As part of my Origins 2012 coverage, I had the opportunity to speak with Matt McElroy and Sean Patrick Fannon of DriveThruRPG. DriveThruRPG is the currently the main supplier of digital RPG content on the internet, and through their parent company OneBookShelf, they have expanded into comics, fiction, and wargames. We had a great talk about the state of digital publishing in gaming, where it’s heading, its charitable work and starting as your own publisher. It was a really interesting conversation with two people helping lead game publishing into the 21st century.
DHGF: I am here with Matt McElroy of DrivethruRPG. What is your official title with DriveThruRPG?
Matt McElroy: I am the Publishing and Marketing Director of DriveThruRPG.
DHGF: DriveThruRPG has been around since 2001. In 2006 you merged with RPGNow. Tell us a little about the early days of DriveThruRPG, since broadband wasn’t as prevalent and you were primarily dealing with a digital product and indy games back then.
MM: DrivethruRPG actually started with some of the bigger companies. RPGNow was the one that specialized in the indy guys. DrivethruRPG started with White Wolf, Chaosium, and some of those guys. So they had some big guys to start with. That was before my time actually. It’s actually kind of interesting because the RPG industry has been ahead of the game in e-books because it’s an affordable to get your product out to a large audience. If you look at the last year or two comics have digitally have taken off. RPGs have been way ahead of the curve on that. The Ipads and the new e-readers have even expanded that market.
DHGF: Comics is something you have expanded into as well, with DrivethruComics. You also have DriveThruFiction and Wargame Vault. Talk about how you decided to expand into those other markets as well.
MM: It’s a little bit of an audience blend because gamers also read comics and the read science fiction and fantasy. Think of Dresden Files; there’s fictions, comics, a RPG, a TV show so it’s a great way to cover all of those things our audience is into.
DHGF: Right know you are mostly dealing with a digital medium, but have recently started offering a print on demand version of books as well. Do you see the digital downloads and the print on demand as competition for the local game stores?
MM: Take the classic World of Darkness titles that have been out of print and not even in game stores for years. They have a core audience and this allows us to make those books available for print again. It also allows small publishers that wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford a tradition print run, distribution, marketing to put their product in print and allow customers around the world to get a hold of it. So actually it expands the market. It expands the opportunities.
DHGF: Something I’ve noticed is a lot of companies are putting a lot of their out of print back catalog up on DriveThruRPG. You can find some complete collections up there. Palladium has a lot, White Wolf and Dream Pod 9 have almosy their entire back catalog. It seems like it’s a good way to make some money off those old titles that isn’t not worth doing a print run on. How do you approach companies to release these books? Or do they approach you?
MM: It’s a little bit of both. We take a lot of customer feedback and I can pass that on to a publisher saying Hey we got a lot of people asking for this old book in print, digital or both. Then certain publishers are saying we have this great library of stuff that’s available in the digital program and why not add it to the print program. If a title is not going to be a super-hot seller but a couple people want it to complete their collection, it’s a great way for the publisher to do that without risking a massive print run plus warehousing and all of those cost.
DHGF: I know you have PDF watermarking but when compared to the greater publishing market it’s not quite as erroneous as DRM. How do you calm some of the concerns publishers may have about piracy?
MM: Wel,l we have what is called digital watermarking. It puts a customer’s name and order number on every page. That’s a service publishers can use but is not required. Some publishers use it, some don’t but it doesn’t interfere with a customers use like other DRM.
DHGF: That’s something that I greatly appreciate. I have lots of different devices and it’s nice not being locked to one specific device. Something else DriveThru RPG is known for is their charity fundraising. You did quite a bit of work for the tsunami victims, Haiti earthquake victims, and companies have been starting their own charity drives. Tells us more about the charity end of things,
MM: Sean Patrick Fannon, who writes our newsletter and helps out with the blog/podcast program, created the first charity bundle. That spiraled into “man, we can really make a difference.” We have some great publishers and an awesome customer base that have causes that are worth doing. One of the things we have done recently is create permanent accounts for several charities, Hero Initiative, Feeding America, Red Cross, Doctors without Borders. They permanently have an option on the site, where customers can donate to those charities. Plus, we try to respond to certain events. Recently we did a child abuse prevention that raised money for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It was great because not only did we get publishers to jump in on it, customers went out and spread the word.
DHGF: I know Troll Lord Games works with Kevin Smith’s Wayne Foundation. It’s good seeing the gaming community give back so much. I can’t remember the amazing amount the first fundraiser raised…
MM: $175,000 and change.
Sean Patrick Fannon: Actually it was closer to $178,500. It was almost $179,000. The thing we are happy to do now, learning from the initial processes is how to leverage that social conscientiousness while not disrupting our capacity to serve the customers and the publishers on a daily basis.
DHGF: I know for a while it seemed any time any event happened, gamers were wanting to do fund raisers.
SPF: Yes, you are absolutely correct. This happened quite a bit so Matt is the one who innovated the concept of the permanent donation button. They are always available to the customer but empower the publishers to have access directly to set up whatever type of fundraiser they want to do. Now we are more inclined to have publishers put together their own bundles, which they can do anytime now anyway because the tools are very dynamic. When they put those bundles together, they can contact me as communications manager and I immediately set about the process, as does Matt, of putting the word out to the public.
