Let’s start with some brief context for where this post came from. Last week this tweet came across my timeline.
A tweet talking about manga and black and white comics.
D.J. followed this up with an explanatory thread about the impact that full colour comics has on production timelines, costs, etc. that’s worth reading in full.
This got me thinking about art in RPGs. It’s not hard to get me thinking about this, to be honest. If you’ve been reading my Twitter or my posts on Detritus over the past year or so you’ll know that this is on my mind a lot. I’ve been trying to convince people to buy books with minimal-to-no art in them and having mixed results, and I’ve recently admitted defeat and started learning to produce my own art.
In a rare moment of restraint, I sat on this post for a week before starting to write anything. I decided to do a tiny amount of ‘research’ first – by which I mean "I asked Twitter for opinions".
This isn’t scientific in any way. I’m also not any kind of data analyst. I’m not going to attempt to break down the replies or anything like that. If you’re interested in getting into that sort of granular data, by all means get in there and find some way to visualise it. That’s very much beyond me. But reading the replies, what I found was that most people would like something like a single piece of art on every two page spread. That is, every time they turn the page in a physical book they want to see a new piece of art accompanying the words.
My question asked about a 40 page zine. Let’s assume that what this means is 36 pages plus covers, just so that I’m not inflating numbers for the sake of argument. Based on the way I’m interpreting those responses, this means that in an ideal world people would like a 40 page adventure to contain around 18 pieces of art, plus a cover illustration.
So, let’s talk about how this impacts costs. (I’ve written a lot about pricing books before, and I’m not about to re-litigate that here, though you can see my most recent thoughts on the topic here).
The Cost of Art
I haven’t commissioned original art for a book since Under The Floorboards, so going into this post I had no idea what sort of prices people are paying. The main reason I’ve been trying to convince people to buy books with no internal art is that I have literally no budget for this stuff. So, in a process that was exactly as scientific as my Twitter question above, I asked some friends and peers what they pay (or charge) for art.
It’s obviously hard to reach a consensus or any sort of standard, but the most common numbers that came back to me were around $50-100 per piece of spot art, around $200 for a full page illustration, and anywhere from $500 up to several thousand dollars for cover art. For the purposes of the rest of this discussion we’re going to call it $75 per piece of spot art, $200 for a full page illustration, and $500 for a cover. These numbers may be low, and I’m fine with that because it’s still illustrative of my broader point.
Earlier we said we’re looking at 18 pieces of art plus a cover. For argument’s sake let’s say that four of those pieces are full page illustrations, and the rest are spot art. That means that for our 40 page zine, illustrated to the level that consumers want in an ideal world, we need:
- A cover. $500.
- Four full page illustrations. $800.
- Fourteen pieces of spot art. $1,050.
That’s a total art spend of $2,350. That means that if we charge $10 for the book (and we’ll get to "how much do we charge for this?" in a little while), we have to sell 235 copies just to cover the art costs – assuming that we get to keep the entire $10 from each sale, which we don’t. There are payment processing fees, platform fees, and the like. Plus we’ve not got into the costs and realities of print yet, but for now let’s just assume we’re only selling digitally at this point.
DriveThruRPG, as terrible as it is, remains the biggest digital marketplace for RPG sales. If you’re not exclusive with them, they take 35% of each sale. So to make $2,350 with a $10 PDF there, we need to sell somewhere around 360 copies rather than 235 copies. That makes us an Electrum bestseller. At the time of writing this, 7.2% of all releases on DTRPG achieve this level of sales.
So, just based on the art spend – we aren’t paying editors, we aren’t paying print costs, we aren’t paying for layout, we aren’t paying ourselves for writing the damn thing – we need to have a product that performs in the 93rd percentile in order to break even, if we’re producing a book that contains the level of art that people want.
Obviously things like stock and public domain art exist. I’ve written about using these extensively in the past. But, again, we’re talking about people’s ideal products here. For the purposes of this exercise, we’re not making compromises when it comes to producing this product. And stock/public domain art is always a compromise.
Now let’s talk about how this art impacts the cost of printing the damn thing.
The Taste of Ink
Unlike digital products, which have no real constraints on their size or format, physical books are printed in multiples of 4 pages. This is a facet of how paper is printed, folded, cut, and bound, and there’s no escaping it. If you have an odd number of pages, you either have to cut content to get it down to the right size or add blank pages until you hit a multiple of 4. (This is why large novels often have empty pages at the front and back of the book.)
