Bargain Basement Prices for RPG PDFs Not a Good Thing

January 7th, 2011 by Ed Grabianowski

As a professional writer, I’m keenly aware that business models and consumption methods for written media are in a state of major flux right now. It’s interesting to see some real numbers that provide a hint on the direction things might be headed in. This missive from DriveThruRPG’s Steve Wieck on the effects of price slashing on PDF sales is extremely enlightening.

Wieck outlined some surprising sales numbers in DriveThru’s January email to publishers (which was posted here by Fred Hicks, who works for/with several small press and indie RPG publishers). The long and short of it is simple: cutting the prices on your RPG PDFs does not increase sales. All it does is cut into your profits. Worse, it kills DriveThru’s business model because of the fees they have to pay to Paypal and the credit card companies on microtransactions.

It turns out that as long as the price is within our reasonable expectation for a given product, the price is not the determining factor when making a purchase. If you decide you really want the latest gazetteer for your favorite RPG, whether it costs $5 or $15 isn’t really a huge factor. The problem is that “reasonable expectation” part — if every company is pricing their gazetteers for $2, you’ll start to expect that pricing, and the $15 product feels overpriced.

The direction for publishers is clear — the occasional sale is a fine way to draw attention, but don’t slit your own throats. I’ve always felt that pdf products should be priced similarly to print products; a little lower because there are no printing, shipping or warehousing costs, sure, but the true value is in the work of the designers, writers and artists. Your customers are aware of that, and apparently we’re willing to pay fair prices for it.

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11 Responses to “Bargain Basement Prices for RPG PDFs Not a Good Thing”

  1. Comment by mordicai

    Actual physical production is a small part of a book’s cost– mark-ups for the writers, editors, marketing, publicity, & support staff are far more & are real values, despite being intangible. Pricing ebooks at unreasonably low prices is a way to sell e-readers– not to name any names…– but not a way to contribute to a thriving publishing community. It irks me that consumers can’t see that, the way piracy irks me. Publishing isn’t a “big business” & gaming publishing is even tinier– ripping them off hurts the consumer, as the companies actually provide a service, & if you cease to pay for that service, that service will go away.

  2. Comment by Billy Gibbs

    I prefer to buy in physical form. I would super love a physical copy that came with a redemption code for a pdf. I’d pay a bit more for that, I love the print copies, they’re just more convenient for how I DM. I can hand them to players so we don’t have the laptop distractions, and if I have a pdf too it makes it so they can read it without it impeding my rules hunts. I’vwe seen deals like that on websites, but I like to support my local game shop, if there were a pdf edition of the book I could get the best of both. That’s just my two cents.

    Also, Screw e-readers. If I want to pay 300 dollars for eyestrain I’d buy an HDTV for the sole purpose of playing F-Zero on it for hours.

  3. Comment by Gavin O'Brien

    I’ve read several books on kindle, and I have to say I’ve not experienced any eyestrain, and I do most of my reading lying in bed with a dim light in the wee hours of the morning. I find it convenient in that, unlike when reading stuff like the new Wheel of Time, I don’t have to muscle around a large volume stealthily when changing positions so as to not wake my wife.

    That said, I didn’t buy a kindle to save money on books. I bought it for the convenience, to be able to read brand new books without waiting for the library and increasing the significant number of books cluttering my house, and in an attempt to be ecologically conscious by reducing my paper usage.

    I’d probably balk at paying hardcover prices for an ebook, but I have paid more than paperback price for certain books. Also, there are or will be certain books I will no doubt purchase in a physical form because there is something to be said for holding something in your hands. I also buy vinyl from time to time.

  4. Comment by Billy Gibbs

    I’ve only used the demo displays in stores. How much control do you have over font size and screen brightness? The one on display was tiny font no light grey on grey mess. looked like the OG Gameboy with the contrast wrecked.

  5. Comment by Gavin O'Brien

    I don’t think there is a brightness setting on Kindle. There’s no backlight. You have to have light on to read it, which could be one reason why you avoid eye strain. It looks pretty much like ink on a page. Maybe the version you saw was defective, because I think it is unfair to compare it to a gameboy. Most people I’ve talked to have been very impressed with the clarity of text. You can change the font size easily. Heck, you can even change the font I think, but I haven’t felt the need to.

    That’s ebooks and text files though. PDFs still have way to go. They are legible, but they aren’t pretty.

    Also, we got the non-3g version and it was hardly $300. Closer to $140, if I remember correctly. We decided that we very rarely NEED A NEW BOOK RIGHT NOW OMG while camping or driving down the road, so the simple wireless version would work fine for us.

