Monday, February 4, 2013

How I Sold DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND

The biggest project before me is REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS, my comic book about five awesome ninja girls sent to the Ninja Island Correctional Academy. I'll be printing this book and selling it at conventions sometime later this year.

I had never done that before, so I decided to run a smaller project and see what I could learn about selling printed stuff at conventions.

For my test project I choose DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND – it is probably the thing for which I am best known (besides being really tall and Canadian). The game (and the setting) has existed for years, getting steadily refined through one playtest after another. It stabilized in its current form a few years back, and ever since I posted the rules online, I've been getting regular requests to provide it in a print format. So I had 60 copies printed (a minuscule print run, to be sure).

My plan is to learn as much as I can about selling something like this in a few targetted efforts before the comic book lands. The cost of printing DINO-PIRATES was about $400. Since the objective here is to learn about selling, I'm not too worried about making a big profit here, but I figure I'll know I learned well if I at least break even.

I wanted to start small, limit my risk, and learn as much as I could at each stage. I decided on three conventions within a few months: Hammercon, a tiny (200-people) con in Hamilton, Game Summit, a much bigger (2000 or so attendees) con in Ottawa, and PAX East, a big famous con that draws as many as 30,000 attendees to Boston. I just wrapped up Game Summit this past weekend, and thought checking in and sharing my discoveries with people would be interesting.

Lesson One: Watch a Number

I'm kind of a nut for metrics, so I spent some time thinking about useful metrics for this experiment. I wanted something I could use predictively, that would help me set expectations on revenue so I knew how much I could spend. It does me no good to make $1,000 at a show if it costs me $1,500 to attend.

I settled on "Revenue per Attendee" as my metric. R/A, for short.

It's simple to calculate: divide the amount of money I collect by the number of attendees at the con. Once I have a notion of what's a reasonable sort of value here, I can look at other cons and at least have a ballpark sense of how much I could expect to earn.

Hammercon

I started at Hammercon, a fantastic tiny con in Hamilton, where I had hopes of selling maybe 10 copies. I figured that was a high number, but best to shoot high, I thought.

By the end of the show I'd sold five copies, two to friends who happened to be there, but three to TOTAL strangers (that was exciting). Five copies means $100 in revenue. Compare that with 200 attendees and my R/A was 50 cents.

A fantastic number, I thought, casting my eyes forward to Game Summit's 2,000 people and PAX East's 30,000. Could I really make thousands of dollars doing this? Should I do another print run?

I know well enough that a line requires two points, so I held off on any changes to my plan until the next show.

Game Summit

While Game Summit would be ten times as many people as Hammercon, I didn't really believe my Revenue per Attendee number would hold. I scaled my expectations way back, and set a target of 15 cents. With 2,000 attendees that would mean selling at least fifteen copies, a modest increase it seemed given the size of the new event.

Sadly, my expectations were insufficiently modest. My R/A collapsed to just 7 cents, a drop of 86%. Ouch.

If I imagine another 86% drop to PAX East, I'm looking at a R/A of not even ONE cent. Taking into account the costs of attending an event like that, coming back with any money is looking unlikely.

Of course there's so little data here that any predictions are fraught with peril, but it's great to be able to have SOME idea of where things are at.

Lesson Two: Say Hello

When I'm walking around on a convention floor, I don't stop at EVERYTHING that catches my attention. If I did, I'd never get through even a tiny percentage of what's there. I see all sorts of things that look interesting, but don't grab me for whatever reason. I need an "entry point" of some sort -- a quick thingamabob I can pick up, or even better a personal contact with someone at the table. And sometimes it seems like the people at the table are busy, or don't want to chat, and so sometimes I'll walk right on by something I'm interested in because I don't think I'll be welcome.

I smiled at people at Hammercon, which helps. But at Game Summit I stood up and made a point of saying "Hi," to just about everyone who walked by. Not in (I hope) a phony sort of way. I'm not a phoney sort of guy and I like just about everyone, so if some total stranger stops to chat, I'll probably have fun even if they don't want to buy anything.

