Culling the Herdby
There is a world of difference between Thinning the Herd, and Culling the Herd. Culling implies control, mediation, wisdom. Thinning just involves killing. So when people start talking about how the RPG industry could stand a bit of 'thinning out', I get worried. It's a well-known fact that there are oodles of small press RPG publishers out there (and some say there are too many freelance writers, but we'll avoid covering that for now.) And perhaps there are too many, and these mysterious "market forces" should be wielded deliberately to thin things out.
Mind you, "market forces" are what takes out your competition, as in, "sorry, but that's just business." This distinguishes it from rotten luck, which is what happens when market forces act against you. So buying out an RPG company because it's gone under is just using market forces. Finding out their main convention was losing money is bad luck. Seeing people flee said convention is "anti-market insurgence."
This connects with the fact that few people seem themselves as evil. Rather, they see others are too burdened with fuzzy thinking. Whereas they themselves, they're "pragmatic", "business-oriented", or "just doing what's good for the company". We are all paragons of virtue, in our own eyes.
But let's keep going with this herd thing. To get a game sold is like the jungle's circle of life. You have the young struggling artiste, writing and illustrating and editing their lovely missive just like a busy little mongoose. You've saved up all the snake skins you could hunt and bound them together into attractive little packages. And you're certain that others will enjoy them too!
But alas, to get any decent quantity, you must find a Tiger, who can hunt in quantity. Like Sheer Khan, the printers operate by a predatory code that only they know. Sometimes they help, sometimes they hurt-- but there's always a law of the jungle to cover things on their end.
Ridiculous, you say? Did you know that to get a full-sized 48 page magazine printed without having the middle pages spindled and mutilated, you have to specifically request no spindling? At one point, when I was young and naive, I would have thought that was implied. "Please print this, and don't destroy it" would have been superfluous. But no, it's special handling. To avoid creasing every issue of the run, they have to break the 48 pages into 3 batches of 16 and charge you an extra hundred. At least with printers, you know where you stand-- in their jaws of death. Anything odd that happens-- dark inking, warehouse flooding, late shipments-- it's always your burden, never their fault. Law of the jungle and all that-- and remember, the printer always gets paid in advance. They'll eat you alive.
So back to the jungle. You've made a deal with the Tiger and now have lots and lots of tasty publications for you and your family. But you want to share this with the whole tribe! You just know that those cute little lemurs across the savanna would love some of what you've made! They're used to going to the water hole, where the hippos keep the nasty predators away and let the other animals feed. [Side note to any retailers reading this-- the choice of hippos to represent stores is a mark of distinction, indicating great amounts of stock and stoic fortitude! Really!]
But to get to the water holes, you have to travel a great distance, and cross a great river. (You can see aspects of this analogy is breaking down, but then again, I never was an ecology major). Fortunately, there are a handful of crocodiles that offer to help you across the river. They explain that their very existence is to facilitate river transport. These are your distributors.
Now, distributors will carry your product, but only if the hippos at the watering hole ask for it. The hippos will carry your product, but only if the crocodiles promise that they'll carry it across the river. So you end up with a Serengeti Standoff. Meanwhile, your supply is getting soggy due to tropical rains and the poor lemurs are starting to believe you'd made up the whole thing. It's impossible to adequately explain the bizarre nature of the gaming distribution setup. Suffice to say, you can't sell things until you've sold things, and if you do actually sell things, the distributor figures their job is done and why reorder? It'd just be more work.
Maybe you're lucky. Maybe you convince one crocodile to carry stuff across, and one hippo actually orders it. You've made it!! Well, except, the crocodile probably forgot to reorder it. And the other hippos ask about it, but are told it doesn't exist any more. And the crocodiles never answer their calls (yes, I'm blowing the analogy again.) Why, just the other day one of our fellow mongooses called 6 of the largest distributors, and had astounding success. The one she did reach claimed never to have seen the product that was shipped to them. This was far, far braver than the other 5 crocs, who are simply playing tag and hiding until we stop calling.
So now that a few hippos might have a few late copies of your work, the little lemurs are happy, yes? Why, no! For many hippos are sullen, beaten beasts. The brave packages get hid deep in dusty racks, while the gaming fast food of the big producers gets front shelf space. Dare a brave lemur ask the hippo for an item? They'll just as soon be told "oh, that's out of print", or "we don't have that", since it takes far too much effort for the hippo to waddle back and actually look at what they have.
Then come the hyenas. They see your items, and quickly scavange them from the crocodiles or the hippos or the dead pool. They don't actually pay for them, no, but they do critique them. Yes, as reviewers, they apply their cunning to twist your ideas, rendering them silly and laughable. That's what hyenas do, make everything laughable. And hearing the hyenas, well, the lemurs start to think that maybe they don't want these little packages anyway.
So that's the way the jungle works. So when people talk about thinning the herd of small publishers, they just aren't realizing that there are natural processes at work already, culling the weak and ensuring only the strong survive. It's not an easy business, and it has natural winnowing factors. Taking deliberate steps to "cull the herd" would simply fall under that "evil" bit I mentioned earlier. For all practical purposes, it's superfluous. Darwinism is thinning already, and justifying one's business practices under the "I will bury you" school of ethics is self-serving no matter how much one claims it's "just business".
Fortunately, not all printers are tigers, and so finding the good ones is the first step to avoiding culling. Some distributors are tremendously reliable and uncrocodilian, and again, they're worth more than the blood in your body once you find them. A good distributor can keep you alive, whereas blood's something you can donate. A handful of good retailers, they're the final key to survival; build a good working relationship and you can thrive despite the heat and pressure.
I forgot the part where the velociraptors come in and eat everything (that being marketing), but for the most part, that's the gaming Circle of Life. My own tips for surviving it are "still in progress", though at this point, I will say that the Small Press Coop is a very ethical tiger, that Michelle of Berkeley Games is a very nice croc, and that we're still hoping to find some friendly hippos to work with. And, of course, we're still looking for happy lemurs who want our products.