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The Long Tail, 1,000 True Fans and Raging Swan Press

The Long Tail, 1,000 True Fans and Raging Swan Press: I’m a fan of sustained, long-term growth rather than short-term, short-lived expansionism.
The Long Tail, 1,000 True Fans and Raging Swan Press

It’s a long-standing truism that it’s hard to make decent money in the tabletop roleplaying gaming industry (particularly as a third-party publisher). The old joke goes:

“How do you make a small fortune in the RPG industry?”

“Start with a large one.”

I’m not sure it’s as true as it once was that you can’t make decent money as a 3PP. (Of course, that depends on how you define “decent money” and “fortune”.) While it remains vanishingly unlikely you’ll make a fortune, you can make a living.

The 3PP space is more congested than ever, and competition for eyeballs and sales is intense. (DrivethruRPG has something like 6,500 publishers and OBS has over 20,000 across all their sites). But stacked against that, the budding third-party publisher has far more tools and advantages at their disposal than they had 20 years ago.

Obviously, computers are more powerful and software more featured. You can do a lot of work “in-house” on a laptop or mid-range desktop that would have required expensive, specialist equipment 20 years ago. The rise of cheap, fast internet access makes working and publishing from home much easier than it could be. Friction has been reduced.

Finally, the products themselves—primarily PDFs and the like—make it easy for a publisher to build and store large collections of products at their various online stores.

This, in turn, makes it much easier for a 3PP to gain the benefits of a long tail. The long tail is absolutely central to Raging Swan Press’s long-term viability and success.

What is a Long Tail?

The long tail is the segment of a company’s products comprising a large number of products that sell in small quantities. Taken together, the products in a company’s long tail can generate more revenue than its bestsellers.

In a world of digital commerce, it costs almost nothing for a company to keep a huge range of digital products on sale. The long tail enables a company to service the needs of small niches or segments of customers in a way that would have been impossible before the rise of the internet and e-commerce.

That said, before I add a book to our release schedule, I think about its short-term and long-term sales. If a book keys into a short-term fad, I’m not interested in publishing it. Sure, you might get a short-term spike in sales, but that doesn’t help you in the long term if the new hotness sinks without trace. For Raging Swan Press, the long tail is all about building for the long term.

For much more on the long tail, I highly recommend Chris Anderson’s original article.

The Long Tail
Forget squeezing millions from a few megahits at the top of the charts. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.

Raging Swan Press’s Long Tail

At the time of writing, we have 1,243 products for sale on DriveThruRPG (our biggest storefront) and scores of free products. Some of these books generate hundreds of dollars of revenue every month. Others generate only a couple of dollars a year. You might think, therefore, that some of our books are failures. You would be (spectacularly) wrong.

Raging Swan Press has followed the same strategy for the last ten years:

  1. Publish and compile.
  2. Build a long tail.
  3. Attract 1,000 true fans.

As an aside, this is an example of short-term action in pursuit of long-term goals. I recently wrote about this subject:

Long-Term Planning, Short-Term Designing
Successful third-party publishing (3PP) is a marathon, not a sprint. Long-term planning and short-term action can enable you to achieve amazing things.

We did not start with a large portfolio of books. Our first three books (published in 2010) comprised:

  • Retribution: An Pathfinder adventure for 1st-level characters.
  • The Lonely Coast: A gritty, frontier mini-campaign setting for Pathfinder.
  • Swallowfeld: A supplement detailed the Lonely Coast’s largest village for Pathfinder.

If you wanted an adventure for 1st-level characters, a detailed village or a mini-campaign setting (for Pathfinder), we had you covered. If you wanted anything else, Raging Swan Press couldn’t help you. That didn’t give us a huge potential market; only a small subset of GMs (not gamers in general) running Pathfinder games would be interested in our products. We had to be lucky enough that such a GM noticed a new micro-publisher. As you can imagine, sales were abysmal. We didn’t have a long tail. Hell, we didn’t have a tail!

But as our portfolio slowly grew, our potential customer base grew, and we got luckier. We added more adventures, the Tribes line, various Dressings lines and Village Backdrops. More (tremendously wise and rather marvellous) GMs took a chance on our books. We started to get lucky.

“I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.”

—Coleman Cox

Many of our early products didn’t sell well, but eventually, they all broke even and made a profit. (As a publisher or aspiring publisher, if you don’t know what your breakeven point is, and how to calculate it, you are probably doomed).

Brief Breakeven Point Digression

A product’s breakeven point is the level of sales at which net revenue equals costs. For example, if a book costs $1,000 to publish and each copy nets you $5, you need to sell 200 copies to break even. If you do not think you’ll sell 200 copies you should reduce your costs, increase the book’s sale price or be fine with losing money. Work out your breakeven point before you commission artists, contract designers and so on.

Every book sold to a new customer is the start of a relationship. For example, let’s say a GM is looking to add something to their upcoming swamp-based adventure. They pick up Village Backdrop: Thornhill or Wilderness Dressing: Swamps. If they like their first purchase, they may buy something else from us. Our relationship deepens; we both win. Eventually, they may become a true fan and join our Patreon campaign.

If we didn’t have a book that filled their first need or solved their first problem they would not become a customer. (No one spends their disposable income on things they neither want nor need). The larger our portfolio of books, the higher the chance we’ll have something for each potential customer. For Raging Swan Press, this is the joy of the long tail.

It takes a long time to build a long tail, though. To make this strategy work, you have to have patience and staying power. You have to repeatedly show up with new releases—some of which will likely fail. But Wyane Gretsky said:

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Overnight success is often overrated and fleeting (and anything but). This long, slow strategy suits me. I don’t want to chase the shiny hotness and burn out (or go bankrupt). I want to still be doing this in 20 years. I love my “job”.

