Publisher Advice: Why You Should Perform a Premortem on Your Projects

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.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


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!

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

4 thoughts on “Publisher Advice: Why You Should Perform a Premortem on Your Projects”

  1. I work in IT.

    Ideally, we do a postmortem on all projects, successful or not. Nothing runs perfectly, so it’s good to review how the project went, what worked, what could be done better next time, and what we learned from the project. These are critical on failed projects because you want to avoid failure in future. They’re still valuable on successful projects because then you get to identify more positive elements (presumably…).

    What you’re describing is called ‘risk analysis’, where you identify things that can go wrong (and right! ‘risk’ in project management just means ‘unknown’ and can be good for you) and plan what to do if they come about. You’ve got basically four options:

    * Avoid. Find a way to not let the thing happen. In this context it might mean not doing the product, or it might mean not using a particular writer or artist.

    * Reduce/Increase. Find ways to change the likelihood of the risk coming about. Can you find a more reliable or better writer? Can you schedule a release to coincide with other products (from other publishers, even) that can improve sales?

    ** Related: Mitigate. Find a way to reduce the impact if the risk does happen. You might prepare to push a release date back in order to accommodate a particular writer who might have scheduling conflicts (or just be a bit slack but does really good work… when you finally get it), or you might have another writer prepared to pick up the others’ work or do it entirely if the writer flakes on you.

    ** Related: Optimize. Find a way to increase the impact if the risk does happen.For those risks that are good, you might look for ways to take greater advantage of them. What do you do if a particular product enjoys runaway success? Are there ways you can leverage that to improve sales of other products? Is it a signal that you might want to expand on that line, or elements of that line?

    * Transfer. Find ways to leave someone else holding the bag. In IT this often means contracting the work or insuring the project. For Raging Swan this might mean contracting the writing or other work (freelancers don’t get paid if they don’t deliver).

    * Accept. Realize that it might happen and do nothing to change the likelihood or impact of it. A product that sells poorly might be treated as a learning experience (or experiment) and left at that. Pilots for new product lines often fit this category: you don’t know what will happen, so you try it to find out. If it doesn’t go well, you haven’t invested in the whole line and can abandon it.

    Often you can identify several strategies that can fit, and might adopt several for any particular risk. There are often tradeoffs: getting a better, more reliable writer might mean you face less chance (reduce — I can’t say ‘avoid’, no one is perfect — risk) of non-delivery, but cost more. On the other hand, it might also increase the chance of higher sales, and thus be worth it.

    Risk management is a big topic, really. I sometimes argue that project management is about half ‘coordinating work’, half ‘managing people and expectations’, and half ‘risk management’. Yes, I know it’s three halves, project management is a lot more work than people think.

    1. And ideally, you do the risk analysis before the project really gets underway, so you know how it can go wrong or unexpected right before things really get busy.

  2. -Failure to market the product properly: Tragedy can strike publishers too, .
    -No follow up:(a series sells better than a stand alone you had a best seller, and you did not create a supporting product to keep it going,
    -Poor price point, you priced it too high for a PDF only product, you priced it too low to cover your costs.

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