The most common and easily accessible option for designers to contact a publisher is through the Internet. If you’ve narrowed down which publishers you think might be interested in your design (see previous step) then the first step is to go to the website for each of them.
On the website you might learn more about their product line, or if you’re lucky, the publisher might even have some sort of guidelines for the games that they publish. Out of the Box, for example, has a great page on their site that details the kind of games that they produce. What this means to us designers is that we should ensure the games we’re submitting to a publisher matches up with the kind of games they like to make! So for Out of the Box, your game better be able to be learned in minutes, played in less than an hour and feature dynamic player interaction.
Submission Guidelines for Out of the Box Games
Each publisher should have somewhere on their website some sort of rules for how, and if, they accept submissions. If you can’t find any link or information anywhere on submissions, then use the Contact link to send an email asking about submission guidelines. In this instance, do not disclose anything about your game at all.
Some publishers just won’t accept unsolicited designs. This means you cannot send them anything. This is how the big boys like Hasbro and Mattel like to play. For now, you should just cross them off your list. In an upcoming post we’ll talk about when you should use an agent.
After you have researched all the publishers on your short list, it’s time to prioritize them. You need to prioritize them because you want to send your game to the publisher you think would best fit, and would be most interested in your game. Publishers can take their time when reviewing new game ideas (as some get 100’s a week!). So pick your number one publisher – your best shot!
The most important thing to know here is that you can only send your design to one publisher at a time. You will not make a good name for yourself if you send your game out to many publishers and then have to contact some of them later on to tell them that another publisher will be publishing it. These publishers can take a long time, but they might be spending a great deal of effort by having numerous groups of people playtesting your game. If they put all this energy into it only to learn that someone else is publishing it, then you can expect not to make too many friends in the business.
Each publisher will have different rules on what the first step will be. Some will want a description of the game while others might ask for the full rules. I’ve never seen a publisher request the full prototype without having any knowledge of the game yet. Some will require you to sign some sort of form to protect them from being sued in the future. Sign it. In an upcoming post we’ll talk about non-disclosures and copyright protection.
When describing your game, be careful not to do too many comparisons to existing games: “It’s like Dominion – but with dice!” as that makes your game sound unoriginal. Instead, review your elevator pitch that we talked about in a previous post and work that into your description. Don’t be too hasty with this step. Show some people what you’re thinking of writing to get their input – does it grab them and make them want to know more?
Once you’ve sent off what they have requested, then it’s time to play the waiting game. The waiting game sucks – let’s play Hungry, Hungry Hippos. Here’s another instance where Persistence is important – but also as important is knowing where the line between persistence and annoying is! I’d give them 2-3 weeks before any further contact. If you have an email, then a friendly follow up with no expectations is fine.
This is where Versatility comes in handy, because while you’re waiting to hear back from the publisher, you should be working on your other designs. Remember that it’s not just rare to get a game published – it’s rare to get your first game you’ve ever designed published! Sen and I designed about 10 games or so before Train of Thought and Belfort got picked up. We still have those 10 designs and hope to tweak them and get them out there eventually – though some of them we know will never be marketable in its current state.
So that’s one way to get your game in front of a publisher. You might have noticed that I didn’t share too many stories about what Sen and I have done in this regard – and that’s because we haven’t had any success with this method. That’s not to say it’s impossible of course, but as you’ll see in the next post, we have a much better way to get our game in front of publishers: go to a convention.
Think of the e-mail submission as sending your resume to a prospective employer – putting out the feelers, as it were, to see if they are at all interested in your game. In this step, you are not selling the game – but the idea of the game. And there’s a lot more “meta” to that than you’d think…
You need to tell the publisher why your game will sell – what makes it worth their while to invest time and money in? If a company only publishes one game a year, why should they publish yours?
Here’s some more rules of thumb to follow in respect to putting an e-mail submission together.
