Publishing an Adventure: Pricing, Promotion, and Pre-Release
This was originally posted back in 2017. It lost the images during my site migration, so I’ve updated it to replace them. This is the first post in a series:
- Part One: Using Random Tables to Write An Adventure
- Part Two: Putting Everything Together
- Publishing An Adventure: Art & Layout on a Budget
- Laying Out Your Adventure on a Budget
- Publishing your Work on the DMs Guild
Before we begin, let me make it clear that I’m by no means an expert on any of this stuff. The ‘advice’ in this article is made up of things that I’ve done in the past that seem to have worked, and advice I’ve been given by other DMs Guild creators. I should also point out that all of this is ‘ideal world’ kind of stuff, and that – in the grand tradition of me writing advice posts – half the time I don’t follow my own advice, because I’m either too lazy to do it, too impatient to release something, or I simply forget. So, take this all with a grain of salt, and figure out what works for you.
First let’s talk about pricing your work. I’m going to ignore talking about free products here – if you want to release your work for free, go right ahead – and I’m just going to treat this as if you want to make some money from your release. Either you want to break even because you’ve paid for stock art, proofreading, etc., or you want to make yourself some pocket money. (Very few people are making a livable wage from DMs Guild. Don’t aim that high unless you want to be disappointed or you have something really, really special and are an expert at marketing, I guess.
If you want the official line on pricing, check out this post by the OneBookShelf people (who run DMs Guild and Drive Thru RPG). The data there is a little outdated now, but it’s still worth a read. Once you’ve done that, come back here.
The first thing to say is that you should pretend that Pay What You Want doesn’t exist. I like the model in theory, I’ve used it to good success in the past for music and other things, but on DMs Guild it just doesn’t work. If you’re going to put a price on your work, put a price on it. If you’re going to release it for free, just have it be free.
So, how do we set a price?
Single adventures don’t really do brilliantly on DMs Guild. I’ve spent the last year [bear in mind this was 2017 and things may have changed] casually observing trends on the DMs Guild (I haven’t done any serious data mining or analysis), and I honestly doubt we’ll see a standalone adventure hit the Top 10 again. These days it’s all about bundling up products at higher price points. But, obviously, you can’t do that without first having released some adventures.
There are a few ways you can handle pricing. The first, and easiest, is to look at similar products on DMs Guild, see how they’re priced, and match them. Looking at the adventures that have done well, the most common price points seem to be $2.95/$2.99, and $4.95/$4.99. Breaker of Chains is a short adventure, so I think $2.95 would be a good price point if I’m matching other people [these days – i.e. in 2020 – I’d never released an adventure for $2.95. I’d set $5 at a minimum] – few people are going to pay $4.95 for a 16-ish page product. (They may well do that on DriveThruRPG and other outlets, but I’m talking specifically about DMs Guild where prices are generally lower).
There’s no real problem with this approach. As I said, it’s straightforward, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing it this way. But I’m going to try and be a bit more scientific about it.
The second way was devised by Glen Cooper of Deadly Dungeon Doors fame, and states that you should charge $0.10 per page of finished product, and that you want your price to end in x.95. I don’t know how long my finished thing will be yet because I haven’t flowed it into layout, but I suspect it will be somewhere around 16 pages. Following this rule of thumb, I should be aiming for $1.95.
The third way to price – and the one that I personally use, simply because I’ve always equated getting paid for creative work with a price-per-word – is to figure out how much you’d like to get paid for writing your adventure, and price accordingly. There are two ways of figuring this out – either figure out how much you’d like to get paid per hour, or figure out your per-word rate, and then price accordingly. Now, I never track how long I’ve worked on something. I should, but I don’t. So I can’t really talk about a wage per hour model of pricing, except to say that it works much the same way as what I’m about to talk about.
So let’s talk about per-word rates. My background as a writer is in fiction – specifically, short stories – and in that world a pro rate was always $0.05 (or 5c) per word when I was actively writing. It may well have gone up now – I’ve been out of the game for a few years – but that’s always been my goal with writing. From what I understand of freelance RPG writing, that’s pretty close to a pro rate here, too (though feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). So, let’s start with a rate of 5c per word and see how that pans out. [There is a movement to normalise higher pay rates in the industry, because $0.05/word is practically robbery.]
