On Production Costs, Digital Media, and Unqualified Soothsaying

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.

The_Simpsons-Jeff_Albertson
My theory? Fans with too much time on their hands.

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.

Businessman Behind Stack of File Folders
Research data can be fun, but not this time.

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).

The_New_York_Times_newsroom_1942
Someday we’ll perfect the art of game design that isn’t by committee. Until then, thank a freelancer.

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.

download (3)
I can wish all I want, but optimism isn’t a force of change.

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.

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I get the feeling that I’ll be getting a lot of mileage out of this picture

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?

knights-vs-samurai-irony-anachronism-versus-ninja-pirate-jes-demotivational-poster-12629763552
Well, that and a desire to find out who would win in a fight between a knight and a samurai. Am I right?

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.

*Making College Textbooks More AffordableMaking College Textbooks More Affordable Part 2,
Student Expenditures as They Relates to Textbook Sales

**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.

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6 thoughts on “On Production Costs, Digital Media, and Unqualified Soothsaying

  1. Ankoku1331 May 12, 2015 / 5:14 pm

    In your opinion, who are the innovators? The ones who are track to keep quality up while lowering prices with an eye towards the future or even now, using digital media for distribution and using it well.

    Like

    • lorathorn May 12, 2015 / 5:21 pm

      I think that indie game publishers are innovators. People like Evil Hat productions in particular are using some (though not all) of pdf capabilities while bigger companies fudge on even simple things such as bookmarking and hyper-linking functions.

      Big companies are more likely to use conventional methods to keep costs low (like Paizo and their subcription model) while newer companies are not plugged into needing or even wanting local game store or chain store presence.

      If we see real innovation, it’s probably going to be from a company that started up less than 5 years ago.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ankoku1331 May 12, 2015 / 5:47 pm

        Any favorites from Evil Hat?

        Like

      • lorathorn May 12, 2015 / 5:53 pm

        FATE mostly, given its simplistic but functional nature, but their Designers and Dragon series is a big inspiration for my current trend in writing on the nature of the industry. I think that they are striving to understand the beast so that they may tame it, lofty as that may seem.

        Like

      • Ankoku1331 May 12, 2015 / 7:38 pm

        At least you have found a company that is trying to move forward instead of staying stuck in amber.

        Like

  2. lorathorn May 12, 2015 / 7:39 pm

    I think you just described the industry at large, but some are worse than others.

    Like

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