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Ronin Round Table: Marc Schmalz on ePublishing

I'm Green Ronin's Director of Electronic Publishing. That's a resume-inflating way of saying I deal with PDFs. I came to Green Ronin in 2004 by way of The Game Mechanics (where I was part owner and jack-of-all-trades) and Wizards of the Coast (where I started in customer service and ended up managing the company's Web site). When I'm not working on Green Ronin's books, I'm a grad student at the University of Washington. Or slacking. I'm a big fan of slacking.

I want to share some of our thinking about how and why we make PDFs, so I volunteered to take a seat at the Ronin Roundtable and forsake my slacking and studying.

For nearly a decade, almost every book Green Ronin has produced has also been released digitally. We've also had several PDF-only product lines, like the Threat Report and Power Profile series for Mutants & Masterminds, and the new Creatures of Thedas and Battle & Loot series we're working on for Dragon Age and AGE, respectively. When this Round Table gets published, we have more than 220 digital publications available on the Green Ronin Online Store, and that doesn't include the freebies we post to promote our games.

The Ronin want all our products to look good, print and digital. I produce our PDFs 150 dpi, about twice the resolution of your screen. If you blow them up to 200%, the art should still look great on your computer. Print them out and they'll still look good, even though they're not the same quality we send to the presses. Print files for the books are usually 300 dpi, so while we're providing a good looking digital book, we're not actually giving up material that could be used to actually print pirate copies of our stuff. That's always seemed like a fair trade-off to me.

When you buy a PDF and expect to print it out, the ink matters. When I produce PDFs of our greyscale books, I try to remove "ink sucking" features that we use in the print versions. For example, the print version of the Advanced Bestiary has a black bleed (printing that "bleeds" off the edge of the paper) on the edge with white text to help when flipping through as you try to find the entry you need. It looks great coming off a professional press. Most home printers won't handle bleeds, though, and usually have margins at the page edge where you can't get ink. When I turned out the PDF, those black bleeds were removed and the white text converted to black. That saves you about a gallon of black ink and, in my opinion, the book looks far better when printed this way at home.

The color PDFs are left in full color, usually with bleeds intact. We all know that part of the M&M appeal is that Hal knows how to make the books look fantastic in their full color glory. Converting a full color book into grey and making it look good is a monumental task, arguably harder than getting quality graphics in color in the first place. At least that's my argument after having done it for the Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Pocket and Tablet editions. Also, with the new graphic novel format, home printer bleeds aren't an issue - you're not printing on 7.25x10.75 paper at home anyway. So, for full color books like our M&M line, you get full color PDFs that look pretty much exactly like the print editions.

Using Adobe Acrobat, I could lock all our PDFs to prevent users from copying text from them. I always allow it. If you want to make a cheat sheet for your character so you don't constantly have to flip through physical or digital books to find the specific rules you need to play, I'm not going to force you to re-type it all.

We usually try to release a book digitally as soon as we're ready to go to press. I like to think this makes everyone happy. You get access to the material as soon as possible, and we get thousands of new eyes reviewing a digital copy of the book in time to make changes to the print version. Yes, our early PDF purchasers are also our last line of proofreaders, but we do try to make the books as solid as we can before we release them. The errata get integrated as quickly as possible because we want the changes in the print edition, and we also try to make the PDF updates available at the same time. One of the great benefits of electronic publishing is the relatively low bar set for giving everyone updates, which is a good thing since I think of publishing more as a high jump than a limbo. Apologies to Hermes Conrad and any limbo fans who might be reading this.

Got any other questions or concerns about how we make our digital books? Go ahead and post them on our message boards (use the General Discussion forum) and I'll see if I remember anything about customer service from my WotC days.