I wrote this as a comment on Brad Murray's blog post about his decision to print and sell Diaspora through the Print On Demand (POD) service Lulu. Being a smart[1. By "smart", read "lazy", and by "lazy", read "good". Or, at least, that's the theory that my programming background gives me license to lazily rest my laurels upon.] blogger, I'm going to recycle and slightly expand that word count here for your delectation.
I recently bought two copies of Diaspora—one for myself and one as a very early[2. Six months or so.] birthday present for Fimmtiu. He enthused about it and its Traveller heritage enough that I paid some attention, and then let my attention be thoroughly gripped[3. To be pronounced "grip-ed", as Lister so eloquently did.] by a roleplaying game for a genre in which I thought I had only passing interest. I love me some science fiction—especially hard sci-fi—for my leisure reading, but I've never been able to get into it for roleplaying for some reason.
Anyway, this is a post about Lulu, nascent technology, and shipping rates, not how awesomesauce Diaspora is or how much you should go buy a copy or read about how it does sci-fi differently[4. Actually, how Diaspora does sci-fi differently is probably entirely why it grip-ed my imagination in a way that previous sci-fi roleplaying games failed to do despite my best efforts. I'm looking at you, you tattered and now long-gone copies of Other Suns and Time Master that someone found in a garage sale and gave me when I was a kid.] or how it's very well supported by the creators in the game's Geekdo forums and Brad's blog.[8. This run of links and nested grammatical structures makes my inner linguist cringe and whimper. Really, there is something terribly wrong about how hyperlinks do not and often cannot be cleaved along the same boundaries as grammatical phrases do. I refuse to adapt my idiosyncratic style to satisfy an even more obscure and even more idiosyncratic desire for HTML syntax and English syntax to harmonise structurally, but it bothers me nonetheless and I'm only being slightly silly in saying so.]
So, enough introduction.[5. It was late when I rewrote this for posting. Yep, feeling a bit punchy. Also, I have an unnatural love for footnotes and for this plugin that makes it so easy to insert them.]
I was pretty staggered by the shipping rates at Lulu, and it was definitely a matter of the cover price to shipping cost ratio. A lower cover price on the same physical object (and hence, the same shipping cost), definitely leads to greater sticker shock at the fixed shipping cost.
The saving grace though is that combined shipping turned out to be very reasonable. A single book order was a full third shipping ($18[6. That's shipping for me. Your mileage may, quite literally, differ.] on top of a $35 book), but ordering two books only added a couple of dollars to the shipping cost and made for a more palatable ratio. Eighteen dollars of shipping is not so appealing, but $18 and $2 for every book after the first is actually not too bad.[6. Yay footnotes. Some of you did the math, but because seeing them is more visceral than imagining them: That works out to one book for $18 shipping, two for $10 each, three for $7 and change, four for $6, and then it approaches the asymptote and the jumps are less impressive. Take home lesson: buy a play set! (Again, these are dollar values for shipping to me.)]
That’s not a criticism of choosing Lulu at all. What it is, is that it’s interesting to consider how new technologies (and various implementations thereof) impact buyer psychology. From my experience ordering Diaspora, one of the things that I think Lulu could do to improve is provide a shipping cost calculator at the first stage of the checkout—where you can still easily twiddle the quantity ordered to see what you’re buying and for how much—rather than leaving it as a potentially purchase-souring surprise at the very end after payment info has been painstakingly entered. Their current implementation of the checkout process cuts across the grain of how buyers evaluate and commit to a purchase price. We like to know the price of something when it's being sold to us.
The upshot for Diaspora might be that some people will decide to forgo buying it, while others like myself will resolve to buy it only in pairs or greater. Without knowing how many people virtually walk away when they see the final price for one book, it's not possible to know whether that's a net positive or a net negative in sales dollars. It does make me wonder if Lulu keeps stats on how many people get to stage 4 of the checkout and then don’t complete the order, and what they think about that.
All that said, I’m glad Lulu exists despite its warts. Print on demand is—as Brad's post broke down so clearly—making it possible for amateur RPG publishers to publish at all, much like blogging software allows amateur commentators and reporters to write at all. Knowing history and tech, too, I can be confident that this kind of implementation issue will get smoothed out, either by Lulu or whoever usurps their niche.[1. Fin. Also (since I stayed up long enough for the date to roll over), today is my son's second birthday, but also the anniversary of his rather traumatic and entirely too early entry into the world. It's a mixed day for us. He's a wonder though, so we're celebrating in good spirits despite the mixed meaning of the day. (Before you ask: He's fine now. Bad memories only, miraculously.)]