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I thought I'd try a publishing-related question.

Print distribution for hobby games has been in trouble for a long time. Especially since the collapse of Wizard's Attic, distribution seems to be on a long, slow downward spiral, despite some efforts (such as the creation of Indie Press Revolution) to offer additional channels for getting printed games either directly to customers or to retailers.

Online distribution is very much on the rise, both in terms of delivering electronic files (like PDFs) and also in terms of allowing customers to order directly from publishers. While traditional distribution has tried to take advantage of the internet, the partnership has been awkward, as in other industries (music, movies, book publishing, comics), and it seems like online distribution is often seen as a competitor, not as the salvation of traditional distribution.

Can this continue? Are there ways we can brainstorm that might enable print distribution to be salvaged in some capacity -- probably a very different one than traditional distribution -- or are we simply forced to wait for the internet to gradually kill the old style of distribution and create something new? If that's the case, are there ways we can help that process along?

I, for one, as someone planning to get back into publishing printed roleplaying products, am very frustrated being trapped in between, where it feels like we have no good options.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by BESW, Miniman, GMJoe, Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 11 at 5:01

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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I voted to close this. SE is for question and answer for things that can have real answers, not debate and speculation; that's for forums and whatnot please. –  mxyzplk Aug 28 '10 at 18:40
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Hmm, I don't get it. How is it any more vague than "how do you handle sex in roleplaying"? There's no real answer to that either. –  J. Walton Aug 28 '10 at 20:40
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I agree with J. Walton. Most of the questions asked in the RPG section are going to be up for debate and speculation. –  no thanks Aug 28 '10 at 21:26
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Much of gaming questions is opinion, since many of those how are on-line are in involved in writing and publishing RPG material either commerically or non-commerically. My opinion is that questions like these are eminently on topic. –  RS Conley Aug 28 '10 at 21:26
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This isn't a discrete question, its the type of conversation you have with friends over beers. I think we need to hold industry questions to the same standards as everything else. –  anon186 Aug 28 '10 at 23:09

5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

As someone who's been slowly working up into distribution, I question the premise here. The collapse of Wizard's Attic was absolutely a disruptive, destructive event, but that was more because it hurt the individual publishers who got caught in the blast than because of its impact on distribution in general. From where I stand, distro is doing ok, or at least as well as the industry in general[1].

However, accepting the premise, then I suggest that if there's something you want to keep an eye on, it's RPGNOW's forthcoming transition to a print on demand shop. They're already an incredible resource for straight online distribution, and if they can successfully implement POD, that has the potential to create an entirely new model. It's not necessarily a model that will work for everyone, but it's going to have an impact.

It's worth noting that the effect of RPGnow POD would likely be more profound than just on RPGNow's sales. Whatever setup RPGNow settles on could become a de facto standard, and that's important as POD machines become less expensive. RPGNow's POD could create a sufficient mass of POD-ready files that it becomes reasonable for a store owner to invest in POD machine of his own, and arrange electronic distribution through RPGNow or some other vector. Such a store could produce any of these titles in a few minutes. Of course, a lot hinges on that theoretical critical mass. It would have to include enough books capable of making a decent sale to merit the upfront cost of a POD machine which, even as it goes down, will likely be substantial. Which is to say, this is far from a certain prediction.

More broadly, the role of the distributor is subject to the same scrutiny as every other member of the distribution chain from the publisher to the game store. As we move away from having only one possible model for getting games from creators to players, it becomes more and more necessary for there to be a reason for each step in the chain to get a slice of the pie (and a better reason than 'because it's always been that way').[2] Some of these benefits are simple to identify. For example, not every game designer wants to bother with maintaining a web store, handling shipping, warehousing, getting their product to cons and so on. Traditional distro may handle some of those. New-fangled distro (like IPR) handles more. But there's no one perfect product yet.

Now, as a word of caution. From a designer's perspective, it seems like the ideal solution is to establish personal relationships with many game stores and arrange the details of how you get your game on their shelves personally. The designer sometimes sees more money per unit this way, and gets to make a human connection. This is nice, but it is very difficult to scale. Not only does this get onerous for the designer beyond a certain point, it's hard for a gamestore owner to maintain many of these relationships. Chris Hanrahan, owner of Endgame (a fantastic game store in Oakland, CA) has noted that the average game store carries more SKUs (Distinct individual products) than the average Costco. That is to say, they have to keep track of a lot of stuff, and it is much easier for them to deal with an aggregator (whether traditional distro or otherwise) than maintain many individual accounts.

This is not to say there's no way to change the distro model, of course, merely a point that would need to be addressed by whatever brave new model we're awaiting.

1 - Is the distribution model flawed? That's a different and equally interesting question

2 - We're not alone in this. It's the same discussion that book printing is facing. We're just a little bit ahead of the curve.

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Thanks, Rob. Thorough and insightful as usual. –  J. Walton Aug 29 '10 at 19:03

I think the "answer" lies in the middle ground, with efforts like Bits and Mortar, which incentivizes retailers to deal directly with publishers and adds value for physical retail customers. If you are asking whether there is a place for traditional distributors in the future, I am thinking not. Aggregators, fulfillment houses, yes. People who warehouse product, consolidate and take a big cut for their efforts at standing between producer and retailer - not so much.

