My name is Sam Dyer and I run Bitmap Books, which mainly specializes in designing and publishing premium books all about retro gaming. The books we produce are very visual and we invest a lot of time and resource into making sure our production values are as high as possible, which makes our books very popular with collectors. We sell to both male and female customers aged between 30 and 50 years old that owned computers and consoles in their childhood, and have a desire to reconnect with the games they used to play when they were younger and get that warm, fuzzy, nostalgic feeling.
When the business first started in 2014, we funded our first book through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, mainly because the business was a start-up and we didn’t know for certain that there would be a market for what we wanted to create; crowdfunding was the perfect vehicle for us at that time because it removed the risk of producing something and then it not selling. The initial funding drive went well, and the reaction from the retro community was positive. The business has grown dramatically since 2014, year-on-year, and we’re in the fortunate position now where we don’t need to rely on crowdfunding; we’ve got a really strong fanbase and loyal customers who repeat buy. We’ve gone from relying on crowdfunding to being entirely self-sufficient in five years.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
My first ever experience with a computer was in 1989 when my uncle handed down his Commodore 64 computer. I was inquisitive about what this strange thing was nestled under the telly; it was explained to me by my father that it was a personal computer, which sounded very fussy and serious, but I was mostly interested in the games that it could play. I got three or four games with it and while it sounds cheesy, it was love at first sight; I love that computer, even to this day.
Get stuck in, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. Give it 110% and work hard every hour you can.
Over the years, that love developed into a real affection for the classic pixel art seen on the Commodore 64. For those who don’t know, a lot of the old games from the late ’80s had to load from audio cassettes, a process which took about 10 minutes – so you were staring at the TV while the game loaded. Some games, if you were lucky, had music or an attractive piece of static artwork that was relevant to the game. I was mesmerized by these images and found it amazing that this serious-looking computer could produce such stunning and evocative artwork.
I never actually wanted to go into doing game graphics as a career, but from that point, I knew I had to do something in the creative industry in general. After the Commodore 64, I carried on gaming, moving onto the more powerful Commodore Amiga and then the Sony PlayStation, but I always maintained this love of pixel art and game graphics. When I finished school, I ultimately went down the graphic design route rather than moving into game design. I think it will always be a bit of a regret of mine that I never explored that, so you could say that Bitmap Books is my way of attempting to recapture that dream of being involved in the games industry. However, it was also about timing.
The way that Bitmap Books came about is because I'd been doing commercial graphic design for 15 years, and I was getting a bit bored with designing brochures or logos for companies that I had little interest in. When the opportunity came up to potentially design a book on something that I was massively passionate about, it was a win-win for me; it was a way of fusing my two biggest passions.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
When Bitmap Books first started, I was still in full-time employment. It started very much as a hobby; an outlet for my creativity in the evenings and at weekends and a vehicle that allowed me to have a bit of fun with things I loved. It has organically turned into what it is today; I wouldn't go as far as to say it was accidental, because I've purposely worked extremely hard to achieve my goals, but at the start, I never set out intentionally to become a boutique publisher. I had no experience in book publishing and I’ve had to learn on the fly, but I think my previous background in commercial marketing and design has given me a good grounding for running a business and knowing how to successfully promote it.
Even so, success didn't come overnight. After the initial book was crowdfunded, it had raised almost £36,000 from just under 1000 backers – a considerable amount of money, but not enough that I could contemplate giving up the day job for good. It wasn't until after our second book that I started to think I had something really special; Commodore Amiga: a visual compendium raised almost £130,000 from over 3,000 backers on Kickstarter, which meant the business almost quadrupled in the space of six months. At that point, I had to register for VAT, and it was becoming quite hard to manage the business in the evenings and weekends as a hobby. I would say that was the first point where I felt like something exciting was happening.
