Thursday 21 April 2016

On the economics of paper

Digest or large format? That is the question.
And yeah, White Wolf made that one on the right for me, and only me.
Just to say that yeah, we're still in layout, and for the first time in this whole project, I've... made a compromise. But this lets me talk about the format of role-playing games and how it's been shaped.

OK, look. The shape of a book has always been subject to economics. The book as we know it (specifically the sort of book to which the Romans gave the name codex as opposed to the more commonly used liber, a book in scroll form) became a thing because the early Christians a) were generally working class; b) tended to have a lot of books, some of which – only some of which – got compiled into the Bible. And you know what the main thing is about a book with covers and a binding compared to a scroll on a wooden roller? You can write on both sides of the paper.

We have books with covers and spines because they were cheaper than scrolls.

This is pertinent.

The 1977 Monster Manual
Traditionally, inasmuch as 40-odd years is a tradition, RPG books have tended to be of a large format. 8.5"x11", or A4, or whatever. Whether they've been hardback or softback is a matter of fashion; Advanced Dungeons & Dragons mostly had its most important manuals as hardbacks, and its supplements a mix of saddle-stitched pamphlets and perfect-bound softbacks, all large format. Most game publishers in the US tended to make their books about that size by the late 80s.
Late 80s softback manuals.
By the mid 90s the accepted norm was a fat hardback or softback as your main manual, and softback supplements.
Early 90s hardback manual, softback supplement.
In the 2000s, Wizards of the Coast started publishing all their D&D supplements as hardbacks (starting at 3.5 edition) and only changed that policy in around 2010 when they experimented with 6"x9" digests and boxsets containing softback and saddle-stitched books (alongside maps, counters, cards and goodies of that kind).  White Wolf's 2004 reboot of the World of Darkness started a policy of all hardbacks all the time (which is why my Shelf of Shame is laden with hardback books).
2000s hardback supplements.
I don't have data to back this up, but I suspect that one of the reasons that those original AD&D hardbacks were large format manuals is because of cost. TSR was a small publisher with a large demand on its hands, and the simple fact is that it's cheaper to print a book with fewer pages, even if the pages are bigger. When you factor in things like margins, illustrations and stuff, you find that a page that's maybe three quarters the size of a bigger one can sometimes only hold about half the information.

In the UK in the 80s, this was different, mainly because of the way that game books like Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf were so popular here, and because mass-market publishers like Penguin (via its young people's imprint, Puffin) and Corgi got in on the action, games like Dragon Warriors, the Fighting Fantasy RPG and Maelstrom were published as mass-market paperbacks.
Yeah, it's tatty, but seriously, it's 32 years old.
Appreciate that in the 1980s, role-playing games were such a thing that Fighting Fantasy and Maelstrom and the like shifted hundreds of thousands of units in the UK, and about half of all the boys I knew in school had one lying around. It's unthinkable the way games are now. The fact is that British gamers of a certain age think very fondly of Dungeoneer! and Dragon Warriors. No, this didn't catch on, but this was because they didn't capture the US market rather than because they weren't popular.

The point is that as the games industry waxed and waned, the large format book became normative, whether hardback or softback. Games rulebooks stayed within roughly the same price ballpark for a very long time, partly influenced in my opinion by industry leaders like White Wolf and Wizards of the Coast selling their corebooks cheaply in the early 2000s as loss leaders. It's only recently that book prices have risen in line with inflation. 
Artisanal digests.
The indie games scene that kicked off in 2002 with Sorcerer, and later Prime Time Adventures, The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach, Dogs in the Vineyard and others has tended to have its games published in a smaller, trade paperback format. This isn't the same as the British mass-market books, these being high-end, almost artisanal collector's items, and highly priced with it (in a games shop in Cardiff on Monday I saw a copy of Jason Morningstar's Fiasco, a small two-colour paperback that was nonetheless priced at £18). My own 2009 game MSG™ (which is still available here and you should buy it) is digest-sized, although it's on the cheaper end of that. Which isn't saying much.

I have sometimes wondered if these lovely home made digests are deliberately designed to look a little out of the reach of the usual gamer, the way that a farmer's market aims for a certain kind of clientele. They have a subdued, tasteful farmer's market sort of feel to them. They don't look out of place on shelves next to my "proper" books.

I've been thinking about this in laying out Chariot

I was really keen to have Chariot as a 6"x9" trade paperback. I like digests. There's something about the smaller books that pleases me aesthetically. I loved the heft, quality and layout of the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials paperbacks, for instance. But, in laying it out, it became apparent to me that it was going to hit 300 pages; the print-on-demand cost of premium colour print (the cheap colour print is out of the question, it being barely better than newsprint) would have wiped my budget off the map. So, it's going to be an 8"x10" softback now, which in dimension is roughly the size of the European albums as recently reprinted in English by Humanoids, Sloth, Self-Made Hero and the like, which appeals to me because European comics are a thing I like. Having a page 51mm wider and 25mm taller... well, look (I should say that there isn't as much white space on the output file because the image output here included the bleed).
6"x9" (click for a closer look)

8"x10" (click for a closer look)
Only slightly bigger, the 8"x10" page has nearly twice as much text on it, text that's the same size, 11.5pt with 14pt leading. That slows down a little - both face a full page illustration, for example, but still, what that means is that by the time I get to the end of the rules section, I'm on page 164 in the smaller one and 108 in the bigger. This saving on paper means that (and this is an estimate) the bigger book will be, ideally, between 180 and 200 pages, and that will mean that – yay! – I come in under budget.