The Usefulness of a PDF

I have mixed feelings about PDFs. On the one hand, they allow authors to write material that would that otherwise might never be published because its target audience is too small for a traditional print run; they also serve as a proving ground for content that proves popular enough to merit hard copy publishing. PDFs also save older books from Out of Print Hell, a singularly unhappy place.

On the other hand, I just can’t get into reading PDFs as they’re sold. When I first started using a computer at home, I spent hours upon hours in front it, reading whatever that happened to be in my field of interest at the time — confession: there were a lot of Doctor Who episode guides and fan fiction on the family Performa‘s hard drive in those days. Somewhere along the way, probably around the time I started spending a lot of time using a computer to do actual work instead of devouring fan minutiae, in college and later professionally, I lost all ability to read long form documents at a computer, or at least the will. A couple times, I’ve done some PDF consumption at Muddy Waters, but even then, I’ve found it a fiddly, unpleasant process. There’s always scrolling up and down, because the content I want is still laid out portrait style, and fooling with the zoom level to make the text readable at a distance without trimming margins.

In short, I’m predisposed to prefer a printed book. So the only PDFs I read are those I want to read badly enough to bother printing out. Granted, I could go the print on demand route, as many of the smaller role-playing game publishers sell their content through printers like Lulu, but that rankles my sense of cost to return ratio. All content being equal, the increased cost of ordering a book printed on demand isn’t worth it. And no, all content isn’t equal to me, but I think you get the point.

Fortunately, I picked up a decent laser printer and inherited most of a case of printer paper some years back. Considering the reduced cost of a PDF versus a traditionally published book combined with the cost of the printer — which steadily amortizes the more things I print with it — and toner supplies, the eventual need to buy more paper and paying Kinko’s five bucks to coil bind a book, I’m still probably paying a bit less than market rate for a text of comparable length and utility.

That works out great, cost-wise. It just becomes a bit more of a chore to pull it all together, in contrast to picking up a book from the local game store or online retailer. So I only do it for books that I absolutely want to read and don’t think I’ll ever be able to get through traditional means. Preorder PDFs mean nothing to me; I’ll wait for the full release. An old White Wolf release? Nah, those are still mostly dime a dozen on eBay. So it’s gotta be out print and hard to get or of interest to such a small portion of the gaming population that it’ll never see the game store shelf.

On the matter of printing PDFs, I typically do it the ordinary way: portrait orientation on 8.5 x 11″ white paper. Most recently, when I ran that Labyrinth Lord game, I tried something different. Since I’d be consulting the text in play, something I’ve never done before, as the PDFs I buy are typically setting material, I experimented with printing two pages to a sheet of paper, single-sided. The end result is a book with printing on one side of every page, making flipping through easier, but the text is about half the size of a mainstream role-playing book, more like a paperback novel in terms of size and legibility.

The layout has its uses, for sure. I think I’d need to get some more table time to see if it was actually useful, or palatable. I don’t think it would ever be my first choice. There’s that bias of mine for “proper” — read: not from Kinko’s or Lulu — printed and bound products again. So it goes, I guess.

5 thoughts on “The Usefulness of a PDF

  1. I was ambivalent about reading PDFs on a computer too until I got an iPad. Reading them on it is a breeze.

    • Now that’s an instance where I can see the iPad’s single-tasking model as a feature: switching away to check email, etc becomes less convenient.

      • What I’ve found is that if you don’t look at the iPad as a replacement, but rather a supplement to your digital life then it works well. You definitely won’t be able to discard a laptop or desktop and only use this as your sole means of computer use, unless you’re an 80 year old grandmother who just learned about the internet.

        But in terms of extending your computer use it is handy. Beyond the bed and bathroom time use, I’ve been able to get a robust internet experience while on the highway going down to Boston, with the iPad using Annick’s phone as a hotspot. After I was done reading and writing some emails I spent another hour just reading a pdf until it was time for us to switch driving.