Another big step up was when we began working with authors. Traditional publishers always work with an author – they supply the books to a publisher, the publisher produces the book and the author gets paid royalties. We moved into that kind of model in 2015 when we did the Super Famicom: The Box Art Collection with Stuart Brett. That was the first publishing deal we’d done, and the resultant book was hugely popular. It was also at this point that we started getting coverage in the mainstream games media, which also felt to me like a real turning point; a lot more people were hearing about what we were doing and the following around the business grew accordingly. That brand awareness meant we could slowly start moving away from the crowdfunding model and become a more traditional, self-sufficient publisher.
Following on from that, another huge milestone was when we started producing officially-licensed books. The first licensing deal we did was with a Japanese company called SNK. I entered this deal with a degree of trepidation because I wasn’t too sure how we’d communicate, but as it turns out, there was no problem at all. SNK was keen to work with us and loved our previous books, the Super Famicom: The Box Art Collection in particular; the company saw that we could be trusted with their prized, world-famous IP, and we went on to produce the first-ever English language book all about the NEOGEO family of systems, which is what SNK is arguably most famous for with modern gamers. That was a seismic turning point because it brought with it considerable kudos for us as a brand; we've since worked with SEGA, another massive Japanese company.
As the business grew, we needed to adapt to the production side of things, which was another big evolution for Bitmap Books. The first couple of books we produced were manufactured in the UK – which was fine when the numbers that we were printing were quite low – but when the business started to grow, we needed to feed the demand and produce bigger and better things, which sadly meant that the UK simply became unviable. The unit price for the books was just going through the roof, so we decided to move production to China. I was nervous about this process because we've always built our brand on quality, but we managed to find a printer in China which understood what we were after. That's been a massive gamechanger for the business because it’s meant that we can do these gorgeous collector’s editions that come in huge boxes and use elaborate print techniques, and we don't have to be overly concerned about things like page counts and the like. We can do what’s right for the consumer, rather than being dictated to by a budget; I think this has been another huge factor in where we are today, and the reputation our products have.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The business is in a healthy position in 2020. I’ve been really lucky to experience year-on-year growth – not just on profitability, but also on things like our social media following. We’ve got around 11,000 Twitter followers, a strong and engaged community on Facebook and we’re also trying to build up Instagram – the latter being quite important as we're such a visual-led company. We’ve also started to invest quite a bit into Facebook and Instagram advertising, which I think is a really interesting way of drawing in new customers – Instagram Shopping, which allows you to tag products in posts, has also helped. We're constantly looking at new ways of bringing new customers in contact with the brand because what I’ve seen happen is that someone might discover a book on a new subject we're doing – for instance, we've produced a book based on the Micro Machines toy line – but they might never have heard of Bitmap Books before. Once they look at the website, they might spot a book about the C64, NES, or SEGA Master System, and once they’re in the ecosystem, they tend to stay and might buy a couple of books a year. Building the customer base is vital to me. We’ve got a mailing list of circa 20,000 people who’ve opted into that – that's a really strong, passionate fanbase that you can rely on to support your future business.
Short term, there are plans to expand the business – I’d like to do editions of our books in different languages. We’ve previously worked with a leading Italian publisher and a Chinese publisher who have done specific language versions of some of our books; from a business point of view, this is a really good thing to do because you're leveraging and increasing the profitability of each title and the customers in those markets get to read the books in their native language. I’ve identified that the three biggest non-English speaking countries for our books are France, Germany, and Spain. I think that we could grow the business if we could produce specific language versions for those territories – providing we can find a distributor to work with who shares the same production values, of course.
There’s also a massive opportunity in America that I don’t think the business has ever really tapped into. We do sell to America – it’s probably our first biggest market, which I’m grateful for – but I think there’s quite a lot of trust required by a customer in America, because you’re ordering from a UK company which you might never have heard of, and there's the issue of expensive postage and possible customs charges. We’ve tried American distribution before and couldn’t quite get it to work because of the margins and all of those different costs involved, but it’s something I want to crack in the future; I think that would open up a massive opportunity to take Bitmap Books to the next level.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I'm more than happy to admit that I’ve made lots of mistakes over the last five years, but I’ve always been a firm believer that it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.
