Monday, September 26, 2016

My Education

Three days since I've posted: anyone still out there?

We've finished our third Expo, my daughter and I.  We had a great time.  Once again, we met wonderful people, imaginative people, people passionate about their games, their players and their Dungeon Masters. Role-playing is growing and expanding - I adore seeing this every time I do one of these events.

This time around, however, I did get a different education, with regards to vendors and organizers - something surprising and, thankfully, harmless.  I'll try to explain.

We did have some worries going into this event.  There's a recession in Alberta, caused by the drop in world oil prices.  Alberta is a big producer of the world's oil, about 1/40th, and a huge exporter to the United States; the drop in prices has hit the economy hard here and we absolutely expected this to affect the number of visitors and the coin they'd have to spend.  It did and we saw that through the eyes of dozens of vendors that we've gotten to know in these last two conventions.

In convention speak, the vendors talk about "table cost."  This is the price paid for the booth where people set up - and it is a different cost for different sized booths.  Most of the would-be artists at expos like these set up in what's know as "Artist Alley."  Typically, this is a booth about six feet by six, just enough for a table and two chairs, without much room for moving around.  Product will take up most of a table and can make it very hard to sell, given the tight amount of space - but the booth cost in the cons I've been to have been from $150-$250 . . . a number that can be shared by two artists fairly easily, lowering the amount of product they need to sell.

We did a booth like that in Toronto in 2014; but when we more than quadrupled our table cost in sales, we decided to spread out into a larger space, giving us more flexibility.  We never made money in Toronto; after air fares and hotels and other costs, we lost money, definitely.  It was also our first try and we had a lot of things we had to buy from scratch; it is cheaper to do a second or a third event than a first event, definitely.

In Edmonton last year, we got ourselves into a 10 by 10 booth; more expensive, about $500.  We did better than twice that in sales and on the whole, we broke even.  Without hesitation, this year, we set up for 10 by 10 again.  We figured, if we lost money because of the economy, it was still better to have the extra space - both for our product and for our comfort.

I took a shot of the booth this year (I always forget):

I chuckle some as I look at this, as anyone who's been to a con knows this is pretty stark for a 10x10 booth. We know it ourselves, particularly through the eyes of other vendors who will pop by to snark or give us some heartfelt pity.

Thankfully, there was one other display in this picture the camera doesn't show.  I was standing in it and so was my daughter.  And like every time we've done a con, we know our people; they don't care about flash, they care about content.  They wanted to talk about their game and that's what we did, continually, enthusiastically and with terrific success.

We had five hours on Friday, nine hours on Saturday and seven hours on Sunday, a total of $48 an hour.  On average, we sold one of our three books every fifteen minutes.  We talked to three or four people for every book we sold, so we were talking to people - sometimes to a crowd - steadily.  Like last year, we broke even.  The only real profit we made was sending the book out there and getting a great trip to Edmonton.  And we got noticed.

Twice, sadly, I was approached by smiling, happy vendors selling games and role-playing supplies to "help us" sell our books.  The deal?  I hand them books, right then and there, in return for 50% of the cover price.  How considerate.

I carefully explained to both that is costs me 40% of the cost of How to Run to have it printed; it costs me 20% of the cost of the book to get them shipped out to me, because I can't afford the benefits that come from printing and shipping hundreds of books - and I don't get tax breaks.  The big book pays for everything - hotel room, travel, food, table cost and so on.  With the smaller books, the printing cost is 50% and the shipping cost is 30% of the book price.  I make less than $2 from a sale of How to Play a Character.  I get about $3.10 from a sale of the Dungeon's Front Door.  For both, I do better with an online sale because I don't pay shipping - but the reader does.  This is a big selling point for us at these events.  I take the hit so the buyer doesn't.

When some other vendor offers to take 50% of my sales, it isn't just taking a profit in exchange for doing almost nothing; it's actually making me lose money.  Were these vendors willing to pay for my costs?  For the print cost of the book?  Of course not.  Because at this time, in this world of publishing on the internet, consignment is a scam.  I had only just learned that I'd sold no books whatsoever at Indigo following my West Hills adventure.  This latest has convinced me; I am never, ever, going to consign with anyone, ever again.  They can pay me up front if they want my book or they can make a deal with me where they print and ship the book.

