PDF Costs and Screwing Up the Long Tail

Yesterday reading MJ Harnish over at Gaming Brouhaha reminded me of a game I always wanted to run: Tribe 8. Now, my books are somewhere in Connecticut but I figured a trip to RPGNow could net me a low cost PDF. This was doubly true after I learned in the Wikipedia article on the game that the second edition player’s handbook moved the timeline ahead fifteen years. Now, instead of wading through metaplot books to see where the world was going naturally I could build a quick timeline. Given one reason I never ran Tribe 8 was just how damned metaplot heavy it was this was great.

I haven’t bought any Tribe 8 PDFs. Why? That second edition player’s handbook that retailed for $29.95 is available for $24.95. Most of the rest of the line is a little better with the PDF selling at half the cost of the original print product. This still leaves the most inexpensive book at $7.95.

For comparison several of the books are available on eBay with shipping for less than the original cover price. That’s for a physical item with no need to print out pages I need or want to mark up (although admittedly I often photocopy pages for mark-up). One book, Warrior Unbound, is actually available for exactly the same price with shipping from eBay as the PDF (it’s a “Buy it now”, not an auction). Moving to Amazon three copies of the first edition rulebook are under the $13.95 price of PDF. Given the second edition required an external rulesbook this isn’t trivial. Finally, Alibris who is already courting me with a coupon has nearly the entire series as physical books for less than the PDFs.

Right now the PDFs have one advantage, immediacy. This would have been a huge score as the trip to RPGNow was an impulse. However, when getting the rules in PDF, with all the disadvantages for that format (readability, requires a machine at the table or printing out) is comparable to buying the physical product in terms of price I won’t be buying. If the interest continues I’ll purchase physical books at comparable or slightly higher prices.

While I’m concentrating on Tribe 8 Dreampod 9 is far from alone in this. White Wolf follows the same policy for the old World of Darkness. Contrast that with Fantasy Flight Games. Their very popular Midnight setting for D&D3 has no product priced at more than $10 and that’s for the core setting book. The supplements are uniformly $7, a price nearly a dollar less than the cheapest Tribe 8 book. When it comes to impulse buying of PDFs $10 seems to be a good ceiling. At $10 I would be reading the core book again instead of writing this.

I understand that the pricing of PDFs as primary products or when they are directly competing with brand new, in print books is a complex subject. However, that’s not what we’re discussing here. Both the old World of Darkness and Tribe 8 last saw a physical book printed in 2004. Neither line is currently in print nor will be in the foreseeable future. For new players of the game lines or continuing players looking to add or replace material there are two markets: used products or publisher PDFs. Actually, there is a third, pirated PDFs. Only one of these three makes publishers any money.

These products have either been fully amortized or never will be. They are not major profit centers nor do the PDFs directly compete with another product stream from the publisher. In WW case they might compete against nWOD but then again so do used oWoD books and the same issue arise. Dreampod 9 and WW have both lost PDF sales from me due to their pricing. I suspect I’m far from alone. Reducing these lines to $10 for core and thicker books and $5 for adventures and thinner books might look like a large loss. However, given the probable sales volume at this point compared to the volume in the secondary market finding a sweet spot that increases sales while not leaving the money on the table shouldn’t be that hard.

And everyone likes more revenue.