As I alluded to earlier, cracking America has been a big challenge. The first mistake I made was working with a very large American distributor; I was quite naive and I was learning on the go. I entered into a distribution agreement and while all the books I sent oversold quickly, the financial return on that stock was disappointing; you have to factor in the discounts the distributor is giving to the person who is buying them, and then there’s the distribution fee that they’re taking and the cost of storing the stock in America – not to mention the fact that you have to pay to physically ship the books over there, too. All of these things eat into your margin. I, therefore, became concerned I was cannibalizing the business; by shipping a book to America I was effectively losing a sale from someone who would buy it from me directly here in the UK. Customer returns were also a headache, as the distributor makes a sale to the customer, like a bookshop, but then the bookshop can then return the stock if they don’t sell. One month it looked like I'd achieved a healthy amount of sales, only to find out two months later that I'd get an invoice for the returns. On top of the margin issue, it was tricky to manage.
In light of this, I decided to set up a duplicate of my UK website but aimed at American customers. I found a fulfillment house in the States so I could offer free American shipping, and I jumped into that two-footed – it was really exciting, but ultimately I was let down by the fulfillment house that I chose. I take great pride in the books that we produce and spend a lot of money and investment in the packaging of how they’re sent out. I was really upset because this company I was using appeared to understand my standards, to begin with, but I was getting emails from customers that the books had arrived in damaged boxes.
Again, it was a learning curve. I was trying to do the right thing, my intentions were good, but ultimately it just didn’t work out. It was a hard situation to extricate the business because we've got all of this stock in America. I think one of my bad traits is that, rather than be patient, I tend to be impulsive. I decided to bring all the stock back to the UK and move onto the next thing, but it was almost damage limitation at that point.
One of the biggest problems we've had was outside of our control. We’d done our first book with SEGA and it was sitting in a Hong Kong warehouse, due to be shipped back to the UK. I got a phone call on a Monday morning – the first Monday back after Christmas – to say that the warehouse had burnt down and all books had been lost. Luckily, someone had told me a short while beforehand about ensuring shipments. I didn't normally do this, but because this was a licensed book, I added insurance to the order. I was therefore covered financially, but the downside was that my customers had to wait an extra three months for the book to be reprinted, but thankfully, pretty much everyone understood. That was a hugely challenging time, and it taught me to always have insurance on print.
There are elements of timing that have gone our way, too. I was very lucky with the two Nintendo-themed visual compendiums we did. Both were published very close to when Nintendo released miniature 'Classic Edition' replications of these systems; that wasn’t intentional on my part at all, but the books did seem to sync quite nicely, and this naturally resulted in massive interest from customers. While we never positioned them as such, the books were almost seen as guides for their respective systems. I think that’s a solid example of where forces outside of my control have helped the business.
I'd like to think that my skills and talents have played a huge role in the success of the business. I take immense pride in my talent as a designer, but equally, I feel I understand marketing and how to sell a product. I understand that when you produce a Kickstarter campaign, that campaign needs to look beautiful because people will make a purchasing decision based on how good it looks and how good it sounds. I think that side of things has helped. I’m also quite a detail-focused person; I’m quite analytical and feel I'm good at keeping on top of that side of the business.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We used to have a normal WordPress website, but we've since moved to Shopify – which was another thing that helped the business grow and evolve. It has made the whole customer experience so slick, and the money you pay Shopify on either a monthly or yearly basis pales into insignificance compared to what you'd pay a web developer to create the same kind of thing. It’s saved money and it’s given us a professional-looking website that’s responsive.
As far as fulfillment goes, again, this is an area where we went through quite a lot of change. When the business first started, I fulfilled our first book from our kitchen table, much to my wife’s delight! After hearing the noise of parcel tape every single night for a couple of weeks, she said that I needed to find a different solution in the future. Packing up books and dealing with day-to-day customer queries isn’t why I got into this and it’s not what I’m good at, so I outsourced everything to a fulfillment house in the UK. This was a massive deal because they understand my particularities around how I want the book to arrive with the customer. I’ve always wanted our books to feel like luxury items, and that extends to the materials we use for shipping; people need to feel like a lot of love has gone into not just the books, but the way they’re packaged. This company understood that and their IT system plugs straight into Shopify, so I can just be getting on with running the business while they’re taking care of orders, customer queries, and everything else. I trust them implicitly, and therefore don’t need to worry about it at all.
