Post-Kickstarter Fulfillment

This entry is part 10 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 ninth and final post, “The Costs and Complications of Shipping.” 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.

Rather than asking questions in this post I’m just speaking aloud as I work out some costs and expound on my own experience shipping from within the States. Shipping is one thing that I’m well versed in because I’ve spent the last decade slowly selling off the grotesquely large game collection I’d been building up for a long time, but over indulged during the rise of eurogames. I’ve shipped over 500 packages in that time.

I’ve shipped stuff all over the world and, indeed, shipping can get pretty expensive depending on what you ship and how big it is. Oversized packages really can be a nightmare with international shipping prices, but thankfully in the RPG world this isn’t really an issue.

Fortunately for RPGs weight and bulk normally are not that big of an issue. I’ve always used the US Postal Service for shipping. The main reason being that you get their priority mail boxes, along with a lot of other packaging bits shipped to you for free and you can just have outgoing packages picked up right from your doorstep when the mailman comes by each day.

Book and Packaging Weight

In getting some projections on shipping costs for my Kickstarter I pulled a bunch of different RPG books off the shelf, weighed them and then figured out some of the more extreme shipping costs that I could encounter.

Typically one doesn’t have both a soft and hard back version of an RPG book, but I happen to have both version of the D&D 3.5 Player’s Handbook:

320 page softcover 1 pound, 14.8 ounces
320 page hardcover 2 pounds, 8.3 ounces

That’s a 9.5 ounce difference in weight.

Average book weights:

60 page softcover 7 ounces
100 page softcover 12 ounces
140 page hardcover 1 pound, 4 ounces
320 page softcover 1 pound, 15 ounces
320 page hardcover 2 pounds, 8.3 ounces

The weight of a priority mail box is around 8 ounces for those that would comfortably fit an RPG book. Packaging, such as bubblewrap that is sufficient to enclose a book comes in at something below an ounce, but should simply be rounded up to an ounce.

Domestic Shipping Costs

I went to the USPS online shipping calculator and put in the weights to see what would come up. It should be noted that I have a USPS digital scale to ensure that my weights are accurate. Vermont fortunately is essentially on the east coast of the US so I was able to target places like California, Alaska, and Hawaii and know it was going as far within the US as is possible. When I plugged in zip codes for all three of these states I got back the same prices. The results were:

60 page softcover: Priority = $6.20, Media Mail = $2.47
100 page softcover: Priority = $9.62, Media Mail = $2.89
140 page hardcover: Priority = $9.62, Media Mail = $2.89
320 page softcover: Priority = $12.82, Media Mail = $3.31
320 page hardcover: Priority = $15.46, Media Mail = $3.73

Media mail is looking pretty good. We should consider ourselves lucky that RPGs are primarily a book based medium because boardgames or basically anything else would needs to pay much higher prices to get anything shipped.

Media mail requires getting your own boxes, you can’t use the free Priority Mail boxes. If you head over to U-Line you can get 100 mailers which would cost me $74.19 ($54+$20.19). That comes out to 74 cents per mailer.

One drawback to media mail is that you can’t pay for it online. You have to go over to the post office and do it all manually. A real pain if you’re trying to ship out scores of packages, but that’s how it goes. With priority mail you can get it all done in your home online, pack it all up and then get the mailguy to pick it all up for you. Much more convenient, but you are tripling your shipping cost.

To Bubble Wrap or Not

You can go cheap and not wrap your book. My preference over my decade of shipping on ebay is to properly protect everything I send out. The grief and hassle of dealing with someone unsatisfied with the condition of the item isn’t worth it to me personally. Out of the hundreds of packages I’ve shipped, only once did someone complain about the condition they received the item and from the description of the package they received it sounds like something terribly wrong happened in transit. They thought I should have packed things even more, but from my vantage point it represented a 0.18% failure rate due to conditions beyond my control. To reduce that further would double the cost of packing material.

Bubble wrap isn’t cheap, but it’s cheaper than foam peanuts. Get the small bubbles and not the big ones. If you go into an office supply store like Staples you can get a roll of 175 feet for right around $20 with taxes. Wrapping up a book is going to take 2 to 4 feet depending on the books thickness. So a roll will get you 43 to 86 books wrapped up. For wrapping you’re spending 0.23 to 0.47 cents per book.

