eReaders like the Kindle or the Skiff (pictured) are reaching that tipping point where they move from “cool gadget” to “how did I ever live without this thing?” They’re also going to change the RPG publishing industry right before your eyes.
The first generation ereaders were far from perfect, couldn’t handle pdfs very well, had poor contrast, and were really expensive. This year’s Consumer Electronics Show was something of a coming out party for a new generation of ereaders: lighter, faster, brighter, and just better. In another year, these things are going to come down in price and become more useful for the everyday things a gamer might want to use them for.
In the mainstream publishing industry, book publishers are huge behemoths that take ages to change. They have enormous amounts of money invested in the infrastructure to support paper books and bookstores that sell paper books. RPG publishing is a niche industry with two or three big names and dozens, if not hundreds of small independent publishers. Lots of these indie publishers are already nimble enough to take advantage of new technology immediately, and have plenty of experience producing and selling high-quality electronic versions of their books. Gamers have largely accepted the pdf as an alternate publishing platform.
Ubiquitous ereaders will change pdfs from “alternate” to “primary” for a lot of companies. Today, pdfs are useful. They don’t take up any space, you can put them on a flash drive and read them on a friend’s computer, you can open them on your laptop and use them at the gaming table. But they’re not books, and while it might seem like this post is sounding the death knell for actual paper RPG books, it’s not. We love our books, our shelves full of old editions, stacks of weighty tomes full of tables and charts and cool art. Gamers are never going to abandon that.
But when your ereader comes extremely close to reproducing that feeling, with a lot of additional advantages, then pdfs are going to look a lot more appealing. A thin, lightweight device that you can easily pass around the gaming table is a whole other experience from reading a pdf on a monitor. As a DM, one of my favorite things in the world is writing an adventure, sitting at a big table with books spread out all around me, drawing maps and taking notes. I don’t really like having to refer to my computer when I do that. A nice slim tablet with an assortment of game manuals would be just the thing.
This isn’t about how ereaders are going to change your gaming experience though. It’s going to change the industry because suddenly those independent small press publishers are going to be on a much more even playing field with the handful of big companies that dominate the industry. If your pdf sourcebook is as attractive, useful and accessible as a physical book because of a great ereader (and assuming similar levels of editorial quality), then the last barrier to pdf sales has been removed. A publisher can sell a pdf, which requires no overhead for printing, warehousing or shipping, and their customers end up with something very close to a book they can hold and turn the pages of (we may be a generation or two from an ereader that gets close enough to that satisfying “book feel,” but I have no doubt it’s coming).
It might even be more than a level playing field. Publishers with experience in electronic formats are going to have a leg up on at least one major publisher (ok, the major publisher), which appears to have abandoned pdf publishing entirely for the time being (and, it can now be said several months on, have accomplished exactly nothing in terms of halting pirated pdf versions of their books).
Personally, I’m waiting for the ereader that’s flexible enough to literally fold into a pocket, but something that slides easily into my bag of gaming books — and replaces a bunch of them — is pretty appealing. Physical books will never die. All this week I’ve been poring over the 6th Edition Hero System Character Creation book (review coming soon!), which looks like a college textbook. I mean, the thing must weigh ten pounds. It’s very satisfying to page through a tome like that, to hold it and carry it around. But we’re soon going to reach the point where convenience and price intersect on these ereaders, and I think they’re going to be pretty awesome too.