Monday, February 4, 2013


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.


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!


  1. "Coffee is for Closers."

    I know that people hate to bring up money when it comes to things. I kind of do too, but it's kind of the point of the whole process so closing the deal is something a lot of people have a hard time with.

    If you're a retailer at a booth, and someone stops they're aware that at the end there is that element to it. The key thing for me is to provide them with the options and then let them decide to go forward or not. No pressure, but at the end of the conversation is the transaction.

    To help things along, I usually hand them a copy of the book. If they have it in their hands, it gives a real visceral sense of the object itself. It kind of solidifies what you've said before and it makes it a more palatable sale.

    Also, the fact that it's 20 bucks helps. Anything that you can make that's a round number or a one bill purchase is always a good idea. It helps it move towards the impulse buy feelings people have.

  2. That's good advice, thanks Jonathan. Likewise, I found handing people the book really raised their interest.

  3. These are lessons I need to learn. The only sales I made at Game Summit was a customer Corey brought to the table. I don't like to "intrude" or "bother" people, and that just won't do when one is trying to pimp one's product. I can talk it up a storm, but I have issues with the opening and with the closing.

    If coffee is for closers, I guess I'm drinking tea.

  4. I moved approximately 35 copies of the Black Cadillacs ashcan at GenCon 2009 (? '08 or '10 maybe, I'm not sure), regardless, it was the second year that the Ashcan Front was its own thing.

    Here's what I learned:
    - play drives sales. My easiest sales were after scheduled games (I ran at least once each day at the con).
    - mutualism drives sales. You need to work together as a booth. I knew quite a bit about the other games at the 'front that year. If someone was jonesing for serious crunch, I pointed them at Mazza's Blood Red Sands; if they were all emo and introspectve, Rhoer's Silence Keeps me a Victim. I don't know how much the mutualism worked in my favour in terms of the rest of the crew helping me out. What I DO know is that it opened the conversation, "What kind of games do you like?" which often led to people asking me about my game.
    - demo like a crazy man. DEMO your game. Let folks play. Don't just talk about it. The best CCGs do this - sit down, try it out, and just before the big cathartic AAAAH, cut the demo short. This is harder with an RPG, as you want to get your demo under 10min, which is flipping hard.

    Fraser, I hear your pain. I hate imposing. That's why I like opening with "what games do you like?", it's nice and gives you an easy out if the person wants to be left alone.

  5. Totally agreed on mutualism. Every customer wants something different -- if you show them the way to something they'll be geniunely interested in, that builds trust, both between you and them, and in the minds of anyone nearby watching you give that sale away to someone else.

    My typical opener was just "How are you?" or "Enjoying the show?" I could probably stand to get that a little more sophisticated.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I'm not sure Revenue/Attendee is a useful metric. If your primary hook is personal interaction -- grabbing people's attention at a booth -- then the larger the # of Attendees, the less the amount of time you're going to have to talk one-on-one, and the more you're going to be competing with other booths (assuming some correlation between attendees and merchants).

    Revenue/hour might be useful. As a data point of one, I'm probably close to a guaranteed sale of any small-press game where I get to play a full session. If the game itself is decent, and I had a good time playing, I'll buy a copy partly to reward the publisher, but also because I'm always on the lookout for new games to run at the various conventions and what-not I attend.

  8. My limited experience with running demos (with the intent to sell) has not been very positive. I ran demos at both Hammercon and Game Summit, neither of which resulted in any sales. I did much better working the "booth".

    I chose Revenue/Attendee because it offered a way to distinguish one con from another -- my goal being able to choose which cons were most likely to be worth attending. Most cons run for a weekend, so they're all the same from an Hours perspective. But Hours would be a great way to compare activities AT a con -- like demos versus booth-babe-ing.

    But like I say, my data is so rudimentary at this point that I'm probably safer NOT using it.

  9. Putting the book in their hands is a big key. It's called "transferring ownership". Then, instead of flipping to something you want them to see, have them flip to the page (know your page numbers). It sounds like a small thing, but in sales it's huge.

    Also, have you been dressing as a ninja or a pirate? You might feel stupid, but it makes the conversation more immersive.

  10. Yeah, I totally discovered that about putting it in their hands, but the trick with the page numbers is great! Thanks!

  11. I like all of the things. Great resource, now I just need something to sell.

    P.S. I think I'd make a fun addition to any con booth. Yeah, I'm just trying to get free admission and the chance to hang out with awesome people. But is that really so bad?

  12. Your plans don't have enough girls. In costumes. What about a girl dressed as a ninja? Or a dinosaur. But probably a ninja would be better. And I bet you can't go two steps at a con without finding a girl dressed like a pirate. Yeah. Girls. Cosplay. Sure sell! Like this for example: So sexy! Oh wait... you wanted some serious advice I guess eh? Well, nevermind.

  13. Revenue/attendee seems like it would be a good metric if it's a predictable one, but it also seems unlikely that revenue and attendees are strongly correllated in a predictable fashion. At a smaller con, you have less attendees to pitch too, but much more ability to give a really good, personalized touch to everyone you talk to. At a large con, you have tons of people walking by, but how in the world do you stand out from all of the other guys who are there, and how do you actually get to the point where you can turn that critical mass into sales?

    I don't pretend to know the answer; I work professionally on the other side of the sales transaction. Sales is a tough job. I wouldn't want to do it.

  14. @pxlgrl: I am forever disappointed at how few girls dressed like pirates there are in my life.

    @Joshua: yup, agreed that it's a terrible metric. But I needed somewhere to start, and if nothing else, it's interesting testing out the predictions it provides!

  15. Putting on my product marketing hat...
    When it comes to sales and metrics, it's all about the funnel. You're measuring the universe of attendees and your penetration into it, which is nice when you're trying to think about total market opportunity and whether your investment in printing is going to be worth it. But it's less useful when it comes to trying to figure out whether you're doing a good job selling and whether there's more you should be doing.

    Two metrics that might be more meaningful for you, if you can track how many people stop by the booth:

    Reach. Of the number of attendees at the show, how many stopped by your booth? If this % seems low, then you should think about what else you can do to expose your game pre-show, or whether your booth is in a good place for traffic, or whether it's even a good show to sell at.

    Close rate. Of the number of people who stop by the booth, how many bought a copy? If this % is low, time to focus more on your pitch. If you can capture a trend here, you can figure out whether adding girls in ninja dinosaur costumes, or a demo game running, or handing the book to them paid off.

    Looking forward to seeing you at PAX East!