Distinction

Audubon finches

Indie Press Revolution, purveyor of fine, independently-published games and books, has a mailing list for said publishers. In it, a particular publisher said,

I know the owner of Dragon’s Lair somewhat, and have shown him [My game] in the past. His comment (which probably applies to many of my IPR brethren), was something like, “The indie format”–by this he meant the physical format of many of our books; [My game] is 9×6, landscape–“doesn’t sit well on the shelves”.

My response was the following:

I encourage everyone to see this for the bullshit it is.

Go to a Barnes and Noble. Look at all the different shapes of books.

Now go to a game store and notice the homogeneity.

What he wants you to do is fit the format so your book literally doesn’t stand out. Your book will be lost. It will be a bunch of work to redesign the book and it will dampen your sales because it will lose its distinctiveness.

This is a general principle of design: if you make something designed simply to be inoffensive, you are designing it simply to not be noticed. If you design distinction, though, things will be different. The game (or whatever it is) will be noticeable. What that store owner is doing is sacrificing the distinctiveness of his individual products in favor of the size of bookshelf he’s purchased.

Now, the be clear, if you made a game that’s eight feet to a side, weighs 150 pounds, and costs 40 cents, you’ll have a hard time getting a retailer to show much interest. It’s not worth it for the shelf space that could be better spent on more normally sized books. But that’s not the issue here. The issue is that the store owner is uncomfortable because things are different than he expected.

Much of the time, when I’m meeting with a design client, I’m listening for some keys phrases they might say. One of them is, “I like it.” This, believe it or not, is a bad sign. It means that a) nothing’s lept out at them (if it had, they would have said, “I like how there’s this little shape here” or something), and b) sometimes a client just doesn’t want to say anything critical and says “I like it” to keep from having to express displeasure, but it sounds like satisfaction.

But sometimes, they say “I don’t like this.” What that usually means is, “I noticed this.” Often, they’ll then say, later, as the meeting goes on and they’ve looked at things more, “This one’s growing on me.” Again, if they actively dislike something, they’ll be able to identify exactly what it is that they don’t like.

Consider that last one. Consider an unusual thing on a bookshelf: something small (Burning Wheel) or something large (Nobilis). I literally bought Nobilis because it stuck out of the shelf and I kept seeing it. I bought Burning Wheel because it was physically small and quietly beautiful, an oasis in a sea of cleavage and comically giant swords. Its smallness and quietness winked alluringly to me from the bookshelf.

I’ve used some deliberate tools like that on some other books I’ve done. The spine of Shock: is like a laser: a thin little bright line between books. The Mountain Witch is thicker and black, but with this little splash of red. Both are shorter than their counterparts, making them shine even when placed spine-out. When facing cover-out, they both use a variety of tools to get and hold the attention of the proper audience. But they’re both unusual sizes, too. That means that they get more space around them.

The homogeneity of the RPG market is precisely to the advantage of the indie marketer. We’re looking to fill a niche they can’t. We’re making things that are inherently for markets that they haven’t tapped because they don’t want them. Where the business model of Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf is to make their products intercompatible within their own products, our model is to show our distinctiveness between products.

Don’t let anyone tell you any different. When you’re told that you’re missing the market because your book isn’t enough like another one, you’re being offered a ticket to a Journey concert when you can instead be on stage at a local club with a sticky floor, coming away with cash in your pocket and the respect of your peers.

0 thoughts on “Distinction”

  1. I dealt with this back in 2001 with the release of Little Fears. Since the book was 7.5″x9.5″, it ended up with the smaller format books from Eden Studios. In some stores, All Flesh, WitchCraft, and Little Fears had an entire shelf to themselves. I reckon that worked to my advantage.

    Anyway, I fully agree with you. Do what’s best for your product, what complements the content/art/layout.

    1. Yeah, Jason, I reckon it did. When I got my copy, it was also put in an “Owner’s choice” section of the store because he liked to see and sell unusual things.

