Why To Not Print-Publish

We’ve received some comments regarding Void Vultures, most of them pretty positive, but occasionally some folks ask us to make a print product as well. Josh Roby & I have a lot of thoughts & experience regarding this, good and bad, and I thought it would be worth a blog post to talk about why, for this project, we’re not going to make a print version.

There are two piece of this: economic issues & design goals.

Void Sharks! by Ed Heil

This Shit Just Got Unreal

The Economic Issues

The floor for our Kickstarter is $5. For five sweet, sweet units of United States currency, you can get in on the 48 pages of fun, sci-fi action play. If we get to $1500, then that expands to 72 pages. We can do that because we’ve cut out all the costs associated with printing, which is more than just the per-unit cost of each book.

I talked a bit about these economies before, in abstract. Fair warning: this is going to get a bit math-y, and I’m not going to explain all of it since I have before in the link I just posted.

The original $750 pays for all of our badass artists, which was the point (and look at that badass art to the right by the talented Ed Heil), and some for Josh & I for, you know, the words on the page. Now that we’ve hit that $750, the new goal of $1500 means we’ll release Ruls of the Void and Derelicts of the Void free to the world, and give the backers a special bit of awesome for their support: Horrors of the Void.

And that’s it. No selling after that. No more revenue we’re looking at for Void Vultures. And that’s fine with us, because we’re just looking to make a fun little game and not need to push it constantly.

What the implies: we need to be able to make all the money that we need to (and by “need” I mean “will not feel like we burned ourselves financially”) in the Kickstarter, because there’s no money after that.

So that’s what we’re looking about. And nice, low pressure, exactly what we want to do here. (Honestly, the “low pressure” part of it is why this happened. If it suddenly felt like a “full-on” product, we’d probably have delayed it quite a bit fretting over that.)

$5 per person gets you all the basic game stuff. Right now, we have 85 backers, and might if we hit $1500 that means we might have around 150. Let’s say some of those potential 150 wanted a printed book. Turning that into a 72 page book would cost:

  • Lulu currently says that a 72-page perfect-bound black-and-white paperback 6″x9″ book would cost $5.94 per unit. That goes down as you start buying in quantity. If 25 backers wanted these books, the cost would be $5.35/unit, $133.75 total. 50 backers would mean $5.05/unit, $252.50 total. Etc.
  • We could, if we had enough demand, go with an offset printer. But we wouldn’t be printing enough to make that worthwhile if we only printed for our backers that asked for these books. We might also shop around for a better POD deal, like Createspace, of course.
  • Shipping from Lulu would cost, well, I don’t have a shipping calculator on hand. But I remember back when I did Finis that it cost around $110 for the 270 books I had made, or 40 cents a book. That was in 2007. So, my costs for each book hiked up.
  • So, that’s shipping the books to Josh. Josh then has to turn around and ship the books out. You know what that means? Padded envelopes, which run around 50 cents per when you’re not buying them in super bulk. Butcher paper or other printless packaging, if we want to lesser the chance of ding. And the cost of mailing them out, which could be as low as $1.20, depending on what we can get away with shipping-wise. Still, that adds up.

Our $5 book just got around $7-$7.50 added to it. But wait, there’s more!

This all assumes domestic US shipping, which is baked into the price of the hypothetical Kickstarter reward level that offers a print option, which is the current way to go. International shipping is far, far more expensive, and while we could ask for people to pay more for it (and we would), it actually skews the Kickstarter against us. The $1500 we’re asking for to do Horrors? If we had two people from Europe order it, we could ask, say, $10 more for shipping. (I don’t know offhand the actual numbers, sue me.) They add $20 to the kitty, and we’re $20 closer to our goal but we don’t actually have that $20. We’re walking away with $1480, before Kickstarter’s cut. 5 people do that? We’re walking away with $1450. And so on. Kickstarter makes doing international fulfillment odd because of the fundraising model it has rather than a distribution model. And in a small project, we’re going to feel every dollar leaked out due to such things.

(I realize there’s more to that, but then this is a model complex business model that would really deserve its own series of blog post analyses.)

Then we get funded. Now what? Someone would have to actually spend hours packing & mailing them out. That someone would either be Josh or I, and to be fair, probably Josh. Suddenly this cute labor of love is now a few days of hell & stress. And that’s the sort of thing that kills the desire to do fun, small projects. Worse, that’s time not spent doing something that pays for his daughter’s clothing & school. To make that activity worth Josh’s while, that expected time lost from work needs to be covered. How long would that take? How much is that worth? Let’s assume Josh spending five hours dealing with this — inspecting books, packing & going to the post office — at a “I could be doing something else to make money right now” rate of $20/hour means Josh needs to cover $100 to not feel cheated out of work. Maybe it’d take less time, but we don’t want to predict less and cause it to take more, so five hours it is.

