Candide Kirk: Publishing's clues from video games

Candide Kirk: Publishing's clues from video games

Editor's Note: As the digital dynamic brings books closer to other entertainment media -- and requires it to distinguish itself rather than lose ground to such nearby attractions -- the more understanding publishing has of what's "out there," the better it may be able to react to content moving along these new but similar axes. Candide Kirk (pictured), who is setting up a new ebook-sales programme called Join Book Club, has some opinions on what digital publishing has to learn from digital gaming. While other electronic entertainment media make uneasy comparisons to reading, "video games...are the perfect comparison point for books." — Porter Anderson

Why the book industry should be looking at video games in its digital evolution. 

Direct-to-consumer, all-you-can-digest subscription, pay-as-you read — the past couple of years have been very interesting for the book publishing industry as it looks to rejuvenate the ebook distribution business model and ecosystem.

Publishers are rightly looking at what has and hasn’t worked for other media and applying close approximations to new ebook ventures, and tech startups have mushroomed around formulae that have generated some success. The big killer app, to borrow a phrase, though, is yet to be found. 

Where all-you-can consume subscription models have worked for the music and film/tv industries, the larger book publishers are giving mixed signals. Some are loving it as a channel that revives back-catalogue titles (in a way like Netflix has given new life to first seasons of TV series and older film releases). Others, still wary of the corrosion of direct sales, are shying away from the model altogether. The first round of subscription service providers were touting the model as a Spotify-for-books, and I believe that therein lies the problem.

So far the new approaches to ebook distribution have been borrowing heavily from music and film, but the consumer behaviour for both of those is dissimilar to that of readers. 

Songs, TV episodes and movies tend to be consumed in one straight sitting. One never listens to a single song and switches off the radio, and similarly binge TV watching is more and more the de facto consumption trend. The average film duration is around the two-hour mark and you’re not likely to watch it in small doses spread over a week or two. None of these patterns is consistent with reading books.

Video games, on the other hand, are the perfect comparison point for books.

  • Games, particularly ones with linear narrative arcs, on average take well over seven hours to complete.
  • Games are also rarely played through in a single sitting and are broken down into snack-sized intervals for whenever the gamer can sneak in the time. Such increments range from 15 minutes on the morning commute to a few hours before bedtime.
  • Given the time and attention invested, the emotional journey and reward of playing through a game can be very similar to the sense of fulfillment when finishing reading a book.
  • On a more commercial note, the retail price points of books and games are quite similar, too, with the traditionally published games on par with published books. And indie game titles are more closely priced to self-published books. 

The games industry, naturally being more digitally inclined than most, has experimented along the way and has had as many misses as hits in its own pursuit of post-digital recovery.

What didn’t work? Direct-to-consumer efforts by some of the larger publishers looking to circumvent the dominant online retailers. Gamers want a centralized publisher-agnostic marketplace and don’t like chasing games across different channels depending on publisher.

What else didn’t work? All-you-can-consume subscription. The model was not sustainable for front-list titles with publisher payouts equal to or higher than the subscription fees, and the traction wasn’t there based on indie and older titles alone.

The games market took a tumultuous few years to settle but the winning trends seem to be here to stay:

Curated storefronts

Steam is by far the big winner in the digital distribution game. Editorial curation coupled with strong community building have all but ensured commercial success for games that make it onto the platform.

Gamers know that every pound spent is on a title that has been vetted, whether published or indie, and that the experience from purchase to play-through is premium throughout.


Free-to-play controversies aside, microtransactions have been introduced for value-added content beyond the initial purchase. This has revolutionized monetization strategies for publishers and independent developers alike.

Ease of payment and access to bonus content has opened up creative avenues for publishers to interact directly with their consumers, gaining insights on the gamer psyche as well as shifting the dynamic beyond the simple retail model. 

Pay what you want bundles

The Humble Bundle revolutionized discovery for indie games and contributed significantly to revenue generation as well as for publishing deals for the games on larger platforms and storefronts.

Humble Bundle are currently running similar deals for books but it’s still a trend worth looking at from the wider book publishing perspective.

Early access

Minecraft is the clear example of a game that was initially funded by early alpha release sales.

The Steam Early Access platform formalized that as a viable business model for game developers, and in addition to sales contributed to better engagement with the gamers and editorial polish for the game ahead of its full release. Galleys and advance reader copies (ARCs) have always been a staple of the editorial pre-release process in the book industry but the idea that this could be a revenue generating aspect of the business is worth investigating. 

The above business models may not be directly transferrable to ebooks but they present a range of opportunities that players in the digital publishing space can learn from and adapt.

The challenges that the video game industry faced and dealt with are very similar to the questions being asked in book publishing today — discoverability in overcrowded storefronts, devaluation of the creative work, market dynamics of published vs. self-published work — and the answers might very well be similar enough for both sets of publishers.

Main image - Pixabay: qiye