The Publishing Game

Ten months and countless hours later, I’ve finished my book. There are still a round (or two?) of edits to be made, but the bulk of the writing is finished. It’ll be in stores in October. I’m looking forward to when I’ll be able to post an Amazon URL here. 🙂

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I still can’t seem to summon the energy to write a long and thoughtful blog post about, well, anything right now. All I really want to do is work in my garden and hang out with long-neglected friends and family. However, this experience has taught me a few things which I think are relevant to Arcade games (not just books) and which I’d like to share while the memories are still fresh:

From what I’ve gathered, less than 1% of published books turn out to be hits. The odds for a first-time author (who isn’t a big name, like Bill Clinton or Alan Greenspan) are so incredibly low that even if your publisher loves your book, your marketing/sales forecast is unlikely to exceed 20k copies at best. At that level, it simply doesn’t make sense for the publisher to do much in the way of marketing until the book has already proven itself. Even though the Arcade console game space isn’t nearly that tough, there are parallels. After all, because of the economics of the Arcade space today, most publishers aren’t willing to spend more than $100k on marketing their games (and usually far less than that.)

The marketing questionnaire

So book publishers (or at least, ours) have adapted to their harsh reality, and have forced authors to be more self-reliant. We received a huge “marketing questionnaire,” with questions like “What is the big idea of the book,” “Why now is a good time to publish it,” “Why will people want to read it,” and “Who will buy it and why? Be realistic!” The questionnaire forced us to think about competing books and explain our points of differentiation. It forced us to think through every possible personal contact who could help promote the book, directly or indirectly, through coverage or endorsements, etc. We had to list every website, magazine, and journal that might be interested in the book. We had to answer a list of theoretical questions from journalists. We had to create sound bites. We were asked if we’d be willing to maintain a blog or podcast, and were offered help setting those up. And more.

Every publisher of an indie-developed Arcade title should require their developers to fill out a similar questionnaire. In fact, I wish we’d been asked to do so earlier in the life of our project; it might have caused me to change a few things about the book itself. For example, while we knew our target audience going in, we occasionally wrote things that pulled the book away from that audience. This was perhaps an unavoidable consequence of our personal enthusiasm for certain topics, but I think that if I had filled out the questionnaire earlier, and that if my publisher had sent me sample texts that were proven winners with my target audience, I might have learned something and wasted less time writing material that would ultimately be cut. And if an independent developer’s responses to the questionnaire seems weak or irrational (fortunately, ours were not deemed so), that’s a very useful warning flag for publishers.

Test sales

Our publisher also does things to test whether books will be a success before their mainstream launch. They sell a portion (or all) of an early draft in a small test market (i.e., an online e-book seller) to get early consumer feedback. Not a beta, and not a focus group — they actually sell something, because nothing’s a more accurate measure of potential sales than, well, sales. These measure are ultimately not perfect (or even close) since a single, highly positive review in a publication like the New Yorker can change the fortunes of a book. But at least it’s something, and in my opinion, this kind of pre-launch information would be even more useful in the Arcade space, where game sales are more dependent on the trial experience than on review scores.

My wish list

Some things I wish my publisher had done when I first signed my publishing contract (which I think would help for indie game developers as well):

  • Provide a list of the top ten mistakes new authors make.
  • Provide a list of the top five ways to increase the likelihood that when someone casually picks up your book, they like what they see. (Game equivalent — trial tips.)
  • Schedule a mere one-hour conference call with the marketing team, so I could get their advice, establish relationships, and gauge their initial reactions to my writing plan.
  • Begin working with me on the name of the book immediately. A clever title (i.e., “Purple Cow”) can require a very specific writing plan. A less adventurous title can still theoretically be improved through a cheap but effective survey of potential readers — toss out ten potential titles, along with a brief description of the book, and see which one most grabs people’s attention.

Fortunately, I’ve had a very supportive editor (thanks, Martha!!) so my list of complaints and suggestions is relatively small. Still, something to think about — for authors and game developers.

Wow, that was longer than I intended. Maybe I’m not as burned out on writing as I thought. 😉

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