Be DESCRIPTIVE yet SUCCINCT
Tell the publisher what your game is about in as few words as possible, hitting the key points in a clear manner. This is where you have to sell your game. You need to have a clear vision of what your game is and be able to articulate it into words. And definitely fulfill any criteria the company asks for, like including time spans, age ranges, component lists, etc.
Jay and I spend a lot of time working on our sell sheets. We will attach these to our e-mail submissions in order to make the e-mail itself more succinct. The sell sheets also have the advantage of having photographs of the components and usually an example of game play. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. For something as abstract as a non-existing boardgame, it’s always a good idea to make the concept as concrete in the mind of the publisher so they know what to expect if a prototype is requested. The sell sheets help make our games “stick”.
Everyone and their dog will be interested if you have something new to offer the market. Z-man, for example, states this on his website, verbatim:
“We also look for original mechanics or ones that have been used before but now offer a unique twist or a unique blend with other mechanics.”
But don’t draw comparisons to existing products – no one wants to publish a game that’s “like Monopoly, but better!”, even if it is better in truth. There’s just very little market for it.
Tell the publisher why your game is different and why it will sell. If you can identify new markets for the company, that is a good thing. For example, if you see your game being popular not only with serious gamers but also in the educational field, highlight the possibilities of the game.
Be FOCUSED and do your RESEARCH
Don’t just spam every publisher out there. If your game is a card game, but Company X doesn’t publish card games, please don’t send them a submission e-mail. Because when you *do* have a game that they might be interested, they may remember you as the designer who couldn’t read. Find the companies that do what you want to do well (e.g. Amigo for card games, Kosmos for 2 player games, Gigamic for wooden abstracts, etc.) and focus all of your attention on getting your game in front of the company that you feel your game fits the best with.
It pays to research the company you are submitting to in other ways as well. Telling the publisher that you are interested in working with them is one thing, but telling them WHY you want your game to be published by them in particular is an excellent way of showing them you know both the business and their business. Some of the “whys” may be because they have an excellent track history or they are leaders in social party games. Or because their art and component quality is always high and your game would benefit from their skills. Or because they are a local company and you want a fully-Canadian product (if you are Canadian like we are, for example!). If you can tell the publisher why your game fits perfectly into their existing product line, you will be one step ahead. You can either fill a void in their line up (e.g. Tasty Minstrel doesn’t have a dexterity game yet) or fill their niche market (e.g. Twilight Creations is a good “first stop” for horror related games).
Make your e-mail readable. Bullet lists, white space…all important stuff to consider. Use spell check and make it look professional. You need to be serious about even something as simple as an introductory e-mail if you expect the publishers to take you seriously.
This is another place where a well thought-out and artfully done sell sheet can work in your favour. It shows that you’re committed to your own product and that you’ve invested time not only in the game’s design, but in the promotion of it.
So, now that you’ve written up a finely crafted e-mail and attached your sell sheet, hit “Send” and await a reply. Be courteous and timely in your own replies. Also, be wary of hounding a publisher to reply. If you don’t hear back from them, wait a week or two before resubmitting – they may be out of the office at a convention or in the midst of inventory / end of month. Remember: they are running a businsess. And nobody likes a pest.
Jay’s lying when he said we haven’t had any success this way. If you measure success in getting our prototypes in front of publishers, then we’ve had success via e-mail contact. But it is true that we haven’t had any of our games signed based solely on e-mail submissions. Our best chances of being signed and all of our actual signings have come out of our attendance at game-related conventions.
We feel getting face time with the publishers is uber-important. To parallel hunting for a job, if sending a sell sheet and introductory e-mail is akin to handing in a resume, meeting a publisher face-to-face is like having a job interview. It’s make or break time and it happens in real-time in real-space. You need to have your game face on, your elevator pitch smoothed out, and your prototype in readily-playable condition.
So our next segment – Going to Conventions – is one you won’t want to miss if you’re serious about getting your game signed. And if you’re reading this blog, you probably are…