Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Blood from a Stone

'Income Streams' is one of those ideas that I've seen appropriated by hipster marketing, but which I give some thought to anyway. The idea is that if you want to secure your financial future, you'd be well served to set up multiple sources of income ('streams') to supplement your salary. Rental properties, freelance work and financial assets that pay regular dividends are good examples of additional income streams. The idea is that the more of these you have, the more secure you are. Even if the total volume isn't huge, the diversity means you're more likely to weather a storm that might knock out one or two streams. Someone who relies on a single stream (that is to say, a salary) will pretty much live or die by that one stream.

Well and good, but where the marketers come in is in merging this with production and the internet. If you're creative, they say, you should be able to be able to make STUFF with VALUE! And because the internet allows low cost distribution and delivery of your STUFF, you can turn your creativity directly into money. And if you're not sure how to do this, then you can be sure they have no shortage of books and seminars on the topic that you can buy[1].

But that got me thinking about gaming because, to be frank, this is not the best paying gig out there despite being stuffed to the gills with smart, talented people. There are plenty of reasons for this, supply may outstrip demand for one. That it's one of the most tight-fisted of hobby markets is another. People will tell you with great authority why it is so, and so long as you grow more suspicious as they grow more certain, it can be an interesting topic.

But that got me thinking about income streams. Gaming doesn't have a lot of evergreen[2] products (written ones in particular), and it's curious to me why this is so.

Some of this is the nature of the products. Games age, die and are reborn. We have a habit of considering any game that is not currently in active distribution as "Dead" even though it's no more or less playable than it was. The net result is that everything is built on a slow churn that guarantees that almost any product will become irrelevant in time.

Some of it is the sales model. Before the Internet, there were practical limitation on shelf space in what were mostly small, private shops. Things aged and were moved into the discount bin. If something was evergreen, it only remained so for as long as the game was "alive" and it would eventually just vanish.

Some of it may be that there aren't many products with the potential to be evergreen. Setting aside the birth and death of game systems, there are not a huge number of systemless books out there which are as useful now as they were ten years ago. There are some (Grimtooth's traps, Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering and Nightmare's of Mine, to name a few) but they have historically run into problems with distribution or availability. Even if players want them, there's nothing saying they're necessarily available.

But that's all changed of late.

While WOTC has managed to kick the idea of e-publishing in the junk, there are still many many games that are now available through different channels, from digital download to print on demand to direct distribution or distribution through small outfits like IPR. With this, a lot of the barriers that might keep a product from being evergreen have been removed.[3] There's still a shortage of products designed for longevity, but that seems self correcting.

As it stands, I think the only real limiter remaining is the pdf.

PDFs have a lot of advantages, but they are mostly advantages that any other digital format would share (durability, portability, ease of storage and so on). In contrast, a lot of the limitations of PDF are not necessarily something that other formats will share. Formats that are designed for reading, rather than to simply emulate the printed page, are going to have a much longer shelf life as reading devices become more ubiquitous. Today it's the kindle. In a week it's going to be the iPad. In a year, it'll be something else. But whatever form the technology takes, we would be well served to consider the utility of books that are going to be able to be used by the next generation of readers, not merely displayed on backwards compatible devices with big enough screens.

Which brings us back to income streams. A sale now is good, be it print or PDF, and it's easy to just leave it there. Gaming products are fringy, and there's no way to be sure that your product would keep selling after that initial burst of interest. And all I can say s this: if that's how you make your decision, you can be sure you're going to be right.

So here's my question to everyone who hopes that maybe that thing they wrote today might still make them a few bucks in five or ten years: why aren't you writing an ebook?

1 - I sound cynical because I am. I still read marketing books because they're often useful, but it's important to remember that the primary argument for how marketing is really about passion and authenticity and storytelling comes from the marketers. Seriously, I'd like to believe. It really is easy to market something you're genuinely passionate about, because then the challenge is figuring out how to communicate that passion. Heck, it's even kind of cool to market for someone else's genuine passion, because you can try to capture that. But if you ever, for a second, think that's what the bulk of marketing is, I suggest you watch a beer ad sometime.

