I have not written on this specific topic before because I use a consolidator which in turn gets me into distribution. They charge extra, but the warehousing, shipping, accounting, and regular contacts they provide with dozens of distributors around the world (not just the USA) is worth paying them a cut. I do not enjoy (and I’m not very good at) logistics or accounting and so the service of a consolidator is worth it to me. If you do not wish to use one, though, then you must worry about these things yourself – but of course only if you first manage to convince distributors to carry your products.
Distributors are cautious. They have been burned several times in the past. The glut of CCG’s and D20 RPG products both left the distributors with a load of extra worthless products when they crashed. So they are going to be gun-shy with this new world that includes Kickstarter games. The problem is, that there are 100 games a month (literally) coming out. A distributor cannot carry them all and stores can carry far less. So they necessarily need to be picky as to who they choose to do business with. They will need to know your game is going to make some sales and be worth entering you into their ordering and accounting systems. More importantly, though, they need to believe you are going to be a publisher that produces more than one product so you have an ongoing relationship over years- not a one and done. If you’re a one and done, then consider a consolidator or only direct sales.
Distributors will move maybe a few hundred copies of a game that’s not promoted well. Maybe a thousand copies of a game that was received well on Kickstarter and has good gameplay. But if you ever wish to see numbers in the 10’s of thousands you need to have a hit game with a marketing plan to back it up. My consolidator has told me that 90% of all the products he sees sell only a few hundred copies in the first few months and then they’re just dead. Only maybe 1% break into that “evergreen” state which means it sells 100+ copies monthly for years.
I have reached out to my contacts in the industry and several distributors to try to come up with some common expectations to share with you.
What do Distributors look for?
Since it’s their own money on the line, they will be looking at your project closely. These are some of the things they will be asking themselves when first evaluating your product:
- Is this product something they believe the market actually wants?
- Is there some marketing happening for the game?
- Is the publisher promoting / demoing the game at events and stores?
- Does the game look very professional?
- Does it fit a new nitch?
- Is this publisher going to be around years from now with new products?
- Did it do well on Kickstarter?
- Are people talking about it on Board Game Geek? Is the game on the hotness list?
- Is the game getting a rating on BGG of 7.5 and higher?
- Will this product sell in enough quantity to make it worth my time? We don’t have time to push/market your game, so you need to come to the table with a product that we feel will sell based on what you’re doing or it’s sheer awesomeness.
- You should contact them before or right after you fund, not once you’re done with fulfillment and have leftovers.
- Before your price the product on Kickstarter you need to have factored in a distribution or it will look like (to customers) that a retailer is ripping them off.
- Be realistic with pricing. Most games have an acceptable price range for the style and audience and contents. If your game falls outside that, it will be a hard sell and a slow mover.
- Most smaller publishers have roughly a $500 minimum order for getting free shipping to the distributor. No free shipping option makes it harder to justify bringing your game in.
- Typically distribution would like to see 60% off MSRP but that can be negotiable if you’re someone they see great value in bringing in.
- If distribution picks up your game they will need all the info 2-3 months before it ships to allow them to solicit retailers. They want to pre-sell new games to their retailers before placing our order.
What you should do to prepare your game for distribution:
- Your game should be game sized….not odd size or shape. Odd size might look cool but it doesn’t ship well and it doesn’t display well at the retail level.
- Case size depends on price and size. The more expensive or heavier a game is, the less should be in a case quantity. Know your case quantity before you talk to distributors.
- For heavy games, spend the extra money on double corrugated and/or reinforce the edges of the external shipping box. Cheap flimsy cardboard means damage. Damages that the distributor and retailer will not pay for but comes out of your (the publisher’s) pocket. They will bill you back.
- Put a stock number on it (see below). Get a UPC and use a barcode (you can buy these cheap from a third party).
- Put where the game was manufacturers on the box. A must for importing.
- Put all the pertinent info on the outside of the box: Age, Play-time, Number of Players, etc.
- An exciting blurb and picture of the game in play on the back of the box helps to explain and sell the game.
- Sell sheets are optional, but if you make one try to leave some room where a distributor or store can put their own logo and info on it. Remember to include release dates. Sell sheets aren’t usually necessary – but a good website with info and good high-resolution photos are.
- Include inserts and/or ziplock bags inside the box. Gamers like places to put components.
Some more helpful advice direct from the mouths of distributors:
Step out of your box when creating your game and look at it with new eyes. Is this something other people want or would be or are you just enamored with it? I mean you have to look at some of the games that are out there. What were the creators thinking? They need friends that are honest. They need to listen to criticism. LISTEN is key.
As a designer/publisher, actually get out there and pitch in to help promote your game. Don’t just sell your print run of 1000 and sit back on your heels. If the retailer didn’t sell its copy it brought in to test your game, then they won’t buy another one of your games and thus distribution won’t by more. Use social media. Get the game out at conventions. Go to your local store and actually arrange a game night or a demo day or two. Give a copy to friends in other cities to go demo. Get people talking! If you are lucky all will sell and can you imagine – you have to reprint your game!
