Interview: Sean P. Fannon and Matt M. McElroy from OneBookShelf

When an opportunity comes up to pick the brains of some of the great folks behind OneBookShelf’s many faces – RPGNow, DriveThruRPG, DriveThruComics, and DriveThruFiction – how could I possibly refuse?

I’ve been a customer of DriveThruRPG and RPGNow as a consumer or a publisher for at least 5 years now and have been consistently impressed with not only the product selection, but the easy-to-use storefront that we’ve all come to know and love. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the amazing work these folks have done to pull together donations to help people in need around the world when trouble arises, sometimes making those offerings available within hours of events happening on the other side of the world…

But you’re not here to read my blather… Let’s get right to the juicy stuff, shall we?

Q1: It’s hard to believe we’re almost halfway through 2011 already. I’m not sure where the first 6 months of the year went, but I’m happy to see that OneBookShelf and its sites – DriveThruRPG/RPGNow, DriveThruComics, and DriveThruFiction – seem to be thriving in the new year. So a big congratulations on what seemed to be a huge year for your team!

[Sean] Thanks, Fitz! You aren’t kidding about the time flying; in fact, I think you just scared the beejeezus out of me with that, since I’d not yet realized it was already halfway through the year.

[Sean] Truth is, we’ve been flying forward, and so much is happening all the time, it’s hard to see the days piling up. With our ever-increasing catalog of products, the growth of the Now In Print Program, our charity efforts, and the expansion of our social networking and community building efforts, it seems like we’re speeding downhill with no breaks sometimes. It’s a hell of a ride, though!

[Matt] I have to agree with Sean that 2011 has just flown by for the OBS team with plenty of cool projects and some truly awesome products from our publisher partners.

Q2: What were some of your highlights in 2010 and the first half of 2011 and what are you excited about that’s coming up in the second half of the year?

[Sean] Discovering the potential we have for positive social change with the Haiti Relief efforts was nothing short of miraculous to me. We suddenly became the primary medium for gaming fans to get involved with helping those around the world in need. There’s nothing I am more proud of in the whole my career in this industry than what we have accomplished in the realm of charity and relief efforts.

[Matt] That was an amazing effort on everyone’s part, including our publishers and the gamer community at large for helping us spread the word and raise some awesome funds. We’ve had a few other successful fundraisers since the first and are continuing to refine the process as we go along.

[Sean] The fact that we’ve had positive growth as a company every single quarter, even
through the recession, is a powerful testament to the fact that we continue to do things right. We keep improving the user experience by listening to what they want and implementing changes to the sites that make their time with us really positive. The coding and web management folks are seriously unsung heroes in our team.

[Sean] We’ve got some plans on expanding our community focus that I am keenly looking forward to. I’ve really enjoyed turning the newsletter into a kind of gamer `zine that really speaks to the fans, and it has been a lot of fun to share both my own creativity and that of my colleagues who write, design, and publish these products. We’ve enjoyed all the ways we’ve found to connect with the gaming community, and we are looking both at the convention scene and other online options to develop those relationships even more. As well, the sites themselves are headed for some major redesign that will take everything we’ve learned over the recent years, as well as what we’ve learned from the Internet overall, and create a richer, more effective user experience.

[Matt] If people have not had the chance to check out our Facebook or Twitter pages yet, they should definitely do so today. In addition to the Newsletter Sean mentioned, these accounts offer us a way to interact with the fans and talk about the great products our publishers are offering.

Q3: With new products hitting your virtual shelves nearly every day and your Print-on-Demand (POD) efforts in full swing, do you get much sleep these days? Can you estimate the number of publishers and products you have available now as PDFs and tell us a bit about how your POD service is going?

[Sean] It is only thanks to Matt that I get any sleep at all 😀

[Matt] Speaking of which, I need more coffee…

[Sean] I’m not sure how much the numbers have increased since the last time I got them, but I know we have been averaging over 9 new titles a day, every day. I’m fairly certain we’re past 16,000 titles online right now.

[Matt] We currently have over 950 active publishers on DriveThruRPG and another 280 on DriveThruComics. For print titles we have over 200 titles available in Print on DriveThruRPG.com and another 40 titles in Print over at DriveThruComics.com with more being added by our publishers each week.