My other bad experience was with the officially organized role-playing community.  Like with every expo, there was an organized tournament; there were role-playing panels.  In the past, these things have gone on without mattering much to me.  Last year, after the fact, I spoke to the organizer of the panels. This year, that meeting happened before the panels.  And it was . . . disappointing.

Not during the meeting.  Wow. During the meeting, where the organizer and his associate came up to my table and talked to me for about fifteen minutes, it was all smiles and promises, to contact me, to see about getting me onto the panel, to address things like I was bringing up about legitimacy and the lack of support between DMs in the community, the encouragement of fracturing people with game play and deliberately pushing them to make their public contact with one another into a conflict sport with prizes and shaming for playing the wrong games or the wrong editions - all things that I heard from others I met throughout the weekend.

But of course, nothing came of it.  I felt pretty pumped after the meeting, felt like something was going to happen there - but that was just wishful thinking.  The official community can't afford to be challenged like I want to challenge it.

I did get some tremendous support from a writer in the gaming community who reviews releases and games; his name, like all the names attached to this post, will go unsaid.  He admitted to me quite openly that the gaming companies have the community by the throat; that they don't care about what happens to players after they buy the games; that frankly, once the game or the module is in the participant's hands, the company could really not give a shit.  He and I together compared the situation to a car-maker that sells the car, doesn't provide service, doesn't care if the car doesn't work, doesn't even provide the keys for the car - because, frankly, the company just doesn't care if we can make heads or tails of the rules after we've bought the game. There's no content out there that really says how to play or how to avoid pitfalls with players or how to pull all these rules together into a campaign that will actually sustain itself - this is all left to the participant, who muddles through by leaning heavily on a few people who are willing to give considerate advice as opposed to dead useless advice (and yes, I heard immense amounts of that over the weekend, mostly from DMs who explained how it was given to them, making them feel stupid and useless as designers).

On the whole, I feel that I am getting somewhere.  I can't remember with whom (and I can't find it), but just before the weekend I made reference to a quote from Hadrian: "Brick by brick, my citizens.  Brick by brick."  Steadily, slowly, one book at a time, I'm receiving the right kind of attention.  People found us after their friends told them to buy the book, having bought it themselves this weekend.  People found us to tell us to keep going.  People found us to thank us for changing their games and their worlds.  People found us by happenstance, then declared that it took them a long time to find us again so they could purchase the book.  We did fine.  Just fine.


Tim said...

Still here, and with hearty congratulations.

I still remember coming up to your booth in Toronto and feeling nervous and uncertain what might happen. I had been wondering how you might be in person for a few days beforehand. It was also my first time at a convention, which made everything a little more stressful.

Even then, the bare booth was very alive thanks to you and your daughter's fine efforts. A lot of the nerves just washed away once we got talking. I'm sure many DMs and players who initially felt curious yet shy in Edmonton had the same experience.

Keep up the great work.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

Congrats on a successful weekend, Alexis.

It's a shame the organizers were all fluff, with not enough balls to give you even a token spot on a debate or a panel. But you'll try again, won't you.

Oddbit said...

Congratulations on the breaking even!
Shame about the panel.

Rick said...

I visited you at the convention, bought all three of your books. And, given the content of the books, I would doubt anyone else could sell them. They are only special, when you put your heart into them, which other people won't. Enjoying the read, so far.

and yes, you need to put up some sign or something. Something vaguely colorful, and about 24"x36" or even larger. I only stopped because I recognized your larger book from a friends bookshelf. And it was your enthusiasm that got me to part with cash....

(I doubt you had many like this, I was the guy who didn't realize you were the author, and was confused when you offered to sign them)

Alexis Smolensk said...


The next event I show at will have a big red and yellow Chinese-themed poster for my upcoming book, the Fifth Man. I found a photographer to set up the picture when I'm ready for it.

I'm thinking of something like this for the background cover:

Rick said...

ooo Nice! That should be eye-catching!

have you considered publishing Modules? Not to distract, just thinking of ways to keep having people come back. Once someone buys a product from you, it is easier to sell them another....


Alexis Smolensk said...

I do have one module, Ternketh Keep. Check it out.