On top of that, see, we can’t just bring the exactly amount that backers ask for. Once you deal with physical product, you have to cover the possibility that some will be lost or damaged in transit. That’s called “shrinkage,” and that ups our total costs to cover, say, 5 books.[1] That increases our total costs, not by much, but we have to account for every penny.

Finally, there are costs associated with getting proofs of printed materials, to make sure they’re right before we order a large shipment. That’s around $7-8 a book — the base costs plus a little in shipping — if we don’t mind waiting a week or so before we get it. This is totally negligible when you’re talking about spending a couple grand on a print run, but it’s larger proportionally when you’re this small. You feel that cost. And when you feel costs like these, it changes how you think about the project you’re on.

Let’s say we can estimate that 50 of our backers will want this by the time the Kickstarter is done. Then we need another $475. That might not seem like much, but that’s nearly 2/3rd more than we were originally asking for in the Kickstarter. If 75 people do, then we need $660. Which brings us to our last snag: it’s hard to know how much we’ll need for something we’re intended on being financially done with when the costs fluctuate. Small-scale economies like this are very much subject to the butterfly effect.

Now, if our goal was to fund a larger-than-demanded print run and sell of the rest, then we’d just set a target based on that. But that’s not our goal, not our desire. So, this is the model we picked.

The Design Goals

Then there’s the issue of actually making a book. A 6″ x 9″ book is, physically, a very different thing than a 8.5″ x 11″ piece of paper. You have a larger canvas size for the spread, the inner margins & spine that break up the spread, and the way a book is held is different from how a loose piece of paper is held.

We want each atomic piece of the rules to be its own sheet of paper. We could also do that with them being their own spreads. But we also wanted this to be something that (a) was build to be ideal for referencing on a computer monitor and (b) easy to print out. Turing a 6″x9″ book into that is possible — we do it all the time — but the forced white space in the middle interferes with many layout options.[2]

And when you turn something meant for a 6″x9″ book, or a 12″x9″ spread, into a 11″x8.5″ piece of paper, you’re going to have a little squeeze. Either the book has too much margin, the print-out page not enough, or we make two layouts and deal with two sets of hassles.

Honestly, if we did a printed book, we’d be pretty tempted to make it full-bleed, because hey, we could. It would look pretty awesome. But it would also screw the print user more.

So we’ve chosen our target audience of “people who like to read on screens or don’t mind printing a little bit out.” And we’ve chosen “let’s not add a bunch of hassles for something that we’re doing because it’s pure fun.”

It’s Not That We Can’t

Self-fulfillment is an exercise in no one being happy, but it’s something we could do. Raising enough money to cover those costs is possible. And we could re-align our design goals. These are all small things.

But small things add up. I could proof two different versions of a game (because changes always happen post-layout), or I could proof one and use the other time to make games like Emerging Threats Unit or the stuff I’m doing for Evil Hat. Josh Roby could take that time to lay out two versions of a book, deal with printers, deal with shipping books, all that jazz. And he could also continue to deal with that by selling the book online, in order to mitigate some of these issues.

By the way, those costs above? It only works like that if we never, never sell through retailers or places like Indie Press Revolution. That’s our “we cannot possible offer a cut” price. If the plan is to sell afterward, you better believe the price would be $15 for something that small, so that we could make after our per unit costs $1.60 for each book. Which circles back to economies of scale, because we’d want to print more to lower the point so that we could get a decent return, which means a higher up-front cost for the books, which means a higher Kickstarter campaign…

Hopefully you see the point there.


Now, this doesn’t mean we won’t ever print again. But some things don’t really justify that, because it is a lot of work on our end, in small and large ways, to deal with that leg of the publishing business. It’s a call we as creators have to make with everything we do, and not just assume or go on auto-pilot, if we’re to better avoid getting burned by costs outweighing return. Void Vultures isn’t something we’re doing to make any money, but believe me, if we were to put more effort in and end up with no real return for it, that would keep us from trying to do another short-form project like this.

We’ll find out soon if it’s the right call for Void Vultures. But Josh & I are betting it is. Part of being indie[3] is setting your own goals, so we’ve set ours here.

