Note: Now that I’ve done all that reviewing, I’m back to doing something far more meaty. I plan on releasing thoughty posts interspersed with reviews and miscellaneous posts of reduced density.
This is a subject that I don’t take lightly. Books cost a lot to print and distribute, and once you start getting more people involved in the writing of them, those costs invariably go up as well. What we don’t know is what the future holds for the printed word as it relates to the role playing industry, though there are many that balk and project various opinions of what will eventually kill the industry.
I may be opinionated, but I don’t expect to know what will happen to the industry any more than I did 15 years ago. On the other hand, I have had a keen eye on it in the meanwhile, and I’ve made a few observations.
First, let me see if I can do a little more justice to illuminating the causes of high priced role playing texts. There is much to be said about startling similarities between role playing text and collegiate text. I could go on*, but I’ll spare you the chloroform soaked details and just tell you the brunt of it; role playing books in print are bloody expensive, and that isn’t likely to change.
You see, it takes a lot to make either product, especially when you talk about a company like Paizo or WotC that is tied to a standard that we don’t even realize that we enforce with each purchase. That’s a loaded statement, but let me elaborate on it. To make a hardcover, color print, glossy book like what we have now (and have had for a while), there are printing costs. To make a heavy book, there are shipping, warehousing, and stocking costs (to say nothing of returns). To make a pretty book, there are (justifiably expensive) art costs. To make a good book, there are personnel costs (subjective, sure, but there is a correlation, I assure you).
This is an oversimplification of the issue at hand, but a necessary one. It should be clear that even in abject terms, these expenditures are both necessary and ever expanding. I could write 2000 more words on the nature of the industry, cheaper printing from China justifying incredibly slow shipping times, or how cost of living in one city can affect the entire industry, but you don’t want to hear that. If you do, perhaps you should say so and I can expand on that, but for now I shall remain mercifully brief in my exposition.
Now, rest assured that there isn’t some industry junta, cartel, or entity leading the conspiracy on overpriced role playing books; yes, they are expensive, but the reasons above should be enough to convince you otherwise. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, consider that the industry grows along with inflation, and you’ll see that a $50 book now is the same (roughly) as a $32 book in 1995**. That fact alone should make you consider the nature of pricing for role playing text. Price increases are inevitable, and role playing books are simply too robust an industry. Change will not come easy without change to one of three fundamental factors.
First, you have your shipping costs, which are tied to things like fuel prices and innovations in transportation. This isn’t likely to change, and sadly are likely to increase.***
The second is printing costs. If we could find ways to print more efficiently, it would be such a change that it would rock our society. I’m optimistic that this will change, but I’m not holding my breath.
The third is personnel costs, and this is far more complex and tricky to predict. In case you weren’t aware****, most role playing books have a writer (usually upwards of 2, or 6 for hardbacks), an editor, proofreaders, a developer, artists, playtesters (they are not paid, but managing these groups isn’t free), layout artists, and probably a few others that I missed. This process leads to what is hopefully a polished product, despite what grammar police may tell you.
Sure, the early D&D products were released by two dudes (and six artists), and it looks terrible. Personally, I don’t care about production values, but then neither am I tens of thousands of people sorting through myriad RPG products to decide where my money will go. Singularly, I’ve made my role playing bed and have my spending habits, but a growing industry requires loyalty and interest. Neither can be generated nor maintained without high standards. We as consumers punish low standards repeatedly.
Now, I am unfortunately unable to offer solutions, but rather observation and speculation. What I can say is that there is a fourth fundamental factor which has been having a very sharp impact on the industry. Digital media, of course, is a tricky subject and has been implemented with a wide ranges of success. It obviates a great number of costs, but also obviates physical books, which is yet another subject unto itself.
But I bring this up because it is set to change the way we view the hobby, for better or worse, regardless of your preference. And yet what I see is a series of mistakes taken by nearly every member of the industry (save for indie publishers, perhaps) in pricing, distribution, implementation*****, and even lack of participation.
A week ago, I reblogged an article about pdf preference, and I reviewed a digital magazine. This is something for which I have a strong opinion, but I don’t necessarily trust the direction in which the industry at large is heading. The innovations that we may see are perhaps locked within digital media; printing from home can and should be cheaper, negating at least two of the three earlier factors by an impressive margin.
But yet the industry is clinging to old models****** while newer companies are finding ways to get it right. With an eye to the future, we can make this crazy hobby efficient enough to thrive, even in a world of video games and mobile devices. The industry need not cleave to mass market appeal and multimedia cross-promotions. Who wants to cater to those masses anyways… wasn’t that basic deviation from popular pastimes what got us into this hobby in the first place?
Postscript: Oh, and I’m even less informed on the ins and outs of Kickstarter and Patreon, so don’t think that it is omitted out of negligence. I shall revisit it when I feel suitably ready to report on it from my armchair.
**20 years ago. I can feel you getting older from where I sit.
***I’m not qualified to be an economist, but to be fair, neither are most real economists.
**** And if you weren’t, don’t feel bad.
***** No company to date is using pdfs to the extent of their potential. More on that at another time. I sure am making a lot of work for myself.
****** Palladium Books, I’m looking right at you. To be fair though, they have historically kept prices pretty low.