Small Press Publishing: Expected First Year Sales
Having published a few games, one of the things I often hear at conventions and online is "How many copies of my game do you think I can sell?" The glib answer is: it's very difficult to predict. However, the aim of this article is to give you, the potential publisher, a rough guide to expected sales, using real-world examples culled from the hard sales data that is available from various members of the Collective Endeavour. I'll take a look at examples from all points on the sales spectrum, from a runaway, stand-out success like 3:16: Carnage Amongst the Stars, to critically lauded, but lower selling games such as Best Friends.
It is important to note that sales are not the only measure of success. Success is what you want it to be. Do you want to see some other people playing your game? Do you want to have the satisfaction of having produced a creative work for the marketplace? There are many ways to define success and only you can judge what yours is. That being said, when you are putting money into publishing a game there is one measure of success that is universal: do not lose your shirt.
Not losing your shirt might seem like an obvious thing to say, but you would be surprised how many people continue to sink large sums of money into publication with the expectation of recouping their investment through substantial sales. I will tell you now; the chances of selling thousands of copies of your game are slim. Very slim. A rare small press publication might strike a chord and achieve sales in the thousands. The most obvious recent example that I have actual evidence for is 3:16. We'll talk more about that example later. So, the thing to keep in mind is: start small, start with what you can afford.
Here are four examples of copies sold during the first year of publication:
The Runaway Success
3:16 by Gregor Hutton achieved staggering first year sales because of a combination of factors: good buzz, excellent mechanics, engaging design, great reports of exciting actual play, an established reputation, and having that ill-defined quality of hit exactly what large numbers of people want at exactly the time they want it. Sales like this in the small press world are something of a rarity. You cannot expect to, or bank on, getting them. If you can, well done!
Total first year sales: 1465
Hot War was released at Gen Con Indy 2008. It is important to remember that a lot of sales for Contested Ground Studios come because of an established reputation with other games. As a new start, you have to build that reputation. Anyway, HW sold solidly during the first year.
Total first year sales: 711
Neil Gow released Duty & Honour, his game of Napoleonic derring-do in the third quarter of 2008. He printed in small numbers, generated buzz, and took a pragmatic approach to potential sales. Prior to release, he had banked on "about forty" sales, a number that would allow him to break even on his initial print run and associated costs. Here are the actual sales figures:
Total first year sales: 316
With a little bit of effort and planning, it is fairly easy to move between one and two hundred copies of your game in the first year. Out of all the numbers in this article, this is the one that you should pay most attention to. Plan on shifting one to two hundred, in a mix of PDF and hardcopy sales, and you will not go far wrong. 'Best Friends' by Gregor Hutton had the following sales:
Total first year sales: 200
So, we can see that the range of sales might look as if it runs from 200 to 1400. But really, that's not the case. 1400 is the extreme end of the spectrum and a once-in-a-blue-moon happening. Better to think that first year sales are between 100 and 700. Beyond that is an anomaly.
As a note of caution: it's best not to print a run of 200 books an automatically expect to sell them. There are plenty of games out there with great rules, solid buzz behind them, and some great actual play that do not shift 200 units in their first year (for example, the wonderful Contenders by Joe J. Prince and the excellent carry: a game about war by Nathan Paolletta). Be smart and keep your print runs to an affordable minimum. Print 50, 75 or 100 books at a time. If you have a success on your hands, then with modern print on demand digital services, you can have more books ready for sale within a couple of weeks.
If you are publishing your first game, with a bit of nous and wise marketing, 100 to 200 sales are an achievable goal. If you plan for that, budget for that, you should be in the right ballpark. If you sell more, then great! But, if you only hit that 100 to 200 figure, then you've not lost your shirt.
As a further caveat, it's important to note that these sales are all from UK-based small press publishers.