Privateer on business, book pricing, time, and money

Besides being a stellar example of what real professionalism looks like, this discussion at Privateer Press about the new products they announced last week calls out a serious problem in the game industry – and it’s even worse in RPGs.

Unfortunately, this has not traditionally been an industry that was willing to pay for quality – a message driven home every time we hear a gasp at the price of a book. Go to a Barnes & Nobles and find a book that took a year to make, is printed in full color, and caters to a specialty niche (in other words, they’re not printing hundreds of thousands of them), and you’ll see a much higher price point than anything the game industry currently supports. Basically, the consumers in our industry have dictated a pricing structure that they are willing to spend within. But printing works like this: the more you print, the better price you get and the less you can charge for a book to make it worth the while. However, in the game industry, we make products for tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands, so the pricing is not as good.

Steve Long of Hero Games made this same observation at DunDraCon about niche-press books… to the general derision of the room. But I think he’s right, and I hope he breaks rank and experiments with the pricing on some of his books. Meantime, ask yourself: how much are you willing to pay for quality? Did you howl at the price of the Farscape book? Because that’s what it costs, people. You want to halt the decline of the indie RPG market? You might have to pony up. Are you ready?


  1. In board and card games, there is some merit to the argument that online retailers have ‘devalued’ what they sell.

    When it gets to the point that a game like Modern Art is complained about (price wise) for being an ‘outrageous’ $18+ US then there is obviously a disconnect between the value of a game and what people have been conditioned to pay for them…

  2. Even online retailers have to pay what distributors ask for the product. And distributors have to pay what publishers ask. That’s what needs to come up; the MSRP is just the means if you ask me.

  3. There is also something about perceived value that is out there too. So, I haven’t read all the post on PP’s forums, but it sure sounds like they have been getting hassled about a $34.99 full color book. I guess those hassling them don’t perceive this book as a value to them.
    Now, I have to wonder if these are the same people who run out and buy an X-box game, day of release for $49.99, then play it until they finish it in 40-60 hours of game play. So, they perceive that as a value. I dunno, I guess it’s all how you wish to look at it…

  4. Geez, I was preparing a fuller comment, but the one thing I couldn’t find referenced was the price of the book.

    That explanation for a $34.99 full color book? Sheeesh… while I think Privateer’s A-List, and their post was rock solid (and professional), as an adult, I find that length of detail justifying a $35 book to be almost frightening.

    I mean, I’m sold on it already, and I figured it was going to be some $60+ price tag.

  5. How about releasing two versions?

    Like Silver Age Sentinels: Stingy Gamer edition, and a full-on more accurately priced edition.

    Though I’ve no idea how that SAS plan worked out in the end. 🙂

  6. Printing costs would double for both, but there is something terribly appealing to this whole “stingy gamer edition concept”…


  7. The mechanism for a stingy gamer edition is already in place: stingy gamers get a .pdf edition for $12 that they print, hole punch, stick in a 3 ring binder, and call it a day (and unless they’re pirating the output of the nice laser printer at the office, they’re paying another $3-20 in materials, depending on the cost of their printer expendables).

  8. I just think it’s time that publishers start scaling back on the hardback/full color printings of a lot of the books out there.

    I know that I have bought far fewer books recently mostly because of the price point. I really don’t need a 180 page color hardbook book for $30-35 that just doesn’t have the page count/info to justify that price point. If that book was a solidly bound black and white paperback for $22.95 I’d probably have it on my shelf.

  9. Blake,

    It is sure interesting though, being behind the counter at a decent sized game shop of how much I hear both sides of that story. For each person who feels like you do, there is another one who won’t buy a book “because the production value is low, I mean it’s all in black and white!” Sometimes, the publishers just can’t win….

  10. as a bookstore employee, i see both sides of the argument as well. i have no problem paying $35 for a quality book. chris’s analogy of video games is a good one to mention to prospective customers (who are or know gamers, that is). a (video) game has to really “wow” me in order to justify a $50 price tag. otherwise, i’ll just wait until it inevitably drops to a more respectable level. books need the same kind of wow factor: good production? good graphics? (layout, fonts, artwork) most of all–good relevance to my gaming needs? if so, then $35 is really a small price to pay for all of that. one just needs to pace out their purchases, that’s all.

  11. Hmm, $35. That’ll be equivalent to 14 booster packs of a typical CCG. I really think we gamers have got a skewed appreciation of the value of RPGs compared to other gamer stuff we buy.

  12. If gamers don’t want to pay $35 for a 4 color hardback. Then make the interior black and white and sell it for half the price. Afterall, it’s the content that they’re buying it for and not the pictures. Besides, Brian Snoddy over at Privateer does fantastic B&W work.

