Behind the Curtain: Starting and Running a Small Press Company
Con Gameby Patrick Sweeney
Behind the Curtain: Starting and Running a Small Press Company
Con Gameby Patrick Sweeney
Behind the Curtain
Part V: Con Game
The first release for Firefly Games has made it through the creation, promotion and production process. Monster Island: The Game of Giant Monster Combat debuts at Origins in July and hits store shelves a few weeks later. I continue to promote and sell the game, along with working on a follow-up game.
Back when I scheduled the release of Monster Island, however, I picked July to take advantage of the summer convention season. So a good chunk of my energy goes to getting ready for conventions.
Conventions are crucial to game publishers, particularly small-press publishers, for two primary reasons.
First, as I've explained in earlier columns, you sell copies of your book from your booth. These are direct sales. In sales through distribution, you receive around 40 percent of cover price -- and shipping, sales commissions to your fulfillment house and so forth come out of that 40 percent. On direct sales, however, you collect 100 percent of the cover price.
In concrete terms, Monster Island has a suggested retail price of $9.95. I receive $4 for every book sold through distribution, less shipping and a percentage to Tundra Sales Organization. Add in my per-book production costs, promotion costs and overhead, and I have a pretty thin profit margin. When I sell a copy of Monster Island at a convention, though, I get the full $9.95 - a considerably better profit margin.
The key, though, is that I can sell a couple thousand copies of Monster Island through distribution. I can sell a couple hundred through direct sales. Hence, the reason game companies focus on distribution sales and encourage fans to buy games at their local hobby game shops if at all possible.
Now, sales at a regional convention just might cover the expense of going. You have to pay for the booth, usually somewhere around $100 per table depending on the con's expected attendance. Then there are the hotel bill, meals, and other miscellaneous expenses. The final number's not too high, though, so strong sales of a new book may just meet your expenses.
Very few companies break even at national conventions, unless they are local. First off, the booths cost more, on the order of several hundred dollars per table. Then you add in airfare and shipping your products and booth materials, along with the usual hotel bill and other basic expenses. You'll also want to print up some promotional material, like fliers, signs and so on, for a big convention. All those costs add up fast. Even a small, one-person company with a single table can easily spend $2,000 or more going to GenCon.
Even with lucrative direct sales, that's an awful lot of books to sell to break even.
Why go, then? This brings us to the second, and even more important, reason that conventions are critical: Exposure.
Hundreds, or, depending on the convention, thousands of people will see your company and your games. Particularly for a new small press company, chances are that most of them have never heard of you before. And every one of them is a potential customer (after all, who else goes to game conventions?).
They might pick up a flier, or play in a demo game, or just notice your company name on the booth as they walk by. All add up to potential future sales.
Sales and exposure aside, there are other good reasons to attend conventions. It's a great chance to meet and talk to your customers. You can find out what they like about your games, what they dislike, what they'd like to see you do next, and more. You also get to see what other game companies are up to - what's new in the game market? What are the hot sellers? What are the duds? How can you put this information to work in regard to your own products?
Finally, the game industry is reasonably small and generally friendly. Most publishers, employees and freelancers know each other, so conventions are kind of like reunions where you get to see all your old friends again. Cons also are handy for meeting new freelancers, reviewing art portfolios and talking shop with other publishers. While most industry pros don't have time for long business meetings at conventions, plenty of future business deals and freelance contracts spring from conversations at conventions.
There are two major national conventions aimed at fans. Origins takes place in Columbus, Ohio, over the July 4 weekend each year. And GenCon - the biggie, with 25,000-plus attendees -- takes place early in August. GenCon 2002 is the last to take place in Milwaukee, Wis. Next year it moves to Indianapolis, Ind.
Now, there are plenty of other game conventions. The Game Manufacturer's Association Trade Show, or GTS, takes place in March in Las Vegas, Nev., but it's a pros-only show where publishers show off their upcoming products to retailers and distributors. DragonCon, in late August in Atlanta, Ga., is very popular but gaming is just part of the mix with science fiction, fantasy and other interests.
