How to Make a Living in Tabletop Publishing

In June of this year I will have been doing this full-time for three years. That’s three years that I have been earning a modest living doing nothing else but this. Three years that I have been the sole income in the household, paying all of the bills while my wife finishes graduate school. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve been able to pull this off, but it wasn’t luck. Making a living in tabletop games publishing requires a lot of planning and a tremendous amount of hard work.

What I’m going to outline here is what I did. It’s not the traditional way of doing things. In fact, I have frequently been told that I’m doing it wrong. Everyone has their own path to success. What worked for others wouldn’t have worked for me. I’m not saying that this is guaranteed to work for you. There are no absolute assurances in life. You can do everything correctly and still fail. I think this will get you a lot closer than some of the other advice I’ve seen being dispensed online, though.

Get a Business Degree

When I decided that this was what I wanted to do, I went back to college. I got a degree in business administration, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship. I already had management experience, and a background in accounting and tax preparation, but there is so much more to starting a small business than that. I learned budgeting, costing, and supply chain management. There were things that I didn’t know that I needed to know. And I only learned them because I went for a degree.

Most importantly, I learned how to write a business plan. The blueprint of the business. A personal bible to guide the way to success. Before I started Dancing Lights Press, before I began writing a game, I had a business plan. It was reviewed and critiqued and torn to shreds by people with far more experience than me. I revised it, and updated it, and rewrote it until my advisors and mentors thought I had something that was realistic and had a shot at working.

There will be people who say that a business degree isn’t necessary. Plenty of people have started successful businesses without one. It’s true. And good for those people. I’m not those people. I needed the deep knowledge and the discipline of structured curriculum. Others won’t want to invest the time, or the money. They have a game they want to make, and they don’t have a lot of patience. If I had decided to become a doctor, or a lawyer, I would have to make that investment. To become a plumber or electrician would require training. You need specialized knowledge, along with guidance from people experienced in that field. Why do people think that running a business is any different?

Do Research and Gather Data

While I was earning my degree, I started a pilot company to serve as a learning laboratory. That allowed me to test out the concepts that I was learning in the classroom. I created a few PDF titles, and experimented with types of products, methods of marketing them, and even pricing strategies. It helped me to get comfortable with sales techniques. Over time I learned what worked for me, and what didn’t. I also learned what sorts of things I enjoyed, and what things I didn’t. That helped me to develop strategies that were effective, and that I could be comfortable doing.┬áThe data that I gathered, and the results that I had, went into research papers for various classes.

At the same time, I watched what other small businesses were doing. Not just tabletop roleplaying publishers. Not just publishing or game companies, either. I looked at what other types of business did, and how they did them. On the surface, how a restaurant operates might not seem applicable to a niche indie publishing company. What the general contractor, the mom-and-pop bakery, or the non-profit museum do might not seem relevant. Operating a business, though, is about problem solving. I found all sorts of solutions that I wouldn’t have even considered had I stayed within my own field.

Grind

I almost wrote “get ready to grind”, but you have to do more than prepare. You have to put in the work. Like any other small business, you will work long hours. It might be necessary to work seven days a week. We hear stories about restaurants, for example, where the owner gets up at dawn and is there late into the night, especially on weekends. Even then, they might barely break even. Even then, over half of new restaurants fail within the first year. Why do you think your publishing venture is that much different from other small startup businesses?

For years I have listened to people complain that there is no money to be made in tabletop roleplaying. When I look at what those people did, they put out one game. It did well for a few weeks, maybe a few months, then sales fell off. Only after the income slowed to a trickle did they start working on the next thing. They somehow thought that their brilliant ideas, clever designs, and high production value were going to make them rich. That’s not how any of this works.

In my notebook, I have a release schedule for the rest of this year. On the cork board next to me is the release schedule for the next few months. When I release one product, I immediately get to work on the next one. At present, I’m three products ahead of schedule. I need to have steady releases to have continuity of income. At this point I know how long something will remain a best seller. I can project the decline of the long tail, the rate at which sales slow down. I don’t rely on one huge hit to make my year, or even my month or my week. I have a catalog of titles.

Creativity and Game Design

Note that almost nothing I’ve written so far has anything to do with creativity or game design. Making art and making money are two different things. That doesn’t mean that they can’t coexist, or overlap, or support one another. If you want to create a beautiful book, or craft an award-winning game system, that’s a completely different conversation. I applaud the people who are happy doing this as a hobby, or who want to make art for art’s sake. Please keep doing what you’re doing, because so many of you are doing it brilliantly.

But to make money, you need to run your business like a business. Period.

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