To Print or Not To Print

Hi all,

I'm considering how to publish my game. I haven't been gaming regularly for years now due to having small children, and now I feel completely out of touch with the modern world (are there flying cars yet?).

More importantly: do people still buy RPG books in print? I have two and a half library shelves full of RPG books, and that's after I cut it down by half after my move. I love having the physical book to pass around or refer to during a game. But maybe I'm an anomaly? Is everyone just buying the PDF nowadays? Do people prefer the search feature to the physical feel of the book in their hands?

Drive Thru RPG seems obvious proof that there is an important market for PDFs... but how important?

All points of view welcome!




  • edited September 2016
    Plenty of people still seem to prefer books, or will use books and PDFs for different purposes. In my limited experience, I've sold more PDF copies than print copies, but due to the accepted larger margins on print books, they make up a relatively high percentage of my profit. Only 14% of my core book sales have been print copies, but print sales make up 28% of my profit from that title.

    With POD, you might as well put out a print option alongside digital. All it takes is some planning and forethought when doing the layout.
  • Shiro, are there any Print On Demand service providers you would recommend? What kind of forethought is required when doing the layout? Thanks!
  • Well I just use the aforementioned DriveThruRPG, since it's kind of the 800lb gorilla in the RPG self-publishing world. People also commonly use Amazon CreateSpace and Lulu for POD, but I'm not sure if they also do digital PDF sales.

    For layout, you need to take into account print and digital considerations simultaneously, unless you want to do double the work to make a completely separate PDF and POD file (not highly recommended).

    Print considerations tend to be the most stringent. You'll need to use a page size that works for the print options you want, and margins suitable for POD. Depending on the size and internal colours, there'll probably be a particular page multiple you need to use (usually 4 or 6). DriveThruRPG also requires you to leave the last page blank for their printing code stuff, and their print books need a blank gutter allowance for gluing the pages together on colour books, but those aren't requirements for CreateSpace or Lulu as far as I know.

    At the same time, you should take into account that the PDF may be read on a tablet or phone screen, so multi-column layouts are harder to scroll through smoothly. Assuming you're using InDesign, you can set up header paragraph styles in order to automatically generate the table of contents and PDF bookmarks. You should also create hyperlinked cross-references, and strongly consider a robust and hyperlinked index.

    Apart from that, PDFs are in RGB format, and POD is CMYK (and there's usually a limit to Total Ink Coverage; for DTRPG it's 240%), so you may need to adjust your image files so they work well in both colour-spaces. That may require saving two separate PDF/POD files, although it's probably the last step you'll want to do.
  • Shiro covers the big picture, I agree with his points.

    Generally speaking, with no knowledge of the particulars of a project, I would currently recommend to a first-time rpg publisher that they should produce both PDF and POD options (as Shiro describes, most of the layout work overlaps between the two, given appropriate workflow and techniques). If they are planning a preorder/crowdfunding campaign, or know that they can sell ~100 copies or more immediately at publication, or they are planning to hit the convention circuit, then it also makes good sense to produce a small print run with the intent to immediately sell out (and rely on PDF/POD sales thenceforth); the economy of an actual print run will increase your profits on those initial books compared to selling the same numbers through POD, where the per-copy costs are higher, so it's just plain stupid to not pick up those profits if you know they'll be available.

    Currently it does not yet make good economical sense to not have a paper product available (too many customers willing to pay for it, and unwilling to pay for digital), but I think we are at a point where there are many publication cases where it does not make sense to have an inventory - that is, your only source of paper product is print-on-demand. However, cases where traditional small press routines (think boxes of books stored in your garage) are also still realistic, although I suspect that a first-time publisher is unlikely to be facing a situation like that. Mostly you need to have a pre-existing audience, a knack for convention sales or a pre-existing logistical setup for handing the inventory and shipping - without one of those three it probably is not worthwhile to go into physical inventory.
  • Purely as a consumer of games (rather than designer/publisher), I like to have both. I buy both print and pdf for every game I can. And hardback if the game is large enough (e.g. a digest sized 16 pager would be an odd hardback).

    The print+pdf combo is my preferred package. It mildly annoys me when I have to buy both separately, particularly if I have to go through different sites. That doesn't mean I expect a free pdf (though a reduced price is nice), I just want to only make one purchase.

