In my preparation for E3, which is where I am today, I’ve been digging into the numbers behind the game-related novel. Everybody who knows anything at all about me, knows that for about fifteen years, I edited game tie-in novels, and almost exclusively game tie-in novels, for Wizards of the Coast. Most of what I worked on were based on the various Dungeons & Dragons worlds, especially Forgotten Realms, but I had a hand in a few Magic: The Gathering, and yeah, you remember, Alternity novels, too.
Now I’m out on my own, helping mostly video game studios branch out into the wide-open new universe of e-book publishing. And this run of numbers, thanks to some web research and a friend with access to BookScan, really surprised me.
I wasn’t surprised that books based on video games were doing fairly well by current-day publishing standards, but that such huge franchises had so few books behind them, when much smaller franchises, including my own beloved D&D, are continuing to support much more robust publishing programs.
Let’s take a look at some numbers . . .
Dungeons & Dragons/Forgotten Realms: The Ghost King by R.A. Salvatore
Novel sales topping 200,000 across all formats while Dungeons & Dragons the game supports an active player base of about two million players.
Okay, this sales figure for the novel is a little on the high side. It might be as low as 200,000, and R.A. Salvatore is by far WotC’s biggest author. He’s more than half their total publishing business, as a matter of fact, but still. . . . My own Forgotten Realms novel Annihilation has sold 121,713 copies (not counting foreign translations) since the initial hardcover release in July 2004.
Warhammer: 40,000: Ultramarines Omnibus by Graham McNeill
Novel sales 45,245.
The Warhammer: 40,000 game has an active player base of about 1.5 million.
There are probably better selling 40k novels, but I picked this one. And keep in mind that this is an omnibus and that sales figure doesn’t account for the sales of the individual original books. The aggregate numbers for all versions of those books are going to be lots higher.
Then we get into the video game universe. All of these are handled by licensees. The studios do not publish their own books.
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
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.
And here are four more, with descending results:
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
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
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
Here’s what I think this means:
A big game franchise can support a bigger novel line than licensee publishers are willing to support.
The way the traditional publishing business works is rapidly revealing itself to be unsustainable in the Great Recession Era. Before the advent of the e-book, brick and mortar bookstores bought everything on consignment, and had virtually unlimited rights to send back unsold books for full credit. For many books as much as 90% of the print run is eventually destroyed. And all of that loss is passed on directly to the publisher.
Distributors and retailers take a cut of the cover price, which means the publisher is supporting all of the costs, from author advances and royalties to editorial/development costs, manufacturing (printing), shipping, and warehousing, all of which are paid on a complicated fee basis to the distributor, all so that a retailer can hold onto a book for a couple months on a zero-risk basis. And all those costs have to be supported by the publisher on as little as 40% of the cover price of the book.
Now imagine you’re a publisher who has all of those costs then you add another 15% of the cover price in licensing fees back to the people who control the intellectual property.
At best, paper-and-retail publishing is a very fragile industry that runs on razor thin margins. In reality, publishers simply can’t afford to support someone else’s property with much more than the occasional experimental release to test the waters. Sometimes, though rarely, this results in a reasonably successful novel line, like Halo, but it doesn’t take long to realize that the Halo novel line is the exception, not the rule.
If you put this side-by-side with the video gamer’s general comfort with digital delivery, gadget-based entertainment, you have a ready-made e-book audience that probably already has the hardware, doesn’t mind at all entering their credit card information to buy another digital file . . . if you’re smart enough to make sure those e-books have some kind of metagame component to them to appeal to the reluctant readers . . . I think you’ll see even the smaller studios finding their way into the e-book business in the next couple years or less.
The publishing business has been talking about a shift to a larger number of smaller niche publishers in the e-future. That future is now.
See you at E3.