Monday, June 1, 2009

PDF books, or how to pay more for less

I guess by now everyone have noticed that the business of traditional gaming products on dead trees are not the place to make big bucks. Not that it ever was a money maker, but the hobby are transitioning to electronic sales for a reason. While I readily see the advantages from a producer perspective I am also kind of vary of this development, and not only for nostalgic reasons. Fairly recently I bought some pdfs and I'll tell you about my experiences and conclusions. How does pdf compare to physical game books? On DriveThruRPG they had a sale when it was time for "GM Day". Since I had just got hold of 7th Sea, I felt some stuff for Flashing Blades might give me inspiration. The adventures where fairly cheap and I bought all I could find, all four of them. They cost $2.10 USD and it felt like a decent deal. Now when I looked them up they were marked at $7 but striked through and reduced to $2.80 which gives me the suspicion that DriveThruRPG is one of those places which never sells their stock for what they claim is "full price". In total I paid $8.4 USD for the bunch. Since I prefer to have my gaming stuff on paper, which for me is easier to cram in a pocket, read without electricity and for making notices on, I decided to have them printed. But, just stealing the resources of my workplace wasn't what I had in mind. Yes, I said steal. How many of you dear readers have a deal with your boss about printing game stuff at work? Without paying? Didn't think so. At my local print shop (the good one, not the bad one where the cranky persons worked) they could make booklets of my pdfs, full letter size so I could read the slightly blurred text. They also gave me the option of getting cardstock for the covers and the front page illustration in colour. Now if this seem excessive let me remind you that this was done to compare a printed game book to a pdf. All in all I paid $32 USD for this. That makes it $10.1 USD per book. Now when I look at those books at, say Noble Knight Games, they will cost you roughly $5 USD. All four plus shipping to me here in Ontario adds up to $26.69 which means $6.67 USD per book. Since none of the books available at the Knight were mint I guess we could add a few bucks to that total to compensate. Still, cheaper than the pdf. Why is pdf sales such a big thing then? Well, it's not hard to see why. Printing costs, warehousing and costs for shipping from the printer is probably going to be a major (if not the major) cost in producing a game book. Imagine if you could get some other poor sucker to pay that cost! Frankly, that is what's key to pdf sales. I wonder how many gamers out there who actually go through the pain to get themselves good looking results, like I did? If the product is just black and white, maybe a plain print out on the office printer is "good enough", since it's "free". Once when I complained on the Kenzer message boards about the idiocy of publishing a 200+ page book only in pdf, someone told me they could get a hardcover printed from that at a local print shop, and without paying a pint of blood. I was damn tempted to take him up on the offer. Seriously, where do they have print shops that can do that? My conclusions from my experiences is that this pdf renaissance is fuelled by companies whose employees print stuff they are not supposed to at work. Otherwise I can hardly understand how it makes economic sense. Unless you have good equipment and pay good dollars you will have a sheaf of black and white papers (probably lesser quality paper than the generic game book, and maybe even not double sided) and not a game book. You just paid more money, for less. Congratulations!


  1. My conclusion is that you assume that your need to print everything out is shared by everybody. I like to have printed copies of dungeons I'm running, which I can easily do on my home printer. Rule sets, not so much.

  2. I think that the most important part of Mr. Davour's post centers on the following phrase: "I prefer to have my gaming stuff on paper, which for me is easier to cram in a pocket, read without electricity and for making notices on". While I can't speak for the robustness of Mr. Davour's local grid, I can say that out in the backwaters of the San Francisco Bay Area where I hang my hat, it's a concern; I can run a GURPS game in a blackout with all of the sourcebooks and scratchpaper I've got lying around, but I couldn't run an Exalted game 'cos the only copy of that system I own is an un-printed pdf. Yes, "save the trees and the environment", but it's also important to make best use of the resources you have available. Electronics are NOT infallible, and if you believe that they are, perhaps you should review "Gamma World". On hardcopy. By candlelight. In an abandoned server farm.

    Y'know, to get the proper feel for the environment.

