Posted on June 17, 2013 in Archive

Books and video games – how alike are apples and oranges?


In all the talk and hysteria under the ‘what will become of publishing?’ banner, there’s no shortage of comparisons being drawn with the music industry. Taken with an appropriate grain of salt, there are important lessons to be learned from these comparisons. Something you don’t see as often is a comparison between books and video games. Let’s see why not.

First, a disclaimer: my commentary is a response to a talk at this year’s Futurebook Innovation Workshop by Nick Perrett from HarperCollins. In lieu of a transcript, I’m using this summary of the speech. I would never want to be accused of unfairly interpreting someone else’s interpretation of a third person’s argument, but it’s possible that will happen, so I apologise in advance.

Now, on with the show!

Perrett’s main theme was that the big changes to business models and products in the video games industry in the last 6 years pointed to some similar changes on the way in publishing. These changes include: moving from selling games on physical media to digital distribution, monetising games in different ways (e.g. via subscriptions or micro-transactions), longer-term marketing strategies for new releases, and releasing games earlier and then developing them in response to player feedback.

The first of those changes has a clear parallel. Publishers are, whether they like it or not, moving towards digital distribution. There are also some new business models coming in, including Netflix-style subscriptions. Micro-transactions might be a bit further off, though – how many people would pay to change the description of a character or unlock special paragraphs?

It’s worth remarking that games publishers have only shown interest in subscriptions on a per game basis. Games like World of Warcraft are, by their nature, highly replayable ongoing parts of their subscribers’ lives. By contrast, no one would pay for a year’s subscription to The Great Gatsby, because even a die hard fan like me wouldn’t read the book frequently enough to make it worthwhile.

This essential difference between the products of the two industries and the way audiences engage with them is what brings the whole comparison off the rails. Video games have a far faster engagement cycle than books. Gamers will play (and replay) a single game on-and-off for multiple years, whereas there’s very little incentive to reread a book 6 months – or even a year – after finishing it.

Books and video games - pile of books

The similarities are only cosmetic.

Don’t get me wrong, favourite books always hold a special significance for the readers who love them and readers do reread them, but not every few months. In that instance, the lifespan of the product is essentially the lifespan of a reader. Video game publishers have the final say on the lifespan of their product. They can shut down the servers for one game to force players to move onto its sequel. No book publisher can make you move on to the next book in a series if you’re happy with the one you have.

As for releasing products early and developing them further based on user feedback, it sounds pretty much like outsourcing the editing process to random people on the street. Open betas work well for games because game mechanics and graphics can be changed prior to the final release, ensuring that most beta players will still buy the commercial version of the game. With a book, they’re aren’t so many variables. Unless the author heavily alters the story in some way, the beta version of the book will always be substantially similar to the final version. Add to that the fact that people don’t like to read a book multiple times in quick succession and it looks like an open beta for a book can create a large number of lost customers (at least, for the first year or so after launch).

I should say that many self-published authors manage groups of beta readers, often as an alternative to an editor. Regardless of how effective that is for them, it’s another reason for publishers to stick with their editors. The value proposition of a big publisher as opposed to self-publishing is that they have an army of trained professionals to help an author write, polish and sell a book. The last thing they should do is turn part of that process over to non-experts – it would be like saying anybody could do it.

To be fair, Perrett isn’t saying that all of these practices from the video games industry will necessarily be adopted in publishing. But he is suggesting there are many similarities between the two industries, even though his own examples indicate the opposite.

There are similarities between the two industries, but they’re so superficial we can only make basic predictions from them. For example, Perrett forecasts high profile publishing acquisitions and failures by 2019, as well as rapid growth for some digital publishing startups. Those things are all very likely to happen, but publishers don’t need to look to the games industry to know it.

Games-as-books image courtesy Etsy user James Bit