RPG Book Form Factor – Musings and a Poll

Form Factor Poll Results

So, a project that’s been percolating for quite a while has roughly doubled in size. My original plan was to have it be on the order of a 176-page digest format book, because, hey, neat! Digest!

Well, my rationale was a bit more sophisticated than that, but not that much. But the project has grown in scope, and that might engender a re-think of layout and format. Anyway, long story less long, I took a poll. Perhaps I should not have been surprised by the results, but I was.

The poll drew a lot of interest, though of course it was self-selecting, as are all polls. But of those that answered – and a sample of nearly 150 isn’t bad – the biggest conclusion I could draw right off the bat was boy am I glad I have to rethink the layout.

Still, the basic conclusion for the specs I gave, which assumes a 100,000-word manuscript, is that for a book that size, folks like letter format (or possibly A4, but I suspect it’s really “letter”) or 6×9 . . . and the uncommon 8×10 beats out the Digest/A5 formats by quite a bit.

Huh, and huh again.

There were some comments that bear addressing, too. Again: self-selection applies.

Binding Style

There are going to be preferences here. The two strongest comments had a common thread: make sure the books can lay flat on the table. For books of 88 pages and fewer in any printed form factor and 70# paper, that can be saddle stitch. If you like high-quality paper (say 105#), that page number drops to about 44. If the book gets longer, you’ll either need multiple volumes or a different binding method.

Spiral binding can get pretty darn large, but maximum size also depends on paper weight, though the limits are much higher. At 70# paper, you’re looking at over 500 pages. For 105# paper, it’s still 380 pages.

Note: I’m using PrintNinja for ballparking this stuff, which is very specific but also very fast and informative due to their online quote generator. Page counts and technology will vary by the printer’s equipment, but relatively speaking, the guidance here should be OK as a general trend. Still: if in doubt, contact your printer.

These both satisfy the lay-flat criterion. I’m not wild about the limits on book length for the first, or the optics and durability of the books for the second: I have a thick-ish coil-bound reference book, and it definitely looks amateurish (well, because it is). A thick book like that also will not have a spine, which limits the desirability of said book on the shelves of a gaming store.

PDF, ePUB/MOBI, and Print/Hardcopy

I’ve seen some very strong opinions on both sides of the electronic/hardcopy book war. Some folks simply won’t buy PDFs, as ebooks aren’t real to them. They’re worthless, or should be given away for free. Others – and two comments to the poll implied such strongly – feel that PDF is the only way to go, and that “page count is irrelevant” since it’s PDF. If the PDF is in single column or exported as a reflowable ePUB/MOBI format, this is fairly true.

But not completely true. While it is irrelevant on the customer end, on the “make the book” end, PDF is not page-count independent because it influences costs. Even if it’s digital.

While it is possible to set an art budget and just procure a certain number of images regardless of page count, at least the way I do it is to figure out how many times the user will be flipping a page without encountering an image. If you’re using public domain art, this is indeed free. If you’re commissioning art, then saying that you want every page, spread, or every third spread to have an image on it means that the cost to produce the volume will scale with page count.

Likewise, paying for layout definitely scales up with page count. Not linearly, necessarily (though I have seen some pricing quotes that are exactly that: a base cost plus a certain cost per page), but they scale.

That aside, the question I was asking here is really about the physical books and fixed layouts: non-reflowable PDF and print. The smaller form-factors (Digest, A5, and 6×9) lend themselves well to single-column layouts, possibly with the occasional sidebar and certainly with boxed text if needed. The larger formats, 8×10, US Letter, and A4, beg for multi-column layout, and some of the most interesting graphical artistry I’ve seen tends to be best enabled with larger page sizes. I’d have a hard time seeing a layout like that used in

Unequal column layout used in Symbaroum

Symbaroum done in a small form factor!

The page counts listed in the poll were not incidental. They were estimates of the number of signatures (16-pages per signature) assumed for a 100,000-word file. That same file will be very large (352 pages) in digest or A5 format, and relatively svelte in Letter (176 pages, the size of GURPS Horror for 4th edition).

Page count also very much influences print costs – especially if using print-on-demand. One look at the DriveThruRPG pricing guide – publicly available – makes this a non-trivial decision because whatever price the PDF is, you must at least cover costs if you want to keep in business as a publisher. Usually you would love to have your price set at about 5x the base cost to make a book, but for small volumes that just won’t work real well. This is also a place where offset printing comes more fully into its own, as the pricing for the materials seems to be better scaled with size.

Consider a digest, 6×9, letter version of a 100,000 word manuscript. For 70# paper, premium color, with a 12-point cover, here’s a price comparison given my assumptions. For what it’s worth, a common retail price for the letter-size book would “want to be” about $30-35 in hardcopy, and maybe $15-17 as a PDF given solid production values. The POD prices include a 20% discount for a 250+ copy order for fairness. Neither one includes shipping costs.

Word Count 100,000
Form Factor WPP Pages DriveThru PrintNinja (500) PrintNinja (5,000)
Digest 285 352 $16.61 $9.79 $2.35
6×9 330 304 $25.20 $8.97 $2.26
Letter 575 176 $17.05 $9.88 $2.41

5,000 copies? Are you for real?

Well, yeah. That’s what the Big Dogs will be looking at, and might skew decisions in a direction that small fry can’t match. I find it interesting that the 6×9 format is optimal for offset, but 1.5x more expensive for POD, for example. The 500-copy level follows the same trends with offset (no surprise).

Also, the PrintNinja prices can be a tetch deceptive, as shipping from China can be very expensive. Even so, price of 500 copies to my door in Minnesota is $12.20, and for the 5,000 copy order it’s $3.35.

First thing to note is that for books like this, print on demand is crushingly expensive from a profitability perspective. If the same retail price applies for the three formats (because it’s the same game, same content, art, production values, etc) then you will make quite a bit less for a print sale than a PDF one if you do a larger book like this through POD.

Customer Rules

If you can afford it, offset is the way to go. Cost to procure crosses over for the examples given in the neighborhood of 350 sales for digest and letter, and a whopping 200 sales for digest (maybe fewer, since you lose a quantity discount!).

Because of that, if you’re expecting to sell in that magical 350 copies or more number, the cost to procure the books might just be about the same for offset, though they seem radically different for POD. With that in mind, we come back to the poll: letter/A4, the big-format options, seem favored in this page-count/wordcount range by quite a bit. The 6×9 format is only going to be mutually attractive to both publisher and customer if it’s an offset run where the process makes up for the inefficiency of paper wastage.

So: looks like I might be keeping with letter after all, but on smaller projects where I might command 350 or more sale – perhaps even over the lifetime of the project – 6×9 offset print looks like a viable option. I suspect that in the 208-276 page range (70-90,000 words) that it is fairly nice, and also gives you a lot more spine to work with, and an attractive, distinctive spine might lead more folks to take your book off the shelf.

But I need to give serious thought to this 100,000 word project of mine, and see if an 8.5×11 format is going to be a better fit, or if nudging it from my intended digest to 6×9 is better . . . but that second call is only really viable if I also decide to go offset print.

We shall see!

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