The Gassy Gnoll: Adventures in Product Size

My how product sizes have changed. When this Gassy Gnoll started gaming, all the books were huge hardcovers. Yes, they were from TSR and cost a pretty penny even in the 1980s, but they could be used to do some serious damage in hand to hand combat and that was something.

These days it’s rare for me to see the inside of a physical game store. There are three within 5-10 miles of my house, but it’s rare for me to find something on store shelves worth picking up. Even if by some strange chance I should find something to buy, it’s typically a softcover book. Hardcovers even now are pricey and out of reach for the most part.

So the virtual halls of stores such as RPGNow, Paizo, and Kobold Quarterly get more of my attention… But even as I occasionally review huge tomes such as the nearly 300 page Battlelords of the Twenty-Third Century PDF from SSDC, I was struck how many more products are being released with smaller page counts. Without the burden of physical printing constraints and with simpler requirements of Print-On-Demand (POD), electronic copies can be produced much more freely and cheaply than longer documents.

Let’s take a look at the top 15 hot items on RPGNow to look at page counts. A few products (such as EZ-Tiles: Wilderness Ruins and Realms of the Dwarf Lords: Mountains & Cliffs from Fat Dragon Games and Forgotten Ruins from Lord Zsezse Works) don’t really have a page count, so we’ll just look at the products that do:

That’s an average page count of 77 and a median page count of 64. Pretty consistent and well below 100 pages except in a couple of cases.

Now let’s look at Amazon’s top 15 games in the Books ->Science Fiction & Fantasy -> Gaming category, which is mostly dominated by Paizo and Wizards of the Coast. We’ll just look at individual books and skip box sets and accessories, which boils down to eight books:

(Note that the links lead to Barnes & Noble’s online store simply because Amazon won’t let me be an affiliate in Colorado any longer.)

As you can see, the page counts on these books is much higher. Here we have a 304 page count average and a median of 320 pages.

Now what can we ascertain from these numbers?

  1. Both Wizards of the Coast and Paizo Publishing typically have more people working on their books than smaller publishers do. Duh.
  2. Both Wizards of the Coast and Paizo typically have a much longer lead time for books – 18 months on average from what I’ve seen discussed elsewhere. So from the start of a project to the end, they have more time and resources than small publishers though are also juggling more (large) projects on a regular basis.
  3. As a result of points 1 and 2, Wizards of the Coast and Paizo Publishing can generate bigger, more elaborate books but can’t shift gears quickly. It takes longer to turn a battleship than a dinghy.
  4. Small publishers can generate smaller projects in a number of weeks or months and thus release more frequently than their bigger counterparts.
  5. Electronic publishing presents more agile tools and is geared for quickly producing and distributing products than is the hardcopy printing industry.
  6. Note however that with POD the gap is closing and with efforts such as the “Now in Print!” program from OneBookShelf (RPGNow/DriveThruRPG) we are seeing a much quicker turnaround with an individual print run than bigger companies can get with huge product release efforts.

Note that these are my Gassy opinions, so you can take ’em or leave ’em. But I suspect that even though most small publishers are not rolling in the dough, with the move to PDF we’re all happier with more products in the marketplace.

Though there’s plenty of room in the market for publishers big and small, I have to wonder how big publishers will continue to stay in business producing huge print runs of giant products while small publishers can see a need and produce products to meet the need in a very short time frame.

Question: For all you publishers – big and small – what do you think about the huge difference in product creation philosophies between the giant tomes of old and the small books meeting a specific need today? Is this merely a case of players in the market taking advantage of the long tail? Discuss your thoughts below, I’d love to hear your opinions!

Got a beef with the Gassy Gnoll? Drop him a line at gassy(at)gameknightreviews(dot)com.

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3 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Adventures in Product Size

  • As you know from the Gamer Liftestyle Project, it is better for independent publishers to focus on smaller products, because they can be produced quicker and faster.

    A lot of this has to do with the differences between print and digital distribution. Print products are better suited to larger volumes – because they benefit from economies of scale with regards of printing costs. The larger the product, the more economically viable it is. It is of no coincidence that only the larger print volumes ever become available in hard back – this is because the cost of hardback covers become less of the overall cost of the product as the size and page count of the product itself increases.

    Digital distribution, on the other hand tends to work the other way around – smaller products are generally better than larger ones, because the low costs involved often mean that the information in a larger volume can generate more revenue if distributed separately. However, combining them into larger volumes presents an economy of scale for the customer. The smaller products also provide other benefits, such as a larger choice for customers, and a tighter focus of material.

    While Print On Demand will bring these two together, these are still two different strategies with two different mindsets. The real issue is that they provide the burdens of print to a model that isn’t really designed for print – so unless you are looking at printing a volume, the cost of Print on Demand can be rather prohibitive. However, it is about choice, and does allow the customer to choose when printing becomes a viable option for them, rather than the publisher. Many studies on product pricing resolve around turning a profit after printing costs, to removing printing costs from the equation does help resolve this issue.

    Finally, I am interested to see where Living Products fall in this gap. I don’t feel this areas has been tapped at all – but the fact that there has yet to be a suitable revenue method for such Living Products may be a big feature. They help cover the shift from product to product-service, which better reflects the roles that designers do, but without a stable revenue model there isn’t much appeal here just yet for companies. However, once the model is found, I suspect this will quickly become the norm, because neither of the existing models will be able to compete with something that is continuing to evolve and develop new content, thus increasing it’s worth over time.

  • Fitz

    @Da ‘Vane – I totally agree and may not have communicated clearly enough in the post. It’s a spectrum or continuum of product strategies… And I don’t know that Living Products do or don’t fit into the gap or not.

    I suspect that if you sell the concept of a document that gains updates over time, you could sell it at a slightly higher price than a fixed document. The customer who purchases the book early in the process would get many updates, vs. the customer entering the process later would receive fewer. The issue becomes when if ever is a project “done” if it’s a living document. It could be tough for one company to have many of this type of product and keep them all updated.

    But I think as a customer I’d be very happy if new content was added. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thanks for chiming in and validating some of my thoughts!

  • Keeping products updated is a major issue with Living Documents, and comes from the fact that most print products are released in a completed state with everything already done, and then future products are released in a similar fashion.

    Yet, some products already inspire more – think of how many Monster Manuals there have been over the year. Sometimes, people view these simply as a means to generate more revenue – yet another book of monsters using the same template as before. However, with the increasing popularity of Wikis, as seen via Obsidian Portal, an ideal product of this type is a setting or campaign that evolves – new material can be included, so someone can buy all the products – a book of monsters, a gazetteer, and so forth, and it would continually be updated as the setting expands.

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