Gross Revenue Figures

Raging Swan Press has 1,243 active or once-active products for sale on DriveThruRPG. Of these products:

  • 5 have generated over $10,000 of gross revenue
  • 7 have generated over $5,000 of gross revenue
  • 47 have generated over $1,000 of gross revenue
  • 78 have generated over $500 of gross revenue
  • 368 have generated over $100 of gross revenue
  • 738 have generated less than $100 of gross revenue
Raging Swan Press's Long Tail by Gross Revenue

Our Top Twenty books by gross revenue are:

  1. GMs Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing (System Neutral Edition) (2014)
  2. GMs Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing (2014)
  3. GMs Miscellany: Wilderness Dressing (System Neutral Edition) (2015)
  4. GMs Miscellany: Urban Dressing (System Neutral Edition) (2014)
  5. GMs Miscellany: Wilderness Dressing (2014)
  6. GMs Miscellany: Urban Dressing (2014)
  7. GMs Miscellany: Urban Dressing II (System Neutral Edition) (2016)
  8. GMs Miscellany: The Thingonomicon (System Neutral) (2018)
  9. Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands (2015)
  10. All That Glimmers (2012)
  11. Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands (5e) (2021)
  12. GMs Miscellany: The Thingonomicon II (System Neutral) (2021)
  13. Scions of Evil (2012)
  14. GMs Miscellany: Random Wilderness Encounters (2014)
  15. Be Awesome At Dungeon Design (Augmented Edition) (2017)
  16. GMs Miscellany: Village Backdrops (2013)
  17. Gloamhold Campaign Guide (2017)
  18. Caves & Caverns (2011)
  19. GMs Miscellany: Village Backdrops I (5e) (2017)
  20. The Sunken Pyramid (Full Version) (2013)

Unit Sales

Raging Swan Press has 1,243 active or once-active products for sale on DriveThruRPG. Of these products:

  • 14 have sold over 2,000 copies
  • 205 have sold over 1,000 copies
  • 98 have sold over 500 copies
  • 723 have sold over 100 copies
  • 202 have sold under 100 copies
Raging Swan Press's Long Tail by Unit Sales

Our Top Twenty books by unit sales are:

  1. The Lonely Coast[1] (2010)
  2. Dungeon Dressing: Portcullises[2] (2013)
  3. Dhampir: Scions of the Night (2011)
  4. Aasimar: Heirs of Glory (2012)
  5. Barroom Brawls (2012)
  6. Figurines of Wondrous Power (2011)
  7. Against the Cult of the Bat God (2014)
  8. Lizardfolk of the Dragon Fang (2011)
  9. Troglodytes of the Tentacled One (2011)
  10. Antipaladins (2011)
  11. Portentous Dreams (2012)
  12. Town Backdrop: Wolverton (2014)
  13. Urban Dressing: Graveyards (2013)
  14. All That Glimmers (2012)
  15. Village Backdrop: Riverburg (2014)
  16. Scions of Evil (2012)
  17. Dungeon Dressing: Wells (2013)
  18. Village Backdrop: Prayers Point (2014)
  19. Village Backdrop: Trickletrek (2014)
  20. Village Backdrop: Chasm (2013)

Note: these sales figures include copies sold as part of a bundle, complimentary copies and copies sent to the members of our patreon campaign.

  1. This book is a free PDF download but also has a for-sale print edition. Thus, it is our top seller but does not appear in our Top 20 revenue earners.
  2. This book is an anomaly. Dungeon portcullises are not that popular. When the book was published, it garnered a five-star review which another publisher disagreed with because his book got a lower review from the same reviewer. He publicly accused Raging Swan Press of buying reviews. I strenuously denied this (unsurprisingly) and turned the book into a free download so people could judge for themselves the quality of our work.

1,000 True Fans

I love Kevin Kelly’s concept of 1,000 true fans. It is perfectly suited to a creative endeavour such as 3PP in the tabletop roleplaying game industry.

The basic premise of 1,000 true fans is this: you do not need millions of dollars, customers or fans; instead, to make a living, you just need 1,000 fans who will buy everything you release.

There is more to the idea of 1,000 true fans than that. I highly recommend Kevin Kelly’s updated article on the subject for a comprehensive discussion on the subject.

1,000 True Fans
This is an edited, updated version of an essay I wrote in 2008 when this now popular idea was embryonic and ragged. I recently rewrote it to convey the core ideas, minus out-of-date details. This revisited essay appears in Tim … Continue reading →

A service like Patreon is perfectly suited to the concept of 1,000 true fans. Other such services exist, of course, but Raging Swan Press is all in on Patreon.

We’ve been on Patreon since 2015. Our patrons—our true fans—are the foundation upon which Raging Swan Press stands. They enable us to produce niche and not-so-niche products that otherwise might not see the light of day (or which might still be published but with worse production values).

At the time of writing, we have about 340 members of our Patreon campaign. I would be delighted to triple this, but I suspect that this will take some time. That’s okay. It’s taken Raging Swan Press 12 years to get to where we are now, and I’m much more of a fan of sustainable, long-term growth than short-term, short-lived expansionism.

The Final Word: Longevity

For Raging Swan Press, our strategy is all about longevity, patience and persistence. Remember:

  1. Publish and compile.
  2. Build a long tail.
  3. Attract 1,000 true fans.

As I said above, I love my “job”, and I hope to still be doing it in 20 years. The long tail and 1,000 true fans (we are slowly getting there) will help me do just that.


Got any thoughts on the above? Have I got it wrong? Have you got a question about the long tail, 1,000 true fans or Raging Swan Press? Drop me a line or sign up for a full Gameatory account and join our exclusive Slack channel.

Creighton Broadhurst is the Publisher of Useful Items at Raging Swan Press. He lives on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity. He is not planning to voyage far.