Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book Sales

I am told sales of Friendly Local Game Store are exceeding expectations. I've had questions about how it has been selling in various channels. I just received a statement for my second royalty check, with a break down by channel, so lets take a look:

The quarters are mixed up a bit here. The channel sales (game trade distribution) and Gameplaywright Retailer are sales to date (Q1 and Q2), making it look bigger than it should be. The GAMA Trade Show was also Q1, so that should have been included previously. Still, this should provide an idea of where the book is selling. My guess is my Q3 statement will show Amazon dominance.

ACD, GTS and IPR seem to be doing the best in keeping it in stock at distribution, each having a handful of books in various warehouses, with IPR going deep. At ACD Games Day, I was talking to my old manager, now head of purchasing at ACD, about how my book was never available there, a common complaint with small publishers. It turned out it was selling through faster than they could get them in, the predictive abilities of distributors as bad as retailers. A non RPG book is not a typical game trade item, so nobody wants to get stuck with excess copies, thus there's careful ordering. This book is not a typical game trade item, so I expect Amazon to be the main source after a while and distribution to drop it.

ACD stock of FLGS

GTS stock of FLGS

Go Indie Press Revolution!

Sales in my own store have reached 32 copies (part of channel sales and Gameplaywright retailer). I've avoided selling these online, although several other stores are doing so. There may be something in my contract not allowing this, I can't recall. I buy them like every other store. I initially received six free copies as part of my publishing contract, and those got given out to staff and family.

New copies sold online are still money in my pocket, as opposed to used copies which provide authors zero dollars. If you ever get a chance to buy a new copy of a book for roughly the same price as a used copy, buy the new copy to support the author.

Total sales this quarter, reflected in the chart were $6,069. From this total, the costs of two print runs were deducted, and I receive half of that. There are no other expenses deducted. We're talking 1,000 copies.

What does this all mean? It's a small niche book with probably a limited revenue producing period. I figure I've seen half the revenue at this point based on what I've been told by my publisher, a third if I'm really lucky, so it's clearly a labor of love for all involved. It's ranked 29,172 in Amazon's Business and Money section, amongst 2,000,000+ books, whatever that means. Top 15%?

I enjoyed the writing process, although I don't think anyone wants to see another game trade book from me unless I can come up with something really clever. I've got another labor of love book project idea, but I need a more mainstream publisher, if anyone knows one. It's a fun travel book about chicken buses in Central America.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Age and D&D

In 1977, a 39 year old game designer, a previous insurance underwriter, published Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I mention some of these details, because this is about age and D&D. The target market of this game was likely the men (and occasionally women) who played similar games at the time. That's what I surmise from this early photo.
Lifted from Wired Magazine, from Gail Gygax

At age 11, I was clearly not the target market, but this game still fascinated me, and by the time I was 13, myself and friends would try to out geek each other by quoting the rules. We only had three books, the holy trinity, and they were so well used, you could run your hand across them with eyes closed and instantly find various sections, like combat tables and treasure charts.

This was our game, and on page 12 of the super secret Dungeon Master's Guide, that everyone owned because everyone eventually DMed, it spoke in great detail about aging. As an adult, I can't help wonder if this brilliant insurance underwriter used actuarial tables or other data to come up with this clever bit of game mechanics. I note that 40 is the cut off age before you become a decrepit, middle aged human, losing a point of Strength and Constitution, but gaining a point of Intelligence and Wisdom. Gygax was likely thinking about this at 39 when he wrote it. Because first, who wouldn't at age 39, and second, he was in insurance, where mortality and risk was the business. Was it data, the desire not to feel old, or something else that created these brackets? We'll probably never know. Here's the chart for age categories (photographed out of my taped up DMG):

Codification of adult life in very serious table format had the effect of making this seem authentic to a young teenager. Tables were something we had just learned about. Tables were magical devices used by adults to display huge amounts of information in visual format. I wouldn't see an actual actuarial table until I was in college, and that also blew my mind. Statistically knowing the likelihood you'll die at a certain time by gender and age was straight out of the DMG.