The royalty rate on DMs Guild is 50%. That means you’re going to get half of whatever you charge for your product back. Breaker of Chains currently stands at 5,725 words (although I haven’t made changes from the playtest feedback yet). If I price at $2.95 I’ll make $1.475 for every copy I sell. If I’m aiming for 5c per word, then I’m aiming to make $286.25. That means I need to sell 195 copies. That’s a Silver bestseller, though still about 70 copies away from being an Electrum bestseller.
So, is that realistic? Well, at this point in my career, I’m not sure it is. My bestselling product to date (that has a price on it) is Trinkets, which has sold 161 copies since it came out in September ‘16. Of course, it was originally Pay What You Want, so I missed out on any paid sales that would have come from it being on the front page of the DMs Guild when it was initially released, so I don’t know how well it could have done had I priced it from the off. (The caveat to that being that the DMs Guild is much busier now than it was a year ago, and that new releases don’t stay on the front page for anywhere near as long as they used to.)
It gets worse if I decide I want to make my production costs back. I’m producing the map myself, but had I paid someone to do it I’d have spent $26 on it (based on my own rate for black and white maps). If I decide to colour it, that goes up to $46. That means I’m looking to make $332.25, which is 225 copies. It goes up again if I imagine that I’d also paid for typesetting and layout, and for somebody to make a cover for me – but, since I haven’t, and since I’ve never done that, I can’t talk about how much they would have cost, so I’ll just ignore those issues.
So, let’s take a look at how many copies I need to sell to get paid to a satisfying level at some different price points (including a lower point, assuming that volume of sales will be higher if the product is cheaper).
At $1.95 I need to sell 340 copies, making it an Electrum bestseller.
At $3.95 I need to sell 167 copies, making it a Silver bestseller.
At $4.95 I need to sell 134 copies, making it a Silver bestseller.
At $5.95 I need to sell 111 copies, making it a Silver bestseller.
It’s clear to see that I’m aiming for a Silver bestseller here. I have two other Silver bestseller along with Trinkets, one of which is still Pay What You Want, so I’m cautiously optimistic that I can achieve that – especially since my audience has grown since I released all of those products, and I’ll hopefully convert some of the people who downloaded Bulette Storm for free into paying customers.
As an aside, this is where we see one of the reasons why I’m intending to start releasing some products on DriveThruRPG. Bulette Storm has now had over 3000 downloads, but there’s no way for me to let all of those people know about my new adventure through DMs Guild. On DriveThru I’d be able to directly email all of those readers to let them know about the new release, and I have absolutely no doubt that it would do better as a result. Plus the royalty rate on DriveThru is 70% rather than 50%, making it easier for me to hit the payday that I’m aiming for. But I promised a quick and dirty guide to publishing on DMs Guild, so DMs Guild it is.
It’s tempting to take what appears to be a happy medium and go with $3.95 for Breaker of Chains – but I know from talking to other creators that, for some reason, products don’t really do well at that price point. There’s a reason most of the adventures that gain some traction and achieve bestseller metals are priced at $2.95 or $4.95. I can’t explain it, because I’m not an economist and I’m not in marketing, but I’m wary of $3.95.
Luckily for me, I also have Patreon helping to pay me for my work (because my patrons are amazing). That money pays for Loot The Room’s hosting and domain, pays for me to have access to Adobe Creative Cloud, and helps me support some other creators on Patreon. It also pays me for the writing that I do on this site. But let’s assume that, for this month, I’m going to eat those costs myself, treat the site as though I’m still writing it for free, and take that Patreon money as an advance on royalties from Breaker of Chains.
This month I made $81.49 on Patreon after fees were deducted. If we put that towards royalties from this adventure, then I need to make $251 with this adventure. At $2.95, that’s 170 copies. At $4.95 it’s 101 copies. I’m pretty sure I can sell 101 copies of the adventure – but I don’t feel good about charging that much for such a short release.
At $1.95 I still need to sell 257 copies, by the way. I was thinking that I’d lower the price to that point because Patreon would cover the difference, but I still don’t think that’s attainable. And this is where I reach an interesting dilemma. I want to write RPG content professionally (meaning, as my full time job). That’s why I’m aiming for a pro rate. But if I can’t be sure that I’m going to sell 250 copies of something, do I deserve to make a pro rate?
