Answering the dreaded PDF question

I like knitting pattern PDFs.  I’ve bought a few myself.  In fact, even though I’m usually more inclined to relish diving into a long, deliciously-complicated, painstakingly drawn out design process for most anything I knit, I needed to knit a shawl pronto for an upcoming event and I  found something that fit the bill perfectly just a few days ago on Twist Collective.  I love Twist Collective – for the wonderful designs and articles, for the top-notch-yet-sweet-as-can-be folks who run it, for the valuable and greatly appreciated outlet it gives us indies for getting our work to a broader audience.  But, as wonderful as Twist Collective, and many of the other on-line and printed outlets, are for us indies, they don’t entirely supplant the need for our own, independent, individual outlets.  In fact, doing so would sort of kill the whole “indie” concept, wouldn’t it?!  And so, while I love being a part of such endeavors, I also keep plodding along, doing “my own thing”.

“My own thing” is stranded knitting;  stranded knitting with unusual motifs; unusual motifs that demand large repeats, often with a limited number of size possibilities. Hopefully, my own thing is occasionally your thing, too.  But I know it’s not most knitters’ thing.  And, it’s not most magazines’ thing, either.  But, without meaning any disrespect, I have to say that I really don’t care, for it’s what I love and I’ve (gratefully) been able to do it, through a combination of my own self-publishing and through partnerships, like Twist Collective.  But recently, a problem has surfaced.

Yesterday, I posted my latest design, my Amaryllis Hat, here (see post below), on my Kidsknits site and on Ravelry.  Apparently, it’s acceptable: within 1 day, it received 149 Ravelry “favorites”…and counting.  Thanks!  But, not a single sale. Yet, quite a few folks contacted me with inquiries about a PDF.  The short answer to the PDF question is “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t put so much work into something, only to get pennies out of it.”  Here’s the long answer, posted in response to the typical PDF question, this particular one posted as a comment on my pattern on Ravelry:

The question, as asked on Ravelry:  “Just wonderful! Can’t afford the kit, though. Do you think the pattern alone will be available at some time?”

My long answer, also posted on Ravelry:  “I always hate to say “no” to any knitter, so I’ll say that I might sell the pdf for the Amaryllis Hat someday; then again, if things continue as they have been, I’m pretty sure that I won’t. Truthfully, I’d really like to be able to offer everything as a pdf – it’s easier for both of us. But, as I hope you can understand, while I design and knit because it’s my passion, I sell my designs because I hope to make a little bit of money that way. Lately, I’ve seen overwhelming evidence that sales of pdfs by little independents like me do not make much money at all.

Originally, I sold my Amaryllis Mittens just as a kit. I always try to price my kits very competitively. As you’ll see from comments on my Ravelry page for my Amaryllis Mittens, folks were thoroughly pleased with the Amaryllis Mitten kits they purchased. I was thoroughly pleased, too, for I made a (small, fair) bit of money selling the yarn, in addition to the pattern, and that helped to justify the considerable amount of time I put into designing, knitting, publishing and supporting the mittens. Then, feeling mounting pressure, I published the Amaryllis Mitten pdf. Granted, I have sold a few of those pdfs, and I’m very grateful to each knitter who has bought it. But, I have not sold many. And sadly, sales of the somewhat more profitable kits have come to a screeching halt.

As you’ve probably noticed, many yarn stores hardly sell any knitting books or patterns at all these days. Little yarn store businesses, both brick-and-mortar and on-line, cannot compete with Amazon, the major knitting magazines and e-zines for pattern sales. Neither can I. Furthermore, the market for advanced stranded knitting designs is a small fraction of the entire knitting market. However, for each pattern to be knit, one does need yarn. Truthfully, there’s not a lot of money to be made selling yarn, either, but since designing, knitting and chatting with knitting customers are all things I just love doing, the little bit of money made from yarn sales (when they occur) is enough, to my mind, to justify continuing the business.

But, there’s a problem: I have a toll-free number for my business and I plaster my email on everything I publish. I really believe in being as helpful and informative as I can be about any of my products. And the fact is, it’s really enjoyable for me! But lately, I’ve received quite a few phone calls and emails from knitters who have the Amaryllis Mitten pdf, are planning to knit the mittens with their own yarn, but they are new to stranded knitting and whoever sold/gave them the pattern &/or yarn (not me) cannot (or will not) tell them anything about stranded knitting. Actually, there are a few problems with that scenario: Several of those folks did not purchase the pdf at all; they received (illicit) copies. Perhaps unbeknownst to them. Some of those copies were from stores that profited by selling yarn with (illicit) copies of my design. While I feel it’s important that I support my designs, I also feel it’s important that I not become a complete chump, helping other folks make money selling yarn while they steal from me.

Now, of course, I realize that there are some thoroughly wonderful folks who would like the pdf simply because they want to use their own stash yarn, want to use less expensive yarn, want to use different colors of yarn, want to use a different fiber, just want to read it the pattern but really don’t want to knit it…the list of perfectly plausible scenarios goes on and on. On one hand, it hurts me to not be able to give those dears folks everything they’re asking for. But the fact remains that, between all of the work that goes into a design like this, the relatively few knitters that are even interested in knitting something at this skill level, the time I (happily) spend helping knitters with questions and the many exasperating phone calls and emails I’ve received that were sparked by illicit pdf copies/sales, the only way for me to publish my designs independently and still have enough economic inspiration to keep doing it as an ongoing business is to sell my designs as kits.”