As a young teen, this stuff was magical, and the message was clear, being young was heroic and good. We were young. Our characters were young. Getting old was bad and it ruined your plans, so this table tended to be used in only the most dire circumstances, like getting touched by a ghost. Poor fighter is now a wretched 50 year old (like me now).

Nobody actually used this section on character creation. In theory, if you read this section, you could roll up a character who accidentally fell into Young Adult status against your own designs. The DM could penalize your Wisdom and add a point of Constitution. For example, if you roll a 1 or a 2 on a D4 for your Cleric's age (18+1d4), you'll start at 19 or 20 and fall into Young Adult status, ruining your character plans. We saved this section for ghosts and haste spells.

It wasn't until we were adults that we started playing with this table to gain an advantage. My friend Jay would play an elderly wizard and tweak his character for some extra Intelligence points, in exchange for feebleness, something we would have never considered as teens. We've min-maxed the heck out of the aging rules, going so far as having people who couldn't even walk for the sake of brain power. That's adults realizing the power of the mind over the body. As kids, anyone over 30 was elderly, and when we played other games, like Top Secret, 30 seemed like a prime age. Most of my characters started at 30.

I didn't give this stuff much thought until we started getting older, but kept playing, adding younger players. We've got my 13 year old son, players in their 20's, those around 30 and quite a few of us in our 40's and now 50s. We're all at the same table, playing the same game by the same rules. If you want to keep the 13 year old from walking into the meat grinder because of his real world low wisdom, that's the parties business, not mine as the 50 year old DM. Generational D&D is something we're learning as we go. I no longer consider 30 the pinnacle of character perfection. In fact, if I think about it, it's probably the waning days of physical prowess without the benefit of experience (wisdom).

While walking down a wet street in Guanajuato, Mexico last month, right after a big monsoon storm, I slipped on a ramp and fell hard. I knew I was falling and from years in martial arts, just let it happen, rather than struggle and smash my head. I cut up my arm a bit, but it occurred to me our more adventurous travel days may be fine for this middle aged 50 year old, but might be a bit too much for an "old" 61 year old. Gary Gygax might have had that part right. That's my 1 extra point of middle aged Intelligence and Wisdom talking. 61 year old me might have a different idea about that though, much like 50 year old me doesn't feel as decrepit as the DMG would suggest.

Oh, and thanks Wizards of the Coast for D&D 5th editions complete omission of aging rules. I hope to still be playing your games when I'm Venerable.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

So You Say (Personal Weird Stuff)

You can skip this one, it's more personal than tradecraft. I lasted about two months between my declaration of political neutrality and calling the Trump administration evil (they started it), so lets delve into philosophy for a moment. Maybe we'll talk about sex next (the third rail of gamer discussions).

When I first opened, I had a philosophical attitude. A Zen attitude, if you will. I was inspired by one of my favorite stories, that of Zen master Hakuin. That's what this post is about, if you want to bail now. I've written about Hakuin before, but this is in more detail.

There was once a Zen master named Hakuin Ekaku. He lived next to a couple and their daughter, and when the daughter got pregnant, she panicked and named Hakuin as the father. His response?

 "So you say."

When the baby was born, Hakuin was given the baby and he took care of it, raising it, feeding it, loving it. Then the real father was discovered, a local fish monger (evil merchants), and the family demanded the baby back. Hakuin's response?

"So you say."

Hakuin's mind was not troubled by the cares of the world, the whirlwind of distress in the mind of others. Take care of and love a baby? Sure. Give up that child you love? Sure. In the face of chaos, Hakuin's mind was calm. He was also brave in the face of adversity, while the silly common people were fearful leading to deceit.

That was my initial attitude in running my store. Unfortunately, I am no Hakuin. I have no doubt an untroubled mind could deal with the chaos of a store, but that's not me. I don't have the spiritual cajones to back up my "so you say" with appropriate action in the face of chaos.