If I lower my per-word rate I’m going to make less money, obviously – but I might see that aiming for a Silver bestseller becomes more attainable. Maybe I should reserve the higher rate for once I’m putting out work regularly and it’s selling well. So let’s take a look at the numbers with some lower rates.
|Rate||Cover Price||Sales Needed||Bestseller Status|
Looking at that, I’m actually kind of tempted by pricing at $1.95. I’m fairly confident that I can sell somewhere around 140 copies of this adventure. At both $0.03 and $0.04 per word I think I can hit a Silver bestseller, which is what I’m aiming for. $2.95 at $0.03 per word is achievable, but that’s still only a Copper bestseller – and I’ve done that plenty of times. I’m trying to grow my business here.
The added bonus of it being $1.95 is that I won’t feel too guilty about asking my patrons to pay for it, either. I don’t expect them to – they already support me hugely, and my goal is to eventually convert enough customers and readers into patrons that I can release everything for Free and be happy. But at this stage, $1.95 doesn’t feel too cheeky (and patrons, please correct me if I’m wrong there).
By lowering the rate I expect to make I can also lower the cover price, and I think that will net me more sales overall. So $1.95 it is. That’s that settled. [In hindsight I was undervaluing myself here. Charge more than $2 for your work, please.]
Prerelease and Promotion
Now that the adventure is out with playtesters and we know how much we’re going to charge, it’s time to start talking about promoting your work. It’s all well and good to just throw something on DMs Guild and hope for the best, but if nobody knows it’s there then nobody’s going to buy it.
The first thing to do is to take stock of your audience. If this is your first product, you may not have much of one, and that’s fine. Building an audience takes time. But now’s the time to look at where you’re strongest, figure out where you might be able to get eyes on your work, and figure out how best to use those platforms.
For me personally, my main audience is on Twitter where I have 1,143 followers at the time of writing this. Not a huge number, but respectable. Of course, many of them are there for my music, but I think these days the majority are there because of D&D stuff. Engagement on Twitter beyond RTs and people replying is low, though – clickthrough on links isn’t the best. (I’ll talk about how you can track this shortly).
There’s also Facebook. I don’t use Facebook much, but I try to stay active in the D&D communities that I linked to earlier in the week. The two main communities that I use are the Dungeon Masters Guild Fanclub and the Dungeons & Dragon 5e communities, which have 105,900 members between the two of them. The Fanclub page only accounts for about 2,700 of those people, but that’s where I focus my energies because that’s where I’ve been the most active. Clickthrough rates on Facebook are also much, much better than on Twitter.
The third avenue that I use is, obviously, this website and the mailing list attached to it. Loot The Room gets about 5,000 unique views per month at this point, and the mailing list has about 150 subscribers. Clickthrough and engagement rates on both are pretty good. The email list gets around 49% opens and 14.5% clicks, so I can aim to get a handful of sales from there.
For me, that’s about it as far as audience goes. I’m not active on many forums anymore, and since we’re doing this cheap I’m not going to be paying for any adverts. Reddit is another option, but my activity there has died off over the past few months and the few D&D subreddits that I’m known in don’t look very kindly on posting work that isn’t free or PWYW, so I’m going to avoid them.
So these are the channels that I’m going to be using to promote the release. Now it’s time to develop a bit of an understanding about the best times to promote things. Those figures aren’t really available for Facebook – or at least not anywhere that I know to look for them – but I know from experience that it’s best to post things when America is active, and generally on a Friday evening.
The problem here is that my core audience are on Twitter, and trying to promote anything on Twitter on a Friday is pointless, because Follow Friday happens. It’s a sea of people tweeting lists of people they think you should follow, and other people responding to those threads. The signal to noise ratio on Twitter is always a barrier to promoting work, but on Friday the noise is ramped up massively. [This is less true now in 2020, as people have cottoned on to the fact that Follow Friday is a pointless exercise.]
