My Personal Domesday

As easy as it has become to self-publish your RPG, it’s still a fairly daunting prospect. There’s a lot you have to learn and, for the most part, you’re going to have to teach yourself. Sometimes it’s difficult to see what things really cost and how much money you can reasonably expect to make. Fortunately there are many publishers who are willing to share what they’ve learned along the way, helping those of us who are new to the industry with the first steps. Fred Hicks is practically famous for this: regularly revealing Evil Hat’s quarterly sales figures, and providing spreadsheet breakdowns of cost comparisons between print-on-demand vendors. The transparency of small-press and self-published outfits is a boon to anyone looking to join those ranks.

So, in that spirit, I want to share the story of the publication of Chronica Feudalis, my first RPG published in print, and Cellar Games, LLC, the company I started to publish it. I am not claiming to be an expert at this – I don’t know that I’ve fumbled through this process better than anyone else has – but having freshly traversed this ground and by revealing the real numbers behind the process, I hope to provide a solid reference for those who find themselves where I was only a few months ago.

I start a lot of things. Not counting the novels, screenplays, and video game designs, I’ve started writing at least 6 different role-playing games with unique and fairly fleshed-out systems. Chronica Feudalis was begun – practically on a dare by my girlfriend – as an exercise in trying to finish something. My first notes (a skill list and a rough outline) were sketched out in late September of 2008. My plan even then was to bring it to Gen Con Indy in August of 2009.

The first stages of development – concepts, design, play-testing with friends – are all free. Sure, it costs time. But if you ever expect this hobby industry to pay for your time, you’ll be sorely disappointed. You’re doing this because you want to. Getting to do this stuff is its own reward. If you weren’t writing a game, you’d be preparing the next adventure to run for your group, right?

Chronica Feudalis started to cost money when a) I started promoting it and b) I started making it look like a professional book.

Website

I already had web-hosting service from some previous projects. I added, over time, three new domain names: jeremykeller.com, chronicafeudalis.com, and cellar-games.com.

Item: web hosting (through 1and1.com) $29.94 (for 6 mo.)
Item: domain name (jeremykeller.com) $8.99 (for 1 year)
Item: domain name (chronicafeudalis.com) $6.99 (for 1 year)
Item: domain name (cellar-games.com) $6.99 (for 1 year)

Note that these are re-occurring costs. I’ve had to pay the web hosting fee once since I started using it for promoting Chronica Feudalis, and will make a new payment in just a few days.

All three domain names piggy back on the same web space. I’ve done a lot of web-site design through work, so I designed chronicafeudalis.com myself. jeremykeller.com and cellar-games.com just point to the same installation of a wordpress blog so that doesn’t take much more work than setting some preferences.

But this brings me to a point: you’re going to need to know how to do some graphic design and web-stuff on your own. Paying someone else to make your website for you just isn’t cost effective. If you’re not sure if you can make a professional looking website: set up a blog and tweak a pre-existing template to your purposes.

Editing

By February 2009, I had a first draft of the text and I was ready to show it to an editor. I had been talking about the game on RPGnet and Trent Urness actually came to me and offered to edit it for free. Being a new editor, he was looking for an opportunity to establish some experience in the industry. Plus, he lived just on the other side of town from me. So I checked up on him through some friends of mine, had him edit one chapter to start out with, and met with him in person to talk about the project. Turns out he’s a great editor and a great guy.

I decided to pay Trent even though he offered to edit for free. If someone’s working for free, it’s hard to have an expectations of their work or hold them to deadlines. I offered him $150. I think the final manuscript ended up just shy of 30,000 words, so that works out to about $0.005 per word. When he was done, I paid him with PayPal. I added on a few more bucks to cover what I estimated the transaction fees would be. I don’t think that’s standard practice or anything, but it felt like a nice thing to do.

Item: Editing $155.00

Initial Artwork

The next thing to spend money on was art. Generally you don’t want to commission any art until your text is finalized and you have started the layout process. Layout is when you really see what art you need, specifically based on where you need to fill space, where you need to break-up text, and where you need to illustrate a concept or establish a mood or theme.