One of my favorite Tibetan texts talks about evil merchants. The most scorching of commentary is reserved for these folks who are in the thick of the day-to-day world. They are accused of all kinds of cheating and skulduggery. You'll hear better talk of prostitutes than merchants. It's like a merchant shortchanged them on the monastery robe order and boy are they getting an earful now.

My philosophical attitude in the face of the general public changed quite a bit. I still cultivated "so you say," but I did so with an every growing framework of what was appropriate, what I would tolerate, what I would and would not discuss. "Action through non action," the Taoist approach of Wei Wu Wei was not an option. People would get hurt. The worldliness of running an establishment would regularly challenge my "so you say" attitude, while I tried very hard not to be the kind of wretched merchant I was warned about by angry teachers.

The truth is there are few profession that are incompatible with "so you say," the pursuit of a spiritual path. All professions that aren't harming others are compatible. Some, like the game trade offer more grist for the mill. I think it's much harder to follow that path when your peers are so very far from the road, and your customers are looking for distractions. But we do bring happiness to others, albeit momentarily, so we've got that. I've reconciled this, that what we do is a positive in the world. I am no Hakuin, and with long hours and a chaotic life, I wasn't getting much closer to being one.

If you harden your heart and start wielding the sword of discernment without compassion, which this trade seems to demand, you'll become jaded and you'll be stuck down a mental cul de sac. You might end up with a great business, but an empty heart. I was warned by others to get out before I lose my soul, and this is what that's about. Opening your heart without that sword in hand leads to being taken advantage of instantly in this public facing trade. There are those who are unsuited for this trade, people pleasers who can't handle complainers and those who desperately desire to satisfy customers who don't fit their business model. Finding that balance is incredibly elusive, compassion and wisdom in equal measure. Taking victories and defeats with equanimity, your words each night simply being, "So you say."

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Sick Retail

I just got back from a couple months touring Mexico and Central America and one thing that struck me was the robust nature of their retail. In big cities, malls were packed with people and storefronts were filled to capacity. American stores that had died in the US were thriving and I visited Sears, Radio Shack and if I had wanted to, Thrifty Drug Store, where I had spent many allowances as a kid on plastic model kits. Retail was strong, and aligned to the needs of the community. Amazon was weak or nonexistent. It reminded me of touring stores in Canada and seeing so many strong retailers there. It is the US that is suffering, overstored by a factor of ten and beset by brutal online competition. US retail needs an unwinding and it won't be fast or pretty.

It got me thinking about hedges, notably the game store cafe model. I realized American retailers are contorting their stores to fight the drag of brick and mortar retail circling the drain. Again, not just game trade retail, but all retail. Brick and mortar retail won't disappear into the vortex, but it will need to be re-aligned, with perhaps 30-40% of stores closing, and a quarter of malls re-aligning. We could really do with a lot more closings, but Americans seem to think they can buck the trend.  The cafe model is used by stores to stand above their peers while the market re-aligns. However, a secret nobody will tell you is it's actually a model that doesn't follow through on its economic promises.

Those successful with the cafe model only do a relatively small fraction of their business with their cafes. They make a huge investment, go through tremendous training, and for what? Granted, any profitable element grafted onto a successful game store is a win, but it's not like you'll double your revenue by adding a cafe. Most are more in line with 15-25%, with only the rarest of stores hitting 50% and usually with professional food services staff. The Fantasy Flight Event Center comes to mind.

So stores spend a small fortune on build outs, hire additional trained staff at higher wages, and for their efforts get a relatively small sales boost, enough to raise them into safe competitive territory with a Unique Value Proposition, but nothing like what you would hope with such a large investment. In fact, I often wonder why spend $50K-100K for such a small boost when I could open a business for regular people who would actually utilize my services. How about a standard coffee shop, for example? It's because these hybrid store owners are retailers who love games and gamers and want to solidify their place in an unsteady marketplace. They have great stores first, and cafe whatever a distant second.