Every time you increase the page count, you increase the weight of the book. That’s just a simple matter of physics. And every time you increase the weight of the book, you increase the cost of putting that book in the mail to send to a customer. I’m in the UK, and I can’t talk knowledgeably about postage costs in other countries, but here the cut-off between Letter and Large Letter is 100g. Within the UK, posting a Letter first class costs £1.10. Posting a Large Letter costs £1.60. Not a huge increase in terms of actual money spent, but it’s a roughly 30% price increase.
If I’m posting that same package to, say, the United States, the price jumps from £2.20 to £4.20. If you want tracking – which, in my experience, most American customers do – you’re looking at £7.40 vs. £9.75. These are not insignificant differences.
So, okay, that’s fine. We’ll keep our page count down and keep our weight down, right?
Well. That’s much easier said than done, especially once you bring art into the equation.
Firstly, every piece of art in the book takes up space where words could be. That’s just a given, right? If I have 36 pages of text and I introduce 4 full page pieces of art, I now am using 40 pages. If I start adding spot art, I need to move text around to make space for them – which increases the page count. The solution to this is to either use less art (something customers regularly demonstrate they don’t like, and aren’t willing to pay as much for) or to write smaller books (which means less usable content, something people aren’t willing to pay as much for).
Then there’s the matter of actually printing that book, and this is where we get to things that most people probably don’t ever think about (and the things that the original tweet about manga and comics art first got me thinking about).
When you pick the paper that you print on, the two main choices you make are the weight of the paper (in the UK this is expressed as gsm/grams per square metre) and the coating on that paper. I’m not going to get into great detail about these decisions, because it’s outside the scope of this post, but in general you want to print on thicker, coated paper if you’re printing illustrations – especially if you’re using a lot of colour.
If I were printing a zine with absolutely no internal illustrations or art, I’d happily print it on 90gsm uncoated paper. If I wanted it to feel a little more "premium", I’d go up to something like 120gsm so that the type doesn’t show through the page as much.
If I’m printing with illustrations, I probably want to use something like 115gsm coated, with either a silk or gloss finish. If I wanted it to be a little more premium, or if there’s a lot more ink coverage (as in something like Treasures Of The Troll King) I’d go up to 130gsm.
Let’s plug some numbers into Mixam, the printer that the majority of indie RPG zinemakers (including myself) are using, and see what comes out. I’m using Mixam UK, but you can repeat this experiment yourself. For all of these I’m getting a quote to print 200 copies of a 36 page, A5, staple-bound booklet with a 250gsm cover.
(It’s been pointed out to me, very helpfully, that the figures below are for a run of 100 copies rather than 200. This is entirely my error. I’ve now fixed this. Thankfully the maths I do in the rest of the post didn’t use these figures and so isn’t impacted.)
- No illustrations. 90gsm uncoated paper. £155/
£1.55£0.77 per copy.
- No illustrations. 120gsm uncoated paper. £164/
£1.64£0.82 per copy.
- Black and white interior illustrations. 115gsm silk paper. £160/
£1.60£0.80 per copy.
- Black and white interior illustrations. 130gsm silk paper. £163.50/
£1.63£0.81 per copy.
- Colour interior illustrations. 115gsm silk paper. £272.5/
£2.72£1.36 per copy.
- Colour interior illustrations. 130gsm silk paper. £277.50/
£2.77£1.38 per copy.
The cost of black and white illustrations doesn’t actually inflate the cost of printing above no illustrations all that much. The real jump comes when you add colour into the mix. But, of course, there’s also the cost we identified above of actually producing that art in the first place, which doesn’t exist in the zero illustrations book.
So the next question becomes, how does this actually impact the cost of shipping the damn thing? Luckily for us, I have copies of my own books that I can use as a comparison here.
The Kickstarter edition of Under The Floorboards is 48 pages, printed on 170gsm recycled natural paper (which is uncoated), with a 200gsm cover. The reprint is instead printed on 130gsm silk paper.
The paper on the original print was way too thick – the book doesn’t close properly as a result of how heavy that paper is. This wasn’t anything to do with art and was entirely do with my own inexperience with printing things at that point, but it makes for an instructive example. The original printing weighs around 150g, while the reprint weighs about 110g. Both need to be shipped individually as a Large Letter, so it doesn’t make a huge difference to individual sales, but where it does make a big difference is when I do retail orders. The difference in the cost of posting a parcel to the USA or mainland Europe that contains a hundred 150g books vs. a hundred 110g books is not inconsequential. That’s a difference of 4kg/9lbs.
