The Print Run Crunch

(My blog post opinions are my own, and do not represent any of the companies I work, write, or freelance for.)

Tabletop RPG products that are part of an ongoing line and need a big, traditional print run (and here I’m going to go with 2,000 or more copies as “big” sadly, though that’s basically the minimum low end of big and 10k or 50k fits more strongly into this category) that goes into the distribution channel in order to make an acceptable Return On Investment have scheduling pressures that books that aren’t reliant on those factors get to avoid.

For that plan to work, distributors want to know your release date months in advance. Always well before a book is anything like ready to go to the printer. So, you do your best to write a schedule that makes sense to do that, and then you make arrangements with people like printers, warehouses, shippers, advertisers, freelancers, licensors… it’s a whole thing.

And because it is “a whole thing,” it is much, much more impactful if you miss that series of dates. Now, yes, it happens. Even the biggest companies sometimes miss a ship date. Sometimes it’s their fault. Other times, your normal printer can’t ship your product on time because they are shut down with too many employees out with Covid. (Yes, Covid. Yes, now in November 2022. This is not a random example, it’s something a tabletop-related company reported and is dealing with as we speak.)

But the consequences of it happening can be pretty severe, in both the short term and the long term. Distributors may push your product less if it doesn’t come out on time, or it may miss marketing windows you’ve set up in advance. Printing and shipping costs can go up precipitously (the Kickstarter Killer problem). Stores can end up not having the budget they set aside to get your book on their shelves because you don’t show up in the month they expect, and they reserve the money to spend on products with more reliable schedules. Printers and magazines may become less willing to reserve times for you in advance. And, retailers and customers may lose interest if they decide your release schedule isn’t stable.

No matter how hard companies try, sometimes their best effort at a reasonable schedule doesn’t allow for unexpected problems. Over 25 years in the industry I have had books get delayed because cover art was late, writers were late, editors were late, licensing approvals took longer than planned, licensing issues are found, files got corrupted, key team members became sick (or, sadly, even died), freelancers became unavailable due to things as serious as hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or war, and, of course, an international pandemic.

So when something you cannot predict or control goes wrong, and it goes wrong enough that the slack you built into your schedule can’t cover it, there is often a strong pressure to throw more hours at the project so you hit your printing/shipping deadlines anyway. Sometimes you can do this by adding more people, but that doesn’t always speed things on projects that require coordination between sections(especially core rulebooks). So, you look to have the staff working on it put in more hours… “Crunch Time.”

And, of course, the bigger and more expensive the book, the more pressure there is to get it done on time. Nor is this unfounded concern. A lot of game companies work on very thin margins. A major release going from a big moneymaker to just-above-break-even-or-worse can lead to cost-cutting that causes its own problems (you can have layoffs or do less marketing for one quarter, but you will suffer later), or even kill a game line or an entire company. This isn’t theory-crafting on my part. I have seen it happen.

Nor, in my experience, when a tabletop company has to go into Crunch Time, is it a matter of executives and managers airily commanding rank-and-file employees to work harder, do more with less, and stay late. At least with the companies I have been lucky enough to see the inner workings of, it’s much more likely that directors and department heads and publishers are among the hands for “all-hands-on-deck” emergencies. That doesn’t make it suck any less, but at least it’s shared pain.

And this, by the way, is one reason game creators can get pretty annoyed when someone claims something was just a cash grab, or the creators clearly didn’t care about quality, or it “just needed someone to read through it once to catch all the dumb stuff.” Because the bigger the book, the more likely it is everyone working on it put blood, sweat, and tears into it, and only caring about the quality kept them going at 2am, or when working 12-hour days for 20 days in a row, or pulling an all-nighter.

(This is actually one of the reasons the crowdfunding campaigns I run never include traditional print runs. I stick to pdf and print-on-demand, so that I can dodge some of these issues. And if something does get badly delayed, the fallout is less complicated. That does mean I am forgoing the possibility of a big retail hit, which limits my possible reach and income, but for me it’s worth it for my private projects. And given how many 6-digit Kickstarters I am aware of that ended up losing money, I’m happy to stick to my smaller-risk, smaller reward model.)

Now, none of this is an excuse to mistreat people or not keep striving to find ways to avoid Crunch Time. This kind of relentless deadline grind that still sometimes fails to hit the mark is one of the things that lead to burnout among creatives, and financial loss among companies. Nor is this an issue that only impacts some companies, or that has only come up in recent years. It’s hard to avoid, and happens often, to companies of different sizes, different structures, and different locations. It *can* happen as a result of negligence or bad decisions. But the vast majority of times I run into it (and end up Crunching for a project), it’s just an unfortunate consequence of how the industry and technology and retail have evolved. Those forces may not be insurmountable, but they are powerful. And a company may not crash if no one pulls crunch, but it’s a risk.

And often, it’s a risk even the rank-and-file employees and freelancers want to avoid if they can, even if that means Crunch Time.

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About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on November 1, 2022, in Business of Games, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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