The Gassy Gnoll: A Book At Any Price…

This week the Gassy Gnoll had a conversation about the price of a particular PDF and it made me ponder pricing more deeply. As a consumer, how do I gauge a particular product’s worth? Though I’ve looked at it from the producer’s point of view (several years ago), I’ve blindly been a consumer for much longer than that… What are the key factors?

Ultimately I think some of it depends on the type of product I’m looking to purchase. If it’s a printed copy (either soft- or hard-cover), I have slightly different measurements than if it’s a PDF. But there’s some overlap on both sides.

  • (Printed) Paper Quality
  • (Printed) Cover Quality (durability)
  • (Printed) Binding Quality (is the binding going to survive repeated use)
  • Page layout (single/double/triple column, well-placed images, use of white space)
  • Readability (fonts, text colors, map text/lines/legend)
  • Art
    Quality (interior art as well as the cover)
  • Number of pages (a handful vs. a tome for the ages)

So let’s look at these and some different scenarios.

When I go to my local game store, I expect to pay more for a printed book than I would if I bought it at a big bookstore chain or through Amazon or another online retailer. Local stores can’t really afford to discount books much and I accept that they need the $$ to keep the lights on, employees working, and events running. So I do try to help where I can. I picked up some books recently for more than I usually would spend but was happy to support the local gaming economy.

When I buy a printed product online (at Amazon for example), I expect lower prices and a larger variety of product choices. But the tradeoffs include buying products sight unseen, the delays, costs, and risks of shipping. Even so, I’m an Amazon addict. Is there an Amazon Addicts Anonymous?

In either case, I still take a solid look at the books (at purchase time, or at delivery). Open them, flip through looking at pages, considering the binding, layout, readability, and so on… I used to do this much more frequently when I perused the shelves of actual bookstores, but now rely mostly on reviews, PDF samples, and whatever else I can find online.

Even so, $39.95 for a hardbound book seems excessive to me. The Dresden Files: Our World book is huge and weighs in at nearly 3 pounds and 300 pages. It’s a beautiful book – well constructed, written, and illustrated. But still, paying $40 for a book reminds me of my college days and the outrageous costs of college textbooks. On the plus side, Evil Hat participates in the “PDF guarantee” idea where if you buy one of their books and send them a proof of purchase, they’ll send you the PDF. So you do get both an electronic and physical copy for one price.

Are printed books worth it? As a consumer, it depends on the book but I have to say that I love the feel of a book in my hands. No PDF will ever achieve the same effect. If I have the space on a shelf and the $$, I’ll always prefer a physical copy to an electronic one if it’s for a game that I hope to play often.

On the other side of things are the PDF or electronic-only products that I find myself reviewing much more frequently. Whereas physical products are more commonly 32 or more pages, PDFs can be as short as a page or two and be priced as low as free or as expensive as similar printed books. I typically consider that electronic copies of physical books should cost less than their printed counterparts simply because of the lack of warehousing and regular printer costs (paper, binding, etc.). But that doesn’t mean that they should always be reduced to no cost – just that there’s some sort of discount on the part of the publisher they can pass along to the consumer.

Looking at the top 10 items at RPGNow, there’s quite a difference between them. Interface Zero Hacking 2.0 from Gun Metal Games costs $1.99 for 12 pages of content. And Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society: Issues 1 – 24 from GDW costs $22.50 for more than 1200 pages of content. (The average page count among the top 10 is 218 pages for an average cost of $8.36.)

I don’t begrudge any artist or publisher the costs of producing a book, whether it is electronic or paper. The time, labor, and materials it takes is staggering and I fear that most small publishers never hit a break even point on their work. Maybe that’s just from my own experience with my Moebius Adventures imprint, but I feel that most of the smaller publishers do it as a labor of love rather than a long-term career where you can survive on the income.

However, I’m a consumer these days, not a producer. And as a writer for Game Knight Reviews I try to represent the consumer viewpoint, which brings me back to my original point of this article… How do I gauge the worth of a product?

The sweet spot of pricing is somewhere between the publisher’s sense of a product’s worth and the consumer’s sense of a product’s worth. And both ends of the spectrum can be skewed wildly depending on who you talk to. I’m not going to pay $50 for a PDF unless it’s the Holy Grail of game materials. And if it’s a single page, the odds of my paying that $50 drops markedly.

