Atoms versus Electrons: eBooks and Roleplaying Games (Part 1)
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  • Atoms versus Electrons: eBooks and Roleplaying Games (Part 1)


    Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press talks about the tabletop roleplyaing game industry again. Simon previously wrote an article on the economics of RPG book production for EN World; this time around he's addressing eBooks (for the purposes of this article ebook includes the dominant PDF format, together with epub, mobi or similar formats for displaying RPG content.) "[When] I’ve finished speculating who actually would win, atoms or electrons (it’s electrons), I’ll explore the history of the ebook in roleplaying, then then in the next part, move on to some tasty data served with a side dish of speculation."

    Atoms versus Electrons: eBooks and Roleplaying Games (Part 1)

    At Gen Con this year I met Mark Morrison, owner of Campaign Coins, sponsors of this year’s ENnie awards, and creator of the best-looking ENnie medal to date.



    He was insistent on a meeting in person, and I soon discovered why. He dropped a bag full of dwarven tower coins he’d created on to the table in front of me – they landed with satisfying heavy chink of metal - a more effective demonstration of the physicality of his product than any email. They were beautiful and stackable. I spent the whole meeting playing with them, and we ended up agreeing that he would make icon tokens for 13th Age. He told me that Allen Varney, one of the Dying Earth team, had told him “Mark, you want to get out of atoms and into electrons!”



    I love physical books; casebound books with smythe-sewn spines, shiny opaque china paper, paperbacks with matt covers and smooth ivory paper or linen-covered board with gilt and embossing. I love my original battered copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide with its yellow end sheets and exposed signatures. Then, the other day, though, I caught myself touching an entry in a table of contents in a printed Word document, with the momentary expectation it would jump to the right page, and frustration that it did not. I love the ease of storing and searching ebooks, their modest price and the immediacy. So, electrons vs atoms, who would win?

    Now that I’ve finished speculating who actually would win, atoms or electrons (it’s electrons), I’ll explore the history of the ebook in roleplaying, then then in the next part, move on to some tasty data served with a side dish of speculation.

    So, which was the earliest ebook roleplaying game? Shannon Appelcline (Designers and Dragons) tells me that the FUDGE rpg was made available free online in 1993, and then in 1996:

    "Hero Games was supporting fourth edition Hero itself through “Hero Plus.” Here they broke new ground by distributing their books in a brand-new form called PDF — years before that was a buzzword. This first book, The Ultimate Super Mage — released in September after seven months of delay — was a completely new release. Others would be classic reprints. In all, Hero would print over 20 electronic Hero System PDFs. For the particularly savvy, the PDFs were available from Hero’s website, but for the rest of the world, they could be purchased on floppy disk from local game stores or at conventions."

    Ron Edwards was emailing the text of his game Sorcerer as shareware, and gamers sent him money and checks through the post on a pay-what-you-want basis.

    But there are other challengers for the title first commercial ebook RPG. In 1996, the earliest snapshot I can find on the Internet Archive, Terry Austins’ hyperbooks.com was already selling roleplaying supplements by Robert Kuntz, for download in text, Acrobat and HTML format. In February 1996, Jeff Dee tells me he sent Terry Austin the Word file for the Quicksilver RPG and it appeared on Hyperbooks in PDF form. It was priced at $6 for as 69-page book – close on $9 in modern terms. Was this the first RPG PDF on sale?

    OneBookShelf

    Ebook publishing really took off with the release of the d20 license and the huge demand it generated. James Mathe founded RPGNow.com in 2001, which brought ebook sales to roleplayers in to the mainstream, and Monte Cook showed how successful PDF sales could be, and that they could have high production values. The instant gratification of these sales allowed impulse purchasing of modestly-priced PDF-only supplements and games from a host of new publishers, and gave publishers their first taste of the long tail - the steady trickle of low-maintenance sales of older books.

    RPGNow and newcomer DriveThruRPG.com merged to form OneBookShelf, and with their exclusive publishers such as White Wolf and large user-base, they created an unstoppable juggernaut in the ebook market – they have a greater share of their market than any mainstream equivalent.

    When they decreased their publisher margins after the merger, there was an abortive attempt to set up a rival company YourGamesNow.com which sponsored the ENnie Awards in 2007, but OBS’s dominance was too much and they folded. They currently offer 70% of takings to exclusive publishers; 65% to non-exclusive publishers. In 2013, Pelgrane sales of ebooks outside direct sales were such that we would have made more money going exclusive, and while that has swing back little, I feel that supporting Indie Press Revolution (disclosure – I have shares) and other ebook stores helps them, us and the market in general. However, it makes perfect sense for most publishers to go exclusive with OBS.

    OBS now also offers Print on Demand, a program which has grown, so clearly the demand for physical books continues and OBS want a taste of that, too. They are fulfilling the business model their name promises: One Bookshelf to Rule Them All, indeed.

