Choosing a Game Book Printer

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series Game Publishing Lessons Learned

Introduction

In April 2012, Neil Carr, a member of the RPGGeek community, started a series of Amateur Kickstarter discussion threads. These discussions were partly his way of bouncing ideas off of the community and partly his way of getting advice about how to get started with a Kickstarter project he had in the works. I took part in these discussions and learned a lot of great lessons from them myself.

Now, one year later, I wanted to reflect and share what I’ve learned from those discussions and from my own experience since then. The more we can learn from each other, the better off the industry as a whole will be.

In this series I will recap, post-by-post, each of the 10 or so discussion topics raised by Neal. I’ll touch upon the topics discussed in each thread and elaborate with new knowledge I have gained since then. This article will feature his third post, “Getting books printed… is it really that easy and cheap?” Use the Series Navigation links on the right to find other posts in this series.

Original Post

I’ve stepped onto the path of being an amateur RPG publisher via Kickstarter. I want to see how far I can travel from zero-to-hero and I’m looking for help along the way. These series of posts are in part just me thinking aloud, but also asking specific questions as I put the pieces together to achieve rpg publishing victory.

I’m wrapping up a survey I did of 150 RPG related crowdfunding projects that has occurred over the last 12 months. There is a lot of interesting patterns that emerged when you lump all of that activity together. One pattern that came through very clearly is the desire of backers to have printed material for rewards, not just PDFs. There was plenty of PDF backing, but backings for print beat out PDF by a decent margin.

I’ve been tinkering with game design for over a decade, however I’ve always held back from taking the plunge because I never felt I was in the right position to take on the financial risks. Now Kickstarter has come along and solved that part of the issue, however there is still the need to get books printed which casts an intimidating shadow. I’ve read countless articles about the game industry and all of the complicated issues, financial risks, even acts of God, that involve getting books printed. You have CMYK issues, economy of scale, proofs, cargo containers, fulfillment services, garages filled with boxes, and that baffling tax issue with holding inventory (why are you being taxed for having a bunch of stuff you paid for sit around in a building?). In the end it all just seems so… logistical, in a tedious way.

Anyway, over the years I longed for print-on-demand to finally solve all of this. Now evidently the time has arrived. You can go to Lulu.com and get all the books you want printed out, and for prices (like $6 per book) that from a layman’s perspective seem pretty cheap. BUT, why bother with Lulu when you could just go to RPGNow and print out books for even less, and have your product integrated cozily into an RPG exclusive marketplace?

I set up my publisher account with RPGNow and was rather surprised at how cheap it is to just print out your book. Say you want to print out a 64 page book with black and white interior. It’s just $3.76 per copy. If you’re rewarding it for $25, then your margin is going to be something around $18 after you take out shipping and the Kickstarter fees.

Wow! That’s a lot better than the $10 your getting for the typical PDF reward level. From the survey I did it’s clear people are more than happy to pay for the print product and so the natural desire for print, matched with the large margin, can really help get all the development and artwork with the project. Going with a hardback option and you’re almost doubling your margin again.

I feel like Sir Robin in the Holy Grail at the Bridge of Death as he exclaims, “That’s easy!” and then marches to his doom. What’s the catch? Is it really that easy?

Besides my surprised incredulity, the one thing that seems to be missing from this print route is a fancy leather bound option. Where do you go to get RPG books printed out in a fancy “deluxe” fashion?

My Thoughts

UPDATED 2013/07/03

Traditionally, printing a book meant finding a printer and ordering a minimum number of hard copies to be made and shipped to you. Each printer had their own minimums, but from what I have read that number could be around 1,000 copies or so. Unfortunately, many RPGs don’t ship more than a few hundred copies during their first run, so that would leave publishers with stacks of books to put into storage until they could find some way to sell them off.