Then there are the regional conventions. Here in Northern California, where Firefly Games is based, the prominent ones are DunDraCon in San Ramon in February, KublaCon in Oakland in May and ConQuest somewhere in the Bay Area in September. Fanime Con in Santa Clara in April has some gaming content but primarily attracts anime fans.
I attended most of the regional conventions in the spring to promote and playtest Monster Island, but I didn't have a booth or anything to sell. Vacation scheduling at my day job, plus the financial necessity of saving up for the Monster Island print run, precluded me from attending GTS or Origins - though Firefly Games was represented by Woody Eblom of Tundra Sales Organization, who handles its sales.
This leaves GenCon. Realizing that I could only attend one national convention this year, I planned to make it GenCon from the start.
Sales of booths at GenCon began at the end of GenCon 2001. By the time I start Firefly Games in January, the booths for the 2002 show are probably sold out. By the time I can afford to buy booth space, they are definitely sold out. The first task, obviously, is going to be finding a place to hang my hat.
The Game Publishers Association, of which I'm a member and associate director, operates a shared booth at Origins and GenCon each year. Members of the GPA who, for whatever reason, don't get their own booths can buy partial or full tables in the shared booth to display their products. One of the companies that had signed up for a spot in the booth backs out in June, so I snap up a half-table for Firefly Games.
A friend offers to share a hotel room at the Milwaukee City Center Hilton, across the street from the Midwest Express Center where GenCon takes place, with me. That solves several problems. I have a place to sleep - which is trickier than it sounds, since the hotels in Milwaukee sold out almost instantly when GenCon registration opened in February -- and I don't have to worry about renting a car. I can walk everywhere I need to go during the show.
After I purchase my airplane tickets, I've taken care of the three most crucial and most expensive tasks of getting ready for GenCon. But I'm not through yet - not by a long shot.
The whole point of going to GenCon is to promote and sell Monster Island. I'd better get some copies of the game to Milwaukee, then. Fortunately, Tundra Sales Organization is based in Minneapolis, Minn. Woody will be driving to GenCon, so he can bring a box of the books from his warehouse for my booth. Also, Monster Island is a lightweight 32-page book, so a box holds 160 copies - much more than I'm likely to sell. Persuading Woody to lug several crates containing a few hundred copies of a 300-page hardcover to Milwaukee might have been a bit harder.
In that case, or if Woody hadn't been so close by, I might have had to arrange shipping. There are all kinds of choices here, from commercial shippers such as UPS or FedEx, to trains, to checking it onto your flight as extra baggage or air freight. All are expensive and create logistical problems - how do you pick up the boxes in Milwaukee? How do you get them to the convention center? What if the shipper fouls up and your books are late or don't arrive at all?
I have resolved to avoid shipping to GenCon as long as possible, but eventually it becomes inevitable if your company continues to grow. For now, though, I can send the books with Woody and cram my booth materials into my personal luggage, so I'm happy.
Booth materials? Well, I'm not just going to sit there with a stack of books on my half-table. No one's going to spare me a second glance.
I need to put on a show.
One of the strengths of Monster Island is that demo games using toy monsters, plastic trees and other props are incredibly eye-catching. This is no accident, by the way. I need to take full advantage of that by running at-booth demos. I pack several of my toy monsters, along with plastic trees and boulders plus some felt for pools of molten lava and other hazardous terrain.
By the time GenCon starts, another company that reserved space in the GPA booth has backed out. We can't find any takers at this point, so the GPA board agrees to allow the companies sharing the booth to use the empty spot for at-booth demo games.
As a fast and easy fighting game, Monster Island is well-suited to at-booth demos. I prefer to run demos at the booth because people who enjoy the game can buy a copy right away. Demos away from the booth are sometimes unavoidable, such as for a roleplaying game that might take hours to play out, but they reduce the chance of an immediate sale. The players have to remember to look for your booth, they have to find it, and they have time to see something else they'd like first or to decide against buying the game.
Even when I'm not running demos, I can use the toy monsters to set up a nice display.