  3. Yes, most of the pdf printing that gets done is for free at people's workplaces. This is nothing new; long before pdfs there were lots of character sheets and game charts photocopied at workplaces.

    However, you have to have a wider view of things. While the individual pdf may not be as great use to you as the same content on paper, that we have pdfs for sale means you can get a wider variety of content.

    To get something into print professional requires a big initial outlay of money. It's a gamble. Companies and individuals usually don't like to gamble, they go for sure things. So if everything were only in print, we'd see far fewer products. So bear in mind that it's not always "print or pdf", but often "pdf or nothing."

    I think diversity is good.

  4. Yea, to be honest, i gotta say that printing the whole PDF is going to cost money... I never do this. I'm content to keep PDF's on my laptop since i use it to game master on anyway. If you're going to print things, why print the whole book as well? Why wouldn't you just print rules sections or charts, not to be a nitpicker, but half the book is probably not worth printing, with fluff and all... just my thoughts.

  5. I sometimes get annoyed when I hear people talk about pdf as the silver bullet that will save the hobby. This post of mine was my way of sharpening a few sticks and put them in the ground to see who would trip on them. Sorry for any scratches, and thanks for your comments guys!

    Some replies.

    I still haven't found any computer equipment with which I feel comfortable using a pdf on screen. I hear this more and more often so I guess screens are getting better, or people are getting used to a cumbersome way of using their pdfs.

    As for gambling, I'm not sure I think pdf publishing is such a good thing. While I sure appreciate the possibility for anyone to publish, I think the outlay of money weeded out some junk.

    Once again, thanks for your feedback!

  6. I purchased a PDF of Deep 7's post apocalypse game. It was so graphic-heavy (not necessarily artwork just 'atmospheric' grey-scale pages). As a result I just could afford to print it out and I'm never going to play a game with an electronic-only rule book.

    I asked them to consider a 'print-friendly' and they said 'no'. Which is probably why I can't remember the name of their game.

    QUERPS also had a print heavy PDF - I asked the publisher for a print-friendly version, they said 'what a great idea, here's a free one'!

  7. Greywood Publishing just score +10 points in my book!

  8. In theory, the requirement to outlay money weeds out junk.

    In practice, large outlays of money get us Titanic, but they also get us Ishtar. And spending no money gets us FATAL, but it also gets us FATE.

    The simple fact is that most of what's produced, with or without lots of money in it, is pretty ordinary. But a small portion of it is really good. It's just a roll of the dice, and the more rolls, the more critical successes we get. And no, you don't get a bonus to your dice roll from spending money. Sorry.

  9. I think it's cool for supplements, modules, etc -
    good for small scale production, but I don't think its a panacea. I'll always prefer having physical copies.

  10. There are a lot of benefits to PDFs. One of the main ones is for people who like to houserule heavily - you can copy sections to a word processor and insert your houserules, remove the parts of the game you don't like, and print out your very own version of the game (by the way, you can do the same thing with PDF's that have printer-unfriendly backgrounds - just select and oopy the text itself to a word processor and print it from there, voila, no annoying backgrounds!)
    Another use that I personally find invaluable is as a second copy at the gaming table. For instance, I am running a Mutant Future game right now. I bought the hard copy but didn't want to shell out for multiple copies to have at the table - the solution? I downloaded the free PDF, printed out several copies of the character generation part (which is very small in terms of number of pages, even including the descriptions of all the mutations), printed out the melee and mental combat charts, and the radiation and poison tables. This allows me to keep my hardcopy as a purely DMing reference when I am running the game. Then, while running the game, I have the PDF up on my laptop, along with several windows with Google maps showing the terrain (elevation and everything) and satellite images of the area that the campaign is happening in. I keep the hard copy open to the monster sections and use the copy on my laptop to look up rules (another benefit to PDF is being able to search for a word or phrase, this is MUCH faster than thumbing through a rulebook) and descriptions of technological artifacts, etc. I just wanted to share how someone actually makes good use of a PDF even when they own the hard copy!


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