And That Was the Worst Business Decision I Ever Made

Way back in 2002 I first decided to put together what were later dubbed the “Advanced” series of d20 sourcebooks. The idea was to do a companion volume for each of the core D&D; books and to have ex-WotC designers write them. We hoped we might get some gamers who had yet to give third party books a chance to check them out, so they were very much pitched at the core D&D; fan. All in all, a perfectly reasonable idea and one WotC itself would later pursue with the DMG II and PHB II.

By the time we decided to do the full series, the book that would later be dubbed the Advanced Bestiary was already being written. It was originally going to be a stand-alone book, but since it made a perfect companion to the Monster Manual it made sense to make it part of the Advanced line. Better to hook someone on a series than just sell them one book that’s unrelated to anything else.

The original plan had the series debuting in late 2003. We even took out ads in Dragon saying something like, “This is the must have series of 2003.” Then the problems began. The author we had lined up to do the Advanced Gamemaster’s Guide went back to work at WotC and they wouldn’t let him do the book. Another author was late turning over. And not just a little late, but like 9 or 10 months late.

Soon it was 2004, so the marketing money spent on Dragon ads was already wasted. We decided to revise the order the books would come out so we could at least get the series started. Then an editor was late by three odd months. Meanwhile, the RPG market in general and the d20 market specifically were declining month after month.

Finally, after several years of effort on the part of a lot of people, the first of the series (the Advanced Bestiary) was ready to go to print in September of 2004. By this point it was clear that d20 was on the rocks and was unlikely to turn around. So I had to decide whether or not to pull the trigger and start publishing the Advanced series. The outlook was not great. We had commissioned these books in a different era, when we were enjoying far greater sales on d20 books, so the contracts were generous. Plus they were all big hardbacks, which are expensive to print. If they performed at the same level as other d20 books from that period we were looking at a break-even proposition unless these books broke out.

I should have been cold and rational about it and just cancelled the series right then. I really hate to waste work though and a LOT of people had worked hard to put these books together. Soon I found myself rationalizing. “Many d20 books are niche but these are core, so they’ll do better. Surely having one of the designers of 3E onboard will be a help. These big hardbacks are perfect for the book trade. We’ve talked so much about these books that canceling them now would make us look bad.” And so on. It didn’t take long for me to talk myself into moving ahead with the Advanced series. I knew I was taking a risk but I figured we’d at least break even and I was willing to take that chance.

And that was the worst business decision I’ve ever made.

What I couldn’t know at the time, of course, was that the first two of the Advanced series would come out during the period of Osseum’s implosion and that we could never see ANY money for the lion’s share of the sales. The third book, the Advanced Game Master’s Guide, we released afterwards, but it was always going to be the worst seller. So after all the planning and effort that went into those books, what I was left with in the end was a big pile of bills. Now I can only dream of how lucky I would have been to simply break even on these books. Instead I’m still paying down debt on the worst debacle in the company’s history.

Now the Butthole Surfers say, “It’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t.” It is also said that you have to be ready to murder your darlings and that I think is more applicable here. By all rights I should have cancelled these books back in 2004. If I had GR would have lost some money on the advertising and maybe the cover art (though likely we could have used the covers for something else). It would have been much better to lose that small amount of money than what transpired.

It all looks so simple in hindsight, of course. The thing about being a publisher is that you have to take risks. If I wasn’t willing to roll the dice, Mutants & Masterminds would not exist, for example. What can I do but learn my lesson, move on, and try to do better next time?

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