    I use each for different things. I like to read the physical book if I'm at home. But it's nice to load the pdf on my iPad and have a bunch with me if I want to browse or if I'm away from home. I almost never carry the physical books around. I print the pdfs and that's what I use at the table. If they get wrecked from handling or use, I don't care.

    If I could only have one it would be the pdf. I can always print it and have it bound if I really want it on the shelf (which I have totally done).

    One game I recently bought provided multiple pdfs: one that's the full book and one that's a slimmed down version with no artwork and just the rules. I like that aspect of pdfs.
  • For myself, I 'ONLY' buy books in print. I appreciate having digital copies with them, or might buy a digital to accompany a print copy if it's very cheap (talking under $2-3 here). However, I don't represent the market as a whole in nearly anything so I certainly wouldn't base any decisions on my anachronism.
  • I prefer book, but usually get both. I only get a pdf w/o the book if that is the only option in order to own the game.
  • Only speaking for myself, since I live in Italy while most indie rpg publishers ship their books from the USA or at most the UK, I tend to buy PDF only to save on the shipping. Since I do feel the need for physical books at the table, though (there is no way I can flip through pages quickly and comfortably enough on screen or e-paper), I invested in a very good and cost-effective laser printer (effectively a compact office copier with full duplex function, quite bulky for my apartment).
    I debated with myself for a while whether to change my ways and start ordering printed books instead. In fact I did a couple times, when a good shipping deal was available. But, considering those books could well have been printed in China on Indonesia-deforestation paper, for what I know, and moved around the world twice before reaching me, I figured my carbon footprint is smaller if I stick to home printing - as long as I only print on recycled paper using domestically recharged toner, as I do.
    A nice side-effect of this is that I get to do my own book bindings, which are amateurish as hell, but so crude they're almost punk and so punk they're almost good.
  • I prefer digital formats for short to medium length products (1-20 pages) so I can print it on my own if I want it but I prefer a published and bound hard copy for longer products.
  • Thanks everyone for your extremely helpful comments! In particular @Shiro for the great and succinct advice.

    I'm printing my game mainly as a hobby. I don't care if I make a profit, but I wouldn't mind breaking even.

    Based on what you've told me, I have decided to continue offering a FREE cut-down (no frills) single column version on PDF and/or ePub, and I will offer a beautiful (I hope) print version for money.

    Thanks again!

  • Actually, I have a last question on this topic if you don't mind: if I were to go for a black & white print version, do you think that would fly nowadays? Or does the competitive landscape really require colour?


  • Black and white's still a thing; I've worked on several projects that have opted for a black and white interior.
  • Color is entirely optional in the small press market; only do it if you need it for your book-design vision. The majority of your realistic audience base will in fact prefer black and white if it means a cheaper price point. You'll still want a color cover, usually, as it's such a totemic part of your game's image and a good opportunity to distill your selling hook visually for a walk-in customer, whether in the Internet or at a con or wherever.

    If you were trying to compete with something like say D&D - which you're emphatically not - then one could argue that a color hardcover core book is de rigueur today for giving the correct impression (to wit, that you're a fat corporate whore) to the core audience. You'd also need a game line with a continuing publication schedule, major store presence and a few other bits and bobs, of course.
  • Black & white will totally fly (with me at least). A lack of color images has never changed my mind about buying a game I wanted.
  • Thanks for your feedback :)
  • I only buy and use PDFs, but I tend mostly to play games where all the rules are on the printed play materials.
  • Ah, makes sense
  • Actually, I have a last question on this topic if you don't mind: if I were to go for a black & white print version, do you think that would fly nowadays? Or does the competitive landscape really require colour?


    For your first project I'd absolutely recommend black and white interior. I'd also seriously consider going small - trade paperback. Loads of us use this size and format for our products. It's easy to do. Down load a template from one of the websites. I use one from createspace. (It's the only thing I use createspace for - what with me bring English and them bring anglophobic.)

    If you go small, you don't need as much art and might be able to use stock art. (The "hack" books and Cakebread and Waltons ONE DICE games don't use any interior art and they seem to do fine.)

    The days of full colour hardbacks being essential are in the past.

  • I only buy and use PDFs, but I tend mostly to play games where all the rules are on the printed play materials.
    I'm not representative of the gamer population at all, but this is my preference, too.

  • Great insights, thanks again!
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