We use MailChimp for storing our databases, as I’m sure most companies do nowadays. We try to send out one or two newsletters every month when new products are available or we have production news regarding certain titles. Some companies seem to place more stock in keeping their customers updated via social media, but I'm of the mindset that it doesn’t hurt to use every avenue available because inevitably, there are going to be some people who don’t use Twitter or Facebook but do check their emails every day. We try and communicate on Facebook and Twitter as much as we can, but when it’s a more detailed post, we will use MailChimp. Spreading it out across the different channels has worked for us in the past, so I wouldn't ignore one over the other.
One of the biggest problems nowadays is when a customer purchases a book from us, the only way we can keep in touch with them is via MailChimp, because of GDPR rules. If they don’t opt in to our mailing list, it’s really hard to update them on their order. Logistically on Shopify, you can’t email everyone, so MailChimp is a key tool. I could probably be doing much more with MailChimp; I see a lot of companies doing one newsletter a day, but I wouldn’t want to get to that point because I think I would start annoying people. I think it would be good to maybe start producing three or four a month because I do think that with that many subscribers it’s a missed opportunity not to.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I've always wanted to create something unique, and I think I've succeeded in that respect. However, one company which proved there was a market for these books was Read-Only Memory; they produced a couple of books – one on Sensible Software and another on the SEGA Mega Drive – around the same time I launched Bitmap Books.
Being a graphic designer, I was drawn to their products because they looked beautiful, but even so, I felt I could bring something different to the table. I wanted to create books that were a bit more fun, and more celebratory about pixel art. Having said that, Read-Only Memory was an influence on me at the beginning, and seeing what they'd done gave me confidence there was a market for my books.
I’ve always been a big fan of podcasts such as Retro Asylum, and listening to them and hearing other people talk passionately about gaming has always been a big influence on me. That ties in with the ethos of our books – we want to combine the appeal of the art with relevant information; show off the gorgeous pictures but also go behind the scenes with the history of these games. I want people to get a nostalgic hit from our books – so someone picks one up and is instantly transported back to when they were a kid playing these games – but once that impact has lessened, I also want them to find exclusive interviews and features which add a little more texture to the memories and keep them engaged.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I think the one thing that I had to do with Bitmap Books was work very, very hard, and make lots of sacrifices. I think some people think that they can just produce a book on a particular topic and it will sell automatically simply because they're passionate about it. You need to spend a lot of time on the design and make it beautiful. I think that’s something we’ve always tried to do; I’ve never been tempted to settle for second best, even if it’s ended up being more expensive or I’ve had to delay a product. I think that’s my advice: get stuck in, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. Give it 110% and work hard every hour you can.
Working with the right talent is also vital. I’ve always run the business so we have an expert team of freelance writers, artists, musicians, and specialists that we trust and can use for specific projects. This way of working means that overheads are low, but we can pick and choose the best talent for each book.
Engagement is also important; I think this is where my marketing head comes in because I know what makes things visually engaging. When you see a new book or a Kickstarter project or a new web listing, I think people make up their minds quickly – first impressions do count. You have a couple of seconds to make someone’s mind up and capture their attention, and I’ve always put a lot of stock in creating compelling visuals that draw people in. If you don't do that, then it doesn't matter if you've got a great book – if people aren’t engaging with it because it doesn’t look as good as it could do, you're not going to get their attention.
People may say "don’t judge a book by its cover," but unfortunately, a lot of people do just that! You judge things on face value, especially in the modern age of the internet where everything is fighting for your attention and you might only spend a couple of seconds on a page before you decide whether you’re going to close it or not. You eat food with your eyes first, as the saying goes. You look at something and make up your mind before you’ve even tried it.
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