Then came print-on-demand (POD). Publishers no longer have to worry about carrying an inventory on their own; they can simply upload a PDF to the printer and, when someone places an order for it, the book gets printed and mailed directly to the purchaser. This is slightly more costly on a per-book basis than ordering a bulk quantity of 1,000 or more books, but the initial cost to the publisher is low — in some cases even free.

There are three big name POD retailers on the Internet today: Create Space (owned by Amazon), Lulu, and Lightning Source. OneBookShelf (the most popular RPG-specific retail website for PDFs, which includes websites such as DriveThruRPG and RPGNow) uses Lightning Source for their print on demand needs.

Each of these services charges a different percentage of royalties on top of the cost to print the book; that’s the cut of the profit they get from your sales. The amount varies, but I’ll show you a breakdown of each of these services using Psi-punk as an example (note: as of the July 2013 update to this article the page count for Psi-punk is officially 192, but I will continue to use 220 pages as the example).

CreateSpace

Amazon is one of the world’s leading internet retailers, and they back that up with a ton of services available to small business owners and self-publishers alike. CreateSpace is their independent publishing arm, and it’s great for traditional authors.

Here is a breakdown of CreateSpace’s royalties.

Amazon’s royalty percentage varies based on the sales channel through which a customer purchased your book. If the customer bought directly from Amazon, that percentage is 40%. If you paid the extra $25 fee to get listed on other affiliate sites, their cut is a humongous 60%.

In addition, they charge a fixed cost based on printing fees. If your book is full color it will cost significantly more than a black and white book.

Psi-punk is a B&W book with 220 pages. If it were printed through CreateSpace, their per-book fixed charge would be $0.85 + 0.012 per page. That would total up to $3.49.

To calculate my total, I need to set a list price. Psi-punk will list at $30 for the softcover version of the book. So the breakdown:

$30$12 (40%) – $3.49$14.51.

So I would make $14.51 per book. As a side note, if I hadn’t gone the Kickstarter route and I used this royalty rate to fulfill all orders of Psi-punk, I would need to sell roughly 241 books to make up the roughly $3500 invested in the project.

Finally, Amazon has this helpful royalty calculator so you can determine your cost per book without having to look at charts and do the math by hand.

Lulu

Lulu is a big player in the POD market. They have a complete (and dizzying) array of book binding, paper size (trim size), paper quality, and other options. If you have very specific needs, they’re a good bet.

It took me quite a bit of digging to finally find some specifics about how to price a Lulu book. Here are a couple of helpful links:

Lulu Manufacturing Cost Calculator
Lulu Commission Rate

I haven’t found a simple chart that lays out pricing for each option, but after an hour of digging around their site and Googling for answers, I’m giving up on that quest. The calculator + Commission page should help us figure out our costs.

For Psi-punk, I’m going with a 220 page, B&W, Perfect Bound book. Perfect Bound is your standard book binding option for the majority of game books. Lulu also offers Saddle Stitched (popular for adventure modules) which is basically a stapled covered around a packet of paper, Coil Bound, Dust Cover, and a few other options.

For 8.5″x11″ B&W pages on Standard paper, my manufacturing cost per book is $10. Lulu also offers “Publisher Grade” paper which reduces the cost to $7.80, but I have a feeling that paper isn’t sufficient for books with full-page art.

Lulu also charges a 20% commission on all books sold. They take this commission out of the net cost after printing, so if I sell a $10 book for $30 they would get $20 x 20% = $4.

That would make my takeaway $16, which means I would need to sell 219 books to cover my costs.

There’s one other catch though: Lulu’s distribution partners also take a commission. If Lulu sells your book through Amazon, Barnes and NOble, or some other distribution channel (a service I believe you need to buy into), their partners take an additional 20%. That means my $16 profit is now $12, or 292 sales.

In order to get the most out of Lulu, you need to focus on direct sales; selling your book directly through Lulu’s website, which means directing your customers there from your own website or social media channels.