What Does All This Mean?
So let’s look at this as holistically as we can. In this example book, we’re spending $2,350 on art. I’m going to go ahead and assume that that’s full colour art, just for the sake of argument.
Then we’ll go ahead and print 200 copies at £272.50. I’m not picking the most expensive option here. Annoyingly I’ve calculated the art price in dollars and the printing price in GBP but that’s actually not unrealistic for someone in my situation, where I’m likely to be hiring someone who wants to be paid in dollars if I’m commissioning art. Let’s do a quick conversion to get everything into dollars, since I assume most people reading this will mainly operate in dollars.
At today’s exchange rate, £272.50 works out to $348.47. Add that to the art and this 40 page zine will cost us $2,698.47 to produce. That’s before paying for editing or layout, and without paying myself for writing the thing.
Setting prices is always a complicated task. It’s much easier when print is involved because you can say "I have 200 units which have cost me X each to produce". Digital releases complicate this a little bit. For the most part the costs of producing digital vs. print are identical, as I argued in this post and the conversation that followed in the comments. The only thing that changes is the cost of printing. But, by and large, customers generally expect that a digital release will cost less than a physical release. So let’s figure out how much this physical book needs to cost, and then set the price of the digital release somewhere lower than that.
This zine has cost, as established, $2,698.47 to produce, and we’re printing 200 copies. That means each copy costs a whopping $13.49 to bring into print.
How many of you would be willing to pay $15 for a 40 page zine? Be honest.
And that’s not the end of the matter. Part of the strategy when you sell print copies is to sell into retail. You reach customers you wouldn’t normally be able to, being on the shelves in stores – both bricks and mortar and online-only stores – lends you a level of legitimacy in the eyes of customers, you don’t need to sit on a lot of stock, and you recoup some of your costs immediately because you can sell a large number of books. The trade off is, of course, that you offer a discount to retailers buying wholesale.
In my experience selling to stores like Exalted Funeral, All The Problems In This World, Dungeonland, Spear Witch, and the like, the industry standard wholesale discount in RPGs is 50%. So whatever I price this book at, I’m going to get half of that when I sell to retail. And there’s absolutely no point in me selling into retail at a loss.
If the book has cost me $13.49 to produce, I need to price it at $27 at minimum. For a 40 page zine. And, once again, I haven’t actually paid for editing in this calculation. I haven’t paid for layout. And I’m not, yet, being paid for writing the thing.
So where does this leave us? I have a book that’s I’m going to try and charge $27 for. Just to break even on what I’ve spent, I need to sell about 100 copies at full price. Or I could sell 75 at full price and sell 50 into retail, which is a little more doable and will also mean that I break even. That leaves the remaining 75 copies, plus digital, as the means by which I can actually get paid.
And how much do I want to get paid? Personally, I don’t take freelance work that pays less than $0.15/word these days unless it’s something I’m really passionate about. My last freelance gig paid me $0.25/word. The difference, of course, is that I don’t make royalties on freelance work. I can continue to profit forever on my own releases. Over time, they tend to net me higher word rates but I can aim for a lower rate initially to try and get paid, and then rely on the long tail to provide residual income.
So let’s say I want to be paid $0.10/word. How many words is this thing? This is hard to figure out, really, but a good rule of thumb in fiction is that a single page contains 250 words. RPGs tend to be less verbose, so let’s assume 200 words per full page of text. We have 36 pages. Four of those contain full page illustrations, which drops us down to 32 pages of text. Then we have 14 pieces of spot art. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that each of those is a half-page illustration. So we have 18 unillustrated pages that are all text, and 14 pages that are half text – which is equivalent to 7 full pages.
25 pages of text at 200 words per page is 5,000 words. That’s a pretty good estimate, I think. The Moss Mother’s Maze is a 32 page adventure with 3 full page illustrations that comes in at around 7,000 words, and I tend to write more than your average RPG writer, so this feels about right.
