part IV: Quite A Production by Patrick Sweeney, 25jul02
  • Buzzing Along by Patrick Sweeney, 25jun02
  • Part II: Makin' Games by Patrick Sweeney, 11jun02
  • Other columns at RPGnet

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