I mention this because store owners believe this hybrid model or some hybrid model is the only way to succeed nowadays. It's certainly one way. It's certainly not a way for those without experience in either retail or food services. It's definitely a good idea in a failed regional market where all stores are terrible and another one is about to open at any moment. In my own sheltered market in the SF Bay Area, selling games and holding events is still a useful value proposition, albeit one that is no longer unique and one where the cracks are beginning to show. In the rest of the country, where retail is circling the drain, I can't imagine opening a retail store without something pretty darn unique up my sleeve. If that's slinging coffee, then so be it. Just don't expect to get full value from your investment. It has always been the case that a pure play is more profitable than a hybrid, whether it's comics and games or games and coffee. That hasn't changed.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Punching Nazis

I understand the desire to punch a nazi. These people call for violence against others. They have a historical precedent for fascism that resulted in the death of millions of innocents. Seeing them come out of the woodwork like cockroaches engenders a response. We naturally want to crush them, and like the fascination with zombies, many see them as less than human, an excuse to bring violence to bear. Captain America punched Hitler, right?

We are told a third of the German population was responsible for nazi atrocities, while a third were indifferent, and another third opposed the nazis but were unable to do anything by the time they gained power. It sounds a lot like our current political break down. The parallels are weak but they're easy to manipulate to prove a point or create a meme. Nobody wants to be powerless or indifferent in the face of such horror. We have movies about going back in time and killing Hitler. We are so obsessed with this historical mistake, it's its own fantasy genre. Now seems to be time to act in the very real threat of the rise of fascism and American nazis.

However, this is not Nazi Germany. We have a sickening administration in power, but it's not an administration that has turned its back (entirely) on the rule of law. We still live in a country where we can vote politicians out of office. Although our government treats immigrant children with disdain, ripping them from their parents, drugging and imprisoning them, we still don't have cattle cars full of the political opposition. They are cruel, but they aren't at the level of Nazi Germany cruel.

The Trump administration is vile, but there's a political remedy to stopping their agenda in just a few months. If you turn your back on the rule of law by resorting to violence, you turn your back entirely on the political system, and admit civil war is the solution to this countries problems. Civil war is what this countries enemies would like most, resulting in the death of millions. I think it says how bought, corrupt and ineffective the federal government has become that we feel the need to solve national problems through physical violence. I have to ask everyone to just have a little more faith in what's left. I spent the last couple months traveling through Mexico and Central America saying, "I could live here." I understand the loss of faith in the American system.

Beating children does not make them better adults, only more violent ones. Smacking your spouse is not an effective method for marital bliss. Punching a nazi won't make them less of an asshole. In all these cases we perpetuate violence. We make the world a more violent place when what we really want is harmony. Worst of all, you plant these seeds of hate and violence in your mind, damaging your own psyche on this quest to murder the future Hitler before millions are killed. This makes you a more violent person, a less rational individual. Don't be helpless. Don't be indifferent. Find a way to stop fascism through the least violent means. Right now those means are at the ballot box. Fuck nazis, do it for your own mental health.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Working Kids

I'm in Guatemala right now, where young children work alongside their parents selling brooms, hoping to earn enough for a meal by the end of the day. My son is with me. He's a little sad because we've just extended the trip an extra few days and he won't get to work at the store at all this summer. He has his heart set on the next Fallout game, which he would earn with his money.

My boy wakes up in nice hotels each morning in gorgeous Central America, which was kind enough to skip the rainy season for us this year. An impossible number of maids scurry around the hallways, waiting for us to depart so they can expertly clean our room. They avert their eyes when I give them a "buenos dias." There's a free breakfast waiting in the lobby, so I'm pushing him a bit to get up. He declares "I hate my life." It's all a matter of perspective I guess.