5,000 words at $0.10/word means I want to be paid $500 for writing this book. We have 75 physical copies remaining, which will net us close to $2000 and more than pay us for writing the thing. But that’s assuming a sell out, obviously, and not many RPG books sell 200 physical copies. Especially at $27. So let’s assume that after selling my initial 125 copies to customers and into retail, I never sell another physical book because it’s priced too high and I’ve already sold it to the ~100 fans who will buy anything I put out (assuming I have roughly 100 fans who’ll buy anything I put out at any price, which is a big assumption).
This is where we come back to digital. How do we price the digital offering? $27 is way too much for a 40 page digital zine. People simply won’t pay it. $20? Still feels high, to be honest. I’ve managed to get people to pay that for things like The Wretched and Treasures Of The Troll King in the past but this has become increasingly difficult over the past year, because everybody has less money and the first thing people cut back on is luxury items and entertainment.
So let’s say we price the digital edition at $10, because we want to shift some copies. That’s way lower than it should cost, it directly contributes to a trend of downward pressure on pricing in the industry and in the wider publishing industry in general that got us to this point in the first place, but we don’t all have the luxury of being able to eat a loss on a release. At $10, we "only" need to sell 50 copies of the digital edition – on top of the 125 physical copies we’ve sold – to make that $500 we wanted to be paid for writing the thing.
To break even on this book, we need to sell 125 physical copies and 50 digital copies. That may not sound like a lot but actually? It is. Especially when that physical book costs $27.
I’m deliberately ignoring things like platform fees, currency conversion fees, payment processing fees, and the fact that I personally have to set aside 20% of everything I make for tax in these numbers, just to keep things simple. But, actually, the platform fees especially are worth mentioning here. We’ve used DriveThruRPG’s metal tiers as an indicator of the state of the industry because it’s one of the only metrics we have, and we need to remember that if I’m selling on DTRPG I am not keeping the full amount you spend on the book. Every $10 sale is actually only worth $7.50. So those 50 digital copies I need to sell actually become around 67 sales.
Let’s be a little more realistic. We’re still pricing the physical book at $27 because that’s just how much it has to cost for us to be able to sell into retail without making a loss. But let’s not assume we’re going to sell 75 copies to customers, because – frankly – we won’t. I also don’t think we’ll sell 50 into retail at that price.
Let’s roughly halve those numbers. These still feel generous based on my experience, to be honest, but let’s go with it. Let’s assume we’re going to sell 35 full price copies to customers and maybe 15 into retail. That nets us a grand total of $1,147.50. That puts us $1,550.97 in the hole, and we need to make this back from digital sales before we make a profit.
At $10 a copy digitally, we need to sell 155 copies to break even if we sell on a platform like Itch where we can set our platform fee low (or to 0, if we want to). If we sell on DriveThruRPG, we need to sell 206 copies to break even. If we also want to make that $500 for writing the thing, we need to sell 205 digital copies plus our physicals on a platform with no fees, or 273 on DriveThru.
Remember when we talked about DTRPG’s bestseller metals before? Electrum starts at 251 sales and only 7.2% of all the releases on DTRPG have ever achieved that. Products with Silver medals have sold between 101-250 copies, and only 14.18% of products have achieved that. And we have no way of knowing how many of those copies were sold at the full asking price. Any sale over $0.20 contributes to a metal ranking.
A Case Study
All this has been largely theoretical so far. We’ve been talking about an idealised version of what a product might look like based on an entirely unscientific Twitter question I asked. You may very well be reading this thinking, okay, fine, but nobody actually spends this much on art for a book. This is what customers want, in an ideal world, but they’re also realistic and know we can’t all hit this standard, and they’re willing to support works that don’t reach this level. Right?
Earlier this month Jason Bulmahn talked very frankly about his new adventure. In this thread he breaks down how much he’s spent on a 32 page Pathfinder 2e adventure, to the tune of around $2,500. This is the cost of art and editing, and he’s done the maps and layout himself.
Because he sells through DriveThruRPG, he needed to sell 384 copies just to break even. If he wants to be paid for his time, he calculates that number at over 600 copies. That’s a Gold bestseller – something less than 4% of products have ever achieved.
At the time of writing this, Jason’s adventure is a Copper bestseller. That means it’s sold somewhere between 50 and 100 copies. And this is Jason Bulmahn. The man who was the managing director of Dragon magazine for 3 years before becoming the lead designer at Paizo who created Pathfinder. He’s won Origin Awards, ENnies, and has a CV I would kill for.
If he can’t sell more than 100 copies of an adventure at $9.99, what hope do the rest of us have?
