CanGames was pretty interesting, from a designer's perspective. My company sells a single RPG line at the moment, as well as a number of supplements for it (and a few more down the pike), as well as produces a periodical which we're trying to open to the public. It is interesting to see what sells, and what doesn't sell, and the limitations a small press may have when you print and publish your own books.
The RPG line we produce is sold in printed format, spiral bound, with the cover simply being another printed page (front and back). If you've ever seen first edition Furry Outlaws, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. As you may imagine, something that looks like it came out of your photocopier, even if it is spiral bound, isn't going to sell too well. We've had a few people mention they'd buy it if it were softcover, but when you're looking at a $15,000 expense for a 500 print run, having two or three people asking for a copy doesn't make it worth while. (We figure if we did do print on demand, we'd be looking at charging about $60 at least if we wanted to actually make it worthwhile, and I don't think we want to sell it for that price).
We do sell these books as PDFs, and the PDFs have done... okay. The game is a niche in a niche market, so that's to be expected (low fantasy alternate-earth with a few anthros thrown in). What we found surprising (and on reflection, probably shouldn't have been too surprised), is that two supplements did very well. One is a set of maps detailing the continent and a few of the towns and castles in the region. The other is a book discussing the building of realistic middle age castles, strongholds, and cities, providing NPCs and events for these locations. As my partner said, people can always do with more buildings and maps, and I suppose he's right. More of those sold than the RPG itself -- go figure.
My game is in layout at the moment, and I'm hitting family to cover the expenses of an actual print run. 500 books for about $5,000. I'm already spending about $400 just on artist fees alone, but that's because I want to give the artists a fair deal (the only other option was to give them a portion of each sale, but I'd rather ensure they get something). A few people have mentioned interest in the game, and one of the local gaming stores is actually very interested in getting a copy of the book, so I'll take this as a good sign.
Now, the game I mentioned further up isn't an in-house product. We allowed the designer to keep full rights to the game, and as such when his product sells, we write him a cheque, giving him a majority of the profit. This is only fair, he's not a partner in the company, and hasn't invested in the company. We're essentially hired by him to print up, prepare, and sell his game, in exchange for taking a portion of what he gets from sales. My game, however, is an in-house game, and this changes the rules on how things work.
I could ask for a percentage of the profit, but that would actually do more harm than good for the company (though it would mean I would get money from each sale). Instead, all profits for the game line will go directly into the company to cover expenses and get us closer to being out of debt. The company made a profit this year (yay!), and any further income which would go directly into the company would help deal with the expenses we've had to cover. Or, to be more precise, the expenses my partner's had to cover out of his own pocket.
Another thing I've learned is not to do everything at once. One of the games I'm wanting to publish involves a lot of nations and 'special abilities' tailored to each nation (secret organizations, styles of magic, and so forth). Looking this over, I'm now doing a balancing act -- where I once wanted every nation and every organization in one book, I'm seeing this as unfeasable -- that's entirely too much information for the players and game master to have to wade through, and too much for the writers and editors to have to get out before the game's even published. I've decided to try to focus on three nations, get their information out, and then do expansions from there. This gets the game out, provides a slim book which can focus on the core of the setting, and then future supplements can build on it. Unfortunately, this game is going to be a niche in a niche market, too, but I'm hoping the game I'm about to release can pave the road for it -- they both use pretty much the same mechanics, and if my game sells well, that's money towards getting this game printed out as well -- giving it better odds.
As an Aside
If you ever want to consider publishing out of your home, here's some idea of what he's purchased in the last seven or so years:
1) 3 printers (1 laser, 2 inkjet) -- we're still looking at a colour laser printer.
2) 1 laminator
3) 1 spiral binding machine
4) 1 heat press
5) Inks for ink screening, and for the inkjet machines
This has run the company at least $30,000 alone. We've looked into other things -- a card cutter for making our own custom cards (and CCGs or card-related games), and even our own printing press for making pocketbook-sized softcover books (which would cost us about $90,000...) Unlike some companies, we've not taken out any loans or gained any grants, and we've only had two investors in the company, so our funding is limited.
Another thing, if you want to go down this route, is trying to find distributors. Unfortunately, we've found that a lot of distributors aren't interested in a product that doesn't have a 'name' behind it. We've tried a few of the distributors that carry RPGs, but so far we've not had any nibbles, which limits which game stores we have easy access to. With a distributor, we can send all our books to one location, and have them ship out to game stores for us. Instead, we're needing to contact each store independently, and then see if they're willing to carry our line for us.
Stores which sell PDFs do a little better -- there, you can usually just upload the PDF, and hope it sells. Unfortunately, some online stores have extra requirements (one asking us to ship them a physical copy to go over before they decide whether or not to host it, how's that for unexpected?) Of course, the market's flooded with PDF RPGs, and with the risk of piracy, sales aren't going to be as good as you may hope if it becomes popular enough.
I have to admit, if you told me how much hassle I'd have gone through when it was first suggested we start up a company to publish our games, I'd have seriously re-thought doing so, but this has been very educational, and I'm hoping when Fox Magic comes out, it'll make the work worth it.
Anyway, I hope you found this post interesting or educational. :) If not, I apologize, but I wanted to get this out of my system, and perhaps help those people wanting to get into the same business.