Q4: The fact that through your efforts last year you collected nearly $200,000 for Doctors Without Borders for the relief effort in Haiti was a stunning achievement. How did such an effort come together so quickly and to what can you attribute the outpouring of support from the community for Haiti, Japan, and the various other efforts that have happened so far in 2011?

[Sean] It was Chuck Childers, one of our key technical experts, who first hit upon the fact that we have the perfect combination of technology and community connection between publishers and customers to make this happen. As well, we had so many publishers already independently trying to put packages together to reach customers and get them to donate. Taking all that, we pulled together a plan that maximized the potential by creating a central contact point, and I went all out with my communications and social networks to make sure the word spread far and wide.

[Sean] Truth is, gamers are good people. Seriously. They love the concept of heroes and stepping up to help others in need. It’s not hard to get them to line up to give blood at geek cons, and it wasn’t hard to get them to spend their not-inconsiderable disposable income on really great products that also help get money to those in need.

[Sean] Unfortunately, the Haiti experience taught us a lot about what not to do, as well. The drain on our resources and the difficulties we had for many days, technically speaking, meant we had to come up with some different protocols to manage later charity efforts. A rather amazing consequence of that first relief effort is that folks now very much expect us to step up whenever there is a cause or need. We’ve found ourselves right in the middle of gamers and the causes they want to support, with them asking us to facilitate their wish to help with our tools. That’s why we now have established protocols to facilitate both general donations and crisis-relief packages whenever a need arises.

[Sean] I only wish it didn’t seem that there is more and more need for our help…

[Matt] As Sean mentioned, we are exploring new ways to raise funds for good causes and make use of the community and publisher efforts when the need arises. We should have some new details to reveal soon in an upcoming newsletter.

Q5: Now that the iPad and tablet computing has come more to the fore, do you see the PDF market expanding to take advantage of the new technology?

[Sean] It’s happening, and we didn’t even have to do all that much, since most of these devices handle PDFs fairly well. Still, there are numerous ways to optimize content for the various devices in question, and we’ve definitely been working on protocols and guidelines for our publishers to ensure various file formats are made available to support customers with these devices.

[Sean] Part of the problem, of course, is that the marketplace has not yet “shaken out” what the dominant platforms are going to be. This makes any serious effort at standardization on part inherently obsolete the moment we put something in place. We’re kind of stuck waiting to see what the marketplace says will be the devices and standards of preference. In the meantime, there are some basic guidelines our publishers can follow that will greatly enhance their reach into these new markets, and the most savvy of those publishers are definitely reaping the rewards. White Wolf, for example, has been on the early-adoption front lines for a while, and we’ve partnered with them extensively to figure out the best ways and means.

[Matt] Certain devices certainly display PDFs better than others and there are more tablets and eReaders on the way, so there is still some growth to be had. We’ll be looking for feedback from customers and publishers as to what works best for them, especially as we continue to expand with new products and formats.

Q6: Could a site like RPGNow start focusing on rounding out the gaming experience on these devices not only with PDF content, but apps for dice rolling, managing combat, and the like? Or is that more the realm of the app markets like iTunes and the Android Marketplace?

[Sean] Gee, those sound like really great ideas… 😉

[Matt] We already have some great content that goes beyond PDF eBooks. We have publishers exploring books in ePub format, audio books, podcasts, music, character creation software and a few other cool items. We are definitely in the market for publishers looking to offer other
content for our audience.

Q7: Does the shift to more portable electronics take away from the marketshare from printed materials? Or do you see there always being a market for hardcopy books?

[Sean] So long as we have the biological need to sit on a toilet, there will be a call for printed books. 😀

[Sean] Honestly, until the e-reader becomes truly ubiquitous (read: insanely cheap and effective), I can’t imagine the desire for books going away. This is why we pursued the Now In Print Program, because we know the gaming fans want a full slate of choices for their products. There are just some key books they’re going to want a tactile, turn-the-page version of, which they are plenty happy to have support materials and gaming resources available in purely digital form.

[Sean] It may surprise you and your readers to know that there is a huge percentage of gamers – GMs, especially – who intentionally get both hardcopy and digital versions of the books they want. The former is for at-the-table sharing, while the digital version is searchable, indexed, and maximally useful when you’re working on your campaign and adventure stuff.

