Let's talk about printing & shipping RPG books

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
There's some discussion about printing and shipping costs for offset hardcover RPG books going round right now, prompted by WotC's announcement of a price rise for Dungeons & Dragons books, and so I thought I'd share some information about the costs involved.

We (EN Publishing) have printed and shipped books very similar to those produced by WotC--hardcovers, 200-600 pages (depending), full-color, offset print runs. Basically the exact same type of book, quality, binding, etc. Of course, we produce at a much lower scale than WotC--where we might print and ship 2,000 books they print and ship many, many times more; and we're just a tiny publisher, we don't have the clout to get the best deals! I only know what we pay, and have no secret information about WotC's figures, but I figured I'd tell you what the numbers are for us, and you can extrapolate as you wish.

That's where economies of scale come in. Just at the scale we operate at, the per unit cost of printing a book drops drastically depending on how many I print. At 500 units, we might be paying close to $10 per book. At 2000 units it's about $5 per book, give or take, assuming a 230-ish page book (our 600+ page Adventurer's Guide was $7 per book for 5,000 units; our softcover adventure Memories of Holdenshire was about $2 per book for 4,000 units). At the tens of thousands (or more!) of units scale that WotC operates at, it's significantly less. I can't tell you what, but I guarantee they're paying a lot les per unit than we are. Printing costs aren't the biggest cost in making a book!

Here's some printing costs we've paid (very roughly). Note we added ribbons to the hardcovers.

Book size500 units1000 units2000 units4000 units5000 units
230 page hardcover$10 per book$8 per book$5 per book
600 page hardcover$7 per book
370 page hardcover$5 per book
120 page softcover$2 per book

Depending where you get your books printed, the price may vary a bit. We print in the EU. In China, it's cheaper, and in the US it's a little more expensive. But what you save on printing, you might pay more for in shipping, and shipping costs are very high right now.

(As a fun side exercise, the same books done via print-on-demand at premium quality are $40 for the 230-page hardcover, $93 for the 600 page hardcover, $60 for the 370 page hardcover, and $20 for the 120 page softcover; as you can see, PoD prices are many times those of offset printing because your economy of scale is '1'.)

Once the books are printed, they'll be sitting at the printer on a bunch of pallets in big piles. Those pallets of books need to go to distribution hubs--your warehouse, perhaps, or a fulfillment partner's warehouse, or Amazon, or a distributor. Depending on where you are printing and where your warehouses are (and for WotC, one assumes various areas globally) that will involve overseas freight shipping by boat. For us, we had to send a bunch of pallets of books by ship from Europe to the US, and a bunch by truck from Europe to us in the UK. It ain't cheap! We paid about $2 per unit in the end for Dungeon Delver's Guide. Depending where WotC prints, there will be transatlantic shipping to Europe, possible across the Pacific from China, or shipping from the US to other locations around the world. When we print and ship from China, it costs us probably 2-3 times as much or more in shipping, and that cost fluctuates a lot right now, especially over the last 3 years.

That gets some big piles of printed books into warehouses. Then, of course, you need to get them to customers, stores, and so on.

A distributor will often handle the next bit. They'll take around 50% of the cover price of the book. I don't know what arrangements WotC has, but I expect they're better than those that small publishers like us get. Still, it's a big chunk of the RRP. So for a $50 book, very very roughly, the distributor gets $25, you pay, say, $5 in production and shipping (likely much less if you're printing at the scale of WotC), leaving you with $20. Of course, those are not the only costs in making a book--that's just one cost out of many. A lot of stuff has to come out of that remaining $20!
 
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ART!

Deluxe Unhuman
I work in printing (for a state university system), so I might be able to answer some questions usefully.

A couple things that will affect pricing are paper (aka stock, aka media) choices, binding choices, and if your interior pages are full bleed (printing that goes all the way to the edge of the final product). Full bleed costs more, because it requires printing on larger sheets and then cutting down to the final size. Most covers you see are printed full bleed.
 
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Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
@Morrus, how much cost do ribbon bookmarks add? They're incredibly common in books published by smaller publishers -- and I always appreciate them -- and I'm genuinely confused why WotC doesn't include them. Are they a significant cost upgrade? And if so, what made you include them?