Next up, I need some fliers with my booth number on them. Since Firefly Games won't be listed in the exhibitor list in the program guide - I'm just part of the GPA booth - I need to let people know where to find me. I design some handbill-sized fliers, four to a page, and run off 300 copies at Kinko's. Once I cut the sheets into four fliers, that's 1,200 fliers. I do make a mistake here, though. I neglect to put my website URL on the fliers. I should put the website on every piece of promotional material I produce.
Then I get a lucky break. Another Tundra Sales Organization client has scored a full-page color ad on the back cover of the on-site program guide. Via Woody, he offers to split the page and the cost with three other companies. I snap up the quarter-page ad. It's expensive, but the exposure is priceless for a new, small company in a shared booth.
It's a good thing, too, because once I arrive at GenCon I discover that free fliers have been outlawed from the convention hall except at your own booth. The fliers are still quite handy - when people say they need to think about buying a copy of Monster Island, or need to tell a friend about the game, I can give them a flier as a reminder. But without the program guide ad, I'd have had a very difficult time advertising my presence at the show.
I also work up a display with excerpts from reviews and fan feedback about the game. It looks nice, but very few people at GenCon check it out. The toys and the game itself grab their attention first. I probably won't bother in the future, or I'll put the review blurbs on the fliers somehow for people to read later.
I run off about 200 copies of sell sheets to bring to GenCon. Sell sheets contain the basic information about the game, such as size, price, authors, ISBN and a short blurb. They are designed primarily for retailers and distributors. I've worked up a dual sell sheet for Monster Island and the sequel, Escape from Monster Island. Escape is coming out in September, so I need to start promoting it. I bring the sell sheets to give to any retailers or distributors who stop by the booth, but they also are great for fans interested in Escape. The sell sheets have my web address on them, so I hand them out along with the fliers.
I want some snazzy Firefly Games shirts to wear at the convention, so I hire Thread Impressions, another GPA member company, to produce some black polo shirts with an embroidered logo. I order six, and wind up giving several away to my booth helper and other folks associated with Firefly Games. It's a nice, tangible way to make people feel they are part of the team and part of the company.
Several other convention veterans on the GPA email list have suggested bringing free handouts. I'm dubious, but on my lunch hour at work one day I run by a party supply shop to see what's available. I'm hoping for some tiny plastic dinosaurs or monsters, but those appear to be out of stock. I do find some colorful rubbery spiders at $9 per hundred, so I pick up around 225. I figure I can promote them as "free giant spiders, fresh from Monster Island." The recent release of Eight Legged Freaks can't hurt, either.
Despite my initial skepticism, the handouts turn out to be the smartest thing I did for GenCon - with the possible exception of the back-cover ad. They are amazing. I had wondered whether anyone at GenCon really needed more junk to carry around, but people love them! For my purposes, it's a great way to get people over to the table and give me a chance to tell them about Monster Island. "Come get a free giant spider" works so much better than "Come look at my game."
I run out of spiders early Saturday morning. I'm not sure what handouts I'll bring to promote the games I'll have out by GenCon 2003, but whatever it is, I'm bringing 500+ next year.
Now I just need some signage for my half-table. GenCon supplies a card with each booth with the name of the company on it, but since this is a shared booth, the sign says "Game Publishers Association." I need to let folks know that my half-table belongs to Firefly Games. After all, if I've done a good job of promoting the company over the summer, at least a few people will be looking for the name.
I get together with my production director and friend, Mark Arsenault of Gold Rush Games, and between us we come up with a homemade sign with my company logo on black foamboard. We don't have time before the convention to work up something with the Firefly Games name on it, though. So on Thursday, before the exhibit hall opens, I trek down to Kinko's in downtown Milwaukee. I print out a simple black and white banner with Firefly Games on their large-scale copier, and pay around $20 to have the paper banner laminated.
It works, more or less, but I'm not happy. I was trying to save money, but I should have just shelled out the cash for a nice, permanent, color banner with my name and company logo on it. At the convention, Keith Sears of Heraldic Games, who also serves as the Firefly Games webmaster, tells me about a company that can produce nylon banners. Vinyl banners are more common, but they are heavy and bulky. A nylon banner sounds like something I can pack in my luggage, meeting my goals of remaining shipping-free for as long as possible. I'm going to get a nylon banner before my next convention.