But I'm not upset about this, I'm really not. Marketers gotta get paid, same as anyone else, and I can't really object to them realizing that the thing they really benefit from marketing is marketing itself. But I'm disinclined to line up to celebrate it.

2 - An evergreen product is one that will keep selling every year, in contrast to a bestseller which may sell big for a year, then dwindle to no sales over the next few years. The Lord of the Rings novels, for example, are evergreen. Every bookstore carried them because you could always count on a steady flow of sales. Note that this can be a little fuzzy. Some game _lines_ are evergreen
(Cthulu, D&D) but the actual products are not. Similarly, dice are evergreen, but I doubt any particular dice are.

3 - Though some have been replaced. With a million zillion products available, it it easy for a potentially evergreen product to simply disappear.


  1. I'm not putting out ebooks (in the ePub format sense) because the dust hasn't settled on that particular format war -- the feature-set isn't even stable, and the reader software by and large is still at a very immature stage. It is extra effort, especially when I come from a stance where the visual presentation of the data is nearly as or as important as the data itself. That's why I don't think PDF's going to die out in favor of the ePub-derived craze; publishers will continue to demand a high level of format control for certain presentations. To be sure, there are some products coming out in PDF that could be just as well served by going into an ePub format ... but it's not all of them, and I'm not sure there are many I would immediately class as better served by going into that format.

  2. We wrestled with this issue for several months (you probably recall the series of blog posts at blue collar space on exactly this topic) before finally deciding to go with PDF. Ultimately the issue is layout.

    Games are layout-rich. The audience expects interesting layout and at the same time the text is trying to meet three distinct objectives (entertainment, pedagogy, and reference) and generally needs rich layout to succeed. It's further delivering significant information about tone through layout and artwork. There is no extant reflowable ebook format that satisfies this need.

    At this time the reflowable forms are AWESOME for layout-light content like fiction. They are still too anemic for use with games and textbooks. This has to get addressed at some point because on all other counts (except correlation, which is only a big deal as long as print remains) PDF is a lame duck for all the reasons you mention and more.

    It's a slippery beast and will remain so for some time yet.

  3. I think what's interesting in the potential "transition" from a paginated form (like PDF) to a non-paginated form is that we're looking at a form of data presentation -- in terms of the physical factor -- that got replaced by an upgrade.

    To make that less muddled, I'm saying this: PDFs are to books as ePub/eBooks (and in fact most webpages) are to scrolls.

    Scrolls got an upgrade when books came along. So the question is whether or not the vibe that PDFs should be replaced by eBooks is a backwards one.

    The physical-form analogy doesn't 100% line up, of course; scrolls were never elastic things where you could resize the typeface on the fly. But, especially after well over a decade of watching webpages go through their various contortions of utility, I'm far from thinking the idea of a page is getting outdated any time soon.

  4. @Fred and Brad - You both make totally valid points, but I think they illustrate that we're really on the cusp of change. That means it's a time of chaos and change, but for the individual creator (who has the most freedom in what he can do) that also means it's a time for opportunity.

    To take layout as an example, I absolutely agree it's a priority, but that's exactly the problem that the magazine companies are in the process of solving. It might be a year or three, but there is eventually going to be a standard for allowing reflow AND format control, and at that point, PDF starts turning into baggage.

    For all that, this is not me saying that Dresden or Diaspora should be a guinea pig for this. But somebody will be, and if you're a writer, it's worth asking why that shouldn't be you.

    -Rob D.

  5. What I really want is a format that encapsulates both the PDF style format control as one "mode", and the ePub reflowable text as a second "mode". Click one button, export both as a package, and provide; if the reader is having trouble following or viewing the content in one mode, flip modes; maybe the other has achieved clarity. Short of that I'm not convinced we won't be choosing one set of warts over another.