– Ryan

[1] I can’t believe I haven’t blogged much about shrinkage yet. Gotta rectify that soon. Big topic.

[2] Not that white space is bad. White space is fucking awesome. Being forced by a convention to have white space where you don’t want it, that sucks.

[3] <cue laugh track>


11 Responses to Why To Not Print-Publish

  1. Laura Bishop says:

    Am I a terrible, terrible person if I laughed right out loud at [1]?

    Because I kinda did.

    I mean, I work retail. I know all about shrinkage and its Big Brother LP.

    But. You know.


  2. Laura Bishop says:

    LP = Loss Prevention

    The department that’s supposed to be in charge of stopping shrinkage.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ah, right, yeah. I’m familiar with that. I’m just not all hip to you kids and your wacky lingo.

      – Ryan

  3. The Jolly Roger says:

    Most of these costs assume that you would order X number of books and then ship and pack them yourselves. That seems a like a very roundabout way to do it. What’s stopping you from formatting a print version, uploading it to Lulu (or whatever) and then giving a unique code to each backer that opted into a print version? You wouldn’t have to cover shipping costs, worry about time spent on shipping/packaging, or deal with lost/damaged shipments.

    Assuming that you could get a POD company to provide codes in this manner you would be dealing with prints on an individual rather than bulk basis. So if t is, say, $15 to print a single book + shipping then you could just add that much more to whatever incentive level you choose. You could let the backers pay their own shipping instead of going the route of asking that they add X dollars to their backer amount like other games have done.

    Leaving the backer rewards out of this, why not put your game up with a POD option after it comes out? You could still give the PDF away for free and keep a POD option. The only real barrier to doing so is the cost of having the layout/formatting adjusted for print.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Done that. It’s more expensive that way for consumers and less margin for publishers. Lose-lose.

      Re-read the “design goals” portion. The “but you could POD” comments I keep seeing indicate that people are stopping halfway through the post to comment. And that makes me a sad panda.

      – Ryan

  4. JDCorley says:

    I never understood “print in my favored format” complaints. “How come Lexus doesn’t make an inexpensive electric bicycle?” ‘Cause they ain’t in that business. They don’ wanna.

    • Laura Bishop says:

      I think, at least in the case of VV, it’s less the “why not the format of choice” as it is just a fundemental shift in ideas and concepts.

      I do almost 90% of ALL my book purchases electronically at this point. Books I read for fun, game books, reference books for work, for school, for projects – if I can get it ebooked, I do. The remaining 10% is only because it’s not *available* electronically.

      That style of book consumption? Completely alien to my sister, who’s younger than me and is theoretically the “paperless generation”.

      Not to mention, both Ryan and Josh have published hold-in-hand books in the past. Fanbase and preconceptions abond!

  5. I came to Kickstarter too late to get in on Void Vultures. I downloaded the 2 available PDF’s and love the game system; I’m thinking about porting it to Traveller to speed up play and help focus on the story aspects more. The problem is, I can’t get the 2 backer-only PDF’s. Josh pointed out to me that your deal with the backers was that Horrors and Dreadnoughts were backer-only content and that I would need to get a copy from a backer. I respect him for sticking to the deal, but I’ve managed to contact nearly 10% of the backers online and gotten only 1 negative response to date (because he didn’t get copies.) No one else seems interested in helping me out.

    It’s a shame to see a great game idea and system vanish for lack of distribution; having only half of a rules set is frustrating. Is there any way to get your content out without breaking your deal with the backers or inflicting a lot of additional work on its creators?

    Thanks; Kem

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Unfortunately, there’s not. :/ The moment we take money saying we’re going to do something, it’s important that we hold to that promise; we brake that trust, and we’re telling people to not trust us in the future.

      In the future, I’m not going to push for exclusive content. That puts extra work on me without as much payoff as other ideas, and it causes this situation right here. I’d rather do sneak peeks/first access, cheaper/bundled, or things like that than cut off access entirely.

      I’m sorry there’s nothing I can do for you. :( I can say that Josh & I are planning other stuff for Rülsleit, but that doesn’t help you right now.

      – Ryan

  6. Kem Templeton says:

    I really cannot fault you or Josh for keeping your word to backers or for sticking to your guns where dead tree publishing is concerned. I just hate to see good work go to waste; the exclusive content concept really prevents good ideas from propagating. (If you do run into a backer who is so inclined, point him my way.) ;-)

    Appreciate the quick reply. I’ll look forward to the next Rülsleit project.

    Regards, Kem