What I tend to do – and I’m sure somebody will tell me I’m getting this horribly wrong – is to release on a Thursday so I can promote on Twitter and get some time on the front page of DMs Guild before the weekend happens and everybody releases their new stuff at the same time, then promote on Facebook on Friday. I think of Thursday as a soft launch, and Friday as the main launch. [If I were releasing a DMs Guild product now, I would do it earlier in the week with the hope of having it featured in the DMs Guild newsletter, which goes out on a Wednesday.]
So, looking at my Twitter analytics, I can see that my best times to post are between 12pm-2pm and 8pm-10pm (that’s UK time). So I’ll aim for a release on 8pm Thursday night, since I’m at work during the day. It’s also Critical Role night on Thursday, so D&D talk ramps up on Twitter a little bit.
This is very crude analytics. There are tools you can pay for that will give you much more detailed metrics, and obviously people you can pay who understand this stuff through and through, but all I want is a quick and dirty method to get more eye on my release. This will do for that purpose.
So, I know I’m going to release at 8pm on Thursday and promote it via Twitter. I’ll put an announcement on the Dungeon Masters Guild Fanclub [This group no longer exists, unfortunately. I believe most of the people who were active in it are now in a DMs Guild Discord server, but I don’t use Discord and so know nothing abou that] at that time, too; it’s a tiny chunk of the total audience I’m targetting, and a lot of the people there will be releasing their own things on Friday night, so I want to get in when there’s not as many people posting. I don’t know yet whether to announce the release on the main D&D page – the one with 100k users – on Thursday or to wait until Friday. I’ll play that by ear, and see what engagement is like on Thursday night.
The next step is to have something to post. Which leads us to…
We have an adventure. It’s being playtested as we speak. We have a release schedule of sorts. Now it’s time to put our marketing materials together – and that starts with the cover.
Just so you know, this is going to be another one of those moments where I give out some advice and then immediately ignore it.
I’m a big advocate of consistent branding. Take a look at the covers of my first few DMs Guild releases:
They’re in roughly chronological order of release, and you’ll see that while the design changed a little – mainly as I added the corner pieces and then decided that I hated them – that they’re consistent. They’re recognisable as being my products. [These designs are not great, but I was happy with them back when I started out. My sensibilities have changed a lot in the past 4 years.]
My aim with these covers was twofold: to produce something simple and cheap that didn’t rely on expensive art, and to have it look like a D&D product. The first step is easy – the background is a few different paper textures from stock websites that I combined with Photoshop’s blending modes and then put under Color adjustment layers. The gold circle and the corner pieces are simple shapes I drew and then made sort of metalish with blending modes and some of the built in Photoshop effects. All of the artwork is either old public domain art, or else a screenshot of the actual product that’s been warped to make it look like it’s beneath glass.
The D&D look comes from the font choices and placement of text. 5e uses Modesto Condensed Bold for its titles, a font which is available to me for commercial use through Adobe Typekit.
I’ve changed this template recently, but the important thing to note is that I use a cover template. Putting a new cover together takes me a few minutes, because the bulk of the work has already been done.
Recently my covers have looked like this:
If you actually look at them, you’ll see that in some cases I’m still using the same background texture that I made for my initial covers, and I’m still using minimal art. On the Chult cover [not included in that image because I didn’t read ahead in this post before I made new graphics], I simply placed the map itself over that background. Bulette Storm took a little bit more time, but no more than half an hour total. First I found a parchment texture that I liked (making sure it had a full commercial licence). Then I took some burned paper edges brushes and distressed the edges of that parchment. I placed the bulette stock art I’d decided to use over it, and played around with blending options and some Levels/Curves adjustment layers until I was happy with the colours.
I wanted to keep costs to a minimum for Breaker of Chains, so I went poking around in the free art packs WoTC have released for DMs Guild creators. (The existence of these art packs is another reason this adventure is being released on DMs Guild rather than DriveThruRPG). In the locations art pack I found something suitable – not perfect, but suitable – and after placing it into the template and spending about 20 minutes touching up the edges and playing with colours, I had this:
The texture is different – I found a free green marble texture that I liked, because I couldn’t make the texture I had look good in green, but that original texture is still under there and being blended with that marble texture.