  2. This is a topic that really pisses me off. i already said my bit on the IPR list, but I think it bears repeating.

    I used to run a game store here in Portland. A succesful game store. Product size was never a consideration. Ever. We stocked books of all sizes, boardgames of all sizes, card games of all sizes, weird toys of all sizes, video games of all sizes, etc. We never complained about an off size because we recognized that there is value in havinga different looking product.I a shelf full of identical sized boxes customers pick up the odd sized one. Customers don’t want to touch a shelf of 30 perfectly matched books. It’s intimidating! But customers aklways approach a shelf with books of different sizes.

    The “it won’t ft on my shelf excuse” is just that, an excuse! There is no reatil shelf in exsistance that holds 8×11 books that won’t also hol 9×6 books or any other small size just fine. There are few that won’t also hold larger books just fine. This is a weak excuse for retailers who arn’t interested in tryy something new or taking a chance, even when their business is failing. Even wen their customers are leaving them.

    I fisrt encountered this attitude at GTS last year. I was telling a retailer about Panty Explosion, and when I mentioned the size he told me that he couldn’t carry it because it wouldn’t fit on hs shelves.

    I thought I heard him wrong, so I asked him to repeat himself.

    Of course I got this response from a number of retailers that week. There was even a retailers panel where two or three retails told a crowd of publishers that we were stupid to publish books in anything but the “correct” size, and tht they would never order these books because they wouldn’t sit on the shelf. I was about to say something about this when another member of the crowd, a store owner, stood and called them out on their weak excusses. He was booed out of the room.

    Off sized boks, especially the smaller format preffered by many of us, fit on the shelf just fine. Go into any bookstore and you’ll find books of all sizes shelfed next to each other. It’s not an issue. This is retailr apathay and ignorance. The same apathy and ignorance that kept many comic retailers from stocking manga because of it’s smaller size. The same apathay and ignorance that kept retailers from carrying magic, pokemon and mage knight until it was obvious that they were losing business. Smart stores (hell, even mostly stupid ones) knew that you didn’t need a special shelf to display Pokemon. You didnt need a special shelf for manga. You just needed to be willing to put these products on your exsisting shelves!

    I had my own experience with this yesterday. I had heard that Panty Explosion was now available at Powells, Portlands big famous book store. I was downtaon so I decided to go check it out. Powells has an enormous shelf of RPGs, and right next to it a second smaller shelf of RPGs. bI searched for several minutes and couldn’t find PE. When I turned I saw a small little rack of games sitting on the side of the help desk. Not a great location, but not a really bad one either. Panty Explosion was there with Burning Empires and maybe 10 other games. I assumed it was the indie shelf, but a quick browse showed me that it was actually mostly mainstream stuff. I was pretty confused because there didn’t seem to be any common factor between these games. Eventually I asked the lady at the help desk, who told me that these were all the “weird sized games that didn’t fit on the shelf with the normal games”.

    Oh.

    I pulled out a copy of PE and demonstrated how well it in fact did fit on the shelf with the normal games. The womn started to look pissed off so I ran off to another part of the store. I thought to myself “at least Powells didnt let the off size keep them from ordering the book”. But as I went through the store I relaized that in every section books of all different sizes were put together on the same shelf. What the fuck!

    In the end getting indie games into the store is all about overcoming excuses. Some retailers will never go for it, no matter what you tell them. A few recognize the value of having unique and interesting products that customers will come to their store to get. Some can actually be convinced. If you can show a retailer why your game is awesome and worthwhil then shelf space will never be an issue.

    1. My feeling is that, if stores don’t want the stuff, that’s fine. They don’t get their cut. I mean, I want my games in a local store because I’m a neighbor and they’re in my community. But they don’t want it. They don’t see the writing on the wall. The guy actually feels like he’s doing Vincent and me a favor by carrying our games. He doesn’t want to order from us individually, though, and he doesn’t like IPR’s terms. So he doesn’t carry our games anymore.

      So, hey, if they want to make up excuses, then good for them. They’ve got a nice little excuse-making hobby. Stores like Endgame sell enough to make up for their greater cut. Some fatbeard who’s going to bury your game under a pile of D20 books is just going to hold onto stock that could have made you money.

  3. What’s wrong with Journey?

    Oh oh oh oh
    Oh oh oh oh
    Oh oh oh oh

    Faithfully, I’m still yours.
    I’m still yours.
    Ever yours, faithfully

    S. Perry.

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