He's 13 and when he works for me, he's working under a school sanctioned work permit. If I was a sole proprietorship, we wouldn't need such a thing, but as the store is a corporation, we play by corporate rules. As an official employee of the corporation, and not some slave labor of my proprietorship, he's on payroll and makes minimum wage. This is not charity. I can't afford a wink and a nudge child employee. I need minimum wage work from this kid to afford to have him on.

He does not report to me, which I think is important. He reports to my manager, who provides him tasks appropriate for his age and abilities and the need to get solid work done. He often sorts cards, cleans bathrooms and the game center. During the last shift he worked, he discovered how to use the point of sale machine. You see, there's a chair at the point of sale machine, and if you're the cashier, you can sit in it while everyone else scurries around working. This laziness introduced him to the knowledge economy.

He gets a formal paycheck with direct deposit. The money goes into an account with his name, but it's really a sub account of my personal checking. From there, he gets to keep half, which goes to things like Fallout video games. He should really be taught to save a percentage, but we'll get to that later.

The other half of his paycheck is taken by me and put in his 529 college savings plan. I contribute a modest amount to his 529 plan each month but even a little bit of work by him turbo charges this account. As he gets older and works more, I expect that to accelerate. It's too bad he can't work more as a small child and less as he approaches adulthood, the compound interest would be fantastic.

Will he one day run my store? Why would I want to entangle my loved ones in such a mess. I've got plans in place so if I die, the store isn't a burden, so why would I want to burden them while I'm alive? If he comes to enjoy the work during his teenage years, reaches his potential in school and elsewhere, and gravitates back towards the store, then sure, why not. Parents just want their kids to be happy, generally within the framework they believe happiness arises. If that means running a game store, well I think you might be a fool, but I'm not going to deny your happiness kid.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Vacation Essentials and the Shiny Bucket (Tradecraft)

I've been on vacation for nearly a month now, exploring Mexico and Guatemala and later this week, Honduras. Along the way I'm visiting game stores, which in Mexico has meant stores that specialize in Magic: The Gathering almost exclusively, but with some green shoots in other categories, like board games and D&D. I'm documenting some of this on my author Facebook page. Having an interpreter with me has been essential in understanding where game stores fit in the local culture. It's fascinating stuff.

This trip will span nearly two months and is a test of my stores policies and procedures. A month long trip is a great test, and I did that last year, but two months spans my normal billing cycle. It forces me to create procedures for posting bills while I'm on the road. It even resulted in my finally adopting online banking. When I crossed the country last year, I brought my printed checks with me and mailed them along the way. Old ways are good ways. Of course this is only possible with a great manager, so if you're unclear where to begin, look there.

New product is a concern. Because I pre order absolutely every new product that enters my store, new items arrive with my managers restocks. She does this using Open to Buy, so although I haven't trained her on turn rates and culling inventory, the budget dictates the restock. Everything else is details. This is the first time I've given up ordering, and last year I spent many hours while on vacation restocking the store.

I never really looked at it too closely, but there's about a 90 day lead time on new product solicitations, with Games Workshop being the infuriating exception, with every new release being a surprise. While on the road I continue to pre order product for the future, with some concerns I'm not doing enough research. However, something has to give if you ever want a vacation. Since 80% of my sales come from 30 companies, it's the fringe stuff that will be taking a hit about 90 days from now. That may be a lesson in personal time management.

I've got a list of about $20,000 worth of upgrades my store needs. This trip has emphasized what I really need, especially if I want a stress free vacation: a shiny bucket of money. Managing cash flow on the road is no fun, with regular reviews, contingency plans and transfers when things get slow. This is mostly because of debt from our big construction project, but also because I'm constantly eying that $20K list of stuff we need and checking them off. That shiny bucket of money would provide some vacation peace of mind about now. If you handed me $20,000 in a shiny bucket, I could easily see putting it on a shelf and just leaving it there. Veterans will confirm keeping the shiny bucket is the best bucket strategy.

Resting on the throne outside the Cosmovitral in Toluca, Mexico