And, honestly, I’d be more than happy to release the adventure with that cover. But then I started looking at old VHS covers, and I found a usable bit of art for the chain devil in one of those WoTC packs, and I decided I wanted to do something different. This was also prompted by the fact that this cover doesn’t feature the monster in the adventure, and that the people I showed it to got entirely the wrong idea about what kind of adventure it was going to be based on the cover alone. Plus one of my playtesters told me that he’d pictured the location in the adventure exactly the way I’d intended it to be pictured – something that will be undone if I use an illustration on the cover that doesn’t match my intentions.
So I took the Hellraiser VHS cover as a starting point:
And I went to town. All in all this took about 2 hours to put together, and the response to it from the people who’ve seen it indicates that it’s a winner:
Because it’s in a VHS ratio, it’s going to look a little weird sitting at the top of the PDF – I like all the page, including the cover, to be the same size – so I may tweak it slightly before release, but this is good enough for promoting the adventure.
With artwork in hand, it’s now time to think about how this is going to be promoted. I think it’s a good idea to have all your promotional posts pre-written. This saves time, as you can simply copy and paste things to Twitter, Facebook, or wherever when it comes time to announce the release, rather than trying to write new posts for every medium right when you need them. Now is also a good time to write the copy for your product page, too.
Let’s start with Twitter and Facebook. Twitter gives you 140 [now it’s 280] characters plus an image. Facebook gives you as much space as you want, but hides anything after the 5th line under the Read More link [I rarely use Facebook these days, so I have no idea if this information is still accurate].
With Twitter marketing, you’re going to want to use hashtags. As a minimum, you’re going to want to use #dnd and #dmsguild in every promotional post for your product. Twitter also reduces all links down to 23 characters. With the hashtags in there, you’ve got 102 characters to play with – which includes punctuation and spaces. So let’s write a few tweets, aiming for 100 characters. We’ll start with the obvious and get more complex. (And, obvously, the links in these sample tweets don’t go anywhere.)
|Breaker of Chains is out now on #dmsguild! http://somethingsomethingbuyitnow.com #dnd||68|
|Breaker of Chains is out now on #dmsguild! http://somethingsomethingbuyitnow.com #dnd||31|
|My new adventure on #dmsguild just dropped. It’s $1.95, and you should check it out! http://somethingsomethingbuyitnow.com #dnd||27|
|Enjoyed Bulette Storm? Grab my new adventure now! http://somethingsomethingbuyitnow.com #dmsguild #dnd||52|
|Do your players no longer fear your dungeons? Sick of traps with no teeth? I’ve got you covered. http://somethingsomethingbuyitnow.com #dmsguild #dnd||5|
In most of these tweets, there’s also room to throw in a few more hashtags – things like #dnd5e, #rpg, or whatever. These will increase the reach of your post a little bit.
Facebook lets you give some more detail about the product itself. You also can’t generally post as often there – groups are pretty anti-spam as a rule (and I’m obviously not encouraging you to spam links), and the main D&D 5e group only allows you to make one promotional post per week, so we only need to write one post. It looks a little like this:
Breaker of Chains is now available on the DMs Guild!
Click here to download now – http://somethingsomethingbuyitnow.com
The shrine on the edge of town has been little more than a landmark for generations – but now eerie runes have begun pulsing across its surface, and rumour has it a dark force is growing. Now the party must investigate the threat, and destroy whatever lurks inside the Hall of Lament once and for all.
Breaker of Chains is a 4 hour old school adventure for characters of levels 6-8, featuring tricks, traps, exploration, traps, and ritual sacrifice. Never again will your players waltz into a dungeon convinced that you aren’t willing to kill them in new and horrible ways!
“It’s good to have an actual death dungeon…They survived but it was brutal!”
“10/10 for making them wary of everything”
“They were all old school gamers, and happy to play in a murder maze”
Click here to download now – http://somethingsomethingbuyitnow.com
It’s straightforward really. You’re saying “hey, this thing is available, and you should buy it. Here’s what it’s about, here’s what other people thought of it. YOU SHOULD BUY IT!”
And honestly, I’ll pretty much use that text as-is in my listing on the DMs Guild page when I publish it.
Depending on the services you have available to you, you could potentially start scheduling some tweets and posts now. If you pay for bit.ly, you can set up the posts with the link in place and then edit the destination URL of your shortened link once the product is published. I don’t pay for bit.ly, though, so I won’t be able to do that. It’s enough to know what I’m going to be tweeting and when I’m going to do it, though.