        Ultimately what’s cool about it is the form factor and its always-on status. Just pick it up, tap tap tap and you’re getting most of the standard computer experience. Then just put it down and do something else, no getting tied to a particular chair, no shutting down to avoid screwing up the hard drive, etc.

        It’ll be great to see what other slate devices come out and give the iPad some competition. The biggest hardware flaw I see with the iPad is that it only has 256mb of RAM. So far I haven’t felt it, beyond some sub-optimized pdfs, but it would be interesting to see a well produced slate device that has at least a gig or more of RAM in it.

  2. iPad

    I picked this up around a month ago and have consumed a huge amount of reading material. From RPG pdfs, to big thick 1000 page novels, and typical magazines.

    Laying in bed or sitting in the bathroom with a massive digital library has been a dream come true.

    Then add in web browsing, netflix movies, the Smallworld app, sketchbook pro… I can’t stand Apple, but I have to say the iPad is magical!

    Still, the best moments so far have been when I’ve sat down at different tables for an RPG game and have been able to pull the iPad out, particularly at one session where three other notebook computers laying out, dominating the table space and putting walls up around everyone. The iPad just lay there like a book or sheet of paper, unobtrusive but still very useful.

    At another session we were playing investigative psychics in Vermont and pulling out the iPad and using the google maps app really added to the game as we were able to zoom around on the satellite views, pinch to zoom in and out to see various Vermont features and towns were were going to, and with it laying flat or easy to pass around, everyone was able to get a good look without a lot of fuss.

    Anyway, as for just pure reading of pdfs. It just comes down to who made the pdf. Some companies made their pdfs in a non-optimized state, and so page views can still be slow, thus reducing the usefullness of the pdf as a reference book. Fortunately these have been rare. Overall though it’s just been a breeze to use.

    The only eye strain I’ve encountered in this month of reading has been when I was reading a page turner novel. I’d spend five hours reading in a single sitting (actually, laying down) and yeah… my eyes were strained. But just normal reading time lengths have been fine.

    What I look forward to is a solid app that could handle character sheet management, to replicate the little adjustments one needs to make during a game session. Annotizing pdf readers exist, but I haven’t explored them to see if any are up to the task of an rpg session.

  3. I hate to beat on the same subjects, but there’s two recurring themes in your dissatisfaction: the PDF format itself (being formatted for a page, not a screen), and the screen being uncomfortable to read. The advantages you list (plus others, like good searching, hyperlinking, errata updating, backup, annotation, collaborative features, capabilities involving cross-referencing multiple materials, and the elimination of the delays, costs, and environmental impacts of the atom-based distribution system) don’t have to come at the cost of dealing with an icky reading experience. We just have to stop using PDFs.

    The fact that we’re using PDFs for eBooks is as supremely dumb as if we were forced to use “electronic white-out” applied to our screens to do word-processing. PDFs were designed from the ground up for one purpose only, to capture the printed page as an electronic document. Thus, PDFs are the exact opposite of an eBook: their formatting not only won’t reflow itself to your device and preferences, they’re physically hard-encoded into the file structure itself. Absolutely the only advantage PDFs have is that if you’re already producing a paper document, it’s easy to make a PDF too. Otherwise, though, it’s the most awful option possible.

    Having a device really suited to reading an eBook also makes a world of difference, and is one of the few exceptions to the principle of convergence, because a device that’s good at interactivity or video is bad at eBooks, and vice versa. But that’s not nearly as big a factor right now as the PDF format in crippling the possibilities of the eBook.

    All of this is equally applicable to RPGs as to other types of books. The difference is that RPGs are too small a market for most producers to spend the extra development cost on making a real eBook format. It also doesn’t help much that the RPG market has moved towards very, very, very heavily produced formatting, with full color glossy backgrounds on every page, which make an eBook version even more extra cost to produce. Do we really need all that sizzle? Even subtracting out the eBook issue, I tend to feel we’ve gone way too far that way.

    For now we’re stuck with PDFs, and thus, with the eBook experience crippled almost (not quite, but almost) to the point of unusability, and at best, barely showing a hint of its promise. We just need to get to where the idea of breaking away from PDF is at least on the table.

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