Hamsterprophecy: Prevision

It\’s All About Pen, Paper and People.

My Thoughts on PDFs

Posted by Nathan P. on July 27, 2008

(context: here and here. Also, this turned into quite the ramble, so be warned)

PDFs are in interesting thing, aren’t they? I have very mixed feelings, as one may be able to extrapolate from my PDF versions of games that I’ve made available thus far. Also, I’ve had some very interesting conversations with people concerning both ends of the morality-vs-profit motive spectrum. My opinions on the matter gel along these lines:

First, sometimes a PDF isn’t appropriate to the artistic goal of a product. For example, there’s no PDF of carry because the physical, visceral experience of the book as an object is important to me. Now, I know for a fact that this is costing me sales. However, I am extremely sympathetic to those who would prefer the PDF, or who don’t have a good option for buying a physical book. I want to find some way to reconcile these two issues, and when I do I will make a PDF available, but until then, my artistic  goals are outweighing my profit motive.

Second, what are you paying for when you buy a PDF? There’s an almost-zero amount of infrastructure, and the rest goes direct to the author, for what? A digital, reproducible file that has infinite shelf life. My friend Andrew Morris is of the opinion that what you’re actually paying for is ideas, and that its immoral to charge for ideas. Again, I’m sympathetic to this argument (witness the idea that PDF sales are “free money” to a publisher, which is basically true), but I think that the profit from PDF sales can certainly be seen as paying for enabling the author to continue making their work available. By the same token, why should books be sold for more than cost + cuts from the middleman? Same answer. (Incidentally, if you’re not up on Jonathan Walton’s new business model, you should be).

But, with that in mind, what is “right” to charge for a PDF? For Timestream, I have a PDF at $8 and a more full-featured PDF at $12, which are basically price points that “feel right” to me. I think it only makes sense that a PDF cost less than a book, because I don’t need to pay anything to get you your copy, and I get more money out of the deal. But, if it’s the same content, should I charge the retail minus the print costs? How does that effect the perception of value? Does it feel right? Or, on the other hand, should I pursue PDF sales as a core part of the business model (they generate more profit, after all)? This is a valid pusuit, I think (witness Ronin Arts).

Or, should I only charge for PDFs until all of my costs for the game are covered, and then make it free?

I think the one thing I feel pretty strongly about is that I don’t have the energy to waste trying to keep pirated PDFs from happening. I don’t like DRM, I don’t have the tech savvy to engage in locking wars, and I honestly just don’t care if people pirate my PDFs. Anyone who downloads a pirated PDF of my stuff will either like it so much they buy something legit anyway, or they would have never bought it in the first place.

These are all really sticky questions that I don’t have stock answers to (except the uselessness of DRM thing). I think the only way I can navigate this territory is make sets of decisions based on my artistic goals for each individual game, and hope for the best.


3 Responses to “My Thoughts on PDFs”

  1. Jonathan Walton said

    Yup. Very often people assume that “If person X isn’t doing something, it must be because they don’t understand how great that something is.” More often than not, they’ve taken the time to think about it and decided, for whatever reasons, that is isn’t for them in this particular case.

    You’ve also made me realize I need a statement on Bleeding Play explaining just what it is that I am doing.

  2. Ben Finney said

    I think you’re conflating two rather unrelated issues, and that they can be resolved more easily when considered separately.

    First, what should you charge for the work? That’s a tough one, but fortunately you have a fair amount of existing data to consider. Charge enough so that it’s meaningful to receive the money, but not so much that the average person likely to want to buy this particular work will think it’s too much to pay. Like I said, not easy, but an issue *only* of price.

    The issue of *price* should be entirely separate from the second issue, that of *license*. It sounds like you’ve already answered this one: you don’t mind people copying and sharing the work once they have it. So, why not sell your work (at a price determined as above) under a license that *explicitly allows* the recipient to share, re-sell, and re-use it so long as they pass on the same license? e.g. a Creative Commons BY-SA license.

  3. Hey Ben,

    I don’t think price is necessarily as straightforward as all that, but thats a good distinction you’re pointing out. Technically, all my Timestream stuff is released under a CC Attribution-NonCommercial-Sharealike license, which I hadn’t even remembered until your post!

    I think future stuff will simply be copyright with a written exemption, like “This work is copyright, but you’re free to whatever you want with it that doesn’t involve money, including printing and sharing with people you play the game with. I’d appreciate it if you don’t publically fileshare.”

    My feelings on Creative Commons these days are….kind of mixed.

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