    I’m not trying to sell you one of these things, but just trying to voice that I don’t think they are a scam.

  6. Comment by Billy Gibbs

    Come to think of it I may have been using an older e-reader as well. I really like the ability to change font types. The main reason I don’t read the new Magic novels is because the font is some tech-fantasy typeface-pocalypse. If I could change that into something nice and simple with a few serifs I’d be a happy man. The Pdf thing would be annoying, because that would be my primary use for it.

  7. Comment by Gavin O'Brien

    TBH, the pdf issue is the most annoying part for me, too.

    I actually bought it for my wife so she could carry knitting patters around with her. Someone on some board mentioned it was useful for that sort of thing. I think that person must be on crack. It is impossible to to transfer a knitting chart into an ebook format, and PDFs require a bit of extra work to be zoomed in correctly. It isn’t impossible, I just think it is more difficult than it should be.

    For running a campaign or something, it would be pretty easy to custom make a pdf for use. I started making a character sheet in pdf, and it looked pretty good on the kindle, if a rough based on the little time I put into it.

    For reading normal novels though, it is top notch. Since there’s no real sense of turning pages, I find myself reading a ton more than I meant to at times.

    Also, sorry, Ed, for derailing discussion by responding to Billy’s comment about ereaders specifically.

  8. Comment by Philo Pharynx

    @mordecai – I’ve seen wildly different numbers on printing as a proportion of costs. For smaller print runs, the costs of printing, storing and shipping the paper are still quite significant. In addition, with a lot of the “Home computer game companies”, the writers, editors, marketing, publicity, & support staff are not paid up front, they just get a portion of the sales. There’s very little money cost to produce these products (it still takes a lot of time and effort). Because of this, some people look at the return as “all profit”. If they don’t set an interal value on their contributions, then it’s easy to look on it as a simple balance of price and volume.

    @All, I know my expectations of a product affect how I see the price. If I see a book for $15, but it is from somebody I haven’t heard of and the art is so-so I’m reluctant to buy. The same book for $5, I might buy as an impulse. I think that’s what they are looking for.

    Another factor that I think has contributed to the drop in pricing – the Haiti and Pakistan disaster relief bundles. Each of these had a lot of product at a ridculously low price per product. While they were supporting very great causes, it also erodes the perceived value of the content. Especially because most people I’ve talked to have found a group of items in the bundle that they liked. In their minds they paid the bundle price for 4-10 items and everything else in the bundle was included free.

    An interesting related link also might be a factor – http://arstechnica.com/gaming/news/2010/12/low-prices-low-expectations-ars-looks-at-indie-game-pricing.ars It’s the same idea, but in a much bigger environment – computer and console gaming. While the strategy is more successful ther because the audience is huge, it’s affecting the entire market.

    I hate to be a link hound, but this also applies a lot – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyranny_of_small_decisions. The idea is that people choosing to do things for short-term personal goals can cause problems for the whole community.

    Of couse DriveThru could cut this off themselves by setting a minimum price where they cover their overhead and transaction fees. … Or by doing a “Custom bundle” for low-priced products. It would work like this. Title Y is priced at $6.00, or at $3.00 with purchase of any other product of $3.00 or more. … One idea that will not work for credit cards is to have a minimum transaction fee – it’s against the credit card use policies and many state laws (I know for a fact it’s illegal in California). It solves DriveThru’s problem of getting shafted on low volume sales, but still perpetuates the problem of game expectations dropping.

  9. Comment by Rite Publishing

    As a publisher I have PDF products that range from $.99 to $29.99 as a pdf.

    The $29.99 for Heroes of the Jade Oath still generates the most amount of Net Revenue.
    The most # of sales was generated by Feats 101 which is priced at $5.99.

    Right now I base my price point on page count, but i do a lot of 8 page small form pdfs at $2.99 for the impulse buyer. These I plan to combine into a print product in the future.

    Steve Russell
    Rite Publishing.

  10. Comment by Billy Gibbs

    Hmmmm. . . I sorta figured it would be based on page count in some way. It’s a decent measurement of both content for the buyer and effort for the writer. You may not be able to say, but how does RPGnow get their money? Is it a percentage of the asking price or a flat rate per product? I have a pretty firm grasp on how retailers mark up from their wholesale price, but I haven’t the foggiest how the online guys get their profit.

  11. Comment by Ben

    I agree. The industry is too small to support that kind of pricing. And the costs for art aren’t going to go down. Then what ends up giving? Everything else, all of which clobbers the end product. I don’t know why folks think they can work on the same scale that iPhone/Android app producers operate on, but I think it’s going to bite people in the ass.

    -Ben.