  13. Rob, you’re right that Snoddy makes B&W look like a million bucks. Which is good because you are so laughably wrong about what people want in a gaming book. Game companies can be dumb, but not dumb enough to fail to drop something (after thirty years of the adventure gaming hobby) if it doesn’t enhance sales. I think you’ve got a bit of a “focus group of one” problem in your research there.

  14. I can see both sides of the argument. I certainly don’t have a problem shelling out $30+ for a good book because I know that I’ll have use of it for YEARS.

    Sadly, what I do have problems with is poor production values and the same prices. I’d drop money sight unseen on a Privateer book. I shelled out $50 for Conan from Mongoose and THEN I was upset (actually pissed off was more appropriate).

    I haven’t bought any Mongoose books since and don’t intend on doing so again.

    I’d rather a company spend the extra time it takes to get a book out and make it good rather than having to put out a book every other month or so. That is a problem that I’ve noticed with RPGers – if no new supplements are coming out, the company/game is obviously dead *sigh*

  15. I think that the difference between the video game and the RPG, at least in my case, is there might be one console game that comes out that I’d purchase in a three month span, while there might be five to ten RPG books I’d consider buying.

    I have no problem with content heavy hardback books coming out at a higher pricepoint, Iron Kingdom books is a good example, it’s when you see the thin hardbacks with pretty color art, large borders and somewhat larger font size that I balk.

    It’s a tough trend to fight, and I don’t envy the publishers as they try to figure out this new climate, but I know in my case it’s hard for me to pay the $35-40 (or more) per book anymore. So it ends up making me put down a good number of books I’d otherwise buy.

    I wonder if it’s an age thing that we could point to in these trends. I know I’m in the middle of the gamers age bracket, being 34. I grew up without all the fancy pictures so I can live without it. I wonder if it’s the 12-28 crowd tha drive the need for the flash? Something to ponder I guess.

  16. “Though I’ve no idea how that SAS plan worked out in the end. :)”

    Well, I don’t know if the SAS plan have been deemed a success, but currently Guardians of Order is down to one employee and is digging out of a deep financial hole. I’m praying that the Canadian-based company can still stay afloat until the May release of the anticipated A GAME OF THRONES RPG.

  17. RPGs seem to be going through a microcosm of the same problem that record companies are going through right now. Why risk $15-20 on a CD when you can download the one song you like for a buck or quite possibly just steal it for free if you dig long enough?

    Books are expensive and getting more so both from basic publishing standpoints as well as customer demands. You want that big full-color, photo rich, glossy paged licensed RPG? Guess what? You’ll be paying for it is if it were a coffee table book..which it essentially is. I guess I’m more surprised that RPG publishers haven’t tried other book styles/formats like Eden’s basic Unisystem releases or WW’s Aberrant series.

    PDFs are cheaper but easier to copy and steal. For every legit download, you have to factor it that person will pass it on to at least 5 people free of charge. Watermarking and digital copy protection are all well and good but that doesn;t stop someone from emailing the whole rulebook to someone or sending them their key code.

    And maybe I’m a fogey, but there’s nothing quite like the feel of a new gaming book and that first dive into a new world of mechanics and setting. By the time I either dash off to Kinkos or exhaust my own printer cartidge, that feeling has worn off when i get a PDF.

    The fix? Companies should look at PDFs as cheap alternatives to smaller books like adventures and ‘character diaries’ but keep core books looking good. I’m willing to pay fifty bucks for a core book that’s got all the fixings. A video game costs about the same but isn;t nearly as versatile. RPG companies need to step up marketing against video games and capitalize on their advantages.

  18. While your reason is sound, it would suck for those who can’t order online (lack of a credit card), then there is the decision of whether to waste ink and papers on a product with more than a 50 page count … woe if it is in color.

    As for trying to compete with a videogame? I could list a number of reasons why a PnP RPG is better in the long run, but the small picture is that you only need one person with a computer (be it a PC or a console) that will do all the calculation and other tasks that players and GMs would do in a PnP RPG session (and from a slacker POV, doing math and number-crunching are works, not play).

  19. For me, it’s not the price that’s a problem, it’s what you’re actually paying for with that price and how useful that stuff is to the actual play of the game. Art is important, sure, but I’d still prefer nice black and white line art to full color regardless of price, and hardcovers are not necessary on every minor supplement to a game, only on the most important core rulebooks that get used most often.

    Whether you want to believe it or not, for some consumers the questions are: How many pages of a book are actually game rules and how much is filler material or non-essential information/fiction (WotC D&D books)? Is the book full of spelling errors that any spellcheck program would have easily caught (Mongoose Conan)? Does the game play like it wasn’t even playtested, despite the “quality” production values (Decipher LOTR)? Does it look more like an art book with hard-to-read game stats on the side than a set of readable game rules with art on the side (many modern rpgs)? It all depends what “quality” means to each individual consumer. To some (and to most game manufacturers it would seem) it actually is the fancy color pages and hardcovers, but to others that’s expensive and unnecessary fluff that only increases cost. If the guts of the game aren’t in order it doesn’t matter how spiffy the book looks while flipping through it.

