[Publishing Horror Stories] The Osseum Debacle

Malcolm Craig's picture

As promised in another thread, here's a cautionary tale of woe regarding the games publishing business.

A few years ago, myself and Paul (Bourne) were happily working away on a website for a free game setting. It was called a|state. Paul did the art, I did the words, some people liked it, happiness ensues. Now, one evening, after a particularly glowing round of online praise and bloated with ambition, we thought "I wonder if we could publish this?"

Cue months and months of hard slog, dragging poor old John Wilson into the fray (his patience truly does know no limit), and we get close to what might be termed a complete game. We allow ourselves a brief moment of rejoicing. As an aside, it was during this lengthy process of writing, artworking and finding out how the hell we went about actually creating a published game, that (while at Conpulsion in Edinburgh) Paul and I meet a bloke in a trenchcoat who shakes our hands and wishes us all the best of luck with our project. He was very pleasant and enthusiastic. "Gosh" we thought after he had wandered away "What a nice bloke." His name was Gregor Hutton.

We even travelled down to London at the kind invitation of James Wallis to pick his rains over lunch and numerous coffees. His advice and wisdom was invaluable. I still adhere to many of the snippets of publishing advice that he gave that day.

Now, we were young(ish) and foolish back then. The way you published a game (according to accepted wisdom) was to produce a big hardback (or softback) and sell it through three tier distribution. Ok, here's a bit about what that is:

If you are a small publisher, the big distributors (especially in the US, Esdevium over here are somewhat more accomodating) will not touch you with a ten foot pole. You have to go through a fulfillment house. What the fulfillment house does is collate the product of numerous small publishers and sell it on to the distributors. Then, the distributors sell stuff to individual games shops, who sell it to you, the eager customer. This is three tier system in a nutshell. Sounds good, yes? No. See, a distributor will pay about 40% of cover price for your book, perhaps a tadge less if they buy in big quantities. Now, because the fulfillment house do you a service by marketing your stuff to distributors, they take a cut of what you get. Generally, the fulfillment people will take 15 - 20% of that 40%. And they want you to pay for shipping to the distributors. When all that is done, you're probably likely to get about 30% of your cover price back. Out of this, you've got to pay for printing, artworking, materials, shipping (to the fulfillment house) and all the other stuff required to actually make a book. Isn't this sounding less appealing all the time?

Right, back on track.

We decided to print just over 1000 copies of a|state through a huge Canadian printing company called Transcontinental. Now, to be fair, Transcon were great and have no horrific part in this tale of gloom. We had contracted with a fulfillment house called Osseum Entertainment, who were highly recommended and on the ball. And things went well. Distributors bought a|state. Lots of it. So much so, that Osseum advised we do another print run. We did so. Hell, we had a supplement printed as well. But remember, we're only getting 30% (roughly) of the cover price here. Our margins were more slender than Kate Moss with bulimia. At this point we should have realised that there might be other ways of conducting business. We didn't.

Can you tell things are going to start going wrong soon?

a|state was nominated for the ENnies in 2004 and, in a fit of excitement, I flew to Gen Con. OK, so we didn't win, but it was great. And the Osseum guys put me up in lavish style. They were fun, sensible and seemed to have really solid business heads on their shoulders. I came back full of glowing praise for them. All was well.

The the monthly payments stopped arriving.

Then we didn't get regular spreadsheets and stock updates.

The all communication dies.

Nothing.

Zip.

Uh oh.

The short version of things is that the downturn in the D20 market hit Osseum badly. Real badly. The guy in charge freaked and became something of a paranoid shut-in. Communication was zero, they owed us several thousand dollars in back payments and they had most of our stock in some warehouse somewhere in Back of Beyond, USA. Brown trouser moment? You are not kidding.

Months went by, nothing. Then other publishers whom went through Osseum start talking about things online. Turns out everyone is getting stiffed, nobody can get in touch with the company and nobody is getting any money. The guy who runs the company turns out to be suicidal (this is not anecdotal, I actually spoke to him, albeit briefly) and off his head.

The upshot of all this? No money. Luckily, we got in touch with the warehouse and secured all of our extant stock. Luckily, we got in touch with other means of distribution. Luckily, we adopted a new and much better strategy that meant we weren't going through three tier. Indie Press Revolution were fantastic from day one. Key 20 helped us out in the beginning. Things, after a black period, looked up. Cold City was a bit of a success and help pull us out of the hole we were in.

Looking back, we can give a wry smile about it now, but going through the three tier system just isn't viable for guys like us. Hell, even without the Osseum Debacle, we were only just scraping by. How are things now? Much, much better. The way we do business now is great: I can't praise IPR enough. I can't praise the mutualistic efforts of the small press community (particular the Collective Endeavour and the IPR/Forge booth) enough.

So that's my horror story. How the three tier system and someone taking a mental turn just about killed all our dreams of publishing games. If nothing else, it was a learning experience. I certainly took a lot from it. And it's why I will never, ever recommend anyone following the same path if they are publishing a game. What is happening now in the small press scene is great: we share advice, we help each other out, there is mutualism of the best kind.

If you have any questions or comments, please do fire away.

Cheers
Malc

Thanks Malc

Matt's picture

It's definitely a cautionary tale.

I started thinking about publishing games just about the time the Osseum debacle happened. I did enough research to discover that:

1. The three tier system probably isn't right for the small guy.

1. a. It probably isn't very good for anybody else, they just weren't talking about it and got defensive if you asked pointed questions.