  6. Tangentially: given the extremely standardized layout of the 4e books, it's going to be a crying shame if they don't decide to go epub on the ipad. They'd still be lovely, they'd get all the DRM they want, and people would absolutely rebuy them, DDI or no DDI.

  7. @Fred As i think about it, there's a really interesting underlying issue here that is, I think, summed up in the phrase "publishers will continue to demand". I suspect this battle will get shaken out on much bigger battlegrounds than RPG publishing, but the question whether it's the publisher or the consumer's demands that will carry the day is a pretty big one.

    Of course, what the consumer's demands ARE is still the big outstanding question.

  8. @Fred, I think the reason that the page has supplanted the scroll, though, is largely one of mechanism: the book is easier to wield than the scroll, easier to correlate, and easier to move both back and forth in. For strict linear reading, the scroll remains pretty awesome -- it's just that we've standardized on books.

    So now reflowable text presents us with something that has all the benefits of the scroll, but potentially also all the benefits of the codex, which is exciting. This looks like a scroll only because current forms are pretty primitive and because the scroll has many advantages.

    I agree we're on a cusp but I think 3 years is pretty low. Maybe 10. There's no reflowable format on the horizon that actually addresses all the relevant issues for all kinds of existing text. There are tons that address the paperback and make it a million times better, but the paperback is a trivial case.

    Ultimately we will see something that is a scroll internally but that the technology to display (now a book) has the flexibility to correlate, to paginate, and to present sophisticated layout and typographic choices. I see no contenders today. They have to come, though.

  9. @brad I am willing to bet that within a year of magazine and comic distribution on the ipad taking off, you'll have reason to shorten your projected timeline.

  10. It seems trivially easy to me to create an epub format that answers the layout issue, e.g., simple commands to anchor a graphic next to a particular bit of text regardless of where it ends up, chapter headers after a break, standardized "section" lengths based on screen-inches or some such, etc. It is only a matter of time before someone--probably Adobe, natch--develops the pdf format of the ebook future. A year, maybe two, tops.

  11. Indications seem to be pretty strong that when comic books on the iPad take off, it'll be through a proprietary app, no? I'm not sure that accelerates much of anything other than the employment of software developers.

  12. @Justin, I hear what you're saying, but consider the latest Dresden Files download & layout -- there are elements of proximity and juxtaposition that I don't see happening as easily, as artfully, or as correctly in a reflowable format.

  13. @Fred Sure, I suspect the first improvements will be in proprietary and closed systems, but those will create ideas for how things should look and work. Emulation is MUCH faster than innovation.

  14. The thing I see progressing from that point (with comic books) is a software vendor producing a drag-and-drop solution for creating an iPad app that acts as a paginated document viewer. Comic books and the like don't reflow -- so if emulation and imitation is the natural product, paginated content is going to be a big component of what's to come.

  15. It's also worth noting that Dresden is not just well-laid out, it's explicitly laid out as an *artifact*, so the fact that it's a poor candidate for a different style isn't too much of a shock. The current Vampire clanbooks would have very much the same problem. But I don't think it's a universal problem. There are a lot of good layout styles (Silver Age Sentinels jumps to mind) which could make the transition reasonably intact. Yes, there would still be hurdles, but far fewer than an artifact layout (awful term, but I think you know what I mean) would introduce.

  16. We're probably largely in violent agreement, here. I'm saying that artifact layouts need to continue to be supported in addition to reflowable, and if they're not, the "transition" is failing.

  17. As far as Dresden goes today, We're 100% in agreement. I'm just not entirely sure how true that will remain. It is entirely possible that physical book layout will remain sufficiently dominant that ebooks will need to remain secondary to the sorts of layout and presentation that physical books are capable of. But that's not the only possibility.