But even before the manuscript had gone through editing I had a basic idea of layout and I knew that I wanted each chapter to begin with an illumination-esque decoration, a big initial capital, and an illustration of the chapter’s theme. So, before the editing was finished, I decided to commission these art elements.

After posting a call for artists on the RPGnet Freelancer’s forum, I came into contact with Miguel Santos. Miguel has established a strong portfolio displaying some awesome work and a great eye for historical detail. After receiving an initial sketch from Miguel, I offered Miguel $200 total for the chapter border, five initial capitals (for the first letter of each chapter), and five illustrations. I paid half when I started receiving sketches of the final illustrations and half on completion. Again, I added a little extra to cover the transaction fee so that the artist would receive the full, agreed upon amount.

Item: Artwork (chapter headers) $210.00

It was amazing to start to see the artwork come in and the book starting to take shape. The final art and the final drafts of editing came in at the same time. At this point I started the layout process.

Layout

In 2007 and 2008, I had done some freelance typesetting and layout for some extra cash. A friend of mine had hooked me up with this opportunity and quickly taught me the basics that a graphic designer for web and video would need to know about the print world. So when it came time to lay out my own book, I had some idea of what I was doing. Plus I already owned Adobe InDesign and Photoshop.

So, for me, layout was free. If you don’t come to this stage with a strong desire to learn how to typeset and design, much less already knowing how to do it yourself, consider hiring someone for this phase of the development.

Item: Layout $0.00

Layout is the biggest single part of the presentation of your book that people will criticize (I don’t know this for a fact, it’s complete conjecture). Mistakes in the layout process can lead to printing problems or make the text difficult to read. You don’t want to screw this part up.

As the layout process happened I could see right away where I needed additional art.

Additional Art

At this stage, I had just made payments to Trent and Miguel for their work. I was pretty broke. I wanted more interior artwork from Miguel, but I also knew I wanted cover art from him and I only had so much money.

So I drew the remaining interior pieces myself. I actually really enjoyed this process a lot. I would figure out specifically what illustration I would need, draw it and ink it in about a half an hour, and then scan it in and place it on the page. The work-flow was very immediate and helped me to quickly work through the layout stage of the production.

I did have to buy some vector art from iStockPhoto for the maps of the British Isles and Europe. These I populated with place names myself.

Item: Artwork (interior) $0.00
Item: Artwork (map vectors) $18.00

Cover Art

I commissioned Miguel to do a sketch of a cover idea I had. The plan was that I would pay him $50 to work out a concept and sketch it, and then another $150 to render it in color. Miguel sent me the sketch, and while it was exactly what I wanted, it was wrong for the book. It’s a lovely drawing, but it would have made Chronica Feudalis look like a lot of other games out there.

So I asked Miguel to scratch that idea and draw a much simpler concept: a knight on a horse. Line art, simply colored, and in layers so I could manipulate it in Photoshop afterwards.

By this time, I was desperate for a cover. The interior of the book was done, and the only thing holding me back from publishing the book, at least as a PDF, was a cover. So while the new art I wanted was a lot simpler than the original, full-bleed color rendering, I still promised the same money for a quick turnaround of the new drawing.

While I was waiting for Miguel to provide the illustration, I started work myself on the background and the title treatment. I purchased two images from iStockPhoto: the red, grungy, leather book cover and the gold leaf texture. I mocked it up first with one of my own illustrations, and then on receipt of the files from Miguel, I was able to work it into the cover art that graces the book now.

Item: Artwork (cover illustration) $210.00
Item: Artwork (background images) $38.00

Starting a Publishing Company

There are two reasons as far as I can tell to form a publishing company when all you’re doing is publishing your own book. The first is to protect your own personal assets from legal action. The second is to appear like a legitimate publishing company to potential vendors and partners who care about that. Who cares? The people who sell you your ISBN numbers (I think they do anyway, I could be wrong) and Lightning Source (who wants to deal with professional publishers, not every author who wants to self-publish).

To start a company, an LLC in my case, you file some paperwork and pay a fee.

Item: Filing fee $160.00

As I wanted to publish my book in print, I also needed ISBN numbers. Okay, needed is the wrong word. You don’t need an ISBN number to print a book. But a) certain printers require them and b) certain retail outlets require them. It’s just a lot easier to navigate the publishing world if you have them than if you don’t. But they are very pricey expense when all you’re getting is a set of ten 13-digit numbers.