Secondarily, do you have any estimates on how much more expensive printed end pages are? I see a lot of non-WotC publishers either putting extra art there or useful tables, and it always strikes me as wasted space when publishers don't print something there, but I have no idea if it's a prohibitive cost.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
@Morrus, how much cost do ribbon bookmarks add? They're incredibly common in books published by smaller publishers -- and I always appreciate them -- and I'm genuinely confused why WotC doesn't include them. Are they a significant cost upgrade? And if so, what made you include them?
Not a massive amount. I don't recall the exact number, but it was an amount which made us think it was a no-brainer.
Secondarily, do you have any estimates on how much more expensive printed end pages are? I see a lot of non-WotC publishers either putting extra art there or useful tables, and it always strikes me as wasted space when publishers don't print something there, but I have no idea if it's a prohibitive cost.
By end page do you mean the inside cover? Not offhand, I'd have to ask our printer.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
By end page do you mean the inside cover? Not offhand, I'd have to ask our printer.
The paper glued to the inside covers that typically are also a separate page before the content of the book starts. If they're not printed on, they're often in a different color from the rest of the book, to make it look a little dressed-up.
 

TheSword

Legend
The paper glued to the inside covers that typically are also a separate page before the content of the book starts. If they're not printed on, they're often in a different color from the rest of the book, to make it look a little dressed-up.
WFRP do some amazing end papers. Often printing full colour maps in between the
covers. Love that level of detail!
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
WFRP do some amazing end papers. Often printing full colour maps in between the
covers. Love that level of detail!
Over on the OSR side, both Shadowdark and The Monster Overhaul are using that space for the charts that need to be consulted most often in both books, saving DMs unnecessary page-flipping.

Use every bit of useful space!
 

darjr

I crit!
From @Dyson Logos. If he's right, Shannon Appelcline notes that the 2023 books are a drop from the 2014.

MSRP in 2022 USD
Each is for the complete rules set at the time, but no supplements. Boxed sets where available.
1974 OD&D - $61.53
1977 Holmes Basic - $25.03
1979 AD&D1e - $113.39
1981 B/X D&D - $60.12
1983 BECMI D&D - $183
1989 AD&D2e - $142.10
1991 Rules Cyclopedia - $55.75
2000 D&D3e - $158.40 *
2003 D&D3.5 - $143.10
2008 D&D4e - $148.05
2014 D&D5e - $192
2023 D&D5e - $180
* This is the MSRP after the loss-leader first print run that they sold at $20 per book - the first print price was $105.60 in 2022 USD.
Rules Cyclopedia remains the best "bang for the buck"
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
From @Dyson Logos. If he's right, Shannon Appelcline notes that the 2023 books are a drop from the 2014.

MSRP in 2022 USD
Each is for the complete rules set at the time, but no supplements. Boxed sets where available.
1974 OD&D - $61.53
1977 Holmes Basic - $25.03
1979 AD&D1e - $113.39
1981 B/X D&D - $60.12
1983 BECMI D&D - $183
1989 AD&D2e - $142.10
1991 Rules Cyclopedia - $55.75
2000 D&D3e - $158.40 *
2003 D&D3.5 - $143.10
2008 D&D4e - $148.05
2014 D&D5e - $192
2023 D&D5e - $180
* This is the MSRP after the loss-leader first print run that they sold at $20 per book - the first print price was $105.60 in 2022 USD.
Rules Cyclopedia remains the best "bang for the buck"
Yup, $50 in 2014 is $63 now, so the new pricing isn't even keeping pace with inflation numbers.
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
From @Dyson Logos. If he's right, Shannon Appelcline notes that the 2023 books are a drop from the 2014.

MSRP in 2022 USD
Each is for the complete rules set at the time, but no supplements. Boxed sets where available.
1974 OD&D - $61.53
1977 Holmes Basic - $25.03
1979 AD&D1e - $113.39
1981 B/X D&D - $60.12
1983 BECMI D&D - $183
1989 AD&D2e - $142.10
1991 Rules Cyclopedia - $55.75
2000 D&D3e - $158.40 *
2003 D&D3.5 - $143.10
2008 D&D4e - $148.05
2014 D&D5e - $192
2023 D&D5e - $180
* This is the MSRP after the loss-leader first print run that they sold at $20 per book - the first print price was $105.60 in 2022 USD.
Rules Cyclopedia remains the best "bang for the buck"

What is "2023 D&D5e"? There is no new core books in 2023. Is this just what the 2014 5e core books are "worth" in 2022 USD? Because that ought to be exactly the same as the 2014 books in 2014! They're the same books at the same price!
 

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