Friday, April 1, 2011

PDFs Suck

Like a moth to a flame, I find myself reading RPG.NET from time to time; I have no idea why. In the past I posted like crazy to Usenet and some message boards, the intent to simply troll idiots. Now, I have too many Youtube comments to read. But, read I did earlier and found a thread about PDF watermarks that made me consider a few things. First of all, I have a ton of PDFs. I paid for some of them, some I didn't. And quite frankly, I don't care. Here are the major issues I have with PDFs, and why I don't support them as a legitimate replacement for books (the watermark thing is annoying as hell, by the way...I bought a copy of S&S Complete from Paizo and considered deleting it because it was THAT irritating):

1) DRM is bullshit. Essentially, when you purchase a PDF, it SHOULD be like buying a book. If you want to lend it to a friend, you do so. PDFs don't work that way because for some reason, idiots think letting anyone look at something you paid for is somehow affecting their bottom line. Whatever. DRM is supposed to correct this problem by simulating the physical presence of the book or something. One viewer at a time, however you want to look at it. The model breaks down instantly in practice. There is no real way to create a pseudo-physical presence for a book with any sort of copy-protection scheme in the first place, and secondly, all you do is piss off the people who actually paid for the thing. Pirates are going to steal regardless of how you manage your PDFs, and legitimate customers will wonder why they have to type in passwords or see their name plastered all over the book they paid for. The whole "bottom line" reason for implementing DRM is worthless. When a thief steals a book from a bookstore, there is a tangible effect, a real monetary loss. What loss is there when a pirate steals a PDF book? The PDF can be reproduced infinitely and sold to whoever wants to buy it; there suddenly isn't one less copy of the PDF that cannot generate revenue. Further, 99.9% of the time, pirates wouldn't have paid for the PDF in the first place, so there isn't a "lost sale". It's an essentially meaningless feel-good anti-theft device that does nothing but make it harder for customers to get their stuff.

2) Non-persistence. So I buy this book in PDF, and I'm reading it, but then all of the sudden my computer acts funky, now the PDF is corrupted somehow and I have to fix the errors I'm getting trying to open the file. Or I get a new computer and the PDF decides it doesn't like being copied. Perhaps my computer explodes, and like everyone else my extensive tape backup library was lost in a fire. Goodbye PDF. Hey, wait, I know...I'll upload all the PDFs to an online backup so I can look at them whenever I like. Nope, looks like the RIAA is turning the screws on all these companies to prohibit "copyrighted material" on their servers. Well, okay, I have an account on Paizo or RPGNow, hey wait a minute...they went out of business. Adios, PDF. If my collection of D&D books burns up in a fire, I can probably get copies off eBay or at Half-Priced books to replace them. My insurance company will probably reimburse me. PDFs lost into the aether are pretty much done with, EVEN THOUGH the intent is that they can simply be downloaded again. If the company goes out of business, where do you get the PDF? I suppose you could pirate it, but then you have to deal with DRM, for your legit copy that is now non-legit. Yeah, okay.

3) Horrible interface. It's stupid to model electronic information on physical medium because they're inherently different. The whole point of electronic books is that you can have a ton of them with you on your laptop or iPad, but I cannot read them on a computer screen. It just hurts my brain due to the book paradigm I'm used to. Webpages, yes, I can read those just fine, due to the format. But book-type information belongs in a book. Further, I can't take PDFs with me into the john, throw them in a backpack and not worry about damage, leave on my desk and figure no one is going to steal it and take it to a pawnshop. For instant reference type stuff, perhaps a drug guide for doctors or metal fatigue charts for engineers, electronic books make sense. For something I just want to read, it sucks. For me, at least. There's nothing like getting your hands on a new book. A new PDF, well, it's just a PDF.