    There's a chance (and on a long enough timeline, maybe an inevitability) that ebooks will become enough of a standard that really badass print layout will get sacrificed on the altar of compatibility. This happens a lot when technology brings about a change - the very best skill and artistry of the old way becomes an afterthought in the face of the new way to do things.

    We're obviously not there now, so it's no direct reflection on Dresden, but in N years? After all, 99% of books are not laid out as thoroughly as Dresden is - if the norm starts to move to reflowable text as the dominant model, is there a point at which it drags us along by sheer mass?

  18. I guess. I'm just looking at all the things that have happened with webpages over the course of 10+ years and I've definitely seen the "ooh! reflowable! flexible format!" vibe turn into "how can we break this up? how can we retain format?" over time. I'm unconvinced we won't get repeating history with ebooks.

  19. Yeah, the parallels to web design have occurred to me too, and I genuinely don't know if books (or more specifically, the purchase of books) is going to represent a genuine change of type, or if it's just going to be the same roller coaster ride. I suspect the latter, but even so, that ride still ends with a lot of compromises.

  20. The bottleneck for eBooks isn't the formatting of the file, it's the device you read it on. Right now there are a constellation of different e-readers. They all work with a different set of file formats, and interpret those formats in slightly different ways. It's like the Internet without HTML.

    I keep looking at my XML files for Rooksbridge and considering how simple it would be to convert them (actually convert and update the XML scheme, but I digress) to ePub and sell those files alongside PDF. It's a chunk of work, but I still might do it someday — but I can also almost guarantee that PDF sales will easily outstrip ePub sales (assuming they aren't packaged). Everybody knows how to use PDF: double-click on your computer. ePub gets lost among all the other e-reader formats, let alone devices.

  21. @josh It is possible I'm being overly optimistic, but I genuinely expect the ipad to be the point where we start going around that corner. I love my kindle, but I laugh at the idea of it being any kind of useful platform. Ditto every other ebook reader out there right now with the exception of my ipod touch.

    Like all predictions for game changers, it might amount to nothing. But I really think this is the one.

  22. @Fred/Rob re: Dresden.

    I can see what you mean (sticky notes, notes penned in the margins, etc) regarding DFRPG's reliance on a specific layout. An epub version could not be THAT.

    But still, an ePub version could easily have all of that as slide-in/out small divs mimicking post-its, popup boxes, overlays triggered by the user... the limitation resides only marginally in the format (it's xhtml after all... it even supports SVG illos).
    As Fred already remarked, the limitation is in the reader software/client. But yeah, that'll change, fast, I expect.

    @Josh: and still... if they were in ePub I'd have already read the preview and maybe bought the novels. As it stands, I've postponed looking into Rooksbridge cause I know I'll never read the pdf version, and conversion from it is a nuisance: I already have a ton of readable stuff that will not require me to lose even 10 minutes tinkering. :)

    I've re-done Czege's Thy Vernal Chieftains in ePub for my personal use (with svg illos and charsheets no less): I've finally read it now that I have it on my BeBook Mini, instead of postponing it ad infinitum.

  23. One of the things that will be necessary for a new and better format to be adopted is not just the technology of the format -- I see no reason why such a thing can't exist (we agree it won't make identical things but it can certainly make sufficient -- maybe better -- things that suit the interests of layout-heavy works). But what needs to happen is that the layout artist must be encouraged and channeled into creating explicitly for this new unpaginated form. Exciting the artist to make the most of the medium will require tools that make that not just feasible but easy -- that remove as much drudgery as possible to leave room for creativity and experimentation.

    Right now there are no such tools. Tools like this are sophisticated and there are generations of revision between no tool and sufficient tool. This is why I place substantive adoption of an effective standard for reflowable forms at 10 years or so. Some experts will be mastering this format over the next five years, but mainstream adoption of excellent tools can't be sped up much by technology. And it shows few signs of emergence today.

    Try using InDesign CS4 to make an eBook and tell me what you think.

