Digital Distribution - The Great Table-Top Experiment (One Year On)

By Bill Gray 24 Jan 2018 1

OK, time to fess up. One year ago or so, I started publishing miniature wargaming rules almost completely by digital format, specifically PDF files. At that time, I promised a follow-up tome on how this all worked out, and it looks like today is the day for full confession.

 

To refresh everyone’s memory, I authored and self-published a set of Napoleonic miniature rules called Age of Eagles, aka Napoleonic Fire & Fury, as the product is an officially sanctioned variant of Rich Hasenauer’s uber popular Brigade Fire & Fury rules for the American Civil War, aka BOFF (Basic Original Fire & Fury). This is a paper product, as are a scenario book and expansion set covering the 18th Century Lace Wars I also published, the latter full color and dirt cheap because of off-shore printing. But as regards other expansions for periods I was interested in, economically hardcopy products just didn’t seem to work. My interests were esoteric, such as the 1866 Austro-Prussian War, a very short conflict of only six weeks, and while there are an abundance of figures available thanks to the cottage nature of this hobby, rules not so much. Customers expect high quality visuals, full color and in miniature wargaming circles, cheap merchandise, emphasis on the cheap. Looking at potential sales, even off shore printing from Hong Kong made little sense.

My solution was to go digital. The idea was to produce a series of expansion modules (Age of Valor) covering all these hyphenated wars as PDF expansions to the basic paper product game. Full color, they would have everything needed to use the original rules for the Crimean War and more. This meant new rules, new charts, lists and tables and some scenarios as well. Pricing would be really, REALLY . . . frugal . . . as in $4.00 US for a 32 to 42 page file using PayPal, as well as a free test drive module on the Balkan Wars and free modules kicking in the more you buy. Hopefully, this would drive sales of both the modules and the original hardcopy rules up, while discouraging copyright infringement at the Xerox machine (and seriously, I have only had a single instance of this). Salvation for marriage and sanity was also a desired return on investment, as I would no longer be involved in a lot of admin, printing and shipping issues.

Well, here’s what happened.

Before the Leaves Fall 01

By the Numbers

First, I’m not stupid (not normal, maybe, but not stupid), so I wasn’t not looking or expecting to make a huge amount of shekels on this endeavor. I enjoy doing this stuff to begin with, enjoy the recognition as well and it does put a little coin in my pocket to spend at conventions. My accountant spouse is particularly fond of the last aspect, and certainly making enough income to put food on the table was never considered. Nevertheless, I was hoping for at least 10 modules sold a week, and in this respect I was successful.

The numbers are this, when counting the freebies for buying hardcopy products or a baseline threshold of digital products, here is what I managed to distribute so far:

  • Franco-Prussian War Imperial Campaign – 148
  • Franco-Prussian War Republican Campaign – 144
  • 1866 Austro-Prussian War – 105
  • Crimean War – 112
  • 1859 Risorgimento – 99
  • Russo-Turkish & Russo-Japanese Wars – 96
  • Before the Leaves Fall, the Great War 1914 - 106

You can add to that another 191 paper copies distributed by On Military Matters here in the Colonies and Caliver Books in Europe, each at $14.00 a pop. I had not intended to do this, but both vendors assured me there was a market and they would take care of ALL the grunt work and pay me a royalty. This made a grand total of 1001 copies out there in cyberspace and still going as the World War I product has only been out less than a month. I expect it to do well given the 100th anniversary of the “war to end all wars,” and it looks like I was right.

Nevertheless, I have to admit one surprise. While the first to last sales list makes sense, I am surprised how close the numbers are. I would have thought the Imperial Franco-Prussian Campaign figures would have clobbered the Republican, while I was anticipating more Crimean War sales given how much of our hobby is British. And given the disparity in price, having close to 200 hardcopy sales was a shocker.

Tsuba Miniatures 03

Vox Populi, Vox Dei

Numbers are one thing, however, customer perception is another and because of two surveys (plus comments) I conducted, I discovered some intriguing information. The first survey was conducted just after release of the first module, with a follow-up several months later to see if there was any improvement in addressing the concerns of the first. Each survey had two sections, the first where the customer rated each part of the module for quality, the second rating each part of the module as to overall importance. The hook was providing a new module with extra scenarios if the customer participated. The platform used was Survey Monkey.

Overall I was pleased and learned a lot. For example in the first part of the survey people indicated there needed to be more scenarios, so I doubled the amount from two to four. The next survey saw those specific numbers go up and after all, there was really no additional cost involved given it was all electrons vice paper and shipping. The second section, however, was more revealing. Respondents were asked on a 1 to 5 scale (with 5 being Absolutely Mandatory, and 1 “I could care less”) how important was each section of the module overall if they were going to buy again. The results were:

  • Graphical Presentation – 3.76
  • Clarity of Text – 4.48
  • Historical Background – 4.29
  • Online Reference Library – 3.67
  • Scenarios – 4.24
  • Digital Distribution – 3.92
  • Hardcopy Distro Instead – 2.68
  • Price – 3.64

The top three were obviously Clarity of Text, Historical Background and Scenarios, while rock bottom was Hardcopy Distribution followed by Price. Evidently most folks were comfortable with PDF files as opposed to paper, and my guess is the opposite was true for the 191 gamers who purchased hardcopy. The greying of the hobby seems connected here, as there are still a lot of older miniaturists who are uncomfortable with the digital environment.

As regards the Price score, comments showed a very interesting perspective. Most comments received indicated a belief that digital products should be less expensive than they are actually sold for. The research and writing to produce a digital product does not figure into the customer’s price calculation as much as it does the author’s. Thus while many digital products are often sold for 1/3 to ½ off the price of their hardcopy equivalent, most gamers feel the discount should be between 2/3 to ¾ off the hardcopy price. The reason seems to be that given most authors do this as a sideline for fun anyway, saving the cost and hassle of shipping, returns and printing, all of which cut into the proverbial bottom line, should account for a large price deduction. An interesting opinion to be sure, but the lower price does seem to be working for me and I have to admit that not having to deal with shipping, printing and all the rest has made the experience far less of a business and more like a hobby. Given a hobby is supposed to take you away from work by definition, there does seem to be some logic here.

Before the Leaves Fall 03

“The future ain’t what it used to be”

Bottom line is that I will continue and hope other mini-entrepreneurs might find something here to help them along their path of success as well. Again, let me emphasize this is not a full time job that I depend on to put “shrimp on the barbee” or a roof over my head. But it is fun, provides some reasonable funny money, and the digital environment is oh so much easier to work with than is the paper. I’ve already mentioned some reasons why, but as a final, parting shot, consider the ubiquitous Errata Sheet found in almost every set of game rules on the planet. I don’t use one. Instead, I simply make the correction, and then Email all my customers a new, complete file. Then I grab a good cup of coffee and start work on my last digital module (on the 1848 European Revolutions), or maybe just watch a movie, like Zulu Dawn.

With digital, life is good.

NB. Russo-Japanese War images from Tsuba Miniatures of Germany, Age of Valor images from Before the Leaves Fall, the Great War 1914.

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