Mary Ann

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About twostrands

Knitting designer, retailer and instructor specializing in Fair Isle and Nordic design. Website = kidsknits.com Blog = twostrands.com.
This entry was posted in Mary Ann's Designs, On Twist Collective. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Answering the dreaded PDF question

  1. Suzanne says:

    An excellent and clear explanation of your position on the PDF matter. If someone really wants to knit these items in a different yarn, they can knit a second one/pair from stash.

  2. Jocelyn says:

    As a consultant to yarn stores, yarn companies, and yes, designers, I read your post with interest. I know many designers who face the same conundrum of wanting to offer help, but the availability of “free” advice (let alone free patterns) has put them in an awkward spot. There is indeed a fine line between helpful and doormat. For the record, LYSes face the same challenge themselves – what to do when a customer want support with a pattern when they spent $90 on yarn elsewhere?!

    I might suggest a couple of things related to the PDFs themselves – indicate (as Twist Collective does on the download page) that this pattern is for individual use only and although it is is PDF, it is not for re-distribution. Something like that. You can also indicate on the pattern page what specific skills are required and/or the difficulty level.

    • twostrands says:

      Thanks, Jocelyn! I appreciate your comment, particularly the part about adding a note to thwart distribution. With two intellectual property attorneys in the family, believe me, I’d practically be disowned if I were ever so foolish as to publish anything without copyright notices and the type of distribution warnings you’ve mentioned. In fact, at the bottom of each of my pattern pages (including the Amaryllis Mittens mentioned in my post), right after the copyright info, in boldfaced caps, I always put “DO NOT DISTRIBUTE”. Alas, it is ignored.

  3. Jocelyn says:

    I don’t really get what people are thinking, honestly. The other thing is to limit the timeframe and number of downloads. That doesn’t help with re-distribution, of course.

  4. SJ Christner says:

    Big problem, been around ever since copiers came on the market.

    I used to sell yarns and patterns in a kit, and was often asked for one or the other separately. By the mid-sixties it was apparent there was a problem with such theft. What I settled on (I was a one-man band so I just fit it into the order process; would be harder now in a ‘company’ setting) was to write the purchaser’s full name in a large flourish-y style, all the way across the most crucial part of the pattern, in ball point. Then I hand-lettered their invoice number on the other side/other sheets. The print could still be readily read, but removing the name or covering it over obliterated portion/s of the pattern.

    I have since used that method to make sure my teaching handouts don’t get spread all over everywhere. People are way more reluctant to do the dirty deed when it can be traced directly back to them. I also ‘sign’ my own patterns that way when I get them, and they never walk off….

    I suppose I may have lost a sale or two, but it pretty well stopped the copying. I guess on a PDF or other computer file you could just keep a transparent template, and use a large, airy, thin-line font in a big diagonal edge-to-edge right across that, then meld the layers. Would take a bit of time and force you to deal with each one individually, but if they really want the pattern, they’ll pay 50 cents more for the time it takes you. If they whined they wanted to give it for a gift (amazing how transparent some people are willing to be!), I just asked for the recipient’s name, and I still had the invoice number, so it worked just as well.

    SJ, who has 34 pounds of handspun yarn backed up, so always wants the pattern alone these days.

  5. StephCat says:

    I read this post with a lot of dismay. I’m just a newbie at designing but even in the short time I’ve been designing I’ve seen the same thing: lots of faves, no purchases.

  6. Francie Porter Snyder says:

    People who refuse to purchase patterns, books, etc. have always made me feel uncomfortable. I will not copy patterns for people but I have seen many quilters and knitters do it. Your approach is very appropriate. I bought the Amaryllis mittens kit and extra yarn for an additional colorway. The pattern was great , the mittens are beautiful and I look forward to making the hat.
    I do not think that extensive knitting lessons should come with patterns and yarn. People need to pay for classes to learn advance techniques, not rely on step by step instructions from the yarn vendor. I worked for a friend with a yarn store for a short time. People were continually bringing in yarn and patterns they purchased at chain stores etc requesting assistance. She politely told them she could not give advice on yarns or patterns she did not sell and advised them to return to the vendor for assistance.

  7. Chingachgook says:

    Ah. Thank you for the expanded version of “yes v. no”. As a longtime (40+ yrs) knitter and consumer (patterns, books, yarns, fleece, & some prepared fiber), I just had not realized the extent of the publisher’s problem!

    I do like the idea of “personalizing” a pdf download. It would be great if some geek out there would rig a quick watermark or something you could add upon sale. I’d pay extra, and have paid extra, to support the artist.

    Some years ago, Medrith Glover, Quincy CA yarn shop owner, used to charge a few dollars for a “Knitting Treatment”. It was her solution to providing support above and beyond. I don’t really know how to translate that to online, however.

    But thank you, for your generous time. I searched you out to see if I could order a non-standard yarn kit for your stranded polar bears; I’ve let myself digress from goal, but am enriched well!

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