Gamethink

Saturday, July 24, 2004

PDF vs. Paper: Reviewing in an Increasingly Electronic Market

posted by Matthew Pook

Recently I had a request turned down for a pair of complimentary books to review. This is from a respected publisher whose books I have been sent and reviewed in past, and the publisher had been happy with the results. Then I had another request turned down, again from a respected publisher, but not one from whom I have been sent anything before, although I have reviewed one or two of their books. In both cases, their reasons were the exactly the same. The cost. They wanted to cut down on the expenses incurred, not only of the books sent out, but also of the cost of postage and packaging.

Instead they offered me a PDF version of the books that I asked for. Although I was grateful for the offer, I had to decline. Initially, this was because the computer I use could not handle PDF documents of the size that these books represent. Yes, by the standards of the day, the machine I most often use is antiquated. Yet there were other reasons that why I declined both offers, which I want to explain and explore in more detail below, but before I do, I want to make clear that I am in no way angry or upset at any of these publishers. They have every right to take the decision that they have, and indeed, they are right to do so. Further I respect them for doing so, but remain saddened that our “semi-professional” relationship has been forced to end.

Yet this change in complimentary product format, from the paper to the electronic, has the potential to change how someone who reviews games actually works.

The position of the reviewer with regard to the games industry is currently rather vague. Certainly, there is no such thing as the ‘professional’ reviewer, and for the most part, it is a game’s fans that write reviews after they have bought copies from their local gaming store. But there are a few people, myself included, who will approach a publisher, and ask for what is in effect, a free book. In an act of trust, the publisher sends out the requested book, and in return, the recipient is expected to read it, write a fair review, and see that it is published somewhere online, since there are few magazines that publish gaming reviews these days. In all but a couple of instances, the book itself, and the kudos that goes with being published, is the only payment that the reviewer will receive for his efforts.

This lack of payment, which has come about because of the death of the RPG magazine and the immediacy of the Internet, also means that there is no capacity within the industry, or even alongside it, for the ‘professional reviewer.’ And barring Ken Hite’s mini-reviews in his “Out of the Box” column, reviewing games remains solely the province of the amateur.

But the move from offering complimentary product in paper to electronic format changes this vague situation further. First it does not actually give the reviewer a copy of the product that the publisher wants its customers to buy at their local gaming stores. Arguably most of their sales will come from the print edition, and not from its PDF version made available from vendors such as RPGnow.com and RPGdrivethru.com. Unless it was designed in that format that is, such as the many titles released by Deep7 and Politically Incorrect Games. Surely publishers want reviews of their games and supplements in the format that they will make the most sales from?

Secondly, receiving a PDF version of a book is actually a disincentive for the reviewer to want to review the book, because his reward for doing is greatly lessened. What the publisher is doing, is passing the physical costs onto the reviewer, who must pay for the paper, the ink, the binding, and so on. Since it is unlikely that the reviewer has access to a professional book printing service, the resulting product will invariably be of an infinitely inferior quality compared to the book he could have instead purchased, or indeed, been sent by the publisher. And while it might be cheaper for a publisher to send the reviewer a PDF document, let us not discount the dangers of piracy that come with that format.

So if the primary motive for this change is one of cost, is there a solution? Perhaps a tighter relationship could forged between publisher and reviewer, with the publisher building a stable of still independent reviewers that they know can be trusted. And again between publisher and the intended destination for the review. Either might work to reduce the number of wasted review copies that get sent out, and ensure that the publishers get results from doing so

Perhaps in my case, I should buy a bigger computer, either that or move to the USA to cut down on the postage and packaging costs of getting a book across the Atlantic. In the meantime, it remains to be seen if I will be reviewing the books that I have asked for.