I’m pretty sure you know what a postmortem is and why they are carried out. Normally only carried out when something has gone wrong—perhaps someone dies unexpectedly, a project fails spectacularly or some device or another has a perceived design flaw. Post-mortems are reactive in nature; we only do them when something has already gone wrong.
As a publisher, I’m a fan of my products not failing. Wouldn’t it be great if I had a tool which reduced the chance of my projects failing?
The good news is that such a tool exists. The even better news is that using it is a doddle!
The margins or success and failure, profit and loss are razor thin in the world of 3PP. While I run Raging Swan Press because I love it, I’m also keen to make money. I’m not expecting to buy my own island from the profits, but I would like to make enough to support my family.
So—as you can imagine—any tool that helps me do just that is much appreciated. I’ve talked before about a project’s breakeven point and how vital a publisher understands it. In this article, let me introduce you to the premortem.
What’s a Premortem?
Like all great ideas, the concept of a premortem is tremendously simple.
Instead of waiting until a project fails and then asking why it failed—in effect, carrying out a postmortem—you carry out a premortem before you start.
Essentially, to carry out a premortem all you have to do is work out why (reasonably) your product could fail.
Once you know why a project could fail, you can come up with ways of reducing the chance of failure. Of course, no project is completely free of the chance of failure—sometimes things completely beyond your control conspire to doom or seriously hamper a project. But other times, a little bit of forethought and planning can spell the difference between success and failure.
Why do Products Fail?
In my experience, a product fails for one of the following basic reasons:
- High Costs: There’s nothing wrong with investing money in a product—in fact one of my old mentors used to say, “You have to speculate, to accumulate.” That’s absolutely true, but you must also keep a tight rein on your costs. Know your breakeven point.
- Low Sales: Some products are doomed to low sales (lower even than normal for 3PP products). For Raging Swan Press, it seems products dealing with, or set in, deserts or underwater adventures don’t enjoy spectacular sales. This is not an exhaustive list of bad topics, but know that the thrust of your product has an effect on sales. For example, Raging Swan Press primarily produces GM-focused supplements. This limits our sales because there are (roughly) four times as many players as there are GMs.
- Disappearing Freelancer: You would be surprised how often tragedy seems to strike freelance designers, while they work for Raging Swan Press. Some of these problems are real (and horrible). Others are merely code for, “I have failed to hit my turnover date because I forgot/had something better to do”. Having dependable freelancers is crucial to your success—as is having a reasonable, mutually agreed turnover date (and milestones along the way so you can gauge their progress).
- Bad Timing: Releasing a product at the wrong time is silly—and easily avoidable with a bit of thought. For example, releasing a Halloween-themed product at Christmas is a bad idea. Releasing a product about pirates to coincide with Paizo’s upcoming pirate adventure path is a great idea.
- Bad Quality: In a tremendously full—perhaps even choked—marketplace it’s important to release the best quality product possible. Your (potential) customers are going to spend their hard-earned money on your product. Crap content is going to dissuade them from purchasing more of your offering. Even more damaging, bad reviews can kill a book (and eventually your business).
Your business is unique. It’s up to you to think carefully about the products you plan to release, and the reasons for failure listed above are by no means unique. Be critical with your plans, test them and come up with contingencies for when X, Y or Z happens. Your products (and your business) will be better for it.
What other reasons can you think of for a product to fail? Let me know in the comments below and help me improve my own premortems!