DHGF: So far you have RPGs; you’ve expanded into comics and fiction, and now you’ve expanded into wargames. What were the initial thoughts about bringing those in? How have you gone about bringing in more companies when you are primarily known for your RPGs?
SPF: The thing about it is it’s an innovative concept that’s still leveraging 21st century publishing and business tools. We as a corporation are always looking for new avenues, new venues to focus on. Obviously the genre emphasis makes sense for us because that’s the community we are already deeply plugged into. That’s why you’ll see an emphasis on wargames which is easily connected to the RPG market, comics which are a geek commodity. There are times when we take a step back and say this approach didn’t work but the idea is strong. For example: the original approach to fiction was you had DriveThruFantasy, DriveThruSci-Fi, DriveThr Horror. Matt and his lovely lady Monica really pushed forward, and I rode their coattails and said “yes, you are right,” and that lead to the amalgamation that is DriveThruFiction, which gives not only a focus on the brand but allows that brand to expand even more effectively. DrivethruFiction is genre but it’s not a specific genre. We have anime now, young adult… there are so things that can be done and that brand focusing has just done amazing for our ability to reach out. Matt and I go to these conventions and run into these authors that are desperate for new avenues. Amazon, sure it’s great, but they are one of a million voices trying to get attention. Whereas we have such a direct approach to a specific audience who’s listening to us on a daily basis, they suddenly see immense support and effectiveness for their products as fiction authors. Comics are expanding constantly because Matt has had a passion for that. He’s absolutely taken it by the bull horns and now … Top Cow, what can I say, and some of the really great publishers out there who are coming onboard. Independent creators that are famous for their work with the big companies are now taking their independent projects and seeing us as a perfectly good avenue to get that product out there. And with the digital print option, this just expands our appeal more because they can put collections together now and they will have a physical book option for their fans, in addition to getting it out digitally. So it’s a constant, daily matter of looking for new ways to leverage the tools we have, new tools that we can develop to appeal to the market place. Origins is a perfect example of our marketplace. If they are here at Origins they are very likely a customer for us.
DHGF: How do you see the digital downloads evolving? Right now we mostly see PDFs. Do you see the books becoming more interactive, using sound or more video over time?
MM: We have a number of publishers putting out epub versions of their books. So they work on the iPad and Android devices. We have a few publishers experimenting with mobi for the Kindle market. And we have other publishers doing embedded sound files in their PDFs. So it’s really neat to see the publishers take the lead on experimenting with those new formats. We have a great design team that helps coach publishers. We have some tools to enhance you PDF and make it better or make epub files. The interesting thing is PDF is still the best format for RPGs and comics because they are so art heavy. If you go into it knowing you want to make epub and mobi versions you’ll build your initial product in a way that can support multiple formats.
SPF: Also what is very helpful there, is that with the team Matt just talked about, independent creators that aren’t entirely sure the best way to do things. Whether they are working with a publishing house, they are a publishing house themselves or just an independent person coming along saying, “I really want to do this, I don’t feel like it’s hard, but I need some help,” one of the great things about our company is we have a focus on not just selling product to customers but on facilitating publishers. We are not ourselves publishers and that makes all the difference in the world. Our entire focus professionally is support those who are creating content and helping them develop that content so they can be sold in multiple venues and in multiple ways, then promoting and marketing that content through all those different venues. So with that focus we really are publishing partners. We do not consider ourselves a publisher at all. We consider ourselves a partner and that is actually the word we focus on whenever we [talk] to any creator or publisher. We are your sales partner. We are your marketing partner. We are partners with you. You are in control of your content but we are motivated to make this as successful as possible. And that relationship, which has been foundational from the very beginning and continues to be carried though to today, makes us a very different operation from any other operation out in the market today, and that is from Amazon down.
DHGF: You are actually working with the content creators because you do not have any other conflict of interest to speak of, such as selling your own product. Your job exists to push their product.
MM: We do have a couple freebies. Sean did this free talk like a pirate lexicon. Way back in the early days, RPGNow did some e-publisher guide books. We’ve kind of evolved that concept into some free tutorials and videos and classes just for our publishers. So those aren’t open to the public but those are available. So it’s not even a competing product, its tools on how to make publishers make more money.
SPF: We have some more cool surprises ahead because we do have very creative people. I mean I am a game designer by trade, myself. So we have some cool ideas. But anything we do along those lines will never be for profit. We never want to be in direct competition. If we do anything like that it will go back to that charity thing. If we generate revenue for it, it will be for a) to pay for the stuff we have to pay for and b) any revenue will be for charity. So again we will never step over that line because that’s just not who we are and what we want to do.
DHGF: Say I’m a starting game designer and I want to use DriveThruRPG as my initial distribution: with whom would I, as a one or two person shop, start?
MM: E-mail Matt@onebookshelf.com
SPF: It’s that simple.
MM: Then I’ll walk you through the initial steps.
