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Acquire! Acquire!

by
 

John Phythyon asked me why I didn't cover the recent friendly aquisition of Event Horizon Productions by Archon. The answer, of course, is that I'm an idiot. Here I go, ranting each month about how the gaming industry should operate itself with wisdom and business saavy, and I fail to report on an event that was deliberately leaked to me in advance as a news scoop.

Fortunately, this is not a soapbox about my own failings. Instead, I'm going to cover just why the acquisition of EHP (publishers of HKAT!, Heaven and Earth, and other games) by Archon Press (publishers of Noir, and possible fulfillment house) is a good trend, and something that others should take note of. My reasoning is based on a subtle theory known as "Focus", best paraphrased as "do what you do best, and let others handle what they do best."

The reason this theory is subtle is because most people are idiots, and want to conquer the world singlehandedly. They want to believe they are goddesses of marketing, wizards at production, geniuses with game design, masters of fulfillment, mistresses of web design, ad infinitum. But even if these self-delusions were true, that little clock ticking on the wall guarantees that the do-everything venture will run into trouble.

Did Wellington personally engage in hand-to-hand commbat at Waterloo? Of course he didn't. Did Inigo Montoya direct a team of vassals to defeat the six-fingered man in Princess Bride? Certainly not! Both realized their own particular specialities, be they leadership or hands-on butchery, and then applied their talents effectively.

So it is with EHP and Archon. Archon did aggressive marketing of a single product line, one which their owner admits had flaws (such that she intentionally did not put it in contention for an Origins Award). EHP meanwhile has produced multiple products to great acclaim. Archon has grant business schemes. EHP is designing new game lines even as we speak. Hmm... does one see certain possibilities here?

Well, EHP and Archon did, so they signed a letter of intent to merge. Suddenly they have that rare beastie, a game company with a business division and a creative division.

Oh, okay, other companies are set up like this. Certainly most of the "big 7" (WotC/TSR, West End, Palladium, ICE, Dream Pod 9, Steve Jackson Games, and RPGnet... err, I mean, FASA) have distinct business divisions. But so many smaller publishers do not. In fact, so many small publishers have one product, or one product line. And one- or two-person staff.

This just doesn't work from an economy of scale level. Having one person to produce one book is fine. But handling marketing for one or a half dozen books is roughly the same for a single worker. Handling distribution for three books instead of one does not increase a sales person's job. Mailing out a flyer to retailers each month is a fixed-time task regardless of whether you're mentioning one work or ten. Marketing, promotion, sales, accounts... everything beyond production of the actual product are tasks that really have a "fixed cost", whether you produce one book or twenty.

So if you have two separate companies, they are both spending X time producing books. And they are both spending Y time selling them. Total work hours = 2*X + 2*Y. If they join, they still have to spend 2*X producing the work, but only one of them has to do the Y time to market the darn stuff. Hallelujah, you've created time from a vacuum!

The idea of small publishers uniting certainly isn't new. Both Gold Rush Games and Guild of Blades have been "repping" other companies, taking up some of the fulfillment work in return for a percentage. This enables the small publisher to save time, time better spent creating works, demoing your product, and agressively attending conventions.

And distributors love this sort of thing. Why? Because they aren't total idiots (really!) A buyer would much prefer to have to call only one person to order a dozen books, then waste time on the phone chasing down a dozen different small publishers. So alliances reduce the number of confusing companies, while still encouraging small press creativity and creator-owned works.

Why aren't others doing this? Well, ego and politics are very strong reasons. And, there's a dearth of business-saavy people to partner with. The business end isn't terribly fun for most people, and so it is approached as a necessary evil. "I sell and market my game because I have to; I write because it calls to me." Stealing from another industry, Brian May put it best in his interview on management troubles versus creative time, which we highly recommend reading.

But thinking you have to sell your own games is fallacious.

There's an axiom no new designer ever listens to, namely, "writing is the easiest part of the gaming business". This is, of course, heresy to an artist. Such works are born of blood, sweat, and tears-- how can it be the easy part? But it's true. The business end for a successful book takes far more time than writing it did. Writing, editing, laying out, and producing a book can easily take 3 months or more. Sales and marketing and all that stuff will, for most small publishers, then take the better part of a year just to convince people to purchase the 1000-odd copies you printed. 3 months. 1 year. Which is more?

Here's a test. Describe the process of writing a book. Probably something like "get inspired. do research. write it.". Now, describe the difference between 'sales', 'marketing', and 'promotion'. Easy? If you don't know the difference, you shouldn't be self-publishing. If you do know the difference-- why are you taking three extra jobs upon yourself, when you can link up and have someone else do it in partnership?

People ask me all the time, "is the stuff you're writing just empty theory, or do you actually apply it yourself." Oh, okay, people don't write me about that. People actually write me saying "I couldn't guess who the 4 people in your last essay were. Was one of them my friend Gordon? Let me know." Or, they write to ask, "how do I unsubcribe from a list". But if they were to write the above question on 'applying theory', I'd tell them "yes, this is why Metagame magazine is handled by Gold Rush Games."

But no one has asked, so I'll shut up now.

There are two downsides to partnering. The first is, if you're a control freak, your head will explode. Really, it will. Suddenly your prize possession, your baby, is in the hands of another person. Its well being is entirely dependent on someone else's efforts. That'll keep you awake at night. The important thing to think is, "will this person, doing what they do best, handle things better than I could, given that any work I do is in a state of constant sleep deprivation and that I have no business training and simply don't have the time during the day to make the necessary telephone calls?"

The other downside is that you might get screwed over by your business partner. After all, you're the creative, naive game writer. They are the ruthless business shark-- that's why you teamed up with them. You think creative thoughts. They think money. There's often good reason to be worried. Another gaming axiom is "you're not really part of the industry until you have your first lawsuit".

But guess what? You can and will be screwed over by everyone in the industry anyway! Distributors might fail to pay, strips might send back huge quantities of stock and demand refunds, authors will default on submissions, magazines will slander your work in reviews, and other industry people will secretly hope that your new "Diceless SciFi Miniatures set" fails because their own design is coming out next month. But this is all business stuff anyway. So if your choice is being screwed by the one hand-picked partner you chose to team with, or having to face on a daily basis all of the above, well, heck, let your partner stand at ground zero.

This is "fire and forget" small publishing. Create good works, pay for the print run, then toss it to a business partner and let them suffer in the industry. You've just reduced your odds of problems from "being screwed by a dozen different folks" to "being screwed by my partner". Sure, your partner is there in the trenches-- but you don't have to deal with that stress. You've just reduced a complex business equation to Pass/Fail. Either your partnership works out, or it doesn't.

And with all the time and effort you save, you can be doing the work you do best-- creating. Even if one idea does go bad, you've saved enough time by not handling the day-to-day business that you can have a half dozen more products ready. If you do everything, you can put out one, maybe two products a year. Team up with a business person, and you can triple that. Tuck a few to the side as "insurance" in case your partnership folds and you need to start again, and you're ahead of the game.

More games produced, less time spent on icky business things, less risk overall, and you get to choose who you work with. Kind of makes being an alienated misanthropic single-item publisher not as appealing, eh? Unite. Let people assimilate you. Profit. Repeat.

Cheers,
Sandy

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