2. Games in stores via distro != Money in the authors / publishers pocket

3. Games in Stores via distro != People playing them

Which is why I got heavily into the Indie scene. It's not that distribution is bad, but it is weighted against you. If nothing else because of the Chinese whispers that happens.:

For example, Burning wheel Revised. I know Luke. I knew revised was out and in distribution. Went to retailer. Retailer has sold out of first batch. Retailer says distributor has told him it's now out of print and not available. I point out that's rubbish. Retailer phones distributor while I'm there. Gets same story. I go home and order a copy from Key20 instead.

-Matt

Realms Publishing

Umm...

Ashok Desai's picture
Matt wrote:

I go home and order a copy from Key20 instead.

Am I missing something here? I could've sworn that Key20 ARE a fulfilment house, and thus part of the whole three-tier arrangement themselves.

They also sell direct to

Andrew Kenrick's picture

They also sell direct to stores and customers, which makes them something of an exception.

Key 20

Ashok Desai's picture

Ahh right! Didn't know that. That's cool.

Ash

...

Matt's picture
Destriarch wrote:

Am I missing something here? I could've sworn that Key20 ARE a fulfilment house, and thus part of the whole three-tier arrangement themselves.

As Andy says, they sell direct too. I could have gone to Luke, but I wanted to buy some other stuff and combine postage. But the point isn't who I bought the book from, it's the serious mis-communications created by the system. The:

Publisher > Fulfilment > Distro > Retailer >Consumer

communication chain is very flawed. Each step you go down the chain the more unreliable the information flow gets. Plus, only what each point in the chain thinks will sell gets passed down. This is a big problem for smallpress games.

Combine this with the fact that the internet has made is possible for the consumer to subvert that hierarchy and talk directly to any point up the chain and you get situations like this.

It also begs the question: how many other times has this happened without being detected?

-Matt

Realms Publishing

The Fulfilment Dinosaur

Ashok Desai's picture
Matt wrote:

The:

Publisher > Fulfilment > Distro > Retailer >Consumer

communication chain is very flawed.

I couldn't agree more. I'm happy using a distributor myself because as a small press entity it'd be a nightmare keeping track of all the stores, canvasing them for sales, persuading them to purchase from me and so on, but the US situation makes Fulfilment a necessity if you want any distribution at all, and it's completely unneccessary in this day and age. POD printing obviates the need for warehousing to a large extent, which was the other major advantage of having a fulfilment house. So now, the only reason why I have fulfilment at all is because the US distributors won't deal direct with small companies. It puts an extra step in the chain, adds another set of largely pointless delivery charges, increases our carbon footprint (two delivery trips in the ol' van) and is extremely inefficient. And that's before you take into account the fact that more links in the chain gives you more opportunity for lack of communication to foul EVERYTHING up.

Now, distribution serves a very useful purpose when it's done right. It means the vendor has less companies to deal with, can easily combine the postage costs on the items he purchases, and means he doesn't have to phone around every single publisher to restock items. Keeping track of all that would be horrible and cost more in phone bills too, especially since many of 'em would be international calls. However I am strongly of the opinion that fulfilment is a dinosaur in this industry, since the companies who can afford to order in bulk and thus need the warehousing space for storage can easily afford to warehouse for themselves thus cutting out fulfilment, and those who do small order runs generally order POD and only need to print what is necessary, thus also making bulk storage of excess stock largely unneccessary. The only people who 'need' fulfilment houses are the distributors, and that's only because the majority blindly refuse to deal direct. I'd understand it more if it were difficult to obtain the services of a fulfilment house through stringent quality control thus guaranteeing a better quality of product, but that certainly doesn't appear to be the case. The only palpable benefit I can think of is that maybe some fulfilment houses perform quality checks on stock before sending it out. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the main reason this outdated and inefficient model still exists is that this is how it has always been done.

*EDIT* Also forgot to mention. When dealing with Esdevium, it took only a month from delivery of product to recieve payment. Now I'm having to go through Key20, it takes a month or two before the product is even released, then 60 to 90 days after THAT before I see any returns. This is really riling me at the moment because I've got a second book ready to go to print almost immediately, but I can't afford the printing costs until I get some payment from the last book.

Ash

Good effort Malc

evilgaz's picture
Malcolm Craig wrote:

We even travelled down to London at the kind invitation of James Wallis to pick his rains over lunch and numerous coffees. His advice and wisdom was invaluable. I still adhere to many of the snippets of publishing advice that he gave that day.

Any chance this invaluable advice is in bullet form somewhere... :)

Excellent tale Mr Craig and the sort of thing I was looking forward to reading - not as a tale of your near demise, you understand, but as a cautionary anecdote.

I'm sure everyone else will now be willing to stand up and say "My name is [name], and I had a gaming problem".

Thanks

Gaz

Edit - stoopid tags

Wizard's Attic

Gregor Hutton's picture

Wizard's Attic went belly up just after Contested Ground signed with Osseum. WA single handedly killed off a swathe of games and companies with their implosion.

I guess the largest company affected by Osseum was Green Ronin. I think it was fairly miraculous for them to survive getting stiffed out of a sum in the very high 5 figures of dollars (from what I heard).

Aye

Jon Hodgson's picture
Gregor Hutton wrote:

I guess the largest company affected by Osseum was Green Ronin.

It certainly had an impact on me, freelancing on WFRP at the time. And the nature of the industry and legal issues make it hard for the companies involved to just come right out and declare what's going on as its happening.

Jon Hodgson
www.jonhodgson.net

Even though Malcs post is

Paul CGS's picture

Even though Malcs post is indeed a cautionary tale, and we did nearly chuck in the towel because of the whole Osseum disaster, we have learned valuable leassons from it that we might not have learned otherwise.

It is possible for a small company or indeed one person to write and release a successful game.

I suppose the moral of the story is, if someone else hasn't written your perfect game, write it yourself. What do you have to loose?

Paul