I tend to be pretty transparent here at Gaming Ballistic, perhaps even too much so. Still, it came as a surprise to me – though it was, in a Rumsfeldian sense, a known unknown – just what it took to make a game. For example, I had always thought that print games were simply much more expensive to design and produce than PDF, and the casual derision occasionally flung at PDFs on some boards reinforced that.
Turns out that with modern publishing methods, at least for me, the only difference between “make it a PDF” and “make it print” is your InDesign output settings. Exaggeration? Perhaps, but not by much. The print costs are non-trivial, true. But they’re also not nearly the bulk of the cost.
There was a discussion of “Production Values” on the SJG Forums, where I offered to lay down what my estimates of costs were to make a game. It’s not universal – every company is different, I’m sure. There will be a lot of “from X to Y” in it, because sometimes you pay what you have to, and sometimes you pay what you want to. It’s also going to include some things that many small companies don’t “pay” for, because they do it out of sweat equity. I do this myself, and it’s probably not smart.
Linear and Non-Linear Costs
Many of the things here are what I’d call linear costs. They scale very directly on a per-word basis, or indirectly, in that you don’t technically pay by the word, but you might pay by the page, or have an average number of things you have to do based on layout, which will put a certain number of words on a page.
I’m going to use Lost Hall of Tyr as my primary example in most cases. Mostly because start to finish, it’s completely done, and I have a very good idea of what I spent on it, having maintained my spreadsheet and updated it as “projected cost” turned to “real cost.” If you really wanted to get good, first make your budgetary sheet, and then copy it and lock it, and make “actual expenses” a separate tracking item.
One of the largest influencers of your book’s total length, and therefore cost, is the layout style. Depending on your page format (common ones are digest [5.5×8.5], A5, 6×9, US Letter, and A4) you’ll have a different amount of print area, and much of that isn’t going to be usable, due to margin and binding requirements.
Here’s a gross example:
|Style||Width||Height||Area||Print Area||Useable %||Relative WPP|
A few things here. This table suggests that if one can get (say) 600 words per page on a US Letter style printout, you can probably get 500 out of a digest style. I’m not sure I buy it; the graphical needs of the layout tend to trump raw math. As an example, Lost Hall is 8.5×11; the manuscript contained 20,332 words, and that part of the content laid out from p. 5 to p. 52, or 48 pages. That includes art, spacing, and all sorts of layout stuff, but it’s also only 425 words per page.
You can do “better” in terms of words per page. Apples to apples, my PDF viewer says every word in LHoT is 23,711 words, while Technical Grappling is 43,467. LHoT is 62 pages, but 9 pages of that are full-page pieces of art or spacing, for 53 pages of content ; TG is 50 the same way. So 385 words per page inclusive of art, and 450 exclusive. TG clocks in at 860 words per page, and SJG is rather famous for high page density. They ask us to assume 850 WPP for Pyramid, and you can see that’s what they did for TG (and it may be unusually high, as TG has effectively no art it it at all).
Point is, layout matters for page count, and ultimately, many of the things you can do graphically will vastly increase page count. Filling a page with solid text without much in the way of breaking up the text in terms of large pictures will push to the 800 WPP range; a more relaxed way will get down near 450. Some of my layout choices in LHoT were deliberately sparse – monster writeups, for example, feature a lot of white space, and my margins and borders are wide. 1.125″ on top and bottom from the trim line, 3/4″ gutter margin (that’s actually a bit thin), and 3/4″ outer margin (normal). Technical Grappling uses about 0.5″ on top, 0.75″ on the bottom, and 3/4″ left and right.
From below, the Player’s Handbook for 5e is 213,000 words and 320 pages: 665 words per page. So a 600 word per page average probably isn’t a bad call.
In any case, you can easily double a page count by layout choices, and I’ll note that.
Obviously, the first thing you need is a manuscript. This article from 2015 on ENWorld (so may be out of date) collected a lot of information on freelance writer rates, from an unacceptable “free, or for exposure” to the highest rates listed being 0.07 per word for Paizo, and in special cases Rite Publishing goes to 0.11 per word. I usually budget 0.05 per word when I do my stuff.
Ah, so you’ve written a book! Great. Until it’s edited, it’s likely not worthy of reading. Oh, sure, you’re a great writer, yadda yadda yadda.
Bull. Hire an editor. It’ll be worth it. Rates here go from about 0.01 to as high as 0.055 or so per word, though I’m sure you can pay both more and less. The editorial freelance association says rates are $30-60 per hour, 1-10 manuscript pages per hour, depending on how heavy an edit is required, and an industry-standard 250 words per page (double-spaced, in an easy-to-read largeish font). That’s a low of 0.015 to a high that’s kinda ridiculous, so we’ll cap it at 0.11, the same rate as a writer. In my limited experience, 0.035 per word is a fair expectation, with 0.02 to 0.05 being a solid range that will get you quality output. John Adamus, who edited LHoT was in the 0.03 to 0.06 per word range and he’s fantastic.
