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The Gaming Revolution Will Be.. Read?
by Philip Athans on 09/12/11 05:03:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

I come from what many people think of as a dying, if not finally dead industry: publishing. Borders is bankrupt and its remaining stores are in the final days of their final liquidations. The New York publishing world is still understaffed after wave after wave of Great Recession layoffs. Self-published e-book authors are rightfully declaring their independence from agents and editors. Amazon has seized control of the entire world.

You know . . . that kind of stuff.

Except none of that’s true, except the first two.

In fact, more people are buying books now than they did before the Great Recession (or the Great Depression II, or the Mini-depression . . . whatever you choose to call it).

Don’t believe me? Ask the Association of American Publishers:

Category//March 2011//March 2010//Percent change

Adult Hardcover//$96.6M//$91.2M//+6.0%

Adult Paperback//$115.9M//$125.6M//-7.7%

Adult Mass Market//$55.2M//$54.5M//+1.2%

E-Books//$69.0M//$28.1M//+145.7%

Religious Books//$63.5M//$49.8M//+27.4%

University Press Hardcover//$4.4M//$4.5M//-1.9%

University Press Paperback//$2.6M//$2.5M//+7.1%

And in the six months since March, the gap between the e-book and the paperback is widening, with e-book sales up 167% in June 2011 over June 2010. Even way back in march this shows an overall growth rate of about 15% from $356.2 million to $407.2 million, and that’s a pretty healthy growth rate for any industry, especially one that’s effectively 500 years old.

The $9.7 million decline in sales of paperbacks is more than made up for by a $40.9 million increase in e-book sales, accounting for the lion’s share of the overall revenue growth of $51 million over March of last year. That proves that e-books are bringing in new readers, not just stealing readers from struggling trade paperbacks.

I know, by now you’re thinking, so what? This is a gaming blog, right?

Well, consider this:

Gamers, more so than any other group of potential readers, are well acquainted with the requisite technology (both hardware and software) required to access e-books. They have reader-capable devices (any PC will do, and free apps, including a free Kindle app abound for tablets and smart phones), and gamers are comfortable buying digital files online and interacting with digital entertainment media.

Maybe harder to believe is the fact that gamers are reading (and buying) books. The following game tie-in novel sample group demonstrates the power of self-publishing over licensing:

Game Tie-in Novels Sample Group

At least two companies, Wizards of the Coast and Games Workshop, maintain their own publishing businesses . . .

Dungeons & Dragons/Forgotten Realms: Annihilation by Philip Athans (hey, that’s me!)

            Novel sales of 121,713

            Dungeons & Dragons (analog) active player base of maybe less than 2 million

Warhammer: 40,000: Ultramarines Omnibus by Graham McNeill

            Novel sales 45,245

            Analog and video games’ active player base of 1.5 million

The rest are handled by licensees . . .

Halo: Cryptum by Greg Bear (Tor Books)

            Novel sales 31,717

            Game sales of about 34 million across the franchise

World of Warcraft: Arthas: Rise of the Lich King by Christie Golden (Pocket Books)

            Novel sales 31,595

            Game sales of about 30 million across the franchise, currently played by pretty damn well near everybody.

EVE: The Empyrean Age by Tony Gonzalez (Tor Books)

            Novel sales 17,971

            MMO has approximately 300,000 active subscribers

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood by Oliver Bowden (Ace)

            Novel sales 16,538

            Game sales of about 26 million across the franchise

God of War by Matthew Stover & Robert E. Vardeman (Del Rey)

            Novel sales 9614

            Game shipped 500,000 copies on the first day of release

Guild Wars: Ghosts of Ascalon by Matt Forbeck & Jeff Grubb (Pocket Books)

            Novel sales 10,581

            Game sales of about 6.5 million across the franchise

The novel sales figures are drawn from Nielsen’s BookScan service. The video game figures from less reliable online sources, but even if I’m off by a bit on those, the point still stands.

My own Forgotten Realms novel has outsold major author Greg Bear’s Halo novel by nearly a factor of four, even though Halo enjoys more than 15 times the active player base of Dungeons & Dragons. Why would that be? I’m a Greg Bear fan, too, and I’m happy to admit that word-for-word, he kicks my ass.