CreateSpace (and I think Lulu has an option to do this to) will provide you with a free ISBN number. But the problem is that this ISBN number is registered to them and so your book is listed with the printer as the publisher. And those ISBN numbers are not transferable to other printers. If I wanted to print my book at Lightning Source, I couldn’t use the ISBN number that CreateSpace provides.

Item: Ten ISBN numbers $275.00

Note that the expenses listed under this category are not specific to the core Chronica Feudalis book. As I publish more books, I don’t have to start a company each time. And I have ISBN numbers now for nine more publications.

Choosing a POD printer

With the editing, artwork, and layout for Chronica Feudalis complete, I needed to weigh my options for which printer to go with. I had already been doing this for a long time actually, but was still not sure which direction to go.

With Lulu and CreateSpace, it’s easy to go to their website and figure out the numbers. The other option I was seriously considering was Lightning Source, but they’re not as up front with their pricing. A friend of mine had recently published a book through them, so he was able to provide some figures.

Chronica Feudalis is black and white, 128 pages, perfect bound, 5.5″ x 8.5″.

Lulu: doesn’t technically have the size I want, but at 6×9, it’s $7.06 for one copy or $4.81 for 100 copies.

CreateSpace: $4.06 per copy. Or, if you pay $39 up front for their Pro Plan, it’s $2.38 per copy. That’s no matter how many you order.

Lightning Source (LSI): $2.57 per copy with volume discounts starting at 50 copies. Plus a $75 setup fee and $30 to ship your proof copy to you.

On paper, it looked like CreateSpace is the best deal. I had heard some good reasons to go with Lightning Source, but all the math pointed to CreateSpace.

Looking back now, I’m still not sure if I made the right decision or not. I had a lot of problems with CreateSpace getting the files set-up. CreateSpace is an automated service and therefore sucks at customer service. But if I had problems with LSI and had to submit my files to them multiple times and order multiple proofs, they charge additional fee each time they have to re-setup your files. And I don’t know if each subsequent proof still requires a $30 overnight fee or if your can choose slower shipping options.

Considering I was a first time publisher, the fact that CreateSpace has no setup fee at all made it easy to start ordering proofs and not feel like I lost a fortune if I noticed something was wrong and needed to fix it.

Setup with CreateSpace

When I first sent my files to CreateSpace I hadn’t received my ISBN numbers yet. I just wanted to know what my book looked liked printed so I set up a dummy title with a free CreateSpace ISBN number and ordered a proof. Came back looking great, but I knew I had a few changes here and there to make.

I ended up ordering three proofs of that initial, dummy title, fixing something between each order.

Item: 3 Proofs ($4.06 + $3.58 shipping ea.) $22.92

Once I received my ISBN numbers, I setup a new title and added on the Pro Plan for $39. I thought I had worked out all the kinks with the previous three proofs, but a problem on their end + bad customer service led me to go through three more proofs to work it out.

Item: Pro Plan $39.00
Item: 1 Proof ($2.38 + $12.58 shipping) $14.96
Item: 2 Proofs ($2.38 + 3.58 shipping ea.) $11.92

By the time all of this was worked out it was August 4th, 2009. There’s just over a week left until Gen Con starts. I ordered 75 copies of the book and prayed and crossed my fingers that they would be printed and shipped to me in time.

Gen Con Indy 2009

The books arrived on Wednesday the 12th of August. I put them in my car, sold six of them to The Source (my FLGS), picked up my buddy and began driving to Indianapolis.

Let’s back up a little bit. I told you that back in September 2008 I planned to design, write, and publish a book that I could bring to Gen Con the following year. Note here that I did that exactly! Not a day to spare.

Here are my portion of the expenses for Gen Con. Note that these are my shares after sharing gas and hotel expenses with my buddy (and he paid more than half of the gas because I did all the driving).

Item: Badge $78.00
Item: Gas $17.31
Item: Hotel $310.00
Item: Food $105.81

Total Upfront Expenses

So, so far I’ve listed all of the expenses before we actually get to the cost it takes to print the product itself. The upfront costs of creating and promoting a product that I could print was…

Subtotal: $1718.83

Printing

Starting with the 75 copies I ordered for Gen Con and going through the end of Q3 2009, these are the three bulk orders for Chronica Feudalis I’ve made. These prices include shipping costs.

