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My experiences of self-publishing FRPG stuff...

Dated: 25 Mar, 2020

So, why am I doing this?  Why am I inflicting my half-baked mad scribblings on unsuspecting, relatively innocent FRPG players?

As I have said before, the concept of Dunromin came out of a college D&D group in the way-back of 1987 and it has been slowly evolving ever since, with occasional bursts of inspiration fuelled by alcohol and ridiculous discussions with friends.  Thirty years is a long time.  The ideas have been scribbled and typed up over the years in many different formats but I am determined to put these collections of thoughts into something that is at least readable, even for people not fortunate (cursed) enough to be in on the games that germinated my seedling ideas.

Basically, I had all this shit in my head and I wanted to get it OUT THERE, where-ever and whatever “there” meant.

I hit my fiftieth birthday and asked myself some serious questions.  “What, exactly, was stopping me?” was the main one.  The only answer I had was “fear”.  Fear of failure, fear of looking an arse, fear of hard work?

And this brings me (in a rather roundabout way) to the subject of this Blog, which is my thoughts and advice on self-publishing as regards FRPG products…

I was very fortunate in terms of the channels and resources I had available to me, in that after a career in IT and with many old friends still in the business I had considerable resources to call upon, whom I will  credit later.

I should mention that I am not the first to try this and would draw your attention to my acquaintance Phil Viverto at These Old Games here.  On his website blog he describes his own publishing experiences so I will not repeat his thoughts here, however both of us have chosen DriveThruRPG as our channel to market.  I have also had a few discussions with Charles Robinson who is designing and marketing his own products as part of an Academic Thesis; more hereThe Fen Orc is another correspondent who has a mighty, passion-driven website here.

But I need to go back further.

First I needed to get my product into a form I was prepared to let other people read.  This was no mean feat and took a lot of time and effort (many thanks to my long-suffering wife) to achieve.  Writing it all down was a major task in of itself – this included spell-checking and re-arranging and then thinking about layout and all kinds of things.  At this point I was assisted by Brian Fazekas who shared some sage advice from his own experiences of editing & Magazine.  He particularly pointed me at GIMP software, which is a free drawing package not unlike Photoshop.  It took me a long while to get to the state I am now and it’s still a long way from competent I think, but it is incredibly powerful.

There was also a key piece of information that came from a Facebook group about 1st Edition Dungeons and Dragons.  A discussion happened at EXACTLY the right time about whether people preferred 1 or 2 column pages.  2 was the conclusion and so that’s what I went for.

And then I realised I needed some artwork.

The look and feel of a publication is crucial.  We all remember the pictures in our first rulebooks far more clearly than we remember the rules themselves I think.  For me it was the tiny picture of skeletons in the Basic D&D Red Book from about 1980.  I would include it here but I am not sure who owns the copyright.  And there I hit the problem – I needed original work!  I can’t just blag stuff of the internet.  Now, I am ok with a pen (I had used Gimp and even done some covers for & Magazine under my pen-name Milo) but it still took another age preparing the pictures for the book.  You need a lot of art for anything like this.  Get some good stuff.  Preferably make friends with some very talented artists some years previously and tap them up for some of their genius sketches. Gareth Sleightholme stepped up and sent me a load of his rough sketches.  I gratefully nicked a load of these, tidied them up a bit using GIMP and put them in.  Top job.

Next I needed a channel to market.  DriveThruRPG seemed the obvious choice due its presence in the marketplace.  I looked at Lulu as well but, although the terms were better, DriveThru has got the all-important market presence and momentum in the RPG world.  Amazon is also popular but they seemed too big and scary to me – too corporate.  So I took the plunge and got in touch with DriveThru.

First impressions were DriveThru are all very regimented, but at the same time simple and logical.  It was obvious they were keen to get your product out there, but the process was respectful and professional at the same time.  I got my own contact for any issues and questions as well, who was brilliant:  Responsive, helpful and patient.  Overall a very positive experience.  In fact I really like the DriveThruRPG platform.  So far it’s all good!