    Now, sure, many people want these things (and some, no doubt, have only been conditioned to believe they want these things). If a lot of gamers aren’t buying the books though, then maybe there are some wrong assumptions being made by the manufacturer. I don’t claim to have the answers, nor do I have proof there are legions of others who think like me, but it’s something to consider if sales are slipping. More serious market research is probably in order, something that seems rare in the RPG business.

  20. Brian: “It all depends what “quality” means to each individual consumer. To some (and to most game manufacturers it would seem) it actually is the fancy color pages and hardcovers, but to others that’s expensive and unnecessary fluff that only increases cost. If the guts of the game aren’t in order it doesn’t matter how spiffy the book looks while flipping through it.”

    So, how does one measure “quality”? Is it the sales of the book? The praises? The awards given? Or — as weird as it sounds — the numbers of vocal critics?

  21. I would suggest that the content of the book, and specifically its long-term viability for gaming entertainment, is the single largest factor in customer retention; the Conan RPG, I think, is a great example of a book many people wanted, and the book itself is a great game….but the 1st edition was so botched with typos and errata that many, many people will not touch a Mongoose product. Why? Because the fact is, in this day, $50 is a lot to spend on a book, and for people to feel comfortable, the book has to measure up to the asking price. The video game example works the same way; people get very upset if they spend that much on a game that’s buggy or poorly designed, and game companies these days will often value-price titles from the get go if they suspect less than grade A quality out the door; but video game publishers are bigger business than PnP publishers, who are normally not relying on market research so much as personal ego.

    Basically, the market’s problem with price points stems not so much from consumer unwillingness, but from trepidation over products that are, overall, not meeting the value point in the content; and it’s not (necessarily) about being full color: simply being well-written, useful, and actually entertaining are as important as the looks, though the whole package does count. RPGs are a victim of their own shoddiness, especially over the last few years. There was a time when errata, typos, and bad art weren’t as big a deal; but that was when the book was usually at a price point that made sense. Now, the skew between value of content and price point tends to be outrageous, and only a few publishers are stepping up to the challenge (WotC does do it, and I’d suggest Goodman Games, Malhavoc, and Green Ronin do, as well).

    Bottom line: some publishers (many, in fact) that have complained of poor sales need look no farther than at the terrible content of their own books to understand that they, in fact, have hurt themselves by shoveling too much crap at the consumer.

  22. Sheeesh. That wasn’t me up there a couple ago. I *like* color hardbacks.

    I’m also not really in agreement that $50 is “a lot to spend on a book.” If I want a decent computer manual for so, Photoshop, it’s $50. I’m accustomed to paying at that range for a (here’s that term again) quality, full-color book (often *softcover*). Because it interests me. I like a lavish production as I mentioned earlier. It adds to my interest, and keeps me engaged with the material. With a lot of competition out there, a book needs to hook me – whether it’s with writing, artwork, all of the above – and keep me.

    And to the point, remember that the print runs are so much smaller than other books to start with. Part of that has to be apparent gamer culture, where the GM buys the book and some players *might* buy it.

  23. Good writing Mike! This is one of the key issues I’ve seen in the non-videogame market. Outside of Hasbro, no one can really get quantity. Most books sell less than 10 thousand copies. Demand for color and cheap has driven printing outside the US. It’s the whole “Wal*Marting” of America factor. No one is willing to pay for top quality product. They just want good enuough for cheap.



  24. Okay, I didn’t realize there was another Brian posting here regularly when I made the other comments above (my first time commenting here on any article). Aplogies for any confusion.

    Who decides what quality is? Good question! I would say that if companies are selling books and have a good-sized audience of ‘fans’ then they are doing the right thing and should continue. If they find themselves complaining about not selling books then their audience must not like what they are doing very much, and something else should be tried. There probably are no simple answers in this business as it is not a simple business.

    I don’t dislike books with high production values either, I’m just saying if the actual game content isn’t what’s wanted by the consumer then all the polish in the world won’t make it a more attractive purchase.

  25. PS: I doubt those 50 dollar Photoshop manuals are ridden with errors and typos, not to mention instructions that don’t actually work in Photoshop. Nobody would buy them anymore if they routinely were. However, those are the equivalent problems you’d be looking at if you want to compare a Photoshop manual to something like Mongoose’s Conan book. 😉

  26. Likewise, it’s fairly common for technical manuals to have to put out errata, due to typos rendering, say, several Perl scripts to be unusable as written/published.

    No, errata happens lots of places- happens all the time. And people routinely buy them.

    Oddly enough (or not), the only niche I hear customers perpetually griping about it is … hey, big surprise, RPGs. Gamers …

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