Man holding shipping box self publishing without amazon

How To Self Publish Without Amazon

“I got it on Amazon!” How many times a week do you hear that phrase? It seems like you can buy anything and everything on Amazon — so what happens when you don’t want to sell on it? In this post, Catholic Card Game creator and PrintNinja customer Matt Martinusen walks you through how he built a successful self-publishing business without relying on Amazon. 

Running an online business is not new, and I am relatively new to the game so rather than try and blaze my own path, my focus has been on looking at what other successful operations and brands have done and adapting to what works for me and my core audience. 

I have been building my self-publishing business since early 2018. I am independently owned and operated, have no long-term or on-going debt, grew +14% in 2020 year over year and projecting another 10% growth in 2021 without selling on Amazon. We started selling on Amazon alongside our self-published website which has increased sales volume by roughly 25%. Keeping the majority of my business outside of Amazon has allowed me to be in control of all aspects of my business and I must admit, I enjoy the challenge of running a small business online while taking on the 800lb gorilla in the arena that is Amazon.

My self-publishing business is based around a card game I developed with my wife/business partner. The game is a prompt and answer style game made specifically for a niche audience. 

There have been many other prompt and answer style card games before me, the most popular of course being Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity. 

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to have a successful business

I didn’t reinvent the wheel with my game, the style and genre already existed, but there wasn’t any game that spoke directly to the audience I wanted to serve. I adapted what has worked and continues to thrive in the market and created something that was new for my audience around a concept they were already familiar with. My intention in making this game was to serve the Catholic millennial audience. Being one myself, I have experienced the ways this market is being underserved. I had confidence that this game could be a hit because Catholic millennials (at least those who actually would identify as one) are deeply connected with faith and community, and there are so many commonalities that this audience has with each other. 

I actually had the idea to create my version of the prompt and answer style card game after I saw an ad online for an IT specific twist on Cards Against Humanity one early morning when I couldn’t sleep. I thought, “If IT folks can have their own version of a game, I could make one for my audience too.” My idea for the game I have built my business on came from a twist on one game that is a twist on  another game.

The backstory

Once the idea had come to life in my head, I began developing its content right away. I wrote down every idea I thought could work with the intention of editing and perfecting later. 

After a few months of the content development, we took to prototyping. I honestly had no idea how to create a single, real, printed version of a card game so we made the prototype of the game ourselves. We went to the local print shop, printed out over 50 pages of cards and used the store’s large paper cutter to create a rough prototype of the almost 500 cards. It was far from official but it would work for testing.

Play testing a game does not require you to spend lots of money up front. You can print the cards and instructions yourself. You can draw your own game board and tape it to the back of a different game. You can borrow pieces from other games to get an idea for how it plays. There are going to be a lot of changes you’ll need to make in the testing phase, so don’t spend lots of money on it quite yet. Get creative to bring your first game to life.

Over the next couple of weeks, we invited people over to play our game. We wanted diverse feedback so we asked people of different generations and backgrounds to play and give feedback. We took all sorts of notes from their feedback and ideas (and found a whole host of typos that needed to be corrected). Seriously, make sure you proofread and have someone else look at your writing too. You don’t want to print something with spelling errors (experience talking right there!).

Once we felt as confident as we could with the game, we took to Kickstarter to crowdfund it. Crowdfunding was essential for us to self-publish our game. Without it, we would not have had the capital or proven interest in what we wanted to create. I continue to use crowdfunding on Kickstarter as a way to grow by bringing new products and ideas to my audience without having to heavily invest my own business capital to get it produced.

Kickstarter is a great tool. It’s essentially a landing page for your product that you don’t have to build yourself. It does come at a cost though. Kickstarter takes 5% of the final amount you fundraise. They do help in small ways to promote projects: when you first launch it goes out in the “Discover” page for people to find, it gives the option to follow/like a project which will remind those users 48 hours before the project ends to back before it’s too late. It’s in Kickstarter’s best interest that your project gets funded, but it is up to you to get the majority of the word out. Just because you launch on Kickstarter does not mean it’s going to get found and funded with no effort on your end. 

Once I had the capital to create the game, it was time for it to be printed and packaged. This is something that was (and still is) way out of my skill set so I looked for a company that could bring my vision to life. PrintNinja became my printer of choice very quickly. What sold me was their online quote tool that allowed me to get an instant estimate of what it would cost to print my product. Seeing the cost to print gave me realistic expectations of what it would take to initially launch my product with crowdfunding and PrintNinja even helped share the word and gave me an additional 5% more product for free.

