Wednesday, December 23

Merry Christmas

Right, I'm clocking off for the holidays now, so thanks to everyone for reading this year and I hope you all have a great Christmas (or other winter holiday) and a fabulous New Year and I'll see you all in 2010.

Friday, December 18

The Best Laid Plans

Sometimes you have a great plan, and things outside your control throw everything into disarray.

For the last couple of weeks I've been spending a decent chunk of my time email shops in the US, trying to get them to stock my games. It's been pretty successful, so I am keen to continue. This week, I was going to be playtesting on Monday and I had a hospital appointment Tuesday morning, but other than that I planned to spend 3.5 days on the email campaign.

Monday I went playtesting, then to my German lesson on Monday night. Tuesday morning I nipped over to the hospital as planned. So far so good. I got back to my computer on Tuesday afternoon and experienced yet more internet problems, which had been a continuing problem over the last couple of weeks. Webpages were timing out when I tried to view them, emails were repeatedly timing out when I tried to send them. Everything was a bit flaky. I'd checked with my ISP and they weren't reporting any problems, so perhaps it was a local problem. I pinged Google. Very slow with up to 75% packet loss. Not good. I pinged my wireless router. Very slow with up to 75% packet loss. WHAT? This is not a good sign. I rebooted my computer in Windows (it's a dual boot machine) and got the same result, so it's either a problem with my computer or the router. Then I set up The Wife's computer in my office and her computer was fine, 0% packet loss to the router and 2ms response time. So it was my computer, and since I was getting the same problem in Windows and Ubuntu it was a hardware problem.

This could have been a real disaster, but since The Wife has less need of her computer now, she'd already offered to swap with me. She's also got a work laptop she brings home too. I'd started to install stuff on her machine in Windows (Vista :( ) a few weeks ago, but it hadn't been a priority. Now it was. Wednesday I spent all day trying to get Ubuntu onto her machine. She had a single large partition on her hard drive, so I needed to re-size that to make room for a ext4 linux partition. Fortunately, Vista comes with partitioning tools. Unfortunately, there are some problems. You can't shrink a partition if there are files at the end of it. You need to move the files first. Which you can do with a defragment and optimise. But not if the files are immovable. So I needed to reduce the number of immovable files. This was well into Yak-shaving territory by now. I turned off hibernation, deleted the hibernation file, turned off paging and deleted the page file, I turned off system restoration, and deleted most of the restore points. Finally I was able to run defrag and optimise (two hours), shrink the partition, turn everything back on and install Ubuntu. I finished at 11pm on Wednesday.

Thursday morning was spent setting up Ubuntu how I wanted and re-installing my data. The Wife had booked Friday as holiday, but decided to take Thursday afternoon and Friday morning off instead, so I took those off with her.

So I've got a working computer again, and I got my playtesting done, but not a lot else this week. It's frustrating when unexpected circumstances take control, but every now and again it can't be helped :(.

Thursday, December 10

The Links in the Retail Chain

As I've mentioned before, there are basically four links in the retail chain: manufacturer (that's me!), distributor, shop and customer. Ideally what you want is to get your product to the customer as quickly as possible.

It's possible to skip steps, either by selling directly to the customer (via your website or at a convention for example), or directly to shops, but you'll never hit the big time doing that unless you have an extremely popular website.

What you want to do is get your game carried by most shops. Most shops won't want to order enough copies of a game to make it worth your while selling to them directly, in addition, they want the convenience of dealing with a single supplier (or two) for all the products they carry, rather than dealing with hundreds of manufacturers. So you want distributors to carry your products.

Distributors will either pay you when you invoice them for an order or when they sell to a shop (if the games are 'on consignment'). If they pay on invoicing, they won't place another order until they've sold the first order to shops, so you want shops to carry your products.

Similarly, shops will only re-order your games if customers buy them, so you need to get customers to want your games.

You will get a little help from one link to the next (distributors will tell the shops that they are carrying your products, shop staff will tell customers that your games are available), but you really need to get your marketing to work on each link in the chain.

I've got a pretty good network of distributors, some of which I've contacted myself, some of which have contacted me and some of which have been asked by their customers (the shops) to carry my games. I've spent some money on online advertising and I occasionally make a fuss on BoardGameGeek to contact customers. In addition, I attend Essen, several UK conventions and I'm currently doing a tour of UK game shops to promote my games to customers.

So the missing link is clearly the shops. I've been thinking for a while about how I can best contact the US shops (there's at least 2,500 of them!), while spending the least amount of money. I've considered paying my distributors to advertise my products to their customers; getting volunteers to demo games in their local stores and now I'm trying something new: email.

Email has the advantage of being free, and simple to do. The downside is that any email I send is going to be to a public email address from a webpage which is likely to be heavily spammed, so my emails might not get through, and if they do they might themselves be considered spam.

I'm currently sending a brief email to every shop I can find out about, introducing myself, my company and my products and asking the shop to consider stocking them. I ask them to let me know if they will start stocking them (or do already), and give them an incentive to reply by offering to list them on my website as a stockist.

In addition to sending the emails, I'm building up a spreadsheet of all the shops I find out about, including their contact details (phone number if I can't find an email address) and whether or not they've replied and are a stockist. I'm using the FLGS of the USA meta-thread on BGG as a starting point to try to find out about the shops.

So how's it going? I've had nine replies so far from about 100 emails. Most of them already carry at least one of my games, two are going to carry them from now on. That seems a pretty good response rate for an email marketing campaign. I'm going to keep it up for a few weeks, and see if it leads to any re-stock orders from my US distributors.

Tuesday, December 1

Hobby Publishing: Less Risky

In my last post I showed you just how scary the figures could be for trying to make games for a living. They weren't actual figures for one of my games, but they were indicative. In the comments Daniel asked what about hobby publishing - how does that compare (I paraphrase!). So here's the answer.

Just over three years ago I decided to make and sell some copies of Border Reivers, a board game I had designed over the preceding five years. With little money to throw at the effort and little faith in my ability to sell a lot of copies I chose to go down the hobby publishing route: I would make a small number of copies, largely by hand to keep costs down.

I worked out that I could make 100 copies for £1,255 plus £376 on overheads (I wasn't paying warehousing costs, or myself any salary, but there were a bunch of tools I needed to make the games. To keep costs down I ordered the wooden and plastic pieces all at once (the more you get the cheaper they are), and did the same with the printing. I got a digital printer to do all the printing for me, just onto SRA3 sheets of paper and thin card. I got them to laminate it all to to make it more durable, but I was going to do all the assembly myself. The total price was £1,631 or £16.31 per copy. To cover my costs (plus the cost of attending various conventions and setting up a website I chose to price the game at £30, less than twice the manufacturing cost. I doubted very much whether anyone would pay more than that for it, especially as the cost of shipping would be on top of that. Obviously I couldn't afford to sell to distributors or shops, so I had to hope that I could win enough people over at conventions and via the internet to cover my costs.

With no fixed overheads (no warehousing, no salary) the time it took me to sell the copies didn't really matter - it just came down to whether or not I could. I needed to sell 55 copies to break even, which considering I had no market presence and no reputation seemed like a lot. If I did sell all 100 copies I would stand to make £3,000, or a £1,369 profit.

In the end I damaged some pieces so I only ended up making 96 out of the 100, and some of those I gave away (or kept), I made £2,600, so just under £1,000 profit. Since all those sales were within the first year I gained 60% on top of my original investment, a far better rate of interest than any other savings investment would have offered!