OneBookShelf

I saved this one for last because it’s the biggest player in RPGs. OneBookShelf (OBS) owns DriveThruRPG and RPGNow, as well as half a dozen other websites. They use Print On Demand services through Lightning Source, but they’re significantly cheaper than going through Lightning Source yourself because they’ve already covered all of the set-up fees you would ordinarily have to pay. They also have a huge marketplace with an audience that visits their websites with the intent to buy games.

You need to sign up for a free publisher account to gain access to their chart of POD costs, but it’s the simplest to find and understand of all three of these companies. Their chart is a big table with every option you have and the costs involved with each option. Here’s the table row for the costs associated with printing Psi-punk:

Softcover Black & White Large 108-1,200 1.60 + .02 per page (U.S.) 1.20 + .015 per page (U.K.)

That’s a Softcover, B&W, Large format (8.5″ x 11″) book with a page count ranging from 108 to 1200.

For a 220 page book, I’ll spend $1.60 + $0.02  x 220 pages, or $6 per book.

OBS has two different commission percentages based on whether or not you are an exclusive seller. If you sell only through OBS websites, they take 30%. If you would prefer to have the option to sell through other channels, their commission is 35%.

Since I want to have the option to sell Psi-punk directly through my website or through other channels in the future, I am not an OBS exclusive seller. That means they’ll take 35% of the net sales after manufacturing.

$30 – $6 = $24. $24 x 35% = $8.40. So their cut is $8.40, which means my final cut is $30 – $6 – $8.40 = $15.60. That means I would need to sell about 224 books to make up for my $3500 investment.

OBS looks good. I take home just barely less than what I would by printing with Lulu, but they have a built-in marketplace with a qualified audience. Many RPG publishers will tell you that their sales through RPGNow far surpass their sales through other channels, so it will take a lot less time to recoup that initial investment.

What’s the Demand?

Okay, so we’ve covered the costs of printing and we’ve found it’s actually quite cheap to go with a POD service these days. You don’t need to worry about 1,000 book print runs and a garage to store all of your leftovers in. But with the gradual shift toward PDFs and other electronic book formats, is it even worth your time to bother with setting up POD services? The short answer: Yes.

Tablets have really taken hold at the gaming table, but they’re still not as easy to reference as a book you can just flip over and thumb through at the table. Books don’t require a battery charge or an internet connection, either. There’s still a lot of value in the printed page to a lot of people, and it’s important not to leave them out.

Here’s some more math:

The Psi-punk Kickstarter had 111 backers total. Since then, I received 3 more pledges and 1 pledge upgrade through my Support Page at the Developer’s Blog. That’s a total of 114 backers, only 8 of which did not pledge at a high enough level to receive at least a PDF copy of the book. That means 114 – 8 = 106 people will receive a copy of Psi-punk when it ships.

Only 41 out of 106 people opted for the PDF only pledge, and of those I received feedback from at least one person that they would have preferred a hard copy but didn’t want to pay the international shipping rate. Still, I’ll count that person as PDF only.

That means of the 106 people who are receiving a copy of the game, ~38.7% are only receiving PDF copies of the book. The majority of backers, about 61.3%, opted for hard copies. 

This is just one Kickstarter project, but if we analyzed others I am sure the results would still favor hard copies over electronic-only copies of the book.

Conclusion

The barrier to entry for publishing RPGs has been dramatically reduced over the past couple of years, and now virtually anyone can get into the market. If you do, consider your options carefully about how you want to sell your products. My recommendation would be to use OneBookShelf for your PDF anPOD distribution needs, but to leave your options open to sell through other websites such as d20pfsrd.com, e23, paizo.com, and others.

Did you enjoy this week’s article? Still have questions or comments? Use the Social Login option (left column) to sign in and leave a comment. Then tune in next time for part four in the series: “What video editing software to use?”

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About Jacob Wood

Jacob founded Accessible Games because he wants to spread the joy of gaming to everyone, including people with disabilities. He is visually impaired and knows what it's like to need to adapt, and he brings two decades of gaming experience to the table.
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