  24. @brad Setting aside how delighted I would be if a third party swept in and kicked adobe's ass on this, I think there's a production-centric bias there that may not hold up. it may be years before ebooks have tools as sophisticated as InDesign is today, but that doesn't mean people are going to wait for those tools to emerge. It seems far more likely that those tools are going to have to play catch up with the "good enough" tools that will be available almost immediately.

    In large part, I think it's still going to come back to the 99% of the market that doesn't need the kind of layout kung fu that we're putting into game books. If sufficient mass of the market makes the transition, how much are fancy pants real books going to draw them back?

    (Though curiously, in that context, the fancy pants books are more explicitly art objects. Shit, that might even mean we can charge MORE for them).

  25. In case you haven't seen this yet:


    This is what we have to consider now.

  26. What's perhaps telling in that video is that the page paradigm is still reasonably strong (even if they've gone and disguised it a bit), but the methods of navigating it show signs of new thinking. Great link.

  27. I'm interested in seeing what text-book publishers do over the next few years. Text-books are probably a more comparable model to the needs of RPGs (presentation, readability, reference, regular updates) than comics or magazines.

  28. @Jeremy, for some reason, that moment in The Last Starfighter just came to mind when you started talking about textbook publishers.

    "What do we do now?"
    "We die."

  29. @Jeremy: I work in textbook publishing (originally as an editor for an imprint of Harcourt, now as a freelancer) and I think that RPG books to textbooks is a valid comparison.

    However, I haven't seen much progress on that front in the projects I've worked on over the past few years. Most publishers that I've worked with take one of two approaches to e-textbooks: online content distribution through courses presented via proprietary web sites or multimedia CD-ROMs bundled along with a printed book.

    The textbook industry is hemorrhaging money and employees right now, so perhaps there is room for a big paradigm shift.

    But given that the publishers are conservative and their real customer base (the school boards and teachers who make the buying decisions) tends to be conservative about technology (because in addition to buying it, they have to maintain it, and I've never seen a school district that had the IT staff it needed) I don't expect any great innovations soon.

    If suitable display devices become common enough, the first thing most publishers will probably do is put out .pdfs of their textbooks, because those are the easiest files for them to create.

  30. I think you confused the problems with WoTC. There was no problem with the format. PDF served them well. The sole problem was piracy.

    I do not think, there will never be a 100% secure format for a book. Even printed books were not secure, just more expensive and time consuming to reproduce than PDF's.

    What will shape this war really is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.

    If most western countries agree and start enforcing it, the problem of piracy will pretty much vanish.

    Under those circunstances, WoTC would once again make their books available as PDF's for anyone that wants them.

  31. As for formats, I think that electronic publishing allows you to do more than just a linear narrative. Especially with regard to reference books, such as game rules. Think about having a character sheet that also acts as an index to the relevant portions of the rules. In one configuration your book reads as a linear artefact, in another, it configures itself into a form suitable for active play.

    Configuring information for the speediest access of the user is going to be the goal. For fiction, that will be linear, but do you really what to take a linear approach with a game book? Think about how you normally use a game book (not read initially).

    [Oh, and as for evergreen products, there is a class of evergreen product I have an increasing sales resistance to, and that is the '"new" edition every few years' products, especially the ones that want you to rebuy the core material again. It seems to be becoming a bad habit in the industry.]

  32. @cole Oh, not to suggest that PDF weren't fine for Wizards, merely bemoaning the fact that the highly standardized 4E format would be absolutely lovely as a color ebook glowing out at me from an ipad.

    That said, I feel comfortable just labeling piracy as a bigger, more nuanced discussion and backing away slowly.

    @Rev The funny thing is that a lot of this is stuff that i remember being told would revolutionize content back in, like, 1992 when this startling new technology called "hypertext" was emerging. But snark aside, yes, I'm REALLY curious to see what happens when we start seeing texts with functionality, even if they're one-off apps.

