A Cold Day in Hell: A Look at eBooks in the RPG Industry

The following article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in June 2006.

Alan Williams and James Mathe look at eBooks in the RPG Industry

A few of you may be old enough to remember the End of Published Music. Suddenly, technology was available that would allow the home audio enthusiast to record music from many different sources and even produce his own play lists or mixes. Even more shocking, you could make copies of your original music and give it to friends. It was a dark time for the RIAA and music artists everywhere.  Indeed, the cassette tape signaled the beginning of the end for music as we knew it. The same thing happened with video tape and the movie industry. Is Netflix killing the movie industry? Last I heard a recent movie could still have 50 million dollar weekends. Is iTunes the end of CD sales? Did Magic The Gathering (CCG’s) kill roleplaying games? Last I looked there were more RPG books then ever these days.

This helps to get us into the mindset of some eBook detractors.  Mainly that this new technology is going to spell the end of All Print as we know it.  That regardless of its utility and value, it’s an Evil Thing to be feared, and is the chief cause for the slump that the hobby is currently in. There are other arguments against eBooks. They aren’t secure, they don’t offer the same experience as traditional print and they tend to kill off normal products, making it harder to get published.  How can we address these concerns?

When I was starting out in the hobby, I didn’t have much money.  A few friends had most of the books we needed to play, so I just borrowed what they had.  We also had quite a few photocopies of more than a couple of books kicking around. Did this mean we never bought more books?  Of course not.  Once we had the money the copied books were tossed in favor of the hardcovers we all craved!  The thing is there is always going to be a way to get around The Man in these situations.  Publishers are worried that their books are going to end up on P2P networks, but the fact is that they’re already there.  Poorly scanned huge .PDF files that look just horrible or poor OCR .txt that misses huge chunks of material; you can find them on most P2P clients.  Has this killed off the traditional print products?  Of course is hasn’t!  It’s been going on for years and yet we keep buying books.

I love books of all shapes and sizes.  I love the feel of the paper. I love the smell of a new book.  I love sitting down with a book and reading it cover to cover.  No matter how good eBooks get, they will never be able to deliver this experience.  eBooks make excellent reference or travel text. It’s great being able to bring a library of gaming books to GenCon with you without breaking your back.  Keeping a library on a laptop or even PDA allows you to do just that. Vacation with your favorite books, all of them, without hauling them all over the airport. Print out a handout for the players. Live somewhere without a FLGS and really want a new book for this weekend’s game?  You can download just what you want in an instant from an eBook vendor.  eBooks are all about convenience.  Convenience of use and convenience of purchase are two things eBooks can deliver in a unique fashion.

As for killing off ‘traditional’ media in our industry, I’d argue just the opposite.  I think that eBooks are saving the industry and making new fans and enthusiasts every day. RPGNow.com alone brings hundreds of new customers to its store each week. Many come for the nostalgia of classic TSR products from their childhood, restarting their gaming interests. Rules that were once difficult to locate or even buy copies of can now be found from your desktop, in no time. Customers are willing to pay for these books if they can be found legally.

In the traditional publishing model, your book would either have to be purchased or contracted by a larger publishing or game company.  The company would have to commit to thousands of print copies which would then have to be purchased by distributors who would then have to sell the book to the vendors who would then have to sell the book to the customers.  Thus, a publisher would have to take a pretty big risk and price the book at a premium to make its (and thus your) money. You would not be selling books from Monte Cook, RPG Objects, Expeditious Retreat Press, Darkfuries, Louis Porter Jr., Game Mechanics, Ronin Arts (Phil Reed), and many more who basically owe their existence to the eBook model.

eBooks do away with all of that.  What if you could write and format a book yourself, set it up on a distribution network, then instantly have a worldwide audience? eBooks deliver on this promise.  Your book becomes a personal project that you have more control over.  You set your price and your get your product out as quickly as you want.  You don’t have to stick to a 128 page minimum, you write and publish a 7 page prestige class or 10 page adventure and sell it for a buck!  eBooks make it possible for first-time authors and small publishers to tap a market without taking a huge risk on print.  As a result we’re seeing hundreds of new products that never would have seen the light of day otherwise.  Even new categories of products such as tile sets and paper miniatures have been great successes. At RPGNow, we see electronic products that support the sale of traditional media, not kill it off.

Anytime something new comes along in any industry there are always going to be detractors.  However, if we want to see our hobby grow and become a more ‘community’ supported pastime, things like eBooks and other new technologies not only need to be supported, but embraced for what they can and DO deliver to the gaming community as a whole.

It is my opinion that the video games and MMORPGs, that make gaming both accessible and easy to pick up at any hour of the day, have a higher risk of bleeding off the future gamer then eBooks. The lack of kid’s desire to actually read is more of a concern than how the words are presented. When I first opened my brick and mortar game store, we turned away hundreds of kids looking for video games who were shocked that these books were required reading to play a game.

PDFs now account for about 10% of the RPG’s sold (per numbers supplied by Comics & Games Retailer Magazine, RPGNow, and DTRPG).

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