Ron on Distribution

2008 Oct 20

Ron and I bump heads every so often, but he is 300% correct about the current distribution options not being very good for small publishers (even if, as Fred points out, he might have some of the details about IPR wrong). Honestly, having to deal with that headache — both individual fulfillment and retail fulfillment, which are really two different things and require different approaches — was one of the factors that led to me getting out of commercial publishing.

One of the central issues, and he nails it, is that publishers often have different priorities than the people doing the distribution and fulfillment. My goal is not and was never to sell as many copies as possible or make as much money as I could. It’s more important to me to get my game into the hands of people who will actually enjoy it and then maintain contact with them, get feedback, and help ensure that their experience with my game is as good as it can possibly be. And ultimately I decided that the current options available for commercial publishing were not suited for me to really do that. While IPR and Key20 may strive for those same ideals, the way their websites are set up and the manner in which they process orders makes that less likely.

Now, Meg’s taken another approach and tried to set up a different distribution scheme that aligns it more with the priorities of a small group of participating publishers. That seems very cool and a much better way to handle it. I’m not sure whether that model would work for me, even if I were to team up with publishers who seem to share some of my priorities — like Clinton and Nathan — but it seems more likely than trying to pursue more traditional sales and distribution schemes. For now, free distribution through Bleeding Play (free electronic versions) and Lulu (print products at cost) is what I’m planning on sticking with for the foreseeable future. But I’m also interested in continuing the conversation with like-minded folks and exploring any other possibilities that might develop.

14 Responses to “Ron on Distribution”

  1. Fred Hicks Says:

    In your specific case, I think you have a lot of clarity about your goals and you’re on the right path given those goals.

    Figured it was worth saying.

  2. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Thanks, Fred. From this looks of things, this could be another shaky transition for a large swath of the indie community, and it’s important to make sure we keep a hold on the human aspects and maintain respect for each other during times like this.

    For the record, you and Brennan are some of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with (or just hung out with) and the fact that I couldn’t pursue my publishing goals through IPR isn’t meant as criticism of you folks or the business you’re trying to run.

    It’s similar, come to think of it, to the way I couldn’t really find my own design / theory voice at the Forge. The Forge is great and I learned a lot there, but ultimately I needed to do something else in order to achieve my goals, and the same holds true with my attempt at commercial publishing, including working with IPR.

  3. Fred Hicks Says:

    Yeah. I’m doing everything I can to remember that this whole thing (yours and Ron’s, both) isn’t a rejection of ME, just a decision that the IPR model isn’t a best fit.

    Hard to remember that when IPR puts a meager amount of cash in my pocket every month for my customer service stuff (“Did I fail these guys? How guilty should I feel?”, etc).

  4. Yeah, it’s tough. Honestly, I feel like it’s a reflection of long-burning concerns about IPR / Key20 / distribution-in-general that haven’t received a lot of open discussion (at least as far as I’ve seen), aside from some folks being upset by the decision to focus more on retail sales (which don’t make much money for publishers that are selling less than 100 copies a year).

    I’m not sure what your (or Brennan) sense of things is, but my sense is something like this:

    1) Brennan was spending a lot of time on IPR in the first couple years, but having trouble doing everything largely by himself. And no wonder! He had planned to sell a few dozen titles but hadn’t counted on being the next Wizard’s Attic.

    2) Having things like SOTC & Dogs go exclusive with IPR, along with a not-coincidental push into retail, allowed IPR to do better than it had been doing previously. Moving a bunch of the same book is also easier, logistically, than moving small numbers of a lot of different books.

    3) Somewhere along the way, people who were selling fewer numbers of books and Forge folks invested in certain values felt like their interests weren’t being supported as much. And here is where things burned underground for a while, because folks weren’t ready yet to invest time and energy in either pushing for big changes or finding other distribution methods.

    4) Things come to a head around GenCon last year, when it becomes clear that the IPR-Forge marriage isn’t working, for a host of different reasons.

    5) Several indie publishers, including folks with a lot of community clout, finally decide to to try something else and put their social, creative, and economic weight behind it.

    Does that timeline gel with yours? Honestly, it’s interesting that there wasn’t any big push to “take back IPR” or attempt to change the direction it was perceived to be going in. I’m not sure if that reflects a kind of “frog in a pot” syndrome, where the complaints were incremental and only became the last straw over time? Or maybe there was something else going on? I’m not sure I can tell, from my perspective, since I missed out on many of the GenCon conversations.

    Still, from talking with a few people over the past couple years, it seems like there was a sense that IPR was making moves to take care of IPR (which were good moves from its perspective, making financial sense) and that publishers might eventually need to make moves to take better care of their own interests.

  5. Fred Hicks Says:

    Yeah, that timeline gels with mine. I don’t feel like we didn’t ask folks to come to us with concerns and tell us how IPR could change, or anything. But it’s clear that whether or not we said that, it didn’t much happen. I don’t resent that, but I do regret it a bit.

    But who knows? It could be the new fulfillment venture will — at least in part — be an exercise in demonstrating IPR’s value-add. That might be a good thing.

