Old D&D books as print-on-demand is a great idea that will never happen




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  1. #1
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    Old D&D books as print-on-demand is a great idea that will never happen

    A little while ago there was a reposting of a Dear Wizards of the Coast blog post which said, in the form of a truly huge wall o' text, that WotC should take up a print-on-demand publishing model for their previous edition materials.

    Now, we've all heard people making the case for WotC to do this. Hell, I did it myself in my own love letter to WotC thread. Since then, though, I've been thinking about some of the few things we know for certain about how WotC operates, about how print-on-demand (and PDF) publishing work, and I've come to a conclusion.

    Print-on-demand would be good for the community, and WotC in the long run. But it'd be bad for WotC in the short run, and that's why they'll never do it.

    Let's look at what we know. Rick Marshall, who worked at WotC for some time (including when the transition to Hasbro happened) mentions that Third Edition D&D was originally structured as a loss leader to initially grow the community.

    Quote Originally Posted by Rick Marshall
    By the time third edition was released, I doubt Peter seriously thought D&D would become a big money-maker for Wizards in the future. Certainly, in the present he treated it as a loss leader designed to strengthen the RPG community. The game store bled money, and Peter was fine with that; he thought of it as a well-deserved thank you to RPG players.

    When the Hasbro financial folks got a look at the bottom lines for D&D and the game stores, they were appalled at the money Wizards was losing to support D&D - but these are the sorts of decisions most accountants and MBAs cannot comprehend. From our perspective it made perfect sense, since the income from Magic: The Gathering was enough for Wizards's needs (a sentence that must sound like gibberish to a bean counter, I'm sure - what is this word, "enough").
    Now, let's look at what (admittedly little) we can surmise about print-on-demand publishing. The conventional knowledge is that it's a modest start-up cost, and then you sit back and let the money trickle in until you've turned a profit under the long tail. So what's the problem?

    Well, the problem is that this "modest start-up" cost is not inconsiderable. As others have pointed out, print-on-demand products still require the printing materials (e.g. printing plates), but there's a very real possibility that WotC doesn't have said materials for some (quite possibly a lot) of the older materials. In that case, having access to printed copies or old PDFs doesn't matter - new printing plates have to be made, and that takes time and money, especially if there is a lot of material that has to be set up again in this manner.

    There's also a question of the older artwork, in terms of who legally still owns it. This may not be a problem, especially since WotC was selling PDF copies of their old materials without any lawsuits being filed (that we know of). Still, it's something that they'd have to at least look into; time and money, again.

    We won't even get into the issues with non-standard printed materials, like poster maps.

    Further, it's not enough to just make those materials available and not say anything - this service then needs to be advertized, and that's a continuous cost. You have to get the word out, particularly to older and lapsed players who may not check the WotC website or EN World much, if at all. You've got to make at least a modest effort to make sure people know that these old books are available, and that's an investment.

    Incidentally, even PDF publishing is not immune to some of these not-so-minor costs. Yes, WotC sold PDFs before, but I recall some complaints about the nature of those scans...because that's what they were, scans. They often weren't optimized for PDF format, lacked bookmarks and hyperlinks, and weren't given Optical Character Recognition. All of those things take time and effort, which is money.

    Let's take a sharp turn here to what Ryan Dancey has told us about how Hasbro has structured WotC and set their annual sales targets.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ryan Dancey
    Sometime around 2005ish, Hasbro made an internal decision to divide its businesses into two categories. Core brands, which had more than $50 million in annual sales, and had a growth path towards $100 million annual sales, and Non-Core brands, which didn't.

    [...]

    Core Brands would get the financing they requested for development of their businesses (within reason). Non-Core brands would not. They would be allowed to rise & fall with the overall toy market on their own merits without a lot of marketing or development support. In fact, many Non-Core brands would simply be mothballed - allowed to go dormant for some number of years until the company was ready to take them down off the shelf and try to revive them for a new generation of kids.

    At the point of the original Hasbro/Wizards merger a fateful decision was made that laid the groundwork for what happened once Greg took over. Instead of focusing Hasbro on the idea that Wizards of the Coast was a single brand, each of the lines of business in Wizards got broken out and reported to Hasbro as a separate entity. This was driven in large part by the fact that the acquisition agreement specified a substantial post-acquisition purchase price adjustment for Wizards' shareholders on the basis of the sales of non-Magic CCGs (i.e. Pokemon).

