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RPG Success Stories

Not Just Another d20 Product
by Monte Cook

[Editor's note: The surtitle was mine, not Monte's, in case he be accused of immodesty. Incidentally, I was going to use the title, Cooking the Books, so things could be worse.]

While the success of d20 in the early part of the decade is undeniable, starting in 2003 (and perhaps earlier), manufacturers began running into a brick wall that I like to call "Just Another d20 Product" syndrome. With so many different publishers producing d20 material on every conceivable topic, the channel was flooded. Every game store had far too many d20 products. Worse, every obvious topic was covered by multiple companies multiple times, and virtually every unobvious topic was… well, perhaps unobvious for a reason, although that didn't stop the books covering those topics from being published.

After a while of this, one d20 product begins to look like another to both retailer and customer. A retailer thinks to himself that they're all the same; stocking twenty books at a time is just fine, regardless of which books they are or when they were released. Similarly, to the end users, the process of buying d20 books becomes blasé -- they simply check to see if anything new happens to strike their fancy. They browse the new-this-week shelf at the store as casually and disinterestedly as someone flipping through a magazine.

For some companies, the answer to this problem seemed to be a buckshot approach: put out as many products as possible, covering as many different topics as possible. Dominate the market and stand out from all the other products by simply having a large company presence. Recognize that retailers aren't going to reorder "just another d20 product," so rather than fighting that, make next month's order take the place of that reorder you wanted. This technique also has another benefit: When a retailer cuts back on d20 purchases, he's perhaps more unlikely to cut a line of products already possessing a major presence on his shelf.

It became clear to us at Malhavoc Press that the buckshot approach, even if a good idea, wasn't possible for us. Although we have published the work of multiple authors, our company is basically a design studio created for one writer and one editor (myself and my wife Sue). There's no way we could put out multiple products each month, or even one every month, even if we wanted to. Not if we wanted them to be any good.

Our approach to overcome "Just Another d20 Product" syndrome was to produce fewer books, but to make each release an event. Each product would be something special. Plenty of other publishers before us and after us have tried this approach, of course. And it works if done right. The problem many publishers run into is the temptation of combining the two approaches. They say, "Hey, full-color hardback books sell better than smaller books. Let's start doing these really special books more often." What happens is that the criterion for yesterday's "big event release" becomes the criterion for today's "just another product." Throughout the course of the d20 phenomena, we have seen things like hardcover books and full-color artwork become commonplace. The consumer is no longer wowed by such things, he simply expects them.

It seems to me that if you're going to use an approach that says each product is special, you've got to stick to it. If you don't, it not only doesn't work, it makes things worse.

The Publishing Event

So it behooved us to reach farther for criteria that would designate a book as being something special, and not just another d20 product. We of course strove for quality, but presumably most publishers do that -- certainly all claim to. Our version of that came in the form of what was entertaining writing, solid rules, and lots of playtesting.

But it's not just a matter of making a book special. We realized that we needed to act like it was something special. Eager, excited customers buy more and enjoy what they have more after they've purchased it. They're more invested in a whole product line. I realized that if instead of putting out two books, I put out one book with twice as much work, I sell twice as many of the book. And as any publisher knows, you'd much rather sell 6,000 copies of one book than 3,000 copies each of two books. An important part of this concept is that much of the additional work going into the one book is promotion, previews, free web enhancements, and so on.

This strategy began in 2003 with the release of Monte Cook's Arcana Unearthed. Even the name, using my name in the possessive-while risking an aura of pretentiousness and self-aggrandizement-was designed to say that we thought the book was something special. We announced the book far ahead of time and started online "design diaries" in which I talked about what went into the creation of the book. We did massive previews and numerous web enhancements ahead of time. We encouraged discussion and speculation on message boards. We made brochures for retailers and customers. We made deals with other publishers to create tie-in products like miniatures and adventures. The result? The line at its Gen Con release wound around the booth on Thursday. We sold 730 copies of the book at that show alone, and-while it seemed that most of the d20 industry was facing hard times in the wake of the release of 3.5-we sold approximately 30,000 copies of the book. This isn't meant to be a boast, simply a fact to prove the point that the approach seems to be a very valid one.