    I’m not convinced that IPR hasn’t made moves to take care of publisher interests. I certainly feel as if I’ve pushed for that to happen when I could. But it’s easier for the human animal to take note of a negative than it is to remember a positive, in general, so there may be a bit of that going on here. I don’t know, but as you’ve said, it’s not something to take personally. So I’m mainly working on the mantra that reminds me of that. :) Doesn’t help that all of this went down primarily while I was away on a week’s vacation, so it’s been a lot like getting it all in the face all at once.

  6. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Definitely, though, honestly, it’s a bit telling, I think, that the IPR publisher list has been silent today (though maybe I’ve just been unsubscribed finally, since I don’t have a product there anymore). Seems like, with this kind of movements afoot, it’s important to talk about them in the open, rather than having both employees and member-publishers keep silent because they don’t want to be seen as encouraging folks to leave/stay in regards to IPR. If a bunch of big-name folks are pulling out, that’s important news and everybody else will want to know what that means. Though maybe people are waiting to make “official” announcements, I don’t know.

    Honestly, in the best case scenario, both IPR and whatever new distribution options emerge can push each other to be better. Seems like, while IPR may lose publishers in the short run, any moves will also clearly point to things that people think IPR does less well, which will give IPR an opportunity to respond in some way. Also, it’s always easier to figure out what your service or niche really is when you have good competition, and Key20 and IPR aren’t really competitive in the way that breeds that, necessarily.

    Additionally, surely IPR gives these new distribution schemes a fairly high bar to live up to. I mean, IPR was generally such a huge step up from the other options that it’s not surprising it grew so fast.

  7. Fred Hicks Says:

    Yep, I hear you (and thanks for this discussion, it’s been good).

    I think it’s possible you might not be on the list — I know there’ve been a few messages to come across the members list over the last few days, talking about Q3 performance (web sales were stronger than ever, but spiraling convention costs and the bank fee absorption experiment meant IPR lost money), and other things.

    We’re definitely due to look at what we can do over the next year, but being at a deficit thanks to those convention and bank costs means funding our intentions may be a bit of an adventure.

  8. Good points, guys, and I find myself nodding along.

    In the UK we might end up doing something similar to the New Thing to fulfil in the local market. It would connect us more closely with our consumers in the local region and make economic sense.

    But, for me, I am very happy that IPR is selling my books. I simply could not fulfil the number of units that have gone out for 3:16 since it “popped” (between IPR, OBS and direct at cons it was 620 books and PDFs in Q3!).

    I don’t want to go into three-tier distribution with it, which would be the regular “out” for a games publisher — that would convert me even more into a business for much lower margins. I wouldn’t want to go to something like Mongoose’s Flaming Cobra either.

    So, I am more than happy that IPR gets their share. I will say that the shipping costs were super stiff this last quarter (~$650-$700) but IPR are looking at that. It seems to me, naively, that this is mostly from retailers that “dabble”. The retailers that drop $2k on an order do see economies of scale. It is the ones that take just enough for the publishers to pick up the shipping, but not enough to get the real benefits of mass ordering that are stinging publishers on shipping.

    Anyway, I do what I can to keep my unit costs low as that is where I can most easily ensure I don’t lose money on publishing.

  9. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Gregor, yeah, fulfillment is critical for folks like you and Fred who could move 1000 copies a year of something, largely selling to the mainstream roleplaying audience. The interesting thing to me is watching folks like Vincent (#2 IPR seller) and Ron moving to an alternative system, because their sales volume is pretty big as well.

    Will they sell fewer copies for more money (each, not necessarily total), by hitting their target audience more directly but losing some of their mainstream retail sales (like Paul Czege does with MLWM)? Will they move more towards cultivating a community-based audience that surrounds and supports their games, more like Luke, John Wick, and Greg Stolze do?

    While SOTC started with some of the latter thanks to its Fate roots, it seems like it’s moved pretty firmly into the mainstream now, as much as something like Mutants & Masterminds. And with 3:16, it seems like you’re not interested, Gregor, in creating “the 3:16 community” with a mailing list and a blog specifically devoted to the game and future supplements and the like. You wrote a fun game and you want people to buy it, play it, and ask questions if they need to.

    3:16 sold a zillion copies because 1) it’s good, and 2) fulfills a strong need, not because everybody loved Best Friends so much that they were excited about your next project. But it would be nice, sure, to be able to leverage 3:16 buyers for your next project, since it seems like most of them don’t own Best Friends or Solipsist and aren’t hooked onto you as a publisher, necessarily. And that may mean trying to keep track of sales individually and maintain contact info, which you can’t do as easily through IPR and Key20.

  10. Guy Shalev Says:

    Jonathan, as an outsider looking at it, and who has IPR publisher friends, I think part of it was also the shares.

    The groups who bought the shares coincided with what is best for IPR, as a business, but clashed with those who have other values and/or operate on a different, much smaller, scale.

    Anyway, let’s hope the best for everyone. I always approve of having more choices.