In an ideal world, you’d have that cover art good to go before you look for playtesters. Putting out a call for testers with the art in the post not only ensures more engagement with the posts – images do well online, that’s simply a fact – it also means that people will recognise the art when you release the product and start shouting about it.
As for building a pre-release buzz… I’m not actually very good at that. Bulette Storm got a lot of attention, partly because people reacted so strongly to the cover, partly because it was free, and partly because I was nominated for an ENnie at the time and some of the bigger names in the industry were paying attention to me. I don’t know if I’ll be able to replicate that with Breaker of Chains.
One thing that isn’t going to work is simply spamming your cover art and a “coming soon!” tweet a few times a day. People will get sick of that fast, and they’ll stop paying attention to you. What I like to do is to be very vocal and visible about the work that I’m doing on a product in the week or two before release. Posts like this help, obviously. And I’ll tweet out in-progress screenshots once I start to do layout, and things like that. Creating a discussion is always preferable to trying to sell to people, in my opinion.
Here’s a little prerelease checklist for you, covering the things we’ve talked about today. It’s not exhaustive – like I said, I’m not an expert – so if you think I’ve missed anything, let me know.
- Settle on a price for your work.
- Decide on a release date.
- Pick the channels through which you will promote.
- Decide on the best times to promote.
- Produce your cover art.
- Write your promotional copy and tweets.
- Begin talking about your upcoming release on your social media channels.
Big releases obviously go through a much more involved process, but for the hobbyist with no budget – which is what we all are on DMs Guild, really – this is a solid groundwork. Or I’m wrong, in which case you’ll all get to see me fail publically when Breaker of Chains flops.
And I guess that’s the final point. Don’t be afraid of failure. Put your work out there, see what works, and learn from what doesn’t. Then make the next thing, and do better that time.
That’s all for today. On Monday I’ll show you the finished map from Breaker of Chains and we’ll talk some more about internal layout. And, as requested, I’ll give you a link to my adventure writing template, too.
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Image Credit: Market scene, Calcutta, West Bengal. Coloured etching by François Balthazar Solvyns, 1799. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Matt - The Trenchcoat Dwarf
September 3, 2017 @ 2:35 am
Interesting piece, and good to see you so openly document your processes. I think that transparency is a good thing.
I think the most interesting takeaway for me was how on the DMG, bundles are what seems to grab people’s attention.
This makes me think that short adventures are probably better products than long ones. If you can write a 16 page adventure, and chain it in 4 parts, where each is playable on its own, but there is also a cohesive whole, you have a bundle on your hands. Whereas that wouldn’t be true for a 64 pager.
I also think it is valid that you mentioned things are different on DriveThru. There, the very top products site-wide are large sourcebooks and rule sets. Not sure how it goes in the subcategories, but I might have to do some more research.
September 10, 2017 @ 4:59 am
I thought the OneBookshelf post was pretty revealing. It sheds a lot of light on how you should price your stuff. It would be interesting to see an update to that for 2016.
For Twitter, if you get a big company or publisher retweeting your product, it can make a huge difference in short term sales. However, retweets and mentions like that tend to be few and far between. I’ve heard arguments that twitter posts should either be short, or entertaining. If you can pull people in quickly, they’re more likely to engage. More engagements means more eyes on your stuff, which means more conversion buyers (even if it’s less than 1% of folks).
September 10, 2017 @ 1:21 pm
I’d really like to see an update from OBS about pricing, especially with regard to DMs Guild. It seems like prices have been trending higher lately, and I’d love to know what their data says about that.
As far as Twitter goes, images are key to getting RTs – but RTs don’t really convert to sales unfortunately. I’ve had RTs from a few of the big guys in the industry on things and I didn’t notice any perceptible spike in sales from it. Saying that, my clickthrough rate on the recent Breaker of Chains links has been pretty uniform between Twitter and Facebook, which is unusual, so either things are changing or my followers are more likely to click my links than they were 6 months ago!
Breaker of Chains – A Postmortem – Loot The Room
December 13, 2017 @ 11:02 am
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