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This is more like the kind of answer I was looking for. I apologize if my wording of the question was too vague. Jason, to get closer to wrapping this question up, is the difference between an aggregator/fulfillment house and traditional distributors then mostly about scale and the size of their cut? If so, is there a continuum where one bleeds into the other, so we get different distribution options that are more or less bad for publishers/customers but no real way to escape the problem entirely, at least for print products? –  J. Walton Aug 28 '10 at 21:56
    
One problem has to address is that retailers don't like spending time ordering from more than a half dozen distributors. –  RS Conley Aug 28 '10 at 21:56
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Hey JWalt, as a publisher, I really want two things: 1. A place where people know to go look for my stuff and 2. Somebody to handle fulfillment. I am willing to pay for both these services, because the first adds value to my product and the second is a pain in the ass. A traditional distributor actually does neither. An outfit like IPR does both, and they charge a premium for the service. It may not be possible to make this work for everyone; tolerances are different, what constitutes a win is going to vary. –  Jmstar Aug 29 '10 at 1:17
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RS Conley - that's a generalization. The store that best supports small press RPGs in America, and sells a crap-ton of them, is Endgame in Oakland, CA, and they are eager to deal with individual publishers if that's what it takes to get the product their customers want on the shelves. –  Jmstar Aug 29 '10 at 1:19

Personally, I'm all for abolishing the dead tree distribution of roleplaying materials. It doesn't make sense for how often they need to be referenced, and it adds a barrier to entry for new-comers to the hobby.

The artwork neccessary for print books and so on, whilst it does make them look pretty, creates two artificial barriers for our hobby. 1) It increases the price point of purchasing the materials, so there's less customer base and more incentive to simply pirate a PDF. 2) Having to find artwork and artists to decorate our bundles of dead tree makes it harder to publish a product that looks attractive on the shelf.

I know I'm probably a minority. But, the hobby has to evolve like many other things, and online resources and ease of referencing data during gameplay is going to trump having tomes upon tomes. Especially when you look at how our games grow. It's -great- to imagine coming up with the next great system that has 500 modules and you can have GMs of your system with countless bookshelves dedicated solely to your game, but, it's horribly impractical and increasingly unlikely.

When your roleplaying 'world' grows like that, it's not easy to maintain the growing forest of mold inhabiting earthy tomes. PDF and other data formats that have yet to be explored giving you the majority of the information you need at a few button presses is more efficient, faster, leads to less time pouring over the books. Not requiring publishing deals or the like to produce the material lowers the barrier to entry for more people to participate in the hobby. So on and so forth. It is a topic that could be debated much more heavily and I feel I'm on the fringe, but... short version.

Get rid of the dead tree books. Digital distribution is more useful and a smarter decision for our hobby as a whole. Especially when some new distribution models take foothold and gain steam.

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This is definitely one worthwhile direction to move in. My main concern here is about what to do about games that require a lot of important physical components (tokens, decks of cards, maps/boards, etc.). I supposed they could be distributed as apps or something, where you manipulate them in a tactile-but-virtual fashion, but that adds a huge programming cost even though it removes a manufacturing cost. With the manufacturing cost of components going steeply down, due to POD and other technologies, not being able to distribute them seems like a loss. –  J. Walton Aug 28 '10 at 23:17
    
To an extent, I can agree. But, if you seriously need to distribute tokens or miniatures, many games do that already, and if you remove the cruft of the dead tree book, you're still saving customers and yourself money. But, virtual distribution and manipulation... Its a niche market currently, but, as demand grows I can see something rising up and filling the nice adequately. There's already a small and growing number of virtual gaming tables. Only a matter of time before one of them 'gets it right'. –  Katniss Aug 29 '10 at 0:12

At the moment, the biggest tool in maintaining dead-tree distribution is supporting the local games stores by buying the product.

When you buy from the LGS, they buy from their distributor, and the distributor from the publisher. Some, however, are starting to bypass the distributor, and some publishers are supporting this by giving the same discount as the distributor would, or even more.

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While I don't think this answer deserves to be rated down, the whole 'chain of distribution' is something that interferes with almost every hobby. Purchasing dead-trees directly from the authors making the games is a tad better. LGS while nifty and much desired, unfortunately don't seem to be innovating and thriving in the current marketplace. –  Katniss Aug 29 '10 at 0:14
    
When the FLGS buys direct, the publisher knows it's being seen. At least by the staff, and probably by more than one customer. And can lead easily to customer impulse buys. Unfortunately, when the customer buys direct, there is no such knowledge, for many gamers are, in fact, as much collectors as gamers. I myself have a bunch of dead tree I've not run... despite having run over 100 different game systems over the years. –  aramis Aug 29 '10 at 3:56

There's nothing wrong with the publishing of books

There's everything wrong with your flgs,

flgs aren't moving stock because generally if its a big game, its cheaper to get it on the net (and I'm talking about amazon here, not piracy) and if its a small game, its cheaper not to bother carrying it for both the flgs and the creator).

Flgs used to work as a nich marketer, quite frankly that niche is evaporating for various reasons. Books are easier to get than ever.

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