Tape and Ink

Two other things you’ll need to factor into the shipping cost is tape and inkjet costs. Inkjet needs to be considered because printing out 100 labels via online priority mail shipping, or just want a clean label for media mail that you imported from the list of addressed you get from Kickstarter, then it’ll be some chunk of those expensive ink cartridges. They are around $30 each, so maybe $10 of that will go to your labels. And by label I mean anything. I normally print out on regular paper and just tape it to the package, but you could go get some Avery labels that are formatted for specific sizes.

A place like Staples will sell lots of different varieties of tape. I just get their store brand in bulk for my ebay needs, but for a small crowdfunding project you’ll likely only need two to three rolls. You want some kind of tape dispenser. Usually packing tape comes with a built in cutter, I happen to have a dedicated one and then mount tape rolls into it. I have to say, trying to tape up scores of packages with scissors will lead to your own unique insanity. It will take forever and you’ll endlessly find the tape sticking to itself and pushing you to invent new creative ways to cuss and froth at the mouth. Here is a $15 package deal.
Adding it all together

Say you have a successful crowdfunding project and need to ship off 80 softcover books to people within the US. A shipping cost breakdown might look something like:

Boxes $75
Tape $15
Bubblewrap $20
Shipping ($3×80) $240
Paper + Ink $20

Total is $370. Now if this is so successful that you have to ship 80 books to people then you’ll likely have brought in $2000+, so it should not be a huge burden, perhaps being 20% of your funding.

International Shipping

Where domestic shipping just takes a reasonable chunk out of your funding, it’s international shipping that could really hurt you unless you plan accordingly. For the US shippers the two main options are Priority Mail and International First Class Mail. First Class will be cheaper, but often are much longer shipping times.

Here are the costs for the books I sampled if they were going to Germany from Vermont:

60 page softcover: Priority = $30, First Class = $11.60
100 page softcover: Priority = $32.54, First Class = $14.74
140 page hardcover: Priority = $32.54, First Class = $16.31
320 page softcover: Priority = $36.58, First Class = $21.02
320 page hardcover: Priority = $40.61, First Class = $25.73

First Class, right? Probably, but just like media mail in domestic shipping, you can only do First Class International shipping at the post office. The convenience factor is there, however regardless of Priority or First Class you have to go into the post office and interact with a clerk to get international packages off. You can’t just have them picked up at your house.

In terms of price, do your homework and then price accordingly. Since you are likely eating the domestic charges for shipping (roughly $5) just take whatever shipping cost your research gives you and deduct $5 from it and you’ll have what you need to charge international backers.

If you find that you need to send several books to one address, perhaps a retail store wants several copies, then look into the Flat Rate Priority Mail Boxes. This might end up saving you a lot of money as you can cram quite a lot of weight into a single box.

The Customs Man Cometh…

It’s nearly inescapable, tedious and with stoic resignation you just need to take a deep breath and face it head on.

International shipping usually requires a customs form to be filled out. Rather than have anyone get mad at me, I’ll just quote the website:

Quote:
Generally, you’ll need a customs form for all international mail except First-Class Mail International® items and Priority Mail International Flat Rate™ Envelopes that weigh less than 16 oz, are no more than 3/4″ thick, and which contain only documents.
So you might be able to dodge this whole affair if you stuff a thin book into an envelop and send it off. I’m going off the assumption of better packaging and heavier books with this discussion.

With ebay they have integrated paypal and the US online shipping service to the point that a lot of the tedium is gone. You just print out the prefilled out forms, sign them and then stuff them in a special clear plastic pocket that displays the shipping details. However all of this has to be done manually with a crowdfunding project. You can get this paid for and printed out with the online postage service and so that can help reduce the amount of details you have to write onto the forms, but if you have a lot of customs forms to fill out you’re just going to have to suck it up and grind through them.

Lastly, with customs forms, always physically write out your return address and the sendee’s details on the box itself. The customs forms get pulled out of the pocket and get moved around and to avoid mistakes beyond your control just make sure that in the end someone can figure out where the box needs to go regardless of what happens to those forms.

Conclusions

If you aren’t familiar with boxing up a lot of items and sending them off, it takes a sizable amount of time and expense. When I ship out batches of ebay items, amounting to 10-15 packages, it can take almost a full work day of time to get all of the niggly details worked out and moved out of the house and into the shipping stream. There is always some complication that comes up with an address, packaging, customer issues, or you simply forgetting a key detail once you get to the post office. Having someone accompany you to the post office is a huge benefit because you’re likely going to be standing in a long line, juggling lots of packages, needing to quickly fill out some last detail, and so on. Thus plan your time accordingly and see who might be able to help for a few hours.

