My First Printed Game
The summer of 2021, I made a one-page dungeon called Murky Bog, and I thought it looked cool, so maybe I'd try getting it printed.
- Pamphlets are tough. I mistakenly thought they would be easier.
- International shipping is tough, especially if you are going to carefully follow the law.
- Branching out from Twitter can be helpful.
- Selling physical things is more work, but it pays off (with a sample size of 1.)
Step 1: Is there interest?
I tried itchfunding. It was kind of a weird experience. It was successful in the end, but not how I'd expect.
I set a target of $75, which was about half the cost of ordering the physical copies, minus a rough estimate of the itch.io overhead. I figured if I could raise that much in a month, there'd be enough interest. It might seem like a small number, but I had never gotten that much money from a game in a month. And I made it! Mostly through a lot of advertising, plus the fact that Mork Borg was quite popular by then, and there were places that were open for advertising, including the subreddit. At the very least, itchfunding motivated me to go out and market it with some urgency. I did not however achieve the levels of success that are considered normal on kickstarter.
Ordering Physical Copies
I ordered from Mixam, which was a pretty pleasant process. I looked at some more local places, but they wanted you to fill out a form and get a quote, and I got the impression they mostly handle political mailers, so I wasn't sure they'd be able to do this format. I would consider looking into them more in the future, though. I'm very interested in other peoples' experiences and the pros and cons here.
I first ordered a pack of samples, and decided to go with 100lb. Cover paper Satin. I'm quite happy with what I got, except I think 100 lbs was actually too much. I worried that it was sufficiently rigid that it would be likely to be permanently damaged if bent, so I ended up adding a second, non-machineable stamp to the envelope I sent it in, which necessitated walking 20 minutes each way to the post office, which meant I didn't mail them all that often, although it was a good way to get me to go for walks.
Selling Physical Copies on Itch.io
The main takeaway is that this is good and a cheap option, as long as like going for a walk during the hours that the post office is open anyway, and don't consider that as time to pay myself for, otherwise it isn't worth it at all.
Being able to fit things in a standard letter sized envelope and mail them via USPS was really nice. It kept costs way down. For that reason, my next game is A6, which fits in a greeting card envelope.
I sold 21 over apparently 71 days. I'd go to the post office about once a week, or after a few had built up. Towards the end I was taking only one to the post office here and there. I got the biggest single batch of sales after posting on Reddit. Referrer data shows that twitter was probably the biggest source (but spread over a longer time period), and Ex Libris was second after twitter.
I spent a bunch of time looking into international shipping. Strictly speaking, it seems like you aren't supposed to send things with a monetary value in the regular letter-sized mail internationally, presumably because that bypasses the customs/exports stuff they do. I am guessing some people ignore this, but as a non-citizen (permanent resident) I try to be extra careful in following the law. This meant reaching out to stores to find someone who can ship internationally. They also have a bigger audience than me.
Selling to stores
It's a bit more stressful, because you have to contact an actual person and then wonder until you hear back if they're going to hate it. But I generally had really good experiences here. Most of them were quite friendly and helped guide me through the process, even if they weren't interested. For instance, one said they currently aren't looking for pamphlets, but got me onto a discord where I could meet other booksellers. Two others were interested, and I more or less stopped there.
I read a guide online once that said that costs usually go up at least 2x at each step, so you sell wholesale for at least 2x what it cost to print, and they sell for at least 2x that, maybe a bit more because they generally pay the cost of having it shipped to them, and shipping can be a big part of the total cost. This was useful at giving me some idea how to price things.
You'll have to package them for sale, obviously, and you want to make sure they are well packaged, but also with a small number of paper products, the packaging can be a big part of the weight, and the weight determines the cost to ship. I kept a bunch of old rpg book packaging, which was really convenient for figuring out what what works to package it, rather than go buy something that ends up being too big or too small or something, and I was able to get it just under a threshold after which the price would jump a lot.
Did I judge things right?
It didn't take too long to recoup my initial investment, itch alone covered it. It took a bit of time, though, so I spent a month or two worried I'd sell 20 max and be stuck with the rest forever. I printed 100 because 100 cost only slightly more than 50, but there is the psychological effect of having a mostly full box for a while, when I regretted that decison. But in the end so far I have passed 50 sold.
When asking for advice, someone said 200 copies should be easy to sell. I'm glad I didn't listen. One challenge when finding information on this stuff is that the more successful someone is, the more you are likely to hear from them, so the general conversation on how to be successful is biased towards people more successful than average, who think their experience is representative cause that's who they are hearing from as well.
I'll probably avoid pamphlets in the future. They're definitely harder to sell, and more expensive to make per word. I would also use a lighter weight paper. I didn't realize how much the weight of the paper actually affects the cost of shipping.
The numbers (in USD)
- 35 * 3 = 105 total in selling to stores.
- Itch sales: 163.21 in sales + 80.28 in tips. Credit card processors got 28.78, and itch got 23.91, leaving 190.80 after all fees.
- Upfront cost of mixam: 133.62 total (1.33 each). I should have gone with a lighter weight paper and brought the cost down.
- Amount spent on shipping for itch distribution: 0.57 in base stamps, 0.21 in non-machineable stamps, 0.05 per envelope, for 83 cents total per item mailed. This is assuming I'll eventually use all of the sheets of stamps and the envelopes I bought.
In the end, I made 145.58, by far the most I've made on a game (including on 5e adventures). Federal minimum wage is 7.25, and more than twice that locally where I live, and I definitely spent more than 10 or probably even 20 hours on this. So I would say this very much remains a hobby. It is however moving into the territory where I could maybe start thinking about eventually commissioning art for a cover or something though. I think for my next product I'll even hire a professional editor.
Next Project - Zine Month
I'm doing zine month. An initial version can be found here. My tentative plan right now is to use itchfunding to raise the money to pay for professional editing. While I wait for that money to come in, I'll try and figure out how or if I want to expand the product a bit. I'll then raise money to pay for printing physical copies, and if you're in the US, give discounted physical copies to people who previously paid for a PDF, assuming I can get the logistics to work. I'll still do international shipping via third parties, and I'll send the booklet in a greeting card sized envelope via USPS for super low shipping costs.