[Matt] I personally don’t see eBooks as any sort of threat to the print market in RPGs. EBooks offer alternative distribution methods for publishers, as well as a chance to explore products that may not have been viable for a print product such as short adventures, obscure character concepts and other expansions for their core RPG products.

Q8: Though RPGNow/DriveThruRPG seems to cater quite a bit to smaller publishers, there are also big publishers in the mix like White Wolf, Avalon, Green Ronin, Mongoose, Pinnacle, Palladium, and others. Is there ever a
conflict between the big guys and the little guys for mindshare? Or do they play together pretty well in your space?

[Sean] I think we work as well as we do as a central marketplace because we facilitate a fairly even playing field. You really can do well for yourself if you work hard and put out quality material. Larger companies certainly enjoy the advantages inherent to their position, but those advantages don’t create any significant barrier to newer and smaller publishers. A key element to this is the simple fact that we don’t have limited shelf and stocking space; there is no forced choice as to what gets carried and displayed versus what is turned down. Our shelves are virtually unlimited, and display is a simple matter of putting new materials out and using our marketing and communication resources to reach your existing and potential customers.

[Sean] Almost everyone in this business is here because (a) they love gaming and (b) they don’t want to deal with normal Corporate workplaces. As a general rule, game designers and publishers are a very friendly, congenial, and helpful lot.

[Sean] There are a number of ways newer and smaller publishers can reach eyes and minds. For example, the “A Better Game” and “Bring It to the Table” Features in the weekly Newsletter afford anyone willing to do a little work to get some mindshare… for free!

[Matt] We do have a number of on-site promotional resources for publishers in addition to the newsletter. Customer can shop by favorite system, genre and using other categories, plus we are expanding our options for Reviews and Ratings, which can help customers find products they like from a huge variety of publishers, big and small.

Q9: Along the same lines, a few companies like Wizards of the Coast have seemed to retreat fully from the electronic book area, which has left many D&D 4e books out in the cold. What causes a company like WotC to retreat while some other big publishers seem to embrace the new medium?

[Sean] Sometimes a company with a lot of history and momentum realizes that it’s not as ready to integrate new technologies and business practices as it might have believed at the time. However, this doesn’t remotely preclude new thinking and revised planning at a later date. We’ve by no means given up on the idea of seeing D&D books available in electronic format for those fans.

[Sean] I feel compelled to point out that there is a ton of 4e support currently on our sites; it’s one of the largest system categories we have.

[Matt] The market continues to evolve in new and interesting ways with companies exploring different strategies and methods of delivering content to their customers. I think we will see new options and experiments from companies large and small over the next year. Definitely a good time to be an RPG fan.

Q10: Lastly, the electronic market seems to be growing and yet POD seems to bridge the gap between electronic bits and actual paper products. Do you see OneBookShelf using this POD technology to offer brick-and-mortar stores more products from smaller publishers at all? Or are you focused more on the consumer at this point?

[Sean] We’re actually experimenting with a Retail Partnership Program, with a handful of retailers using branded online storefronts to support their customers’ PDF needs directly, as well as enabling them to access the books available in the Now In Print Program – with all of those sales putting revenue into the retailer’s coffers.

[Sean] We’re currently looking at the numbers and the possible solutions that may apply to working with retailers. You are correct, however, in noting that our primary focus will always be on our consumers.

[Matt] As I mentioned above this year is going to see a lot of experiments, both from publishers, but also from retailers online and in stores. We’re trying out a few things and have some cool partners working with us to see what we can make happen with these new opportunities.

Q11: Is there a question I missed that you’d like to be asked? Or is there something specific you’d like to share?

[Sean] If there’s anyone out there who’s wanted to share ideas and game stuff that they’ve created, the Features in our weekly newsletter are a great venue for this. I’m always looking for submissions, and you never know – a publisher might like what they see enough to ask you to do something for one of their products.

I’d like to give a huge shout out thanking Sean and Matt for taking the time to answer my questions with their thoughtful answers. They are both busier than one-armed wallpaper hangers in a windstorm over at OneBookShelf and I wish them the very best for the rest of 2011 and beyond!

Would YOU like to be interviewed? Drop me a line at the GKR Contact page and let me know!

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