If you plan to do as much work at home and online then buy a USPS digital scale, using some other scale (God forbid a bathroom scale) you’re just opening yourself up to surprises and delays.

My Thoughts

Wow, talk about thorough!

I love this breakdown, and it comes right from the mouth of a person who’s done a lot of shipping. If you’re going to fulfill your Kickstarter orders (or any other large number of RPG book shipments) this is some really great advice.

However, it’s also slightly dated. Even a mere one year later, the landscape of shipping RPG products has changed dramatically. I discovered this while shipping my own books to Psi-punk backers. Here’s what I’ve learned.

OneBookShelf Is Your Friend

If you’re selling RPGs, chances are pretty high that you will already be preparing to sell PDFs through OneBookShelf. If you’re not, you should be; they’re the largest online retailer of RPGs and you’d be missing out on some huge sales opportunities if you don’t use their services. The good news is that you can make your partnership with OBS a double win for you.

In addition to PDF sales, OBS handles Print on Demand. I’ve already discussed POD as an option, and I still feel strongly that their services are the best available for RPG publishers. My layout artist for Psi-punk wasn’t pleased that their printer doesn’t offer full bleeds for black and white books, but I found that to be of minor importance compared to their overall ease of use.

If you do decide to use OBS’ print on demand services, you’re in luck. As recently as May 2013, they began allowing publishers to add 100 unique addresses to their address books. To a Kickstarter-funded publisher, this means three important things:

1. You can ship directly to your backers without shipping to yourself first. There’s no need to pay for shipping twice anymore. You do pay a $1.50 transaction fee per order, but I used some Excel-fu and determined that, for the 54 unique addresses I had to ship to, this still cost me less in the end.

2. OBS uses a company called LightningSource to do their printing. LightningSource has printers in the US and the UK. Any order that ships to itnernational destinations will be shipped from their UK facility, meaning you no longer have to pay $30 to ship a book to Germany (I shipped a box of 8 books to a store in Germany for less than $30).

3. Remember what Neil said about Customs? Because LIghtningSource does the fulfillment, they do all of the customs work for you. I didn’t have to fill out a single Customs form and I shipped to about 12 international addresses.

It was somewhat tedious having to fill out each address by hand (they don’t have a bulk address import option) but I found the benefits to far outweigh that minor time commitment. If you’re using POD services through OBS, I highly encourage you to fulfill your orders through them as well.

Note: OneBookShelf also does print-on-demand card games now. If you’re publishing a card game and not an RPG, you can take advantage of the same services.

The typical cost to ship from OBS via USPS MediaMail was $4.49, plus the cost of the printed product (in my case, $5.44 for the softcover and $10.55 for the hardcover). International orders cost between $5 and $11 for softcover books, depending on where the books were going (I had some that went to Australia from the UK). That price includes the $1.50 transaction fee.

Manual Shipping

Even though OBS helped me cut down on my fulfillment time, there were still a few books that I had to ship myself. These were the books that had to be personalized with signatures and those which had to be shipped with T-shirts. I had one giant batch of about 25 books sent directly to me. About a dozen of those books didn’t get shipped out; 6 go to game stores here in Portland and a few others go to Portland locals, so they’re being delivered by hand to cut down on costs.

Those books which I did have to personalize and ship were the ones which ultimately cost me the most per-unit. In addition to the initial cost to ship the books to me, I had to turn around and ship them to my backers. Unfortunately, since most of these books were bundled with T-shirts I couldn’t use USPS Media Mail; they have strict policies regarding what can and cannot be shipped via Media Mail, and T-shirts are not on the list of valid products.

I shipped USPS First Class to addresses ranging from nearby Nevada to far-off Tennessee (relative to my location in Oregon) and that cost me $6.40 to $11.15 or so, depending on destination. Again, that’s in addition to the cost to ship to me originally, so in total I paid about $8 to $14 to ship each of these products.

Luckily, my T-shirts cost me nothing to ship from the printer because the printer was my brother. It’s all about who you know, right?

In retrospect, I’m not sure I would offer personalized physical products in the future. It doubled if not tripled my shipping costs for those specific items, and while the backers did pay significantly more for those things, it also added additional headache and hassle to get them shipped. I think in the future I would try to offer backer rewards that didn’t include other physical goods, or at the very least I’d make sure the books themselves don’t need to be personalized.

Stamps.com

One service I would like to highlight if you’re going to be doing any personalized shippig is Stamps.com. If you’re not shipping via OneBookShelf (for example, if you’re using a traditional printer or shipping board games and other physical products) you can save yourself a lot of time by using Stamps.com. Note that I am not an affiliate of Stamps.com and I”m not getting any money for mentioning them.