    Overall, though, OBS has been a huge boon to roleplayers and publishers, forging a new market and offering good service to customers, amusing and grabby site-wide marketing and excellent data tools for publishers. OBS has also been great for Pelgrane’s bottom line, and Matt McElroy and his team are professional, accommodating, and a pleasure to work with.

    eBook Bundling and Bits and Mortar

    Pelgrane Press started bundling eBooks free with the print books for direct sale in 2005, but I can’t believe we were innovators. So, where did this leave our stalwart bricks and mortar retailers? At a competitive disadvantage! To level things out, Pelgrane and other companies had been giving ebook copies to retail customers who asked us; and some publishers experimented with putting voucher stickers in books (Cortex) allowing free download. Fred Hicks of Evil Hat was the driving force in persuading forward-looking retailers to join the ebook revolution. In 2010, with the Dresden Files launch, he offered retailers the chance to give pre-order PDFs to their customers and that lead to discussions with other publishers such as Arc Dream, Cubicle 7 and Pelgrane Press and the founding of Bits and Mortar – a trust-based system which allows retailers to give their print customers generally DRM-free ebooks. Retailers signed up now number in the hundreds, and I am making a concerted effort to get many more signed up by the end of the year. We still regularly supply ebooks to end-users whose FLGS has not signed up, and we aim to change this.

    The Bundle of Holding

    In 2013, Allen Varney launched The Bundle of Holding, bringing the Humble Bundle software model to roleplaying ebooks. Customers pay a fraction of the retail price to get a bundle of roleplaying ebooks, or pay more to get bonus books. This model is only possible because of the ease and simplicity of delivering digital content. Allen Varney asked if we would like to participate. This was a scary prospect for me. First, would our existing customers think it was fair? Would it affect our future sales? Would it cheapen our brand? With this very much in mind, we launched the GUMSHOE Bundle of Holding. We emailed existing customers who had everything already with a voucher, and we also did something for people who had recently bought any of the games in the bundle, and I looked with trepidation at the data.

    The bundle was a great success in sales terms, though I don’t have data on how many people actually download and open their ebooks. I’ve examined post-bundle sales very carefully, and I’ve seen no evidence that it affects future sales except in the very short term.

    When I looked at the data, I found half of the customers of Bundles in which we have participated have bought one or more previous bundles of any kind; 40% were existing Pelgrane customers, presumably completing their collections. And 10% become customers and went on to order directly from us online.

    OBS stepped in to take over the heavy lifting for downloads, and as another benefit, now customers' bundle ebooks appear on their OBS bookshelves. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed customers picking up physical books at Gen Con, when they first saw the book in a Bundle. We’ve sold over 4000 bundles, and in 2014, our bundle revenue was 80% of our OBS revenue. I am particularly pleased with the interest in our novels, music and The Dying Earth.



    So what’s the downside? Bundles rely on a large back catalog of quality games, and repeated bundles bring diminishing returns, so mush be treated carefully - I wouldn’t let a new product near a bundle.

    Now

    So, with the large exception of Kickstarter this leaves us here and now. Next time I’ll look the effect of crowdfunding, and punch down into some historical data to find some trends and find out Atoms vs Electrons – Who Would Win?
    Comments 11 Comments
    1. Leatherhead's Avatar
      Leatherhead -
      I'm just waiting on eBookware to become the new standard.

      That is an ebook with all the bells and whistles (like hypertext, widescreen or mobile screen formatting, and navigation tools) with a few other quality of life tools like a character generator and dice roller baked in to them. Some sort of hybrid not-quite-videogame application.

      Because, seriously, most PDFs are just printer templates for physical books that happen to be more useful than a normal book thanks to the copy/paste and search functions of a PDF reader, and the portability of data. Most Publishers don't really exploit all of the tools of the medium to begin with.
    1. mykesfree's Avatar
      mykesfree -
      E-books in the wider book market has slowed down in a major way. (Due to Enworld rules I can not post a link, but check out ICV2.com)
      E-Comic Books are still finding their way and posting some growth, but not tremendous.

      For RPGs I would say Electrons have a good chance of catching on more than the regular book market due to the lack of stores that carry RPG product. The other side of RPGs is the technical or rules nature of the product. It also easier to reference as an e-product then to read for story information.
    1. jimmifett's Avatar
      jimmifett -
      I personally don't like reading ebooks for long periods of time. For reference sure, but not for relaxing reading. Give me a dead tree any day, esp if bound up in cow skin.
    1. Barantor's Avatar
      Barantor -
      Quote Originally Posted by jimmifett View Post
      I personally don't like reading ebooks for long periods of time. For reference sure, but not for relaxing reading. Give me a dead tree any day, esp if bound up in cow skin.
      I used to be that way till I bought a smaller tablet that is about the size of a height and width of a paperback. Now I can lay in bed, reading or skimming through a book that in physical form I would have to sit up and read since it only comes in a hardbound large size format that most RPG books tend to be.