  11. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Guy, sure, I mean, folks selling 50 copies a year probably weren’t in a place to invest in IPR and had no real reason to. And now IPR is answerable, in theory at least, to shareholders who are invested (quite literally) in moving lots and lots of copies of games through IPR, potentially clashing with other priorities.

    Still, I’m not sure the shareholders really exerted significant pressure on IPR to move in the direction it’s currently going. Honestly, I think Brennan has just been looking for ways to make the business more successful. But the composition of the “advisory board” may have had a significant impact on perceptions of IPR and the direction it was heading in.

    Certainly, it would have been nice to have one or two publishers selling low to medium numbers invited to advise IPR on how they could better serve them. And maybe if some of these hard conversations with Ron and Vincent had been had earlier, who knows? I mean, it may already have been too little too late, but some interesting ideas might have come out of it.

  12. Fred Hicks Says:

    Gregor said “So, I am more than happy that IPR gets their share. I will say that the shipping costs were super stiff this last quarter (~$650-$700) but IPR are looking at that. It seems to me, naively, that this is mostly from retailers that “dabble”. The retailers that drop $2k on an order do see economies of scale.”

    To get into bits of the above, just in the interests of getting the info out there —

    – Some of the shipping costs this quarter resulted from shipping stuff to and from GenCon that we didn’t sell out of our booth directly, or which we were handed as additional stock to ship back when the con concluded.

    – IPR has a grand total of one retailer that places orders for $2,000 of product or more — Leisure Games. No other retailer does the kind of business in small press games in their store necessary to support placing an order of more than a few hundred dollars. Leisure Games is only really able to support it because they’re an international euro-focused retailer that does some mail-order business on top of their local, in-store sales.

    – The $200 for free shipping minimum that IPR does for US-domestic retailers is very much tailored to what the retailers are actually able to support in terms of standing inventory in their stores, and to what SHOULD be enough variety in the order (in terms of numbers of publishers represented) that the costs are fairly distributed among the publishers.

    Ultimately though the simple fact is that with oil prices going the way they are, shipping costs are going to continue to increase. Capping the non-retailer, direct consumer shipping subsidy at $5 per $50 of product sold was a good move on IPR’s part to balance the priorities of customers looking for cost-effective shipping and publishers looking to keep their shipping costs down.

    And to bring this around to the topic at hand, I’m going to be very interested to hear how actual shipping costs affect the whole Independently Fulfilling enterprise. They’re steep these days, and worse, they’re steep in a market where customers have come to expect low or no cost shipping with a lot of visibility into the status of their package (tracking info, etc). The former is somewhat possible via the post office (in that books can be shipped via media mail, but then you get a customer service load from folks who don’t understand that media mail means potentially many weeks before the books arrive). But the latter — package status information — is not something that the post office is very good at providing, traditionally — pushing one towards FedEx or UPS, which both offer significantly higher prices (unless your packages are large enough to kick in some economies of scale — not something I’d anticipate being the case with the IF model). So a lot of those publisher savings gotten by moving away from IPR may get eaten up by shipping, unless that shipping information gets tuned really well.

    I’m not saying this stuff to take the piss out of IF either. I’d love to see the venture succeed, but I’m worried that some of the financial and customer support realities may bite harder than expected. (Soaking in this sort of thing 5 days a week may have bent my perspective in strange ways, I admit.)

  13. Guy Shalev Says:

    A tangent on shipping.

    I always noticed that there was quite a difference between how much shipping cost me and the price printed on the envelope, I looked yesterday at some books on IPR, and I think a part of it may be the weight listed for products.

    I didn’t weigh them (yet), but I doubt either Shock: 1.1 or Under the Bed+Journey West weigh 1 pound.

    I like IPR, and the thing that truly stops me from ordering from them more are the shipping costs. I’d understand if those costs were on the par with other places I order, but often, they’re not.

    Also, let’s hope with the recent free-fall of oil costs, that shipping costs would go down as well.

  14. Oh, I think consumers are daft if they think shipping a book to them should be cheap. And why should the Indie Publisher swallow some/all of that cost?

    Look, I buy books and products from Amazon and so on, and pay postage and packing. There’s a cost there for sure and someone has to bear it. Big companies might have the kinds of economies of scale of their shipping operation and a deal with a postal operator to get a bulk deal and bring that unit cost down. Amazon can do it when you order in bulk, but that is the opposite end of the spectrum from where we are at.

    I wonder if the IF plan means that the consumer will pay P&P/S&H up front to the designer and if there is a “free shipping” then the designer can feel that up front? I don’t know what the plans are.

    Oh, I had a look at my numbers for shipping: This quarter it was $685 over 264 books sold, i.e. ~$2.60 a book. Q2 was ~$43 over 59 books sold, for ~$0.73 a book. So, maybe it was just GenCon as Fred says. (Though I suspect 3:16’s sales to retailers mean I’ve been picking up more shipping costs generally. Fair enough.)

    For GenCon I had 50 copies of 3:16, 25 copies of Solipsist and 20 (?) copies of Best Friends shipped down to Indy by IPR. Shipped back were 8 copies of 3:16, no Solipsists and 13 (?) Best Friends. So if the shipping was allocated by sales that’s maybe where I got hit!

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