As the PDF version of Adventures in Oz: Fantasy Roleplaying Beyond the Yellow Brick Road nears completion, one of the things that must be addressed is data piracy. More specifically, how afraid should I be that my book will be pirated?
The answer seems to be a fairly qualified “not very.”
In spite of what some people claim, a pirate copy is not necessarily a lost sale. There are a couple of reasons for this:
Some people download pirated RPGs as a form of “free trial.” If they like the game, they will purchase it legitimately. A few small publishers will even include a note in their games to the effect of “I know you pirated this. I’m just a regular joe like you trying to make it in this business. Please help a guy out by paying for this.” in order to encourage this effect.
Also, there are those who say that the people who pirate RPGs weren’t going to pay for them anyway. They just like raiding torrent sites to see what they can get for free. One story I read has a guy joining an online session of an RPG, only to discover that the Narrator of the game had pirated the rulebooks. He also noticed that the Narrator was very poorly organized and didn’t know the rules as well as a Narrator should. This player came to the conclusion that since the Narrator hadn’t paid for the book, he wasn’t invested in it and didn’t really care about the game he was running.
This makes a degree of sense. One of my favorite old saws is “The Story of the $20 Kittens.” Now you might have seen someone giving away free kittens from a cardboard box outside the grocery store or something similar. The person who told me this story saw a similar scene, but rather than saying “Free Kitenz”, the sign on the cardboard box read “Kittens $20.” Now these kittens weren’t terribly different from the free variety, so my source felt compelled to ask what made these kittens so special.
The people selling the kittens explained that if they gave the kittens away for free, the people who received them would not attach value to the kitten, and potentially mistreat them. But if you give the kitten a cost, it therefore has value. And a valued kitten will get a much better home than one that does not have a value attached.
Another reason not to fear piracy: I’m just a small fish in a pretty big pond. If AiO is getting pirated, I tend to view it as a sign of success. There’s enough of a demand that someone found a value in making it available via pirate channels.
And all of the potential headache is worth it for the payoff it creates. Putting the game up on PDF sites increases the places it is available by 4 or 5. The lack of manufacturing costs means that I can sell it for less while still making money.
Some of the biggest marketing successes of the last two years have been due to PDFs. In 2009, Paizo Publishing released the electronic version of the rulebook for their Pathfinder RPG for only $9.99. Considering that the print version had an MSRP of $49.99 (it was a full-color, very thick hardcover book), this made a lot of progress towards making Pathfinder one of the RPGs to watch ever since.
Some publishers take advantage of the format to release books before they’re technically ready. Since PDF retailers allows their customers to re-download the file if the publishers revise them, those early adopters are not left out in the cold. Steve Jackson Games has taken to releasing the PDF first and encouraging their customers to report errata for the book before it is sent to the printers. Evil Hat released their Dresden Files RPG electronically before the layout was finalized.
While I’m tempted to try something like this (I do have a preliminary draft of the PDF), I do not feel confident that I can pull off the same stunt. Since this is my first product and I do not have an established reputation, the first impression people will have of me will be the game that I release. If that is imperfect, or not the best it could be, then my chances of eventual success will be much reduced.