256px-Nobilis-coverThere is an interesting thread going on at the RPG.net forum relating to PDF e-books of role-playing games. In particular, the third edition of the Nobilis RPG, which I have in 1st and 2nd editions in paper form (and reviewed for RPG.net). Jenna Moran (nee Rebecca Sean Borgstrom, Nobilis’s author) wrote, in response to someone inquiring about a PDF version:

I’d be grateful if people who are interested in PDFs took some time to explain why, how important it is, and how it plays into their interest in retail purchases. (In general, I think electronic formats are the future, and I want to get out ahead of the curve instead of behind it. But this isn’t an actual argument so much as an intuition. So if someone at the office says, "Sure, we’ll get out a PDF, but let’s wait a bit so we don’t step on book sales and injure both the retailers and ourselves," what do I say?)

In subsequent posts, a number of gamers give their points of view on PDFs versus printed books. For instance, a user going by “demoss” writes:

The PDF is the one I really want. The book is a luxury.

My shelves are full, searchability is an issue, and the PDF I can read anywhere — whereas the printed book will stay at home.

Jenna worried about the effects of PDF sales on distributors and retailers of the print book, saying that her publisher “is kind of hesitant to undermine the already suffering distributors and retailers.”

However, “Reverend Pee Kitty,” an employee of Steve Jackson Games and editor of the GURPS RPG, chimed in with a very interesting post about SJG’s experiences with its e23 PDF RPG program. He said that the original intent of e23 was to publish out-of-print and niche titles—”specifically, things that would never see mainstream FLGS [Friendly Local Game Store, gamer slang for local gaming shops] release, but might sell as niche books.”

However, as they gradually moved over time into publishing more of their “mainstream” works that way, they discovered that PDF sales were in fact not cannibalizing print sales, even when they started selling the PDF on the same day the printed version became available.

So a while ago we tried something even more extreme: Selling the PDF as soon as the book goes to print (generally about 2-3 months before the book is in stores). So far, remarkably, this doesn’t seem to have hurt anything, either. There seems to be a very strong line between the Internet-ordering customers who want the convenience of a PDF, and the FLGS-frequenting ones who want a hardcover book. In short, the people who want a physical book really want a physical book, and the existence of a slightly-cheaper, slightly-easier to acquire PDF doesn’t change that.

In a subsequent post, Jenna asks for information on what price a PDF should be, and how one can have it made if the gaming publisher lacks expertise in it. “Does anyone have data that $20 PDFs sell at the same rate, or less than half the rate, of $10 PDFs?” she wonders.

In response, another RPG industry professional, Adam Jury, linked to a blog post detailing what happened when his publisher Posthuman Studios decided to sell the PDF of its game Eclipse Phase at only $10-$15 instead of the more standard $30. Its distributor, Catalyst Game Labs, bucked at this idea.

They argued against it, and basically said “You’ll need to sell twice as many copies in order to make the same amount of money.” We said “Okay. If we don’t sell twice as many copies of the PDF as (ASpecificCatalystCoreBook) did in PDF in 18 months, you can take the difference in dollars out of our royalties.”

Less than six weeks after the PDF was available (and this was after we seeded the PDF to bittorrent ourselves — anyone could have it for free, legally), we broke that mark. This meant that we had made the same amount of money, and we had the PDF in the hands of at least twice as many people!

A few months after that, Catalyst lowered their prices on all core books, and announced that Leviathans would be Creative Commons-licensed as well. And the first print run of Eclipse Phase sold out, also.

“In short, I think low PDF prices for core stuff makes for faster adoption and more unit sales of both print and PDFs,” Jury said.

It’s interesting to see these further developments in how PDF availability affects print sales and how PDF pricing affects PDF sales. It makes a lot of sense that lower prices will sell more, especialy given the protests over Kindle books costing more than $9.99. (RPG buyers are used to their stuff costing more than mass-market titles, given the overall smaller market and higher costs involved.)

But as I noted in a blog post in 2002, and again when I reposted it last year, there hasn’t been a lot of effort to make role-playing game titles available in formats that can be read on smaller screens. Perhaps this is because PDFs are what the industry is used to; it’s how the existing stores such as DriveThruRPG are set up to work and it’s widely compatible with computers and a number of larger tablet readers such as Kindle and iPad.

But for mass-market prose titles, compatibility across the largest number of platforms is offered by MOBI (for the Kindle) and EPUB (for everything else). While MOBI might not be quite up to it, EPUB has some formatting capabilities that most books don’t bother using. It works well for novels, but it has also been used for graphic novels such as Cyril Pedrosa’s Three Shadows, or for illustrated non-fiction guides intended for iPhone reading such as David Pogue’s iPhone: The Missing Manual.

For that matter, some publishers have been experimenting with alternate presentations. In a comment to my 2002 repost, Prest0 of 12 to Midnight wrote:

We at 12 to Midnight have been publishing RPGs in PDF for 5 years. It’s not the best e-book format, but it’s the format that the RPG industry–and its customers–seem to have adopted as a standard. On the other hand, last year we released a title in PDF and offered a second “deluxe edition” with HTML files. That edition was quite popular, and so far our customers have respected our plea not to post the content online.

That has been a positive experience for us, and I would love to offer our RPG titles in other formats. (After all, more choice means more potential customers!) However, in return I’d like to see ePub or other formats handle complex presentation more gracefully.

It might require some simplification on the part of RPG publishers, but I would think that the text portions of RPGs could be presented in this way. Tables might be reformatted, or included as graphic elements that could be scrolled or zoomed. And there are almost certainly RPGs that don’t rely on tabular elements that could be converted as-is. Such RPGs could be sold via the mass-market e-bookstores as well as the RPG-specific publishers and reach a larger potential audience.

Then again, it is still unclear just how large the potential audience for pen-and-paper RPGs really is anymore. It’s always been a bit of a niche ever since the D&D fads of the 1980s went away, and now, like reading in general, it’s under threat from time-stealing Internet activities such as computer and video games. Could publishing RPG e-books in a form suitable for wider exposure actually attract wider exposure?

Maybe someday we’ll find out.


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