The culmination of this strategy is Ptolus: City by the Spire, a book that debuts at Gen Con 2006. Ptolus is what I believe to be the most deluxe game product ever offered. It is 672 pages long, full color, with art on every two-page spread. It has a textured cover, three bound-in satin bookmarks, and a packet of twenty-four player and DM handouts, a two-sided poster map, and a CD with 700 pages of additional content. We've employed every conceivable method to make this mammoth book easy to use. Every time an important term is used in the book (person, place, artifact, organization), it is cross-referenced with a notation in the margin. It's indexed within an inch of its life. We've used colors and symbols (and sometimes small pieces of art) to remind the reader of important organizational information. And, hopefully, the material is good. It's certainly extensively edited and playtested.

The point? No one is going to call this book "just another d20 product."

We announced Ptolus a full year in advance. Our promotional efforts have included posters, brochures, design diaries, previews, articles in many magazines, an aggressive ad campaign in Dungeon and Dragon, miniatures, more partnerships with other publishers, and a comic book.

The Electronic Marketplace

It may seem contradictory that the company that started out as an early innovator in PDFs puts such trust in making lavish, full-color books. At the risk of seeming immodest, Malhavoc Press was the first to make PDF products successful. When The Book of Eldritch Might came out in early 2001, there were no PDF sales venues, gaming or otherwise, and no sales models to copy. Still, at 14,000+ copies sold, I'm confident that it is the most successful for-pay PDF product to date.

But PDFs have been a technique we've used to bypass the "just another d20 product" syndrome. I referred to that problem earlier as a wall. That wall keeps retailers from ordering products and to a far greater degree it keeps them from restocking a manufacturers' product. The golden secret of PDFs is that they're always on the shelf. They never go out of stock, they never go out of print, and there's never shipping delays. Malhavoc Press PDFs published in 2001 still sell steadily each month in 2006. That's a difficult claim to make regarding print products.

Even though the PDF market is small (and the marketplace is even more crowded), the costs involved are small as well. Particularly when the cost to make a print book also available as a PDF is virtually nil. Security is a concern, but a simple search of the Internet shows that products available as print-only are traded just as often by online pirates as those that are available electronically.

But another thing that PDFs did for us was to cement our online presence. While I think it's dangerous for a publisher who is online to be fooled into thinking that his entire audience is there reading his message boards or his blog, our aggressive PDF strategy certainly encouraged a lot of our fans to become very aware of our website and to think of us as an important presence on the Internet. This became particularly important to us with Ptolus, as we began taking customer preorders for Ptolus a full year before it came out. The response was amazing, with around 1,000 direct preorders for an expensive book that no one had even yet seen. It was that preorder program that made Ptolus a viable strategy. Those direct customer preorders not only paid for the huge investment in art and maps but also paid for the extremely expensive print run.

I was asked to write this article as an example of an RPG industry "success story." I think the industry-if that's even the right word-faces some interesting times ahead. Ptolus is a culmination of a strategy which has served us extremely well at Malhavoc Press. It's also a sort of capstone to our publication schedule. Aside from some overdue reprints, we're not publishing much more in the foreseeable future. This, however, isn't a reflection on Malhavoc so much as it's a reflection on its owner. As a veteran of 18 years in the industry, five of those running my own company while still keeping up a vigorous writing schedule, I'm a bit burned out. Plus, I've got some new opportunities in other fields which interest me. Ptolus, then, is a sort of swan song. And it's great to go out on a high note.

Copyright 2006 Monte J. Cook. All rights reserved.

For more information on Ptolus and all other things Monte, see his website.

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All words and images are ©2003 Pelgrane Press. Based on the Dying Earth book series by Jack Vance. Produced and distributed by agreement with Jack Vance c/o Ralph Vicinanza.The Dying Earth Roleplaying GameandDying Earth Quick Start Rules are trademarks of Pelgrane Press. All rights reserved.