SPF: There is a link right there on the front page. If you look one the left side, one of the things there is how to publish through us. Just click on that link. It will walk you right thought it and you can start tonight. I do panels at every show I’m a guest at and the message is you can start tonight. Literally, you can go from a guy in a garage to a publisher overnight. That isn’t to say if you are doing crayon drawings and write at a 5th grade level that we will say, “Ah. Gates open, no problem.” We will call people on substandard quality product. We have an obligation to our customers and fellow publishers to not have them, by association, look bad. So we do have quality standards and they are published openly and easy to find. Again, e-mail Matt@onebookshelf.com for specifics on that. So if something is not good, we won’t put it through. There are so many resources. There is publisher’s resource section that’s right there for stock art and layout options and everything else. All you have to do, and this is the truth, is put the work in. Nothing else is stopping you from being published today. Nothing is stopping anyone if they want to do the work. If all they want to do is talk about it, we can’t help you past that. But if you do the actually work and do the effort to make it decent, congratulations you’re now publishing. That’s 21st century new media right there.
DHGF: And by having that vetting process, you are stopping what you see in some marketplaces, people flooding it with junk in order to make a quick buck.
MM: We do not publish fan fiction on DrivethruFiction at all. There are some RPG systems that are OGL and some that are closed. Maybe they don’t know any better, maybe they did, but we had some people try to publish a supplement for a game that is not open and they did not have permission from that publisher. So we kind of have to step in and police that a little bit.
SPF: I also want to address something. You say initial distribution. I feel obligated to say we are not just a starting place. We are very often the end place for most people. There are exclusive and nonexclusive options for anyone that publishes through us. And most people who start exclusive and go nonexclusive after a period of time, almost inevitably come back to exclusive because the percentages are different and they lose too much money doing it. We have access to hundreds of thousands of customers, daily, globally. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that. The newsletter that is currently being mailed right now is reaching at least 125,000 people. These are people that have opted in and want to receive this information. That’s 125,000 dedicated genre interested, game interested customers that I reach on a weekly basis. That’s just the newsletter, not counting the thousands we reach through social networking. So we are the best place, beyond any shadow of a doubt, to be seen by the most number of potential customers for new media content. And now with our expanding presence at conventions, with our digital print options…again I hold up White Wolf as the ultimate example. They saw the best way to reach their customers was to make us their single partner for creating books, distributing content and that speaks for itself.
DHGF: To wrap up the interview, where do you see DriveThruRPG heading a year from now, five years from now? Where do you see it going in relationship to the gaming industry as a whole?
MM: Well we are going to continue to expand. We’ve got some big announcements coming later this year that we quite talk about today.
SPF: Big Stuff.
MM: Some really cool stuff. Then in 2013 it’s going to expand even more because there are a couple of projects in development that are going to take several months to compile. Then we are going to add more print books, more publishers. We have some great conversations going on. We are reworking some of our sponsorship options for our blogs, conventions, and things like that. We are working on new ways to reach out and help the community grow. We are going to constantly improve our technology. We have a new mobile version of our site in development at the moment. So if you are browsing on your phone, you will be able to shop directly and access your account.
SPF: More to the point, with 21st century media that I talk about constantly, you will see other companies innovating with what we are doing. You will see more companies of solid capability that would not have existed prior to what we could do for them, that now are building their entire model on who we are and what we do and the capabilities they have because of us. So you are going to see companies that are going to special in digital media and doing integrated digital media. You talked earlier about the techniques of using audio files and the flash driven things, and all the other things you can do with digital media. More companies, who specialize in creating content for the delivery systems and the marketing systems that we use. One thing is to look at how we as a company are going to evolve. More to the point is to look at how as a hobby and an industry we are all going to evolve. And I’m very proud, and I say this without any hesitation, of our role in innovating the entire industry and the hobby. We have been told many numerous times, we have saved companies lives. I take this as a point of great pride that we helped save this industry in a lot of ways. There are a lot of companies that would not exist today if this were not their option. But now, they not only exist, they thrive. There are people who pay their mortgages because of what how much sell through us. It’s a real thriving, honest to goodness profession where before it was just a really expensive hobby for these guys. And I think you are going to see the return of companies that could not continue to do business because of the way things have turned in the industry. There is an announcement there I cannot talk about that I’m in the background of. Think of some of the giants of the late 80’s and early 90’s and they are coming back. There is one in particular…aahhhh… I want to drop a hint so much.
DHGF: There is one that I know from a certain state called Wisconsin.
SPF: That’s one. Exactly and there is another one. There is more than one. Again you look at the potential for old companies to come back, with all the great content they had coming back into the industry and as well as new companies that are going to push those old companies to do more and better. It’s a thriving, extremely exciting time for this hobby and the genre industry as a whole. And we are the hub of the pinwheel and excitingly so.
You can visit www.drivethrurpg.com for all your digital tabletop gaming and print on demand needs.
www.drivethrucomics.com is the places to find OneBooksShelf’s digital comic offerings.
www.drivethruficton.com is the home of their fiction offerings.
And the wargamers out there can visit www.wargamevault.com