So ultimately, getting a manuscript in shape is worth 0.04 to 0.22 cents per word, with a reasonable middle at about $0.08. If we assume about 600 words per page, that means the writing alone will run about $50 per page in development costs. A full-sized 256-page book will thus run about $13,000.
How many words? Depends. Full-sized 8.5×11 books with 250 pages or more tend to be several hundred thousand words. This page says the PDF for the 5e Player’s Handbook is 213,000 words, which means that at the “average” rates I quoted above (more on that in a moment), such a script would be about $17,000. WotC pays more, and can afford more for editing. They also have in-house staff writers . . . which seems like a good thing, but then you have to pay overhead, which can be 50-100% of salary when you bake it all in. I’d guess it was closer to 0.15 to 0.20 per word when all was said and done . . . as much as $42,600.
A good index can make or break a game. I’ve seen indexing ballparked as $3-7 per page, which means for our book we’re looking at $750-1800.
This is trickier. Some folks will charge per page (and given my limited experience with InDesign, this is eminently fair; you do work on each page). Some charge by the hour (I don’t like this, but I get it). Others bill out a flat rate based on your project description, which usually means the layout person estimates the number of hours your work will take, applies their hourly rate to it, marks it up as the expectation for “oh, just one more tweak” is impossible to resist for the project manager, and quotes that. That’s my preferred way to go, but each freelancer will do their own thing, which is their business.
The bid I got for Lost Hall of Tyr was very competitive. So much so, I wound up paying Todd a 100% bonus for the work because he did a fantastic job. All told, looking at both Dungeon Grappling and Lost Hall of Tyr, my ballpark for this one is on the order of $10 per page. For a major project like Dragon Heresy (estimated 750-800 pages), folks charged less, likely because the number of “special” pages that require a lot of work doesn’t scale with linear pages.
I’m going to make some stuff up here a bit, and say that you’ll pay between 50 and 200 bucks times the square root of the page count. Given our middle-of-the-road figures here, this means for a 256-page book, about a multiplier of 125, for a “middle ground” cost of $2,000. That’s higher than what I’ve paid in the past, but it’s also in the range of the bids I’ve received; the lower prices I got for higher page-count work involved significant bundling of services.
Don’t confuse graphic design with layout – they’re frequently done together but are different skills. I feel like I could be a decent layout guy once I master the tools. I will never be a good graphic designer, as that’s way too much art skill for me. Michael Clarke, Nathan Paoletta, and Todd Crapper all do a great job with both at once. The higher price multipliers above in my experience have included graphic design.
I’d love to hear from other folks on pricing estimates and quotes.
For now, we’ll say our 256-page book will have 154,000 words in it, and cost $800-3200 for layout. Middle ground: $2,000.
This is a hard one. At the low end, you can have nothing but text and white space. At the high end, well, how much money do you want to burn?
The PHB has full-color art on very nearly every page. The exception within the book is in the spell lists, which can go for many spreads (a left/right page pair) with nothing but a giant wall of text. They do intersperse some art, sometimes full-page, here and there.
For price, I’ve seen full-page color as low as $50 per page (I told that guy to raise his prices), and as high as $2,000 per full page. That’s for non-exclusive use.
In general, expect an artist to charge for size and complexity; some favor size, others don’t care how big it is, only how complex. Both are fair ways for the artist to price their work. Expect color work to be roughly double the price of black and white as a rule of thumb, and if you want exclusive use, it goes up (sometimes a lot, like 4x), and if it’s on a cover, artists will usually charge more as well (1.5-2.5x).
My own spreadsheet varies between a low of $50 and a high of $1200, and I have in fact paid $1,000 for a single page of art before. And considered myself lucky to get it at that price.
We’ll cut to the chase here. I’d expect cover art to run between $500 (that would be low) to $2000 per image, and I can easily see going higher than that. Your cover is your centerpiece. Oh, and don’t forget that it’s usually graphically complex and will have to be placed into a proper layout as well – the work isn’t over when the picture is done.
Covers tend to be an important part of product identity – it’s the image that will define the work. So such images are frequently “work for hire,” where the publisher wants exclusive use of that image related to only the product being worked. It’s not always the case (I remember an RPG book where I also saw the cover image on a novel). But most artists will increase their price accordingly: they should. They will probably receive no more revenue for that work once it’s done.
I tend to budget $1000 per image, and I’m a small-fry. This could easily go higher than that. Let’s assume I’m on the lower end, and say that a glorious cover will be $2,000-4,000. There’s no real upper limit here.
