Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Adventures in PoD publishing

Getting a book published in the OneBookShelf family of sites (drivethrurpg et al.) is relatively easy, all things considered. Style Sheets, guides and all the data one can think of are readily available and the team is quite fast and capable as well (not a sponsor, I'm just happy with them ...). When it gets down to the nitty-gritty (interesting little sidetrack on those words, btw) it can still get tricky. Especially if you have strange ideas like going Print on Demand only, like yours truly did. So here I write about my failings for you to avoid in the future (or something like this).

Why only PoD, though?

It needs a justification, of sorts. I think (and people asked, so there's that). Short answer: this was layouted with print in mind, so that's what you get. Claiming that there isn't much of a difference between a print book and a pdf shows a lack of understanding of both forms of media, imo. A proper book will make less sense as a pdf and vice versa.

Arguably, they should be two very different entities, considering how differently they will be used. Print will need a format that is limited by what a reader can handle, digital is limited by the device it is read on. Print needs a very different structure for the information it present than digital does (print references pages, for instance, digital might have searchable terms, and so on). Print is an object with a certain usability, look and habtic, pdf can be a living document with lots of possibilities to change and expand, actually - unless you try acting like it's a "printed book" ... I guess you see my trajectory at this point.

Epubs actually already show what's possible, or at least a direction. Text isn't ficxed to pages, but conforms to the display instead. Font size can be adjusted, you can have comments written into the book, there is a metastructure to access different information clusters. But Epubs aren't "objects". They are an arrangement of files and it's difficult for such a format to be anything other than a collection of information. No art, no layout, just interconnected words. However, that's not only totally alright, it's an important distinction.

Now, when we are talking novels or stories in general, plain text is all you get, so going Epub is perfect if you are going for content alone. With a good reader it's almost like reading a proper book. But we all know that there is a difference. Even at that basic level a printed book can be far superior to the same content presented in an e-reader (or, worse yet, on a computer screen). With a little care put into layout, paper and cover, reading can be a joy unmatched by the digital experience.

To have a rpg book like that, right? [source]

To some degree this is taste, but there are so many options a printed book has that are superiour to what digital can do right now, that taste really doesn't cut it as an argument. And as far as I'm aware, people are still buying far more printed books than digital ones. Significantly more (check the US market alone (here at statista): 675m printed versus 191m epub!).

Furthermore, print is not only its own thing, it's also an object you own and to do with whatever you want. It's not in a cloud that might go kaputt or be corrupted or change ownership, it's protected from being altered by anybody other than the owner after the fact (even the author, but also big corp or politics), you can borrow it to others, you can read it again 20 years later, actually, your children might be able to read the book after you are long gone ...

Printed books are objects that can have character. We have in our library the version of Goethe's Faust I my wife's grandfather had with him during the war. I own several different prints of the Tao Te Ching, same content but with nuances that make each publication unique and worthwhile. You just don't have that with digital files.

Life goals ... [source]

And that's just as classic an argument as you can get in this regard. Today it's even more distinct. In a society that tries to tell you that you don't have to own anything other than (maybe) the rights to use something (and even that limited to time or number of users or format), owning a printed book is a form of autonomy that gets more and more threatened by big businesses that really don't want you to have any form of agency at all. 

This trend is already so imminent in the digital sphere that people actually start going back to buying DVDs/Blue-Rays and games and all that as hard copies, just to be left alone at home (while streaming services are trying to have your living room scanned for the number of viewers and bullshit like that, I kid you not). Google listens to everything and not only reads your mail, but also offers to correct it for political correctness, facebook films your face to see what mood you are in and sells that information to advertisers, game companies want you to pay for every minute you play and some extra for good measure.

There's also a flood of content, and not only the newest or "best", but also bullshit content that gets offered for no other merit than that someone wanted you to be pestered with it. Look at Netflix, for instance: a sea of mediocre content that you can't really structure or control yourself, with shifting licenses and even occassionally alterted scenes for good measure. So bad, it's unbearably difficult to find even casual entertainment, never mind something resembling quality.

And we are not even starting to talk about how hard it got for small content creators to be "just" seen ... 

Big Corp being nice to you ... [source]

Anyway, I digress. The bottom line is, if it's digital, it's in constant flux AND control is out of the hands of those creating as well as those owning (if you are even allowed to own it). If it's digital, you almost expect that it is an unfinished product, that some update will come along, some form of alteration will happen sooner or later. So why bother? Why care beyond superficial browsing?