      This isn't to say I've given up completely on paper, but I reserve that mostly for sales or when my local games store has it at a good price.

      Some old books this is especially nice for. I have nice quality ebook versions of old books that have seen better days and can't handle the abuse of much more gaming.
    1. Scrivener of Doom's Avatar
      Scrivener of Doom -
      I never thought I would say/type this, but I've become an electrons-guy for almost all of my reading. Like you, @Barantor, buying a smaller tablet - a Google Nexus - was the catalyst for basically switching over (practically) all my reading to ebooks.

      RPGs really started me on this track when I started filling out the missing bits of my FR collection with the first batch of PDFs some 15 or so years ago and the realisation, "Wow, I can search these!"

      I still enjoy a real book, but they simply cannot compete with the convenience of being able to read anywhere and also when the lights are off. Also, living in a Third World country where electricity can be unreliable, it's nice to know that even if I cannot charge the Nexus, I've still got a solid 4 hours I can read it at night.
    1. orangefruitbat's Avatar
      orangefruitbat -
      For people with a smaller tablet - how do they do with gaming PDFs versus full-size tablets? I definitely can see the appeal of small, lighter devices when reading novels and the like, but I'd be concerned that they would be less than optimal when dealing with RPGs formatted in three columns plus sidebars.
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      I prefer reading for enjoyment an actual paper book, but for RPGs I'm loving PDFs - they are my preferred medium. For example, I run 13th Age and have bought everything through Pelgrane/Kickstarter so I have PDFs even of the physical books. (Some were physical & PDF, some PDF only.) I've also bought other RPGs they publish like Dresden Files through my FLGS and used Bits and Mortar. Being able to search, and copy-paste when prepping for sessions is such a time saver. Using hyperlinked index or search function to look up a rule during a game is also fantastic.
    1. RichGreen's Avatar
      RichGreen -
      Really interesting stuff - thanks for posting!

      I work in ebooks and love the convenience of a lightweight eReader when I'm travelling or commuting, but I still love print books too. If a novel or non-fiction book is by a favourite author or is illustrated or beautifully produced, I like to have a print copy to go on my overflowing bookshelves; for everything else, I buy ebooks. For comics, I've gone completely digital and read via Comixology on my iPad. I haven't got the space at home to add to the boxes of comics I bought in the early 90s!

      RPGs are a bit different - I love a big hardback RPG book like Eyes of the Stone Thief, Southlands, or the 5e core rulebooks but the convenience of being able to reference hundreds of PDFs on an iPad while gaming is brilliant. Pelgrane's approach gives me the best of both worlds.

      I also buy lots of PDFs through drivethrurpg.com, including short PDF-only supplements and adventures, old D&D classics, and new games I'm interested in reading that are on offer but I might not get round to playing. If I like something enough, I'll pick up the print copy later on. I've bought a few Bundles of Holding too - they offer amazing value. As a publisher, I included my book Parsantium: City at the Crossroads in a recent Bundle of Holding, and was very happy with the results.

      My main issue now is finding time to actually READ all the great stuff I've bought and maybe even use some of it in a game

      Cheers


      Rich
    1. Scrivener of Doom's Avatar
      Scrivener of Doom -
      Quote Originally Posted by orangefruitbat View Post
      For people with a smaller tablet - how do they do with gaming PDFs versus full-size tablets? I definitely can see the appeal of small, lighter devices when reading novels and the like, but I'd be concerned that they would be less than optimal when dealing with RPGs formatted in three columns plus sidebars.
      If I am reading in portrait, I just expand the material so that a column fits in the screen. (That doesn't address the sidebar issue, of course.)

      If I have had a busy day in front of my laptop, my eyesight isn't particularly good at night so I just turn the tablet to landscape and blow everything up even more.

      When I am DMing, I have the tablet as back-up but I prefer to use the laptop to look things up in-game mainly because I connect it up to a large screen which make reading so much easier. However, I run 4E so all I really need is the DM's screen for conditions, my stat blocks, and a hard copy of the Rules Compendium for that once-in-a-session rules question. Running 5E worked differently because I had to look up spells.
    1. mflayermonk -
      Multiple columns is a pain in the rear. And ebooks are stuck with vestigial crap like margins. Battery life sucks, you need a backup battery to put in 10 hours at a con. ERPGbooks still have a long way to go.
    1. aramis erak's Avatar
      aramis erak -
      Quote Originally Posted by mflayermonk View Post
      Multiple columns is a pain in the rear. And ebooks are stuck with vestigial crap like margins. Battery life sucks, you need a backup battery to put in 10 hours at a con. ERPGbooks still have a long way to go.
      A PDF unlocker will allow you to use Briss* to remove the margins from a PDF. I use it on the AL adventure downloads before booklet printing them in acrobat...

      * or equivalent.
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