Item: 75 copies for Gen Con $198.90
Item: 60 copies to IPR $177.21
Item: 20 copies for myself $57.35

That last order was for copies I could sell directly to game stores in the area or bring with me to small conventions and demos.

Total Expenses

So, the total expenses through the end of Q3 2009 for Chronica Feudalis and Cellar Games, LLC are…

Total Expenses: $2152.29

Pricing

A print copy of Chronica Feudalis is priced at $2o. A PDF is $10. It’s priced comparable to other indie games with similar formats and page counts.

I decided that if you buy the print copy you should get the pdf for free. This works out pretty easy if you buy it from IPR, because you can just grab the print + PDF bundle for $20. If you buy the print copy from a retail store or a convention, you can email me and I’ll send you the PDF for free.

If you’ve already purchased the PDF and want the print version, you can email me and I’ll send you a coupon for $5 off at my CreateSpace store.

Sales

We’ve spent way too much time talking about the money I’ve spent. Let’s talk about the money coming in…

I started selling Chronica Feudalis in PDF form as soon as layout and the cover was complete and I had established Cellar Games, LLC. That was in the middle of June 2009. At this point I was only selling it through One Book Shelf (OBS) – not with an exclusive deal, because I knew I’d be selling through other avenues once I had the book in print.

For a non-exclusive agreement, OBS offers a 65% royalty. So on a $10 PDF, I make $6.50 per sale.

OBS Sales Q2
PDF 37 $240.50
OBS Sales Q3
PDF 61 $396.50

I started selling through Indie Press Revolution (IPR) at Gen Con. I delivered 43 copies to Brennan right on the convention floor. 26 were sold at the booth during the convention, the rest went back to the IPR warehouse to establish the initial stock for online sales. These quickly sold out and I ordered an additional 60 to replenish the stock.

IPR (and this information is available on their Prospective Publisher FAQ, so I’m not revealing any secrets) pays a 70% royalty on direct print sales, an 80% royalty on PDF sales, and what works out to be a 44% royalty on sales to retailers (more accurately IPR takes a 20% cut after giving the retailer a 45% discount). So I make $14 on a direct sale of my $20 book in print (which is bundled with a free copy of the PDF). When IPR sells it to a retailer, I get $8.80. If they sell it at a con, I get the same royalty as if it was a sale to a retailer. I get $8 of my $10 book in PDF format.

IPR Sales Q3
Print (Con) 26 $239.20
Print (Retail) 39 $343.20
Print (Direct) 16 $224.00
PDF 19 $152.00

I’ve also sold 5 copies directly through CreateSpace. The royalty I receive from them is what’s left over after their 20% cut as well as the $2.38 printing cost per book.

CreateSpace Sales Q3
Print 5 $64.10

I also mentioned earlier that I had been selling a few copies directly to my FLGS. So far they’ve reordered from me twice! I give them a 50% discount, so I get $10 per copy.

The Source Sales Q3
Print 16 $160.00
Total Royalties: $1819.50

Final Tally

If you compare what I’ve expended versus what I’ve gained back by the end of Q3 I was still over $300 shy of breaking even. So far into this quarter (it’s a little over one month into Q4 as I write this) it’s close to a wash if not technically profitable.

Looking back at everything now, I can see a few places where I can make smarter decisions on the next book I publish. Certainly I won’t have the expenses of starting a company or buying ISBN numbers next time and I think I can setup files with the printer and not go through so many proofs. I’m still very much considering going with Lightning Source next time. The sales at Gen Con didn’t really pay for going to Gen Con. Though that doesn’t mean the resulting publicity didn’t make it a profitable venture.