Distributors do not want a vanity press game. We want a game that will sell! To do small sales we all have to pay: the buyer / purchaser to look at your product – whether this is through emails or maybe we have paid for them to go to a trade show or convention, accounting to set you as a vendor, the buyer / purchaser to figure out the numbers and add the product info to our inventory, our web person to upload images and info to our website, logistics to arrange transport, receiving to count your shipment and inspect for damages, a warehouse person to put it on a shelf, a sales person to sell your product and take your order, a picker to pick for an order, a packer to pack your order and ship it out, and accounting to pay you. So if you phone me and tell me that we only need to buy 12 copies…….not interested.
Our recommendation is usually not to distribute it themselves – get an established publisher to help with distribution or put it through a consolidator like Impressions or PSI. The designer gets less money but this is easily offset by the extra expenses of trying to do their own distribution. Capital is essential – if you don’t have the money to back 2nd and 3rd editions if the game proves popular makes distribution really difficult. This has happened before where a game was a hit but the designers didn’t have the experience of resources to take the game past Kickstarter. Which is why partnering with someone else will make it much easier.
BBG ratings mean nothing unless it is a Gamer’s game. Most of our top sellers aren’t in the top rated games on BGG. Hotness can help the hype for a Gamer’s game, but as mentioned earlier there are so many being released this doesn’t usually last long. The Gamer’s market is still very VERY small compared to the family market.
Me personally, I don’t mind if a small company only has one title, but what is most important is they have to believe in the title and plan on selling it for a while. Small companies need to keep marketing, even after the Kickstarter.
BBG rating and the hotness are very valuable to us. But they are not the end all be all. The rating can be a killer, anything less than a 7.5 we look more detailed in. The hotness is a great tool it helps me find those smaller companies and find games that have a good chance of being a Scythe. But we also like to watch board game reviews and demo the game for ourselves.
Anytime they want me to buy X for to get X price I am out. Price needs to be set in stone. Once I price the game I have to sell it at the price. If my price could change that means we will lose margin. If I buy X amount and it doesn’t sell that means I need to close it out. If I close-out at a game it’s bad for all parties involved.
Honestly, I really take people on that communicate and have a game that sells primarily to the core hobby market. Why? Because I like nice people and I like gamer games.
In general, you have to make sure to tell these people to quit thinking about distribution as an afterthought. 75% of the people come to me and say, “I have 500 copies left now that I’ve fulfilled my KS and I’m wondering if you want them for distribution…?” That’s an instant “no thank you” because the distributors want their 2-3 month window and by then it’s been 3 months+ that their game is out and that just diminishes sales.
No sell sheets. Nobody wants them anymore… they just want the game’s data. Sure, a picture of the game, but not all the fancy flyers.
In terms of criteria for new publishers…Communication. I know it’s hard for them with full-time jobs and such, but I do this full time…and so do the distributors…so they have to act like they’re able to do it full time with timely responses via email and/or phone.
If you are interested in being in distribution and on hobby store shelves post-Kickstarter, you need to consider that during your initial setup. In fact, if you set up your reward tiers correctly, you can use them to prime the pump for future sales. I have recommended that publishers include not just one copy of a promo item (promo card, figure, board section, etc) with the rewards, but provide more than one – of an item a player can only use one of. This means your backers will have more than one copy of something they only need to have one to use. They then become agents marketing your game as they wither giver (or sell) to a friend once the KS is over and the game is out. Or they may sell on Ebay – which itself then become marketing for someone to buy the core game now that the KS has been fulfilled.
Distributors will want at as low of a minimum order as they can get for free shipping to their warehouses. This sometimes can be a deal breaker and you personally will have to deal with all the invoicing and shipping and collections that it requires. Then add to that all the cold calls you have to make to all the 20 or so worldwide distributors.
Obtaining the 3 letter industry code for your company:
HMA Executive Secretary
1410 East Erie Avenue
Philadelphia, Pa 19124
$25 to register
The main USA Consolidators:
Publisher Services Inc. (PSI)
Alternatives to Distribution:
- Cool Stuff Inc, Miniature Market, and Fun Again Games have all been known to buy bulk games directly from small publishers.
- Amazon. Both FBA and just regular direct sales.
- Skymall, for some games this actually works.
- Direct sales from your own website, but it’s very hard to get people to show up there.
- Conventions. I’ve known people to hit 20-30 conventions in a year and sell 1000’s of copies of their game. But it’s very hard work.
- Local Game Stores. Most LGS will be happy to help out a local designer/publisher. But cold-calling tons of retailers around the country is a waste of time.
- Run another Kickstarter for an expansion and move many more of the base unit.
Some more industry references and shows:
List of many distributors worldwide
Breaking Into Board Games podcast
Discussion of getting into mainstream stores
League of Game Makers
Board Game Business Podcast
Board Game Business Podcast – How to Get Into Distribution
Live session at Crafter Con 2015 – President of ACD Distribution