eReaders Will Change RPG Publishing Forever

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.

10 Responses to eReaders Will Change RPG Publishing Forever

  1. I like this idea. The ebook thing sounds really convenient if they do pdfs and don’t force me into a proprietary format. Find something that’s basically and LCD with a usb port and some buttons and I’m golden.

  2. Just imagine if you had your character and all the source books related to that character on an e-reader. All your stat bonus’s and everything could be calculated and linked to the source material. When you level up a character you point to the talents/power/abilities (or what not depending on the system) and it gets applied to your character. Of course you would still want edit ability for things like rolling hit points and keeping track of temp stats and damage. I think that could be huge for the rpg industry.

  3. I too would purchase that, Jerund.

    And I’m also in agreement about books never dying. There’s just something special about holding, and reading a book. I mean, having one of them Kindle/Skiff things would definitely be handy for reading stuff on the go, or simply for convenience during activities. However, I can NOT imagine sitting down at home, and reading a book on one of them. Still, there’s no denying that it may reach that point in the near future.

    Once these things become cheap enough, I’m sure I’ll get one, and it’s all downhill from there, brother.

  4. I am unconvinced, mostly because I see (as I’ve said) print on demand coming to the forefront. UNLESS– well, I see one option for pdfs that could really change the game. quite simply, I want a changeable pdf of the book I buy. If I make a Vampire: the Requiem character, I want to be able to pull the rules for the disciplines I have into one easy to reference document. The text for the weird merits I have. DnD 4e is on this wagon with the Character Builder, but I think that is choked with options & isn’t customizable enough– like, I can’t add feats I invent.

  5. See, I would definitely buy that. I’d love to have that resource handy for games. I love books though, and would definitely do all my planning from a book and curl up and read them, but to be able to program my stats into a virtual character sheet beats the tar out of waiting for everyone who can’t remember their skills to cast something.

  6. I know that on the character builder you can edit and customize the panels, and whatnot. In one section (I think it was the traits section) you can edit what is typed in there. If you can do the same for the feats section of the character sheet, then maybe you CAN add your own feats. Though that makes me wonder if you can edit the rest of the sheet appropriately to show the changes said feat makes. I dunno…

  7. Could this also be a way to break down barriers and introduce a wider audience for RPGs? If an e-reader would be able to take care of stat-tracking, I know I would probably be open to more games, because you would be able to spend less time “learning” the system, and more time getting to the action, so to speak. And maybe it could combine aspects of a tablet and an e-reader so, if one creates feats or a new spell or whatever, you could “write” it in along with the rest of the text and you would still have the pleasure/necessity of your own notations.

  8. Until eReaders get really really cheap, most people won’t be able to replicate the “spread out a dozen books while you work on your game”. I used to do that, but searchable PDFs with good bookmarks work pretty good too. I’ve gone digital on my laptop and a lighter system would make this perfect. The current eReaders are just readers – what we need is something that can do apps to – like a bigger iPod touch (though hopefully without the Apple-scale price tag).

    @Jerund – DDI for 4e D&D does that. It’s not perfect (see below), but it’s among the best character apps so far. Part of what makes it so good is that it’s updated every monthwith all the official additions and errata.

    @mordicai – you can already copy and paste rules from PDF’s into one document. I do it all the time. DDI does let you put in custom feats with text, but it doesn’t let you do calculations with them. It’s a feature I’d really like. Though I build my character with DDI, I have a custom excel sheet I play with. It’s got everything on one screen and has notes and links to rules text. It takes more work, but it saves time at the table.

    @mordicai – E-publishing also allows the publisher to update the PDF with errata and changes. It’s relatively cheap to redownload an update. Print-on-demand updates would still cost more to update.

    @everybody who still likes books – I’ve stopped buying paper. I simply don’t have the space for more game books and I can’t take everything to the game. Go to any con – you’ll see some people with a dolly to carry the crates of books they have (though fewer and fewer). I have pretty complete libraries of a dozen systems in my backpack. (If the publisher doesn’t sell PDF’s, then I use my fair use rights to scan or download PDF’s of books I own.)

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