If you needed some sort of evidence that PDF product for role-playing games are a force in the industry, consider this: there are currently nearly 18,000 products available on the web's largest friendly local gaming shop, DriveThruRPG.com. Over 1,000 of them are absolutely free to download. Characters, adventures, maps, out of print items, errata... the list goes on and on. Their catalog grows every day, and last time I checked, my neighborhood wasn't booming with gaming shops, friendly or otherwise. Then again, I live in Dallas, which is a gaming wasteland, so maybe my perspective is skewed.
The conversation over the benefits and pitfalls is a long and tedious one. How many gamers really roll dice with a computer in front of them? Will people buy something that they can download illegally for free? Are gaming companies better off going high end with glossy pages and hard covers? I have my own opinions on where digital downloads play in all of this, as I'm sure you do as well.
Let's discuss some of the high and low points.
To me, the prime market for PDFs is in the arena of small, bite-sized bits of gaming material. I don't think that we'll ever see old-fashioned books replaced by electronic copies, but how often have you flipped through a 200-page tome and thought, "I might use half of this." A book like that, unless I'm buying used, I'm likely to pass on altogether and make due without what good I saw in it. My cash and, frankly, my shelf space is just too limited to pick up anything that half-interests me.
The PDF market provides publishers with an interesting alternative. Why not offer a wide variety of very small products and allow the buyer to purchase only what he or she finds interesting? Rather than stringing together 20 ten-page sections within a sourcebook, why not offer ten different articles for sale through a digital distributor? In this sort of arrangement, the publisher isn't looking to cut good material or add in extra fluff to meet specific page counts. Each can be produced as its own compact product, and consumers get to cut down on the buyer's remorse that comes with getting a sourcebook home and realizing that this $40 book isn't going to be of much help in the current campaign.
Lost in the flood
The biggest pitfall, I think, is that while there is a vast amount of PDF material out there, and it's great that self-publication allows anyone to see put their work on the market, there is a lot of not-so-great stuff out there that dilutes the overall quality of the pool. It's only natural. With self-publication, a lot of material that might have been screened out by professional editors or more discerning publishers is available right there alongside the real gems. I think that this has created the perception amongst many gamers that digital products are generally of lower quality than what they can find on a shelf. While I don't think that's true, it's easy to see how one might come to that conclusion.
The solution to this, in my mind, is that self-publishers must hold themselves to high standards if they are going to ask money for their work. Documents need to be laid out in a professional-looking manner and stick to existing publishing conventions for formatting, font size, document white space, and old-fashioned grammar and spelling. This includes sticking with the presentation that gamers expect, such as illustrations, maps, charts, and tables. Electronic publishers can't allow a different standard for their products than do traditional publishers. In fact, given how easy it is to fix errors in an ebook or other PDF, digital publishers should be held to a higher standard.
What do you think?
So, I'd be curious to know what everyone else thinks on the matter. What do you look for in a PDF product? Where do you buy them? Do you print them out or read them on your computer screen? Is illustration important? What sort of price point do you look for? Do I have it all wrong, above?
Let's hear it!