But reaching out to connect to people seemed really powerful. At Game Summit, which was admittedly not a very RPG-focused event, I'm pretty confident I sold at least 50% of the total possible sales. That is, of everyone who was there who MIGHT have bought my book (in that they were an RPG player with sufficient cash and an interest in indie pulp games), I bet I landed half. I sold a LOT more copies than anyone else at my table, I know that.

Lesson Three: Work My Pitch

I'm what you call kind of noisy. I'm not extroverted, but I do talk an awful lot. This is not always a blessing. And I'm not always the best listener ever. So learning how to pitch something doesn't come naturally to me, since sales is all about understanding what the customer wants and finding it for them.

I mostly rely on sheer enthusiasm. I love DINO-PIRATES more than just about anything, and it takes very little to get me gushing about it. At Hammercon I just sort of babbled; I didn't have any plan and I stumbled over myself many times. Sometimes people had to ask me to repeat myself because they couldn't understand what I was telling them.

I was always really awkward about trying to close -- trying to bring the conversation around to "Here, pay the $20 and take the book."

For Game Summit I paid a lot more attention to what I was saying to people, and what seemed to resonate most with them. I came away from the weekend with the realisation that I need multiple pitches for a product like this, that I can choose from to grab and direct someone's attention.

Pitch One: The Rules

Some people immediately start browsing the rules, looking at tables and asking "How does it work?" For those people I started talking about the lineage of DINO-PIRATES, from True20 from Mutants and Masterminds from d20. I mentioned streamlined action and easy DM prep, showed them the character sheets and in general focused on the mechanical attributes of the game that make it fun and unique.

Pitch Two: The Setting

Other people studied the cover and asked about how dinosaurs, pirates and ninjas could all fit together. I told them to imagine a fantasy archipelago, islands with prehistoric monsters and volcano gods, ninja clans and scheming sorcerers. I talked about my love of kung-fu movies, pirate tales and King Kong.

Pitch Three: The Story

And then some people could accept the setting at face value, and were unconcerned with the rules, but wanted to know what happened in the game. I told them about the evil Empire to the north with its eunuch sorcerers always trying to take over, gave a little detail about them trying to chain a volcano god, and how the pirates and the ninjas are always fighting to preserve the independence of the islands.

Of course any given conversation included material from all of these. The pitches that evolved (and they are still not very clearly defined) became sort of standard openings I could choose from depending on how I read the customer's interest. They were a powerful collective tool for me as they made it easy for me to launch a conversation with just about anyone.

Once I've said "Hi," and they've stopped and checked out the game, having options as to how to guide the conversation was a huge advantage.

What's Next?

Well, that 86% drop is ugly. If that continues to PAX, it will be a struggle to ever break even on this operation.

But I'm sure learning a lot, not only about the selling side but the logistics of being a retailer at a convention. I'm doing this super-cheap right now, staying at friends' places and car-pooling, but I'm still just barely squeaking by. I took a loss on Hammercon, and only managed to make about $25 at Game Summit. If my Revenue per Attendee falls as far as my current project suggests, then I'll only make about $50 at PAX East.

A third data point will really help solidify my R/A, but as I mentioned before, a lot of this is completely up in the air. Different cons even at the same size will have different R/A numbers, and it'll take a lot of study to learn which ones are most cost-effective. And R/A doesn't tell me if I'm actually making any money. I made more money on Game Summit than Hammercon, even though my R/A was so much lower, because costs were less and the total sales were higher.

So I need to learn more about cost-cutting on these ventures, and then how to maximise my sales at the event. I especially need to get better at closing sales. I know at least one potential customer at Game Summit walked away without buying because I just couldn't bring the conversation to the right wrap-up.

What have you learned about this subject? I'm an utter beginner at this, so anyone with more experience, please share your lessons!