It became apparent though that one thing that was required here, really, was my own website to funnel sales leads through.  This was easy as one of my oldest mates, Bragi, just happens to run his own internet company.  Useful.  He sorted me out with one of his simple templates which fitted the bill, I bought the URLs I wanted and I was off and running.  This stage would have been a LOT more complicated without Bragi’s help (I know what a URL is and even know a bit about network architectures and coding in HTML but that’s it…) so I remain indebted to him for his help; and you're looking at the result.

So my first product was ready to go live and I had the concerns of pricing policy and advertising to consider.

Advertising requires a lot of money to do it right.  I had none.  I would have to try and just get my presence out there and see if word of mouth would help.  I asked around my friends in the hobby to see what they read and what inspired them to try new products out.  I got some very varied answers, mostly costing money…

At this time I was a member of a couple of Facebook groups that were fan-based and I saw occasional adverts for similar through them.  I thought I would try that too – I even joined some more fan sites to see whether they might be appropriate.  This was quite good fun ‘cos I love posting about the hobby and so I made some friends and put some stuff out there.  I didn’t charge in with the advertising on my first posts though.  I am very conscious that no one likes to be spammed.  As a result I have tried to keep my advertising posts low-key and less frequent than my “normal” posts.  Some posts also led to opportunities to reference my work in the chat, which was nice.

Advertising is still my Achilles heel though.  When I bring out a new product I post about it, some people go and look, some of them buy some, that’s about it.  I am not sure how to reach more people without putting more time and money into it.  The amount of time I spend on it is already a sore point with my wife so this situation will probably remain unresolved for some time…

Pricing Policy has proved to be a lot more interesting and counter-intuitive.

Well, I started from the pretty obvious position of wanting to make a bit of money out of the deal.  “Of course” I thought “My genius is so obvious word will spread and I will be breaking the DriveThru payment servers with the demand.”

No.  That is a lie.  I knew it would be small beans all the way through and that no one was going to part with their hard-earned cash for an unknown quantity.  I had to price the product cheap, but not so cheap that it look like I am desperate.  Or so I thought.

I priced my first two books, Player’s Guide and GM’s Guide at about ten bucks each.  The maps I put out for free as a kind of taster, lure sort of thing.  I didn’t shift much (see my comments on advertising above) so after I put out my next product, The Warren, I started to think more carefully about it all.

What did I want from this experience?  What was I trying to achieve?

I quickly realised that actually, I really liked my stuff and thought a lot of other people would too.  I just wanted it out there so people could enjoy it in their own game worlds or whatever.  I wasn’t looking at giving up the day job or anything, so why charge anything at all?  Well, I had run up some bills.  I had registered the URLs and I had printed off some copies as little thank-yous to contributors, helpers and play-testers.  It would be nice to recoup that.

I hit upon the strategy of keeping the core rules at a cost but putting everything else out as Pay What You Want.  Of course I expected the majority of customers would then gleefully snap them up without paying anything.  This was Ok to that Rational part of my brain that realised what was going on, but snagged on my Yorkshire roots that I wouldn’t make much money from it.  It felt like I was giving up a bit, but it did make sense to me – people would be reading my stuff and hopefully getting something useful out of it, although I probably wouldn’t make any money.

And it worked!

I have now had over 1000 downloads all told and, although I haven’t broken even yet, lots of people have pushed a few bucks my way.  It seems people are curious about new products but no so curious that they want to spank a load of hard-earned on them.  Without marketing to create the pull I have to reduce the risk to them to try it:  Since no cash is actually being demanded up front, people seem to feel a lot more comfortable actually pitching in a few dollars here and there; not the full suggested amount most of the time but that’s cool – every little bit helps.

I genuinely appreciate it!  I am grateful to everyone who has downloaded any of my publications, even more so if they have actually read them as well!

If someone downloads it without paying anything that’s fine, of course, I want people to read it, enjoy it and use it.  But if you can chuck a few pennies in the pot as you go that is brilliant too.  I hope people see me as an honest hobbyist just trying to share my good ideas with the FRPG community and don’t suspect me of being some money-grabbing corporate wannabe.

I am only at the start of the journey but I am enjoying it loads.  And I am REALLY looking forwards to the next publication – the big, serious one about the whole World of Barnaynia.  Probably as big as the Players and GM’s Guides and brim-full of cool ideas, notions, cod-science, madness, NPCs, monsters, nations, civilisations, warlords and weird stuff.  It will be a feast!