  33. Rob: I remember it even earlier. Apple's Hypercard stack was extant from around 1987, and that was one of the first commercial platforms that attempted this. The problem, apart from the fact that implementing hyperlinks was painful in this system, was hand-held technology didn't exist 4 years before the web took form, so interest in it dwindled, and people accepted HTML as the default standard.

    The problem is that HTML uses a highly simplified idea of hyperlinking documents which was quite usable for it's intended purpose (serving papers at CERN). But they are not bidirectional, aren't situational, and worse, they are static (compiled into the document), so that you can't change this easily. In fact it requires the web-pages to be generated on the fly with a script.

    A card structure, on the other hand, would more closely resemble a Powerpoint presentation* of the rules, linked by an externally defined structure. You could create multiple independent structures relating to the same data, so your ebook can be accessed in several different configurations (preferably one which mimics the nature approach to looking for something in a rule book). A character-sheet-based index being the simple example of a viable alternate configuration.

    The big problem is that you don't need this structure for most fiction, so there is no impetus to develop it. [Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon The Deep and marc Steigler's David's Sling being the only works I know of that were ever made available in this sort of format (and where, in the case of AFUtD you could read the narrative in several ways, such as by following specific characters).] But games rules seem to be the perfect platform for this sort of development.

    For example, it would allow supplements and expansions to be seamlessly integrated in the canonical text (since the expansion would come with new linking structure information).

    And yes, it's pie in the sky at the moment. I don't think anyone within the industry will create the application. And I suspect that if someone did so, and more importantly, the tools that allowed content creators to make easy use of it, it would still face considerable initial user resistance, simply by being something new. <grin>

    [* On this point, another advantage on e-publishing is that you are no longer bound by the print economy, and can therefore make use of much greater amounts of white space in your design layout, without inflating the paper page-count.]

    PS: If you want to see where this type of thought will develop, and any subsequent breakthroughs in e-publishing, I'd actually turn to look at the librarians. They are already the experts in knowledge architecture, and in this modern age, it's less about knowing the information than being able to know how to readily access it.

  34. I know I'd get trussed up for saying stuff like this in some circles, but I (still) honestly think that the best futures lie in low processing-power Computer RPG's that are built to be ran like a tabletop game with an Admin-GM. The only barrier to making this a reality requires only a stellar User-Interface, and an innovative way to present information for the game and setting in a way that's compelling with a lot of depth but in a very low investment kind-of way. I will admit that there are challenges to overcome in this, not the least of which is a ridiculously high overhead, but if someone can get their foot in the door, it would be solid revenue for a while.

  35. @Fred Using expensive computers for everything "Internet" is now the norm. Computers now are like motors used to be -- expensive and used for many purposes, but several projects (like Xerox PARC's ubiquity project) are preparing to change that. Here is a picture of a single (expensive) motor powering several woodworking devices: http://www.woodworkinghistory.com/images/delta_shaft_drive_1930.jpg Eventually, power tools contained their own motors.

    We already have single-purpose computers all over the place (watches, microwave ovens, TVs, cars, etc.), but the ones with high resolution displays cost a lot more than most books do, right now.

    In the not too distant future, electronic paper (http://www.inhabitat.com/2010/01/18/lg-unveils-flexible-electronic-newspaper/) and similar technologies will make cheap, disposable computers with high resolution displays possible. At that point, I think people will sell physical, electronic books with their own displays. Like a kindle, but cheaper, single-use, and many different form factors. So I think books that have layout-heavy presentation (like Nobilis, for example) will remain relevant into the age of electronic books.

    Also, the sixth sense project is making headway in related areas and I think it will also produce positive pressure towards new ways of thinking about media (including books and scrolls).

  36. I must tell you, from looking at the powers list sample in GoodReader for the iPad, and a more lengthy perusal of some other layout-heavy RPGs in PDF as well, DF will probably fare OK on that platform.

  37. Indeed, it looks pretty good on the iPad: http://img688.yfrog.com/img688/7198/2z2x.jpg

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