    This came back to haunt Wizards when Hasbro's new Core/Non-Core strategy came into focus. Instead of being able to say "We're a $100+ million brand, keep funding us as we desire", each of the business units inside Wizards had to make that case separately. So the first thing that happened was the contraction you saw when Wizards dropped new game development and became the "D&D and Magic" company. Magic has no problem hitting the "Core" brand bar, but D&D does. It's really a $25-30 million business, especially since Wizards isn't given credit for the licensing revenue of the D&D computer games.
    So this gives us a peek into the corporate mindset among the D&D team at WotC - that they're perpetually behind the eight ball. They need to make at least $50 million annually - not counting any licensing revenue from the computer/video games - or face the very real possibility that all of D&D will be shut down and they'll all be looking for new jobs (or, I suppose, transferred elsewhere).

    This mad drive to increase revenue is, incidentally, the reason we see the annual layoffs at WotC. As Jeff Grubb once blogged about, there's a reason this happens (almost) every Christmas.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Grubb
    So they pass out the budgets for next year and now the departments have to plan. Yeah, some of that planning involves going back and telling the guys with the budgets that this makes no sense and sometimes that works. More often it involves figuring out what goes overboard in order to jack up profitability.

    [...]

    But much of the time, it comes down to manpower reduction. Layoffs. And if you're talking about a creative industry with a in-house creative staff (a rarity, by the way), that will involve removing some of the same talent that has gotten you there in the first place.

    [...]

    OK, fine, but why Christmas? Because corporations also drag their feet. Inertia is a powerful thing, particularly when you have do something rotten like deciding who gets shown the door. So things go through a lot more processes than they intend. So if your budgetary process starts in June with the end of Fiscal in December, and you try to find some way to make the numbers work without canning someone, you wait for it. Maybe things will work out. And when they don't you have to make the tough decisions late in the year. Multiply that desire and hope against all the layers involved in the task of removing people and you can see why it happens so late in the year. Merry Christmas.
    So what does all of this have to do with loss leaders and long tails? In short, everything.

    It's likely self-evident by this point, but if you look at the idea of "setting up a loss leader that will cost us a fair amount of money this year, and over the next several years, that will eventually have a chance of growing the community and thus increasing our revenue," and compare that to having to work under extremely difficult annual projections that force you to maximize profits each year, you can start to see why those two positions aren't compatible.

    Imagine being the guy who makes this pitch at the next meeting among WotC staff. Imagine telling people that you think they should enact a plan that will absolutely cost them money - and thus, jobs - over the next five years or so before, you hope, it begins to turn a profit. How much support is that idea likely to get from your colleagues? Even if you're willing to lose your job over the ensuing budget cuts to pay for this idea, how many of your co-workers are going to feel the same? For that matter, does your idea even have more of a chance of bringing in revenue than other short-term ideas that can be implemented right now without (as big of) a loss?

    This is why, ultimately, I think that WotC will likely never embrace a print-on-demand model for their older books. I suspect it also had something to do with the demise of their pay-for-download PDFs, and how we haven't seen anything in that front in several years now (though there are likely other factors at work where the PDFs are concerned). Ultimately, the immediate money issues are an insurmountable barrier, at least under the current conditions that the D&D Team has to operate under.

    I'd love to see older D&D materials that you could print-on-demand. I think it'd be good for the hobby, and good for WotC, over the long term. But the short term costs are too much for them to bear.
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  • #2
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    ° Ignore dagger
    I still don't see how selling old stuff is bad for wizards. They might get some money out of people who would never normally buy anything from them anyway.
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  • #3
    Yeah, I don't quite get the attitude either. Having now self-published in both eBook and print-on-demand form, I can attest that the investment to get that capability is pretty minimal. I'm not sure what the down side really is for WotC, as it's essentially free income with minimal initial investment and no sustainment cost.
    "The Soul of D&D? It's rolling a natural 20 when you're down to 3 hit points and the cleric's on the floor and you're staring that sunnavabitch bugbear right in his bloodshot eye and holding the line just long enough to let the wizard unleash a fireball at the guards who are on their way, because they're all that stands between you, the Foozle and Glory." - WizarDru

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    ° Ignore jadrax
    Quote Originally Posted by dagger View Post
    I still don't see how selling old stuff is bad for wizards. They might get some money out of people who would never normally buy anything from them anyway.
    It depends how old. Selling 4th and 3rd ed is probably viable. Earlier than that and the costs are probably going to outweigh the sales income at this point in time.