I have several GB of rpg pdfs on my drives. Haven't really looked closely at more than 2 % of them, but have seen the art in all of them! And those I really like, btw, I want in print ... So that's just that. Take all the above into consideration and you know why I went for PoD only. There is a rarity I really like to the fact that this is only available as print. It's also finite in that it won't change easily, and that comes with a special pressure to make it as solid a book as possible (for reading, for use at the table, etc.).

If you get this book, you'll hold in hands what I imagined it to be (for as far as that's in my control, that is). The fact that it's an actual object as well (an object you invested into, no less), will additionally make it far more likely that you will, at some point, actually sit down and give this some attention. I like my odds there.

It's just not what you'd expect, right?

At least that's my impression from my interaction with OBS. For one, while it is possible to sell PoD only (thank god! ... that'd been awkward), it's not possible to have a preview, as no actual pdf version was approved (print pdf does not count, for that matter).

That's actually a conundrum, since how are people supposed to know what they will get into without a preview. Artistic choices are all nice and dandy, but no one will buy a cat in a bag with price tag but no way to know what they'll get for the money.

The fix for this ties in nicely with reasons for why  and where pdfs can be useful after all. I'm long enough in the hobby to remember a time where you took your role-playing book to a copy shop to get some character sheets printed right out of the book itself.

No one is doing this today, or should be expected to do so, which is why I planned from the beginning to offer a pdf compilation of all the files you'd might want to have printed (they are still in the book, if you feel nostalgic about going completely old school about it). For someone actually aiming to be able to play this game at some point, it'd be a must-have download that had to be free anyway. Furtermore, it needn't be hidden behind a "mature content" curtain, as the game itself is, and the same is true for the book preview (if done properly). So adding the book preview to the supplement was an easy fix of the problem.

It's a separate file, so if you came for the supplement you can just ignore the preview. And if you came for the preview, you get files you'll need anyway if you decide to actually buy the game. It's a win-win, imo, so I went for it and you can check that out here.

One note on that publication as well (all resulting from self-made problems, for sure): I had already made the cover for the supplement as DIN A4 horizontal, but that isn't supported by OBS. Instead, it needs to be vertical to be displayed properly.

Here's the cover that didn't work ...
 Fixed easily enough, still worth knowing and noting that the cover-display file is a thing in its own right, and mustn't relate to the downloaded file at all. If you followed my line of thinking about pdfs above, you know what I'm playing at here: it's the arrangement of digital files that creates the illusion of an object while its utility and strength are actually in its fexibility.

Anyway ...

You've probably guessed it, I'm a fan of the physical book. That's a lot of my reasoning for this project, I wanted to hold it in my own hands and marvel at it. There is a whole lot more to it, however. The whole satire of the thing, the title no one will type without looking up some of the types used. The book is making it difficult and I hope you see the humor in that (I sure find things like that funny ...).

Some might be wondering if this is a viable tactic to begin with, and that's a valid question. I think the dice are still in the air about if this works out or not. That said, I make myself no illusions about the chances of one more role-playing game out there, competing with the rest (I talked here about why you might consider buying the book).

There's a flipside to that coin, though: there are people out there, trusting my work enough to get the book. Some of them might even consider making their evaluation of the book public (by sharing their enthusiasm, by giving it stars, for instance, or by writing a review) and that's just the amount of influence I have on the matter. I have no reach or clout beyond that, so those are the people I will concentrate on. If you are an indie publisher, grassroots is all you can do.

So I don't need a thousand people downloading a pdf they will skim for the art and forget about it soon afterwards. I need meaningful connections with people trusting in my work. If I manage to deliver and people end up liking my offer, it'll convince more people over time, so I'll give it my best and take my shot.

I know that at least two reviews are inbound on this (not sure how they'll take it, just knowing that they aim to share their thoughts). So stay tuned, if you are still on the fence about this.

You can get the book HERE and the supplement with the book preview HERE.

Next up, posters and mugs :)

Motive for the mug? Maybe ...


  1. I'm with you on this stand on the POD physical copy being the only way to get an author's stuff on Drivethru. I am going to make all my stuff POD only, but only after DRivethru accepts the files on my latest book. I have never had so much trouble getting files accepted than recently. But once I get these bastards to choke it down everything is going POD. Any it is because I compare a PDF to a physical copy of one of my publications and it isn't even close. The physical copy looks and feels and works so much better than a collection of 11" x 8.5" papers!

    1. Having the main book in PoD and the rest as support for printing seems to be the optimal solution for me, I guess. I will experiment with this a bit. Maybe I'll come up with a PDF concept as well. Something that can't be printed properly because it'd lose too much in the transition, just to make a point. That'd be fun :)


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