Recently, Skeeter Green talked about the race to the bottom regarding the pricing of PDF products in the RPG hobby on Google+. He basically said that digital products require an effort to be made and are thus not “free”. He also said that buying music on iTunes illustrates the point: we’re not getting a tangible product and yet we pay the money because of the content. Thus, why the unwillingness to pay for PDFs?
One could argue that capitalism is inherently unfair. The idea that the price of a product should relate to the effort spent in producing it sounds Marxist to me. These days, it’s supply and demand that determine the price. Here’s what I said in reply to Skeeter Green’s post.
I think there are many factors that come into play. On one level, if many offerings are available for free, then that sets expectations. You can only ask for money if the thing you are publishing is significantly better than what is available for free. If it is only marginally better, then customers are only willing to pay very little. From my point of view, for example, very small dungeons, simple hex maps, old school character classes, price lists and spell lists all have very little monetary value because so many of them are available for free, and I love it.
Another factor is that Free Software has slowly prepared us to accept that a product which can be copied effortlessly is only worth a donation. The thing that really costs money is customization—it’s the service that I’m paying for. Thus, I’m prepared to pay for the act of customizing something for me, joining a Kickstarter, paying an artist to draw a character portrait, and so on. I’m less willing to pay for something that is already there and only needs to be copied. I think that’s also one of the reasons why Kickstarter-as-prepayment “works” for customers. Once the thing is made, I’m more reluctant to spend my money on it.
As for iTunes, I can tell you what I’d prefer: I’d prefer to pay $5 to artists directly via a button on their web page because I don’t feel like supporting the infrastructure and middle-men. The reason I’m willing to pay a few dollars on iTunes is that piracy also comes with a cost: the quality of the download, the quality of the tags, the wait, the smut. Avoiding this is worth a bit of money to me.
As for the value of physical media: Once you start ordering from Lulu you realize that the media, the shipping, the last mile of home delivery is in fact quite expensive. I’m willing to pay $10 to $40 for shipping and handling of something such as the Tome of Horrors or Slumbering Tsar because I know it would cost me a similar amount if I ordered it from Lulu using my PDF.
In this climate, a traditional business model with an intangible product is simply hard to pull off.