The Caffeinated Penguin

musings of a crackpot hacker

On ebooks

Posted By on June 3, 2014

So, |Adam Jury posted an insightful look at ebooks from a publisher’s perspective, which just happens to remind me of this old Jeff Atwood post on codinghorror.

Taking out the parts where Adam talks about what “should” happen, as should is relative, let’s simply talk about the market and, more specifically, my participation in the market, as it is the only part about all of this which I have perfect (or, nearly perfect) knowledge.

Let us also remove discussion of roleplaying game books for right now, because I’ll get to those later. For now, I’m just talking of fiction (essentially – “read once”).

So, let’s take a book I bought recently – Monster Hunter International. The paperback price is $7.19. The Kindle version is $6.83. This is a difference of $0.36. Since I have Amazon Prime, the shipping is free (or, more specifically, a sunk cost, but either way is not relevant here). So, the cost is functionally equivalent from where I sit. Hence, I decide solely based on merits of the medium.

Pro for print:

Pro for ebook:

  • Requires book light to read in bed

And that’s really the difference. Note that I didn’t mention weight – my tablet weighs as much as the book, and you can’t assume that I’ll always have my tablet with me. I always have my phone with me, for sure, but not always my tablet.

Now, I won’t understate the convenience of being able to have a self-illuminating read at night, but I can’t say that convenience trumps the ability to loan a good book to my mother, or let Liz read it without losing the use of my tablet, or stick it on my shelf to be pulled down by my children when they wish to read it. Now, Amazon does have a limited ability to do this without infringing on copyright (since they have permission to do so – if I were to loan someone a PDF, that would constitute copyright infringement), but in doing so, you accept their whole DRM scheme which has its own problems.

So, where does that leave us? Well, I bought the paper book, read it, and loaned it to my mother.

What cost reduction would make me willing to compromise and accept the ebook? From the back of the napkin, I’d say, maximally, 50% of the print book cost. Based on what? Well, Neat is $3, and I’d pay that for a non-loanable book. But, it’s also shorter (scaling it to MHI’s page count would make it a whopping $15), and there’s no print version, so it’s not a totally fair comparison, but I haven’t come across an example where the ebook was so much cheaper that it caused me to buy it instead of the print one (except RPGs, which we’ll get in to below).

Also of note – Neat is available from DriveThruFiction for the same price as Amazon, and is DRM free, so I’d buy that one.

So, now, RPGs.

My thoughts on RPG books (and, indeed, game books in general) are actually more thought out, although a bit more emotional. I typically do the following:

  1. I never just buy the print version. I might just buy the PDF.
  2. If it is interesting and I want to read it, I buy the PDF, typically from DriveThruRPG.
  3. If I’m going to definitely run a game with it, I’ll buy a copy of it, so as to have it for a tableside reference that can be passed around.
  4. If it is a heavily used system (Savage Worlds comes to mind), I’ll typically print a copy of the PDF to put in a binder with those quick tabs and notes in the margins – I call this the “GM’s edition” of the book.
  5. If it is some system or setting about which I’m really excited (and is likely to be played), I’ll often do a print + PDF preorder, because it is common for the bundle to be cheaper than the print version would be at release.

As far as pricing does, I typically expect:

  1. The PDF to cost less than half what the print version does.
  2. The print + PDF bundle to cost no more than $5 more than the print version.

I can’t tell you why these are my expectations – I think it’s mostly how the marketplace has evolved – at least where I buy. See?

Evil Hat does it a little differently, in that ALL print sales are a print + PDF bundle. (Buy the book, get the PDF for free, even if you buy the book in a bookshop). Their pricing is:

And, even though you have to go to two places to get it (and it’s not really a bundle), Shadowrun 5th ed tracks with the same trend:

So, whether or not it’s “fair” this pricing of a DRM-free PDF @ 50% off the print price is really common in that market segment… perhaps, at its root, that is the cause of my expectation that fiction books should be the same?

I guess, in the end, I’ve gotten spoiled by the RPG industry giving me the media that I want in exactly the way I want to consume it, and I want mainstream publishing to step to and do the same.


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