Mark has a tabloid-size color printer, so he also prints out a couple of posters with the cover of Monster Island and the Action! System rules logo for me to post at the booth.
Finally, I need some basic supplies. A locking cashbox costs $25 or so at an office supply store. I also pick up some plastic display stands of various kinds. I have some scissors, pencils, packing tape and business cards at home. A few days before I leave for GenCon, I run to my bank and get $200 in change in various denominations. I know from bitter experience working in the Gold Rush Games booth that banks near the Midwest Express Center are very stingy about making change for non-customers.
Bruce Harlick, the co-author of Monster Island, is without a booth at GenCon for the first time this year after many years with Hero Games and other companies. He generously offers to assist me a few hours a day in the Firefly Games booth. I decide that, between the two of us, we can handle a half-table with no problem.
I'm wrong. This is the worst mistake I make in my GenCon plans. I really needed more booth help. First, when running at-booth demos, you really need two people - one to run the demos, and one to answer questions or even sell books to the spectators inevitably attracted by the demos. Second, standing on that concrete floor for hours at a time is just too hard. And you must stand - you can easily double your booth traffic simply by standing up and making eye contact with people as they pass by. Or, as other convention veterans have put it, if you aren't excited enough about your game to even stand up, why should anyone else be excited about it?
The concrete floor at the exhibit hall is hell on your feet and back, though. I bought insoles for my shoes before the convention, so I am spared the back problems I've had in the past, but my feet are so sore that I joke to my roommates that I'm walking like an 80-year-old man by the end of each day. Despite my own strong opinions on sitting down behind the booth, sometimes I just have to take a break.
GenCon does allow you to buy carpeting inside your booth, but it's quite expensive. Other companies bring their own rubber mats or carpeting but, again, the expense and necessity of shipping make this non-viable for Firefly Games this year.
The answer for small companies with small budgets is more booth help. Next year, I'll have at least four people working in my booth in two shifts of two. The cost of booth help varies. Sometimes you can find volunteers. Sometimes you have to buy an exhibitor badge for them or give them free copies of your products to trade with other publishers. And sometimes you pay for their hotel rooms or airfares. It all depends on who you find and what they want or need in return for working in your booth.
The other benefit of having more booth help is that the publisher can get out of the booth once in awhile to see what other folks are selling and talk to other publishers. Thanks to Bruce's help, I do get out to see everyone I need to see and talk to everyone I need to talk to before GenCon ends, but I don't get to spend nearly enough time roaming the exhibit hall.
I've already gone over which of my plans worked out at GenCon and which did not. I'm not going to do a travelogue of my experiences once I actually arrived in Milwaukee, beyond what I've already mentioned, since most of it isn't strictly relevant to running a booth at the convention. And, frankly, the experience of a publisher at GenCon isn't that different from the experience of gamers at GenCon -- except that we come to the con to work instead of play.
All publishers are, or were, gamers, after all. We still get excited about the hot new releases, still pass on the inevitable GenCon rumors, still wander the convention center in disbelief that we are actually at GenCon, no matter how many times we've been before - just like you.
In the end, Firefly Games has an enormously successful GenCon. We sell 80+ copies of Monster Island, which is excellent for a recent release from a new small-press company. I don't come anywhere close to recouping my expenses, but I never expected to, particularly once I shelled out the cash for the quarter-page ad on the program guide back cover.
More importantly than the sales revenue, I've established Firefly Games to one degree or anther in the minds of gamers and the game industry. I've come to GenCon, put together a reasonably good booth and produced some very strong sales for a company at my level.
Firefly Games has overcome another important hurdle to making it in the game business.
My September column will be the sixth and last for Behind the Curtain, which has always been intended as a limited run column. We've pretty much gone through the entire process of creating and running a small-press game company, which is the point of the column. Now I just keep going, producing and promoting new games and fine-tuning my strategies as I go.Next time I'll recap what I learned in the first nine months of running Firefly Games and how I'm going to do things better in the future. See you in 30!