    It's not like they have a big folder on a computer somewhere with every 1st and 2nd edition source book on it, a lot of these they will be putting together from scratch.

  • #5
    I would have thought that 4e has taught WotC that focusing on short-term profits and alienating the core audience is a bad idea.

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    ° Ignore Marius Delphus
    4E has taught WOTC, among other things, that nobody at Hasbro is committed to keeping D&D alive if it doesn't meet its financial targets. So I find the OP's argument convincing -- this means nobody at WOTC is likely to authorize spending the money to get a POD thing going.
    ŚMarius

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    ° Ignore DEFCON 1
    The other obvious problem is that you can still pick up all kinds of old D&D material used on Amazon for anywhere from $5.00 to $20.00 bucks. Anyone who wants to play D&D from any era can get whichever rules they want fairly cheaply. Print on Demand isn't so much better than just buying used.

    If you can pick up a 1st edition AD&D Player's Handbook for $6.50 and shipping... that pretty much tells us that supply FAR outweighs demand. And going through the effort to set up any kind of PoD service is probably just not worth it.

    Even for things like modules... you can get the original Keep On The Borderlands used for $16 right now. What is PoD going to give you? And how will that ever help WotC?

  • #8
    I'm in the process of digitizing my own RCD&D materials. I can come up with a pretty decent PDF with vector fonts (thank you Acrobat Clearscan) for the investment of about $20, previous camera equipment, and a couple hours of time. (And the cardboard box book scanner from Instructables.Admittedly, I haven't conquered the poster maps yet.

    The quality I'm generating is better than the PDFs that TSR/Wizards sold as ESDs and cheaper to make. Technology has progressed that rapidly. They're definitely good enough to ship to Lulu or DTRPG as print on demand.

    It's definitely at the point that you can do a cash outlay of $1k and bring on an intern for the summer and get an awful lot of good output. WotC may decide not to do it, but that speaks more to the inefficiency of their organization than the difficulty of the task.

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    ° Ignore Hussar
    Quote Originally Posted by Alan Shutko View Post
    I'm in the process of digitizing my own RCD&D materials. I can come up with a pretty decent PDF with vector fonts (thank you Acrobat Clearscan) for the investment of about $20, previous camera equipment, and a couple hours of time. (And the cardboard box book scanner from Instructables.Admittedly, I haven't conquered the poster maps yet.

    The quality I'm generating is better than the PDFs that TSR/Wizards sold as ESDs and cheaper to make. Technology has progressed that rapidly. They're definitely good enough to ship to Lulu or DTRPG as print on demand.

    It's definitely at the point that you can do a cash outlay of $1k and bring on an intern for the summer and get an awful lot of good output. WotC may decide not to do it, but that speaks more to the inefficiency of their organization than the difficulty of the task.
    You're not going to get an intern to do this - you're going to have to have some oversight for quality control. Trusting some 20 year old kid to do this is not something most companies are going to do. Plus, you're overlooking the biggest cost - the lawyers. Every single product would have to be checked that WOTC owns the copyrights to all the art.

    You're looking at trying to track down artists from fifteen or twenty years ago, when you've got a contact list that's a decade out of date. And you're paying the lawyer about 300 dollars an hour.

    There's a reason we cannot buy the Dragon Compendium CD Roms anymore. They got spanked for doing that.

    I don't think people quite realize just how much material we're talking about here. We're talking about thousands and thousands of man hours to go through the lists, checking every single image.

    Because if you screw up just one, you get to spend thousands and thousands MORE dollars on a lawsuit because some artist decides to sue you for copyright violation.
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    ° Ignore Stormonu
    Hussar brings up some big points.

    And then there is also the fact that some of this stuff is just junk no one is going to buy. Sure, I6 - Ravenloft is going to have a good following, but who is really going to want to pay for The Forest Oracle?

    I really think it would be to WotC's benefit, if they were to do this, to have a kickstarter-like program for the scans. If the items don't hit a pre-reserve scale large enough to be worth the time/cost, that item's scan isn't updated/re-released.
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