Everything said and done, customers bought 219 copies of my game by the end of Q3. Considering that Chronica Feudalis is a niche product in a niche segment of an industry that supports a niche hobby, that’s something I’m really proud of. Honestly, that blows my mind! Several of the retail stores that have picked up the game have made re-orders which tells me that the book is moving in brick & mortar stores. Money aside, this project has been worth it for a some key moments:

  • getting my first proof, holding the finished product in my hands, showing it to my girlfriend, and jumping up and down and doing the “I wrote a book” dance
  • bringing it to Gen Con and running demos for people there
  • giving out copies to my gaming groups who have helped me play-test it
  • hearing/reading game designers who I practically worship talk about my game

It’s been an amazing, invigorating experience, and I can’t wait to do it again.

Leave a comment ?

15 Comments.

  1. This is great stuff, Jeremy! Your game is a fine piece of work and it’s very interesting to see your thoughts on the costs and processes required to get to the finished product.

  2. Nice! And congrats. How close are you to needing a reprint? Are you going to reprint through CreateSpace or go with someone new?

  3. I’m sticking with CreateSpace for the time being. I do reprints in small batches (I just sent another 20 to IPR). Because there’s no volume discount, I figure that smaller batches have less risk and faster turn around times.

    I’m working on a supplement, and when I’m ready to publish that I’m strongly considering moving everything to Lightning Source.

  4. Thanks so much for sharing this, Jeremy. This is invaluable data and a wonderfully clear-eyed look at what it takes to get a book out there. I’m very interested to see how long the tail is on Chronica Feudalis. (I was one of the folks who demoed and bought the game at Gen Con — I ran it right when I got back.) Great post.

    And the Source was my FLGS, too, back when. Great joint.

  5. Thanks for this, it was really helpful for those of us working on a game.

  6. blue collar space – The numbers on Diaspora - pingback on November 10, 2009 at 11:53 am
  7. Thanks everyone for the comments!

    Will, yes, I remember you from Gen Con (we have some mutual friends as well). My plan is to make quarterly posts from here on out with updates of the sales. So check back regularly and you’ll be able to see how CF and future books I publish are doing.

  8. How come the switch to Lightning Source? Is it just more economical for the quantities you want to print?

  9. Really, it’s for customer service. If I have a problem with CreateSpace, I have to fill out a form and wait three days for someone to respond to me. And once that happens, the response I’m likely to get is “try again.”

    With Lightning Source (who I’ve now signed up for an account with) I can pick up the phone and call my account rep. At this point, that’s worth a lot to me.

  10. Makes sense. A human voice is worth a lot in this day and age.

  11. Following the Money | Ditchwalk - pingback on November 10, 2009 at 6:54 pm
  12. Without sounding too much like a shill (Full Disclosure: I am a lawyer), I’d like to just comment on the “Starting a Publishing Company” portion of the post.

    While the paperwork involved in setting up a company is fairly straightforward, some of the choices involved are not. If these choices are new/unknown to you, I would certainly recommend at least speaking to someone with more familiarity … be they a paid consultant or not.

    Additionally, while you don’t have to form a new company every year, most states do have an annual filing fee (particularly for LLCs) that needs to be paid to keep the entity in good standing (i.e. doing what it should be doing for you legally).

    So at the risk of conflating TN’s with skill ranks, here is a break-out of what someone with the ability Business Lawyer should be able to do:

    d4: Form a LLC with a single owner.
    d6: Form a single owner LLC, hiring some contractors or forming a corporation.
    d8 Form an entity with multiple owners.
    d10 Multiple owners and selling product in multiple jurisdictions.
    d12 Hiring full-fledged employees.

    I hope that is helpful.

  13. With CreateSpace you have to give Amazon 40% discount. With LSI you can set a 20% discount. Alternatively with LSI you can set a 55% discount and have distribution through Ingram to e.g., Barnes & Noble etc. Unfortunately you cannot set more than one discount rate with LSI.

    Createspace limits you to Amazon only.

  14. Thanks Paul. You’re right, there is a lot to think about when starting a business and a lot to consider legally when publishing a book. I didn’t go into much detail on those points here as that’s not my area of expertise, so thank you for elucidating on these items in appropriate terms.

    Interesting, John. Good points. Yeah, to be honest I have not looked into distribution via Ingram or Amazon as an outlet. In my mind, and for a small-press RPG, Indie Press Revolution is the best and most direct route to my customers.

  15. Domesday 2: The Reckoning « JeremyKeller.com - pingback on January 6, 2010 at 11:02 am

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