Stamps.com is a subscription service with a base starting price of $16/mo, but you get a 14-day free trial when you sign up. Take advantage of that free trial, because it’s not worth the extra monthly cost if you’re not going to be a regular shipper. They advertise a savings up “Up to 80%” on postage, but in reality they wound up costing me something like $0.18 more per product to ship. That was worth it to me, and the reasons are simple:

The Stamps.com software is quite powerful. It’s not the most intuitive software to use and I even had to go to the Help dialogue a few times to figure out what I was supposed to do, but once I got the hang of it, the program saved me quite a bit of time. Even though I was only shipping about 7 packages by hand, I can see the benefits of using them. If you’re shipping a large number of packages, even better.

The reason is that you can import all of the addresses from your Kickstarter backers with just a few steps (I’m not going to say easy steps, but a few steps nonetheless). KS lets you export your backer lists (including addresses) to an Excel spreadsheet, which you can then convert to a CSV (Coma-Separated Values) file. Stamps.com then imports your CSV file and voila, you have all of your backer addresses in one convenient place. (Bonus: you can import the same CSV file into your Google Contacts so you can bulk import e-mail addresses if you need to. Please exercise good judgement when sending bulk emails to backers through a service other than Kickstarter Backer Updates.)

At that point, you can choose to print postage for as many addresses you want in bulk. Provided you’re shipping the same product weight to multiple people, which is pretty much a sure thing if you’re shipping a large amount of books.

For example, you can enter the weight of your book, select Media Mail, and tell the program to print postage for all of your backers who are getting that specific book.

There is one issue: you have to pay for postage before you print. Basically, you have to load up your account with cash (which you can do from within the program using a credit or debit card) and then have the cost deducted from your account. It’s a bit of a pain, but for the ease of printing I felt it was worthwhile.

How do you know how much your product weighs? Well, if you’re printing through OneBookShelf they tell you. My 192-page softcover book was 1.01 pounds while my 192-page hardcover book was 1.64 pounds. I plugged those values into the Stamps.com software and it told me how much each would cost to ship and it gives you a convenient comparison between Media Mail, First Class, Priority, and Overnight. I noticed that just about any Media Mail product under 2 pounds costs about $2.99 to ship anywhere in the country via Media Mail these days, but First Class and other shipping methods vary based on distance to the destination address.

If you’re not printing through OneBookShelf, you may be able to get an estimate of weight from your printer. Otherwise, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll fall under that 2 pound weight range for Media Mail unless your book has a significantly high page count. At that point, it may be worth it to invest in a digital scale, or you can just enter 3 pounds or 4 pounds. The exact weight doesn’t matter as long as you pay enough postage to satisfy the fine folks at the post office.

Finally, I should point out that Stamps.com does require a credit card to sign up and does not allow online cancellation of services, even within your trial window. Yep, they’re content to be in the dark ages and force you to call customer service to cancel your account. Yet another hassle, but yet another hassle I feel is worthwhile if you’re going to be shipping a large number of books or other products.

Final Total

My final total to both print and ship about 70 books was roughly $1061 USD. That includes the cost of the book materials (the largest portion of the cost) and the shipping costs.Some of those books were bulk orders to a single address (one store ordered 8 books) and a few were local orders that I don’t have to ship a second time. That was a larger percentage of my total Kickstarter budget than I anticipated, and I know I saved some money by shipping directly through OBS.

If you remember my Psi-punk Post-Kickstarter Statistics post, you may recall that I estimated between 15% and 20% of my total budget going toward shipping. That was between roughly $700 and $934. My final total was 23.78%, or $1061 — higher than my highest estimate. Thankfully I saved money on art by coming in below my budget, so ultimately I wound up not having to pay out of pocket to finish fulfillment. Also, I did order a few extra books to have on-hand for sale at conventions and to other locals, and I hadn’t anticipated the two proof copies of the book I had to order for myself; that total was probably $70 or so on its own.

When estimating your shipping costs, remember you need to order some books for yourself!

Final Thoughts

That concludes the Game Publishing Lessons Learned series. I hope you found some use out of it — feedback has been great so far, but I always love to hear from you. If you ejoyed this post or this series of posts, please tell your friends and fellow game designers about it. Also, feel free to ask me any follow-up questions you may have. I love sharing this information with you and would not be opposed to doing a follow-up FAQ post!

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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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