Even Warhammer 40,000, with only 1.5 million players, is outselling the best licensed video game novels, even from mega-franchise World of Warcraft, which has 20 times the player base, though the recent release of the new Space Marine console game will probably drive GW’s numbers up. Oh, and Warhammer and Warhammer: 40,000 are, at their hearts, full-on strategy games, so just because you’re designing strategy games doesn’t mean your players aren’t looking for more story, and a more immersive experience. They are.

So what’s happening at WotC and GW that’s got them capturing such a big novel audience from such relatively small games?

All of those video game novels are being published by licensees, not the game company or IP owner. WotC and GW have made publishing part of their suite of products, so (speaking from direct experience) they do it better. The books are better. They maintain control of their own story, their own schedules, their own continuity, and editors who’s sole job it is to edit shared-world game tie-in fiction work very hard to get it right.

Licensed publishing efforts aren’t keeping up with the sweeping changes in the publishing business—even though those changes are working for the benefit of readers, authors, and publishers alike. The only segment of the book publishing business that’s struggling, in fact, is retail—and publishers who have allowed themselves to remain retail-dependant. And that’s the case with many of the unwieldy, old school licensees who are capping the publishing enterprise of great properties to cover their own substantial financial risks.

And those risk are substantial when you consider how expensive it is to print books, distribute them (always at least a little inefficiently and at massive cost, including not-going-down-anytime-soon fuel surcharges) only to get them into a decreasing number of retail outlets who get to hold onto them on a 100% consignment, fully-returnable basis. And they don’t return the whole book, either. They rip the cover off and send just that back. If they don’t sell it, no one can. It’s shockingly common in the old school publishing business to eventually pulp as much as 90% of your press run. No wonder they’re so timid about the number of titles they publish in a year, and so stingy with licensing fees.

More, the licensee/licensor relationship tends to create an audience disconnect. Players come to you for the game, then have to go elsewhere for the book. By selling direct to your installed fan base through either your own e-commerce portal (which I highly recommend) or from direct links from your site to e-book resellers, you can make it easy for your fans to move from game to book.

I know that’s starting to sound familiar to a lot of you gamers out there. In the book world it’s called the Kindle Store, in the game sphere it’s called Steam. Pretty much the same thing.

The best thing about e-books is that they cost pennies to produce compared to paper books. Gone is enormously expensive printing, and the cost of paper, distribution, fuel, warehousing, and returns. Why is the e-book not only catching on but on track to be the primary vehicle for the written word in as little as two years? Because it makes tremendous financial sense. Its basically a zero-waste, amazingly close to pure-profit enterprise.

Okay—there are costs. Nothing is free. But you’re taking out so much of the upfront manufacturing cost of a book by publishing it only in e-book form that it’s essentially insane to actually print the thing.

Create good, well-written, professionally-edited books fully immersed in your worlds and timed to support your franchise, make the purchase as easy as you can by selling directly to your customers, and you don’t have to even watch what the retail book business is doing.

The e-book revolution is here, and one of the biggest changes it’s bringing to the publishing business is that it’s opening doors to small, niche publishers who can not only get in the game with minimal up-front cost, very little if any new infrastructure, and stay in the biz generating profit almost right out of the gate—and your fans are waiting for your content.

You will need to add some expertise. You wouldn’t hire a book editor to program code, don’t assign a programmer to edit books. It’s a seriously specialized skill-set.

I wonder where you could find a guy like that?

 

—Philip Athans


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Comments


Jeremy Reaban
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Just to make the obvious point - both Wizards and GW already publish rulebooks for their games. It's far easier to get into publishing novels if you happen to already be in the business of publishing books.



While it's true that e-books no longer have any material costs - printing, shipping, taxes on backstock, and having to deal with returns (a big factor in why TSR is no more and Wizards owns D&D), they still have to hire a cover artist, layout guy, and of course, editor. None of that is cheap - and I speak as someone who has written a novel and in the process of publishing it himself on Amazon.



Freelance editors alone cost more than I would ever make back. Actual professional ones cost a lot more. Licensing out your IP to a company in the business might not get as big a return, but it doesn't cost anything - it's basically found money.


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