4) Required buy-in. When I want a PDF, I have to buy it. There's no option to view it first, then purchase it. If I want a book, I might look through the whole thing before spending a dime. Actually, I buy almost all my books through Amazon, so I may not even look at them prior to spending money. But if it sucks, I can probably sell it to someone else, maybe put it on eBay. Can I resell a PDF? Uhhh, no. Stuck with it. And what happens if you mistakenly buy two copies? You got suckered. A real book, I have two copies. Maybe I'll give one to a friend. With PDFs, if I give a friend a copy, now I'm a pirate. Considering I could make 1000000 copies of that same PDF, I essentially just wasted my money. Two true examples: accidentally purchased two copies of the new BRP from Chaosium's online store. Great game, by the way. So I email them about it. No response. Tried for three weeks. Finally I contacted AMEX and got a refund. If I had purchased two physical copies by accident, return one, no harm no foul. Or, hell, just keep it and give it to someone else. Same thing happened with Swords & Wizardry Complete as mentioned above. Got the Pazio PDF, sucked because of watermarks. Then I bought the physical copy which came with a PDF. So, yeah, $10 down the toilet.

5) Overpriced. PDFs cost too much vs. physical books. Seriously. When I bought HERO 6th edition, they gave me copies of the PDFs for free. I could buy the books for $60, or the PDFs for $50. WTF? $50 for electronic copies that are only $10 less than the physical books? Books that weigh literally five pounds, full color, hardcover. NICE books. Where's the incentive to get the PDF? Seriously overpriced as hell, if you ask me. For $5, I'd buy every single HERO PDF they publish. But they seriously want almost as much as the physical books, which means I just order the books from Amazon. Screw that.

I don't advocate stealing anything, especially PDFs. But I'll never pay for a PDF of a book I already own in hard copy. Ever. I downloaded some scans of Chivalry & Sorcery. Illegal, I dunno. I don't care. I have three boxed sets of that game (it was four, but I gave one to Chris: you're welcome), why would I want to spend $20 or more on electronic copies for something I already own three times over? I could scan them in myself if I wanted and it'd be Fair Use according to the law. So why is getting a scan from someone else suddenly piracy?

Comments are especially welcome.

ADDENDUM: I remember hearing about Eclipse Phase, thought it sounded cool. They offer the PDF as a free download that you pay for if you like it. Downloaded it, decided it was great, bought the physical book. Why don't more companies do this?


  1. I agree with everything you've said here Brad, people who say electronic files will replace books are living in Lala Land. Books are vastly superior to pdfs and the like for so many practical reasons. The plain truth is they last longer too. I own a book that is over 300 years old. What's the chances that any pdf I purchase now will still exist in 300 years time?

    Pricing pdf's at book prices is absolutely ridiculous. Personally, I'll never pay more than ten bucks for a pdf, and rarely even that.

  2. Let's look at your points.

    1. Your analogy is not quite sound. If you buy a book and lend it to someone, they have the book. You can copy the PDF to a friend and now you both have it. Essentially you made a copy of the book and gave it to your friend.
    Consequently you can loan eBooks to friends on many ebook readers such as the Nook.

    2. If you buy a book and your house catches on fire and the book is destroyed the publisher does not owe you a new book. The insurance company does. They would also replace an ebook. Keep your ebooks backed up. Place like DriveThru RPG allow you download your books multiple times regardless of where you are. Use Dropbox on your computer, iPad and your Android based ereader and you can have any book anywhere.

    3. Here you are 100% correct. But many publishers are fixing this, most notably Wizards of the Coast. Though some eReaders do mimic the feel of reading a book the best they can.

    4. You can browse all the PDFs on DriveThruRPG and other companies offering eBooks (like CourseSmart for Textbooks) provides a means to look over the book completely.
    4.b. DriveThruRPG alerts you when you have purchased a book before. If the transaction is doubled up (say you clicked twice) then every major credit card company will refund you.

    5. PDF pricing is odd.

    Ending. I have bought many books twice. Paper backs and hard covers. I have bought hard cover books and the PDFs since that is the right thing to do. They are separate purchases for separate things. So getting one by not paying for it is theft by the letter of the law.

    These are not easy questions to answer, but I deal with publishers all the time at work and the fact is that ebooks are the way things are going to go; it's only a matter of when.

  3. Your claim is wrong. You need to rephrase.

    "PDFs produced by the RPG industry suck"

    PDFs produced by the RPG industry have the problems you describe. They are heavy in background art, border art, and so on. It drags down the speed of the document. Then you have tiny ass fonts that are hard to read on a screen, laid over these background images. They are rarely internally hyperlinked in a manner that works (i.e. you are not accidentally clicking on something and going somewhere you didn't want to go). Further, they are trying to make money from you. So they watermark and DRM it.