But at the same time, I’ve been seeing all of these $1 and $2 products that I have to wonder about their worth. I’m less likely to be concerned if the product is free than if they’re selling a 50 page book for $0.99. Why is that? I seem to recall from somewhere that people will buy something that’s $9.99, but are less likely to buy it when it’s $10. Something about that magic penny screams “bargain.”

I recently reviewed Hand Drawn Cities: Volume 1 from Torn World and commented that I thought the $4.99 cost seemed high for 6 pages of content in a 9 page PDF. It amounts to less than $1 for each map included in the set. So why is $4.99 too high?

Quite honestly I think it boiled down to the cost-per-page in my head. At more than $0.55 a page, that seemed high. Whereas The Yaurcoan Empire from Gun Metal Games is 23 pages priced at $5.99, which makes it $0.26 a page. Yes, the maps in Hand Drawn Cities are gorgeous, but they’re largely empty and devoid of content. If I bought a 20 page city guide that included a map and some flavor text about the locale, I’d be a happier consumer at $0.25 a page.

Is this arbitrary? Hell yes. But I remember when you could buy a paperback novel for less than $5 and escape into a fictional world for 200-300 pages for a day or two. Today we live in a world where apps for your phone or tablet or even some eBooks cost nothing or the sweet $0.99/$1.99/$2.99 range. I think it’s skewed our sense of prices.

The “cost-per-page” or “app-pricing model” fallacies may not be the best way to determine value, but I think we’re stuck with them in the short term. As much as I’d like to say that all of those factors I mentioned in the beginning guide my decisions as to what to buy, I’m just as fickle a consumer as everyone else with idiosyncrasies even I can’t fathom…

Questions for you to ponder…

How much are you willing to pay for a gaming eBook? Or a printed copy? And why?

And publishers, what goes into your pricing decisions for your products?

Leave comments below or drop me an e-mail at the Contact page!

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4 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: A Book At Any Price…

  • Rather than thinking about how expensive it is to become a bad deal, I like to think about at what point it becomes a great deal. For a printed book, $20 seems like a good deal and any less than that is a steal. Pretty much all of the “Explorer’s Edition” books for Savage Worlds settings (e.g. Necessary Evil Explorer’s Edition, Deadlands Reloaded Explorer’s Edition, Fantasy Companion) are set at a $20 price point and the core books (both the out of print Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition and the new Savage Worlds Deluxe: Explorer’s Edition) are set at $10 for a printed book, which I bought in a heartbeat.

    For PDFs, I generally expect a lower price. For a full game book, $20 is typically the max I’d like to pay, $15 is a good deal, and $10 is a steal (for adventures, it’s usually $10 for a good deal and $5 for a steal). Consequently, the Traveller Main Rulebook is a bad deal at $23 and Deadlands: The Last Sons is horrendous at $35.

    I think it’s a lot like desktop apps vs. iPhone apps. They may take just as much time to develop, but the price that people want to pay is pretty different between the two.
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  • Jale

    $40 for a hardback is too much to you?
    Lord let me live in your world. Pathfinder and the various WH40K books range from 40 to 60 dollars by the norm. The new “Only War” book for 40k rpg is 59.99 by the back of the book.

    I’ll admit the prices are absurd, but that’s just what I’ve seen…almost never seen anything below 40 when it comes to game books.

    PDFs, however, well, I usually prefer the 2-3 dollar range if it’s a small thing, 5-7 for anything bigger. If it’s a full game or huge setting or what have you, sure I can understand a much larger pricetag…but little things? anything past 10 is a bit much

    • Fitz

      @Jale – I’ll admit I was a bit shell shocked by book prices. It had been forever since I’d purchased a hardcover game book. And now I’ve purchased a few for 4e and other games, none of which was less than $40. But even if the norm is $50/60 for a hardcover book, it’s tough for me to wrap my head around. I remember long ago when they were much less expensive and there were more softcovers available to reduce the sting. These days it seems to be PDF or hardcover, with softcovers not getting the love…

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