The way I do this is to ask myself what I want the average art density to be. A high density would be one or more images on every spread, such as some of the images in the Player’s Handbook (and I keep using that as an example because WotC and Paizo both have seemingly unlimited resources – though that’s not remotely true – to spend on production values to outright owning 35-50% each of the RPG market) that cover the top 33% of both left and right (verso and recto) pages of a spread. Not all spreads are like that, though, but looking through 14 pages in the front of the book, I see at least a total of 6-7 full pages worth of art. That’s an art density of nearly 50%. As we noted, though, other chapters, like spells, are a lot less. 4 pages of art over 36 pages of text. That’s only 11%.
Note that this level of art density is included in the words-per-page above. Still, you’re talking art densities of 10-50%, or rather 1 full page of art per 10 pages of manuscript down to 1 page per 2 pages.
That second one is probably unsustainable, though it’d be pretty. An art-heavy book, though, might reasonably have a full-column (half-page) piece of art every spread, for an upper bound of 1 full page per 4 pages sustained. On the lower end, 1 per 10.
And this is where production values really come in. Black and White line art is probably anywhere from $50-500 per page. Color painting is $100-2,000 per page (yes, it varies that much). I’d say “you get what you pay for,” but that’s not entirely right, because the art also has to fit the feel of the book, and that’s where Art Direction comes in.
So: black and white, sparse art density would look like $50-500 per 10 pages of book. Our 256-page example would thus have an art budget of $1,280 to $12,800. I’d say $3,200 for this in black and white.
Color you’re looking at $150 to $2,000 per full page, and at high art density, one could be dealing with 64 full pages of art: $10-40,000 for a 256-page book.
So depending on where you want to go, your book could cost $1,500 (in round numbers) or it could cost upwards of $40,000. A low of about $6 per page, and a high of $155 per page.
Let’s say for this example we pick something in the middle. A full page of art every 7 pages, or between a quarter and a third of a page of art every spread. So open the book, and there will be about a 30% of one page of art looking at you. Let’s assume $500 per full page for color. Our art budget is $18,000.
Art will make or break your budget. Full stop.
Someone needs to go through and write up art specs for each image in the layout. They need to contact and hire artists. Lots of things. I did some poking around and as a guess, the Art Direction will cost you about 20% of your spend on all graphical elements: layout, graphic design, cover art, and interior art. What are the elements that we’ve got so far:
Graphic Design and Layout: $2,000; Cover Art: $3,000; Interior Art: $18,000. Total picture stuff about $23,000, which means about $4,600 in budget for Art Direction.
Note where we are now: $15,000 for a written-and-edited-and-indexed manuscript ($60 per page), and another $22,500 in art ($90 per page)
The project manager’s time is valuable too. I usually budget around the same fee I see for Kickstarters: about 5% of total project costs. That’s almost certainly low given what I do in my own stuff. But for the roughly $40,000 we’re about to spend, expect project management time and effort to be on the order of $2,000 to $4,000.
Kickstarter, Backerkit, etc all take their cut. What this means is you usually can expect to need about 10% more money than you think, since you’ll lose 8-10% off the top in transaction fees. That increases the required revenue to $165 per page.
Some of these costs are non-linear, but many are not. Even so, we’re talking all-in costs on the order of $150 per page just to get the book into PDF shape, for either digital or print distribution. My two books were roughly 50 and 60 pages. That would indicate $7500 and $9000 costs to make them.
Is that right?
Well . . . I didn’t pay myself up front. At all. I spent $5,000 in raw cash costs on DG, and close to $6,500 on LHoT. So I think that’s in the not-wrong category.
This is also just my experience and estimates. Each company will do things their own way. But I could easily see per-page costs at a low of about $50 for dense layout that’s primarily text (think Advanced Dungeons and Dragons from the old days) and as much as $300-450 per page for a book like the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, or the WotC 5e books, because of overhead. My own costs don’t talk about teams of writers or artists, such as was mentioned by the Industry Pro guy on the GenCon panel I sat on alongside Andreas Walters. Extra complexity is extra cost.
Oh . . . and we haven’t even touched printing, shipping, and marketing.
In my example above, to make (for example) a 224-page Dragon Heresy Introductory set, with 120,000 words, my all-in costs are probably going to look like $37,000. How much of that can I not pay myself? Probably $10-15 less (!!). So I can probalby make the book for $20-25,000 if I fit the middle of the road stuff above, which is “write checks” on the order of $100 per page.
What about you?
I can only state what my experiences and research lead me. Other folks and designers will have different experiences. I’d love to hear from others for different perspective. If I’m way off on the above . . . I can learn where I can do things differently!