A couple of weeks ago, word started spreading that Wizards of the Coast was putting old TSR material into their print on demand program. I decided to look into some of the offerings and see what was up, From there, this expanded into a general "State of the Print on Demand" piece for the OneBookShelf sites. Over the last month or so I have picked up a number of the print on demand (PoD) titles from the site.
PoD gets a rough time sometimes, but I don't think that people realize 1) how long games have been done by print on demand methods, or 2) what any of it really means, or the impact that it has had on the viability of allowing role-playing game publishers to be able to continue to produce books. I think that the first PoD RPG book that I purchased would have been the first printing of Evil Hat's breakthrough Fate game, Spirit of the Century, back around 2006 or so. I could be misremembering that this book was print on demand, but if I'm wrong I'm sure someone will pop up about that.
In the early 2000s I worked at a small print shop in Cleveland, Ohio, and my job there was being an "electronic print specialist," or some other made up job title. What I basically did was print on demand work. The underlying idea is that publishers can save money by using methods other than traditional offset printing to produce books as needed, rather than making and having to pay for large print runs and having storage costs. Using electronic printing methods you could make books on demand, and fulfill orders as they are made. This means that the costs of storage are eliminated, and publishers don't have to have the upfront costs to produce a print run of books (which can run from the thousands to the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on what is being produced).
This can mean high per unit prices, because most of the cost breaks in printing are figured by volume. However, if you aren't going to ever be able to sell 5,000 or 10,000 copies of your fancy new core rule book, those price breaks for volume aren't going to help you much in the long run. Technology advances have also helped to bring down prices. After about ten years of PoD having hit the mainstream of print production, many of the costs have come down and the quality has increased dramatically. People probably have books done up with PoD on their bookshelves right now (from novels to gaming books) that they bought in stores and don't realize that how they were made.
One thing to remember, that a lot of people who have never worked in commercial printing don't realize, is that print production and bindery are two different processes that lead to the making of a book. It is a myth that the only bindery option for PoD books is "perfect binding," which is basically gluing the books pages into a cover. The bindery options are determined by the printer, not the process of printing. If a printer does higher end bindery finishing (like stitching the pages together in addition to gluing them into the cover) they can use those same options regardless of how the pages are printed.
There's a reason why it is called "print" on demand, rather than production on demand. I am also not going to spend time talking about bindery processes in the article.
So, after that overly long introduction, I will now drag this article back to OneBookShelf and their PoD offerings.
The specific books that I will be talking about include the Ravenloft II module for AD&D (and originally published by TSR) and Scourge of the Sword Coast, both from Wizards of the Coast, The Nightmares Underneath by Johnstone Metzger, and from White Wolf/Onyx Path, the Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition and the supplements Ghouls & Revenants and Dead Names, Red List. Back earlier in the year, I picked up a copy of the revised Werewolf: The Apocalypse for a game that I was playing in at the time, so I might mention that as well.
The Wizards of the Coast books are both soft cover, while the others are all hard covers. The Ravenloft II module and The Nightmares Underneath are black and white prints (the Ravenloft II module is produced from a scanned image, while The Nightmares Underneath comes from an original electronic file), while the other books are full color. I don't know what the difference is between the binding process that the Lightning Source printers use to produce the hard cover books for OneBookShelf, as opposed to the similarly perfect bound, glued hardbacks made by the printers at Lulu.com, but I have had much better luck with the quality of the hard cover books that I have purchased through OneBookShelf than I have with Lulu.com. Anymore, I only purchase soft covers through Lulu.com, and try to get hardbacks from OneBookShelf.
For having been printed from a scanned file, the quality of the Ravenloft II module is much better than I expected that it would be. The text is solid, and the quality of the images (both line art and the other images) is very good. The scanning on the cover image is good, too. The one fault, which is unfortunately a shortcoming of the PoD process, is that the reproduction of the area map isn't at the same size that it was in the original module. There are also some cards with text that needs to be read aloud reproduced in the back of the book, and the scanning on these colored cards is not as good as the black and white scanning, making them harder to read. Perhaps if they are rescanned as line art, or text, and the color backgrounds are done away with, it will make them easier to read.
The Nightmares Underneath is very well printed. The grays used throughout the book are subtle, and you can differentiate between the different tints easily. This is just a gorgeous artifact of a book, and demonstrates the strengths of the PoD technology, and how it can be used as an equalizer between the larger publishers in gaming, and the indie, self-publishers. If you didn't order this book directly, you probably would never realize that it was made via print on demand, instead of offset printing.
The Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary book is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it is huge, coming in at 518+ pages. Second, it mixes black and white and color printing, so we get to see the differences between the two processes, often on the same page. Producing a monster of a book this size would be challenging, and costly for a traditionally offset printed book. Many of the advantages to the scale of production would likely end up being eaten up just by the size of the book. Could it be made through offset printing? Sure, but I don't know that it would be the optimal method of production.
This doesn't mean that there aren't hiccups in quality. For example, the color text "logos" for some of the clans in the book aren't as crisp as they might be in a book that was offset printed. The reproduction of the art is high quality. Everything from the black and white line art, to the grays of the grayscale art and the colors of the color art are vivid and well-produced. Much like with The Nightmares Underneath, if you saw this book on the shelves of your local gaming store (and it is available to distribution through Indie Press Revolution if you work for a gaming store) you probably wouldn't realize that it wasn't "traditionally" printed. It is the same with Ghouls & Revenants and Dead Names, Red List. The print quality on these supplements is excellent. All three of these books use full bleeds, to some degree or another, and hold up in quality in comparison to anything that you might find at your local gaming store.
Scourge of the Sword Coast is also well made. It has full color, full bleed backgrounds that are complex images. The full color art throughout the module looks gorgeous. The maps are incredibly details. My only real complaint is that the maps are a bit small for my aging eyes, but if you get the book with a PDF then you can blow things up to your heart's content.
The thing is, ultimately, that print on demand production has caught up to offset printing. Anyone who says they can easily tell the two apart who isn't a printing professional has probably been fooled more than once by PoD books (if you ever see me at a convention, or store, smelling a book, that is my test to see if it is offset or PoD printed). As the production quality for print on demand improves, and the technology gets better, it will become harder to tell the two processes apart.
The advantages to print on demand technology will also lessen the gap between the big companies and the smaller companies in gaming, ultimately allowing more games to get into print that we wouldn't necessarily have seen previously and allowing for more diversity of viewpoints, and variety of gaming styles.
Print on demand will also be the way to bring a lot of older games back into print again. For example, as the Wizards of the Coast PoD program expands at the OneBookShelf sites, I would love to see the old Tom Moldvay Basic and Expert editions of Dungeons & Dragons be brought back into print and made available again. Chaosium could keep classic Runequest and Call of Cthulhu rules and material in print for forever. In addition to being "updated" to the Pathfinder rules, Green Ronin could keep their Freeport materials available for the D&D 3.x rules. More people are probably able to buy the third edition of the Big Eyes, Small Mouth anime game now, because it is available through print on demand, than were able to during the short time that it was sold through stores.
There are a lot of possibilities for PoD to allow older, out of print materials to see the light of day again.