Once PrintNinja printed all the orders, I had all the inventory sent to a warehouse managed by a Third Party Logistics (3PL) company. We have found great success having a fulfillment company take care of the shipping aspects so we can focus on creative development and sales. Our 3PL integration is a big part of our success outside of Amazon.

A 3PL if you are unfamiliar is a company that picks, packs, and ships your orders for you. They are a crucial part if you are looking to run a drop shipping style business. Their system links to your website and every time a new order comes in, they prepare the order for shipment and send the customer a tracking number. I never have to store my inventory or pack an order for shipment. This allows me the time to focus on further product creation and marketing and sales of current inventory.

Now, Amazon has completely changed the game with order fulfillment with their shipping promises and it can be tough for small, self-publishers to keep up. But it is not all bad news for small businesses working to do it themselves. 3PLs can offer fast and efficient shipping for a lower cost than the cut that Amazon takes.

Customers are used to the very fast and free shipping that Amazon offers, however, customer expectations are changing when shopping directly with a small business. Think about it, we all expect fast shipping, but when we are purchasing from a non-Amazon website, we know that it may take a bit longer for our order to be delivered, and that is ok.

Great success!

Our initial Kickstarter campaign was funded at 133% of a goal of $22,000 We had people signing up to an email list to be notified when more would be made again. We went back to Kickstarter 6 months later to be able to print more games and was funded 142% of a goal of $45,000. We did just shy of $100k in crowdfunding sales in our first year. The second Kickstarter campaign was so successful due to the built up buzz and interest from the first campaign plus we created 5 expansions with well-known podcasters, artists, and speakers from the Catholic community. 

Two years later, we have now printed over 10,000 units of our base game, not including any expansions, and  have launched 8 expansion variations to play with the base. We also launched two completely separate party games in 2020.

There is still a lot of room for growth for us. We connect with our fans and customers on social media and via email to learn what they like about our games and what they would want to see in the future. From a production perspective, we continue to refine our games with edits and additions to our already produced games. From a marketing perspective, we are growing our social media presence and continue to make connections with well known thought leaders in our market. We have met a lot of amazing people and organizations since our initial launch and being a part of our community is important to us.

What I do now

I host my e-commerce business on Shopify. The software hooks up to any tool or other company I use from shipping to bookkeeping. I chose hosting my own site over selling on Amazon,  because Amazon’s processes seemed confusing to me when I looked at how to sell on the platform. Owning my own site gives me full control over every aspect of it and I do not have to play by Amazon’s rules.

To market the game, I have relied heavily on influencer marketing (again, not reinventing the wheel). I came to the market without anyone knowing who I was or what my game was all about. I focused on making connections with Facebook pages and blogs with devoted followers that were in my audience and asked them to help spread the word, for the initial Kickstarter campaign and periodically on an on going basis. 

Word of mouth has been our biggest sales booster. Creating a game that has to be played with other people has its advantages because you literally have to share it with others in order to play it. The quality of the game speaks or itself as traffic and sales continue to come to the site without a lot of ongoing paid marketing campaigns. That being said, we do run paid branded Google Search and Facebook ads periodically. 

Me vs. Amazon

When looking at specific numbers, I save ~20% per order doing my business on my own using a 3PL rather than FBA. Shipping is not express and  two-day for free, but when you offer your customer free shipping, I have found that they are willing to wait a bit longer for an order. More often than not, my orders arrive to customers within a week.

For real numbers, selling/shipping with Amazon was going to cost me around $14 per order based on initial calculations and research. With Shopify merchant fees and total cost of shipping and handling, I pay an average of $11.50 per order. That $2.50 makes a big difference over time, especially with scale. It was a no-brainer for me to keep my operations under my own domain.

Speaking of free shipping, if you can, offer that to your customer. Customers are more likely to buy if they are not paying more on top of the price they are comfortable with paying. But remember, it’s not free for you; you still have to pay for it. Look to bake the cost of shipping into your product price. If you are looking to sell your product for $20 and shipping is going to cost you $5, would customers be willing to pay $25 for your product with free shipping? Offering my customers free shipping has increased sales and set realistic customer expectations for delivery time since they are not paying for shipping.

Go forth!

So that is really it. There has never been a greater time to be running a self-published business. There are so many tools and partners that can help you be successful outside of Amazon. From crowdfunding, website hosting and design platforms for a store, quality printing with a partner like PrintNinja, and shipping companies that will handle fulfillment, you can take your idea from your mind to a real, profitable product.

Thanks, Matt! Check out the Catholic Card Game here.