Crowdfunding and Retailers – Friend or Foe?

by Paul Butler

Paul Alexander Butler is the Director of Retail Operations at Games and Stuff, one of the largest gaming stores on the East coast of the United States. A familiar face at trade shows around North America, in recent years he has spent a great deal of time and energy helping other retailers improve their RPG business. He writes a blog about the retail side of the role-playing industry at RPGevolution.com
He has been role-playing since 1979, and usually plays Bards.

Strap yourselves in. Today we’re gonna talk about crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding.
For many retailers, it’s a dirty word. For some, it’s the dirtiest. At the very least, retailers have strong opinions on the topic, and I’m certainly no exception. It’s a complicated and multi-faceted issue, and this little missive of mine can’t begin to delve into all of it.

Today though, we’re going to talk specifically about crowdfunding roleplaying games, and why I think it’s an important part of this hobby gaming ecosystem that we are all a part of.kickstarter-logo1

Whether you realize it or not, we’re in a bit of a new Golden Age for roleplaying games. The brands I currently consider the “Big Four”* are showing increasingly strong sales numbers, which only means there’s more people out there roleplaying on a regular basis, and more people interesting in checking out what else our hobby has to offer. In the last year alone, my store has seen at least 10-15 new RPG releases that have sold in excess of 20 copies within a few weeks of release. And that’s not counting anything from the aforementioned big guns.

What crowdfunding has done is allowed many RPG projects to get off the ground in a way that would have been near impossible given the cautious way that many game publishers and distributors have approached RPGs in recent years. Crowdfunding has contributed in no small way to the wealth of gorgeous RPGs that currently line the shelves at my store.

“So how to retailers fit in here, Paul?” I hear you saying.

Well, in a couple of ways. First of all, many of the complaints levelled at crowdfunding from certain corners of the retail tier have to do with publishers bypassing retail and going straight to consumer. While this is not without merit, there are plenty of publishers (Pelgrane Press included) who have made an effort to include stores with *retailer only* pledges during these campaigns. If you think the game is a good fit for your store, you should support these efforts, and the publishers making them.
In the years that I’ve been talking to other retailers about RPGs through my seminars, one of the strongest points I have continually tried to make is that in order to be seen as a legitimate source for RPGs to your customers, and as a store that really cares about the hobby, one must stock roleplaying games. Seems simple enough right? Stock more than just the obvious choices, and you’ll be seen as a hub for the hobby, a source of information and a place to discover the hot new thing. There’s nothing quite as gratifying as being a retailer, and just as the buzz on a product is starting to grow, a customer finds the item in your store and is blown away by the fact that you have it already. Every time I hear “I can’t believe you guys carry this!” in these instances warms my heart like the velvety embrace of Crown Royal bag around a D20.

Which brings me back to crowdfunding. Buzz on a crowdfunded game tends to spike three times. Right around the time the campaign is launched, again when it funds, and then one last time when the product starts shipping to backers. When you choose to back a campaign, it’s that last spike that you’ll be taking advantage of. Just as backers are getting their rewards, (and you might be seeing them in your store) is when a new crop of gamers may take interest. If your store backed the project as well, you’ll be getting stuff around the same time as other backers and you’re perfectly positioned to ride that wave of enthusiasm.

Not only that, but by having the product before distribution gets it (if they get it at all) you’ll be seen as on the cutting edge of RPGs. And it doesn’t hurt that you’ll have the stuff before most other retailers or e-commerce sites.

It’s hard to measure the impact a couple little indie RPGs can have on the bottom line of your RPG department. Or what having the hot new thing a few weeks early can do. In fact, in many cases, the few books that I get as part of a backer kit are doing a valuable job gauging interest in a new product line so that I know whether or not I should reorder if and when the game becomes available through more traditional means.

(Pro Tip: If you’re worried about whether or not the potential customer base for the game is already depleted because of your customers backing the crowdfunding campaign directly, if the game is being crowdfunded through Kickstarter, I have a solution. You can click on “Community” tab and see how many backers your city has, if it even got enough to rank as a top location.)

As a store, I’ve backed about fifteen or so RPG campaigns in the last few years, and I’ve never regretted it. Like anything else, you have to take the time to evaluate any given campaign to decide if it’s a right fit for your store, but crowdfunding can provide some unique opportunities to set yourself apart and carve yourself a niche as  an RPG destination.

The Kickstarter supported TimeWatch RPG will be out next month.

* Pauls’s  Big Four are D&D, Pathfinder, Star Wars and Shadowrun

5 Responses to “Crowdfunding and Retailers – Friend or Foe?”

  1. Marc says:

    GREAT article and something I’ve really wondered about. Thanks for writing this.

    One thing I hope stores realize is how badly we WANT them to sell our books in their stores. As a new publisher, however, figuring out how to make that happen is tricky at best!

    Another thing that’s tough is knowing what a good “Retailer Package” looks like in a Kickstarter. I’d LOVE to offer something that would help more retailers get involved with our projects, but I’m just not sure what a “good” package looks like.

    • In terms of retailer pledges – look at what Pelgrane do for an example of ‘doing it right’. As a retailer, why would I want to tie up cash in an unknown product, possibly by an unknown publisher or author, sight unseen when that cash can be used in buying known products that will turn several times in the duration of an actual Kickstarter campaign?

      A low-level pledge to show interest, support, and get the info on the timescales of production, and all the other info backers get, that doesn’t take my cashflow and screw with it is, IMO, exactly the way to go about things.

      If the product is good enough to be hitting stores and it’s not just a small vanity press project, then stores will be buying direct, or through distribution, through channels they already have set up. If it’s not going to get to retail stoes then there’s no commercial interest from me, I’m afraid. Personal interest, possibly, depending on the project, and I might back it as an individual, but for a store to support you you need to also support the stores.

      That means not cannibalising sales by selling direct to our customers, not devaluing your product – the KS price is what the public will think is the ‘real’ price – if your backer price is less than my wholesale there’s no way I’m going to support you because to a customer’s eyes the price is what you wanted backers to pay, and if I have to charge well over the odds then the game is shelf filler, not product, because it will never sell. Offer reatilers a low cost ‘support’ pledge, and contact them when things are shipping to find out demand and how many you can sell to them at that point – if there’s plenty of buzz it could well be a lot more than whatever bundle the retailer pledge was initially. Use their initial pledge as a credit on that order, and think of it like a deposit against early copies. if you want retailer support, allow them to get product at the same time as backers, not months later when and if the product hits distribution channels. Delay a week or so to not upset individual backers, sure, but don’t let your other supporters – the ones who will be able to sell your game to groups, thus generating more sales down the line – but get it to us before general release or there is no point in us supporting you – we might just as well buy it on general release and be able to use the pledged support money for stock in the meantime.

      TL;DR – see what Pelgrane do – I’m a big fan of the way they manage their crowdfunding projects.

  2. Thanks for the comment.
    I think generally, you’ll find that retailer pledges are not one-size-fits-all. Having a bit of flexibility for volume usually helps a lot. Many retailers only want 2-4 copies of something, but if I really believe in it, I might want 12!

    The other thing to keep in mind is that many retailers will react very negatively if you provide exclusive to Kickstarter content, but don’t include that content as part of the retailer pledge. Having retailer exclusive content is even better. That way your backers will be driven to local stores to get the last pieces of the puzzle.

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