I don’t really know how to wrap this up. Any time I talk about things like this people inevitably come away thinking that I’m complaining, that I’m being entitled and acting like I – and the other writers in this industry – are "owed" a living, or other takeaways of that nature.
None of that is the case.
If there’s any point to this very long post, it’s this: the race to the bottom on pricing in this industry hurts everyone. All of us have been conditioned over decades to understand that books cost a certain amount of money to buy. That conditioning has been led by massive publishing companies who have print runs in the tens of thousands. The price of books – all books, whether they’re novels, memoirs, roleplaying games, comics, whatever – has been artificially low for a very, very long time because of the economies of scale involved in printing massive print runs. If you’re Hodder & Stoughton or Penguin Random House or Wizards Of The Coast, you can afford to sell books cheaper than I can afford to sell books. Your cost per unit is lower because you print so many of them, retailers aren’t taking a 50% discount (or they weren’t until Amazon ‘disrupted’ publishing, anyway), etc.
(Hilariously, the one place where books are priced in a way that reflects the fact that they’re niche products that won’t sell thousands of copies is textbooks, which we all agree go in the opposite direction and completely gouge people on pricing, with predatory practices like tying assessment to specific editions so that you can’t buy them used, etc. I’m not here to defend that in any way.)
The fact is that art costs money. The labour of editors costs money. Layout is a skill that costs money. Writing is a skill that should be financially rewarded by the people who seek out these products. That money has to come from somewhere, and unfortunately there are only a handful of places it can come from.
The first place is Venture Capital, investors, etc. I think we can all look at the state of the modern internet and realise that that’s a fucking terrible idea that will kill the industry.
The second place is personal wealth, where writers produce books with their own money – or with bank loans etc. – and simply don’t worry about recouping those costs. This is where the phrase "fantasy heartbreaker" originated.. This is how you end up with an industry dominated by (largely) middle aged, middle class, cis-het white men who work in tech or law or wherever else they can draw a good salary and spend their free time writing things. This was a previous state of the industry, and it’s not one I’d like to see return. Poor people should be able to make art, too.
Which leaves you. The customer. I of course understand that global economies suck right now. Everybody has less money than they did a year ago and luxury entertainment has to take a back seat when you’re deciding what to spend on. This, whether we want it to or not, provides downward pressure on prices. People like myself, who historically have been able to price things at what I think is a fair level that has been able to sustain me in this work, are finding ourselves having to lower those prices as people are unable to pay them.
That’s fine. That’s market demands, baby. But falling prices have to go hand in hand with lowered expectations, too. When you look at an adventure zine that doesn’t have "enough" art (whatever level of art you think that is) and say "I’m not willing to pay for that", what you’re saying is "you, the creator of this book, should invest more of your resources into this product before I’m willing to buy it".
That isn’t sustainable. That’s how we get back to only rich people being able to make art. That’s how indie RPGs die on their arse.
An Appendix or something
I’d like to end on something of a positive note. It seems negligent of me to write 4,500 words on the matter of Art In RPGs and not end by pointing you in the direction of some things that I think will convince you you probably don’t need as much art as you think you do. Most of these are plain text. Others use public domain art, sparingly. All of these releases are fantastic in their own right, and while you may well think they’d be nicer as a result of several thousand dollars worth of art, I don’t think they would actually be better in any meaningful way.
- Wolves Upon The Coast Grand Campaign, Luke Gearing
- Ghosts of the Sierra Verde Grand Campaign, Sivad’s Sanctum
- Shot & Splinters, Tom Mecredy
- Owls of Our City, Thriftomancer
I’m going to finish by reminding you that I’ve also been putting out adventures with little to no art for the past year or so. The Moss Mother’s Maze comes out on Monday. It’s mostly plain text, but I’ve managed to produce three internal illustrations (plus the cover) that I think are really good, frankly. Reivdene-Upon-The-Moss is a folk horror adventure setting that I wrote daily through December 2021. Bodies In Flight and Beyond The Drowned Spire are two very good adventures I released at the end of last year that I’m really proud of.
I’m also encouraged by the recent popularity of Clayton Notestine’s Classic Explorer layout templates, because they take a text-first approach to layout that’s really attractive and seems to have resonated with a lot of people. If this marks a bit of a sea change in the industry, and people start to realise that books can be beautiful without being packed full of illustrations, then I’m really happy about that.
Thanks for reading. Go and buy a book off somebody.