    The PDFs for my games are formated properly to be read on your screen. Reasonable font sizes, landscape format (Synapse was portrait but the next version is landscape, should be out in a few days), internal hyperlinking will be obvious and easy to navigate, etc. And my games are free.

    The medium is not the problem. Actually, it is a great medium. I have plans for even more ways to exploit it when I find the time; things like embedded movies and sound, new organizational concepts that break free of the linear print paradigm, etc.

    The industry is the problem, not PDFs.

  4. @austrodavicus - I've paid $20 for a PDF. I got ripped off.

    @Tim - What happens if society crumbles around me? This isn't far fetched; look at Japan. The electronic medium isn't persistent, nor reliable (I have a pretty extensive background in computer engineering, which makes me truly distrust them). A good book is indestructible, but last plenty long enough to make a copy if that's necessary. I'm still not sold on how having a PDF of a book I already own is somehow different enough to justify additional cost. Fair Use says I can make backups of media if I so wish, for my own use. As far as I'm concerned, the PDF is simply a more convenient backup. I agree with the iPad, though; that's the only device I've seen that might make me consider actually using PDFs as something more than simply storage. As far as PDFs and electronic medium being the wave of the future, never going to happen. I've done enough research on the subject that I just cannot see it ever occurring in our lifetime. In a 100 years, possibly, but in 10? No.

    @Greg - That's reasonable, but you're in an extremely small minority of people who actually tailor their publications for electronic formats. I've done layout before, and it sucks. Long, tedious and difficult. Most publishers just pass along a PDF of a book that's basically whatever they send to the printers because it costs them zero. Costs will go up if they start making two copies of everything. My guess is a lot will simply move to electronic-only formats if that happens, because it's a hell of a lot cheaper overall.

    Thanks for the comments, guys. I welcome the discussion.

  5. I'm strongly of the opinion that pdfs suck. I much prefer books.

    I'm also strongly of the opinion that the creators of said pdfs have a right to control their creation, including watermarking and copyright agreements limiting my authority to share the pdfs with others. If I don't like their terms, I won't buy their product.

    Also, if someone wants to see the pdf I bought, they should view it on my computer or reader, I shouldn't send them an electronic copy.

    Otherwise, i'm 100% with you on your sentiments.

  6. You know my opinion (and thanks again for the C&S box set, I have only used it for Good and not Evil more or less) pdfs can't compete with printed media other than in the bit torrents market (oops did I mention that?)

    Seriously who reads more than 1200-200 words at a sitting on a flashing bright computer screen? I can sit on my couch--better under a cabana at the beach--for hours on end reading a book.

  7. PDFs are ultimately more expensive than purchasing books, since they rely on electronic devices to enable us to read them, and those electronic devices generally last only several years at best and need replacing - over and over again. In the meantime those electronic devices need power to run, so there's that additional cost too. Buy a book and you pay for it once, buy a PDF and you'll be paying for it for the rest of your life.

    Then there's the moral issue of the materials used to produce electronic goods, namely minerals used in the circuit boards. For instance the mineral coltan is being mined by children in hand-dug tunnels in the Congo, in some cases forcibly so, just so we in the west can have our toys. The big companies don't care where it comes from as long as it's profitable, we the consumer don't want to know and bury our heads in the sand. Thousands are dying in the Congo in a war fueled by the coltan mining industry, children die in collapsing tunnels, and we have the convenience of reading a pdf on an ebook reader.

    Given that we live in a world of finite resources, I guess this is just a temporary problem.

    This is not an attempt to shame folks or moralise, I'm just pointing out that in more ways than one, electronic books are actually an expensive option for both us personally, and for this world we live in.

  8. Hey Brad,

    I just re-released Synapse this week. It is formated for screen viewing. Take a look and tell me if you think the PDF sucks. Keep in mind that all those bold/italics terms will be internally hyperlinked at some point, but I havent gotten around to it since the game is still BETA.

  9. Greg, that's about as good as you're going to get in a PDF meant to be read on screen. The problem isn't the layout, it's a fundamental issue I have with electronic medium. I really just do not like reading on a screen. Perhaps I'm nothing more than a Luddite (who programs computers for a living, go figure), but it's hard for me to be engaged in any type of escapism when looking at a screen. I generally don't even read tech docs with a monitor; I print them out.

    Are there any plans for a print version of Synapse :)

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