How to Turn Video Gamers into Readers (Millions at a Time)

In Feature Articles by Siobhan O'Leary

By Siobhan O’Leary

Mayersche BuchhandlungBERLIN: It might seem counterintuitive for a video game company to set up shop in a bookstore, but as we reported last month, Nintendo Germany has now established its own 40 sq. meter “shop within a shop” in the Mayersche Buchhandlung in Cologne. They have been selling consoles at the bookstore (and at German book chain Hugendubel) for quite some time but, as Kathrin Tamburello, Trade Marketing Manager of Nintendo Germany, told the Boersenblatt in an interview, sales were successful enough to warrant expanding their wares at the location. She calls it the “interface between the literary and the digital world.”

While this may seem like a new idea, the publishing world and the video game business have been commingling for years, particularly when it comes to the high volume business of publishing video game strategy guides.

Publishers like Random House-owned Prima Games are at the forefront and, have experimented with ways to reach gaming fanatics in a Web and Mobile 2.0 world. Prima has been collaborating with San Diego-based wireless technology innovator VOCEL for several years to make its database of tens of thousands of “Codes and Cheats” for over 3,000 video games available on mobile phones. Prima’s iPhone app also provides game strategy “on the go.” Digital eGuides are available on, and essentially, wherever games are downloaded — on consoles like the Xbox, Playstation 2, computers, and mobile phones. Official strategy videos, complete with author voiceovers, provide another level of interactivity.

Halo 3 guideAnd sales figures for the biggest strategy guides do not belie the voracity of their target audience. When HALO 2 was published by Prima in 2004, for example, it became Random House’s biggest selling title since Bill Clinton’s autobiography My Life, selling 270,000 copies on day one, more than 600,000 copies in the first month, and well over 1 million copies overall. When HALO 3 was released last year, the game itself had already registered over 1 million pre-orders and Prima’s initial rollout was close to 800,000 copies. In total, Prima has published more than 1,500 titles and has over 100 million guides in print.

Another key player in the strategy guide market, UK-based Piggyback Interactive, has a very different model, but one that has kept it going strong for eleven years. Unlike Prima, which has traditionally published over 100 titles each year, Piggyback focuses on just four titles a year — the most recent of which are Resident Evil 5, Tomb Raider: Underworld, Pro Evolution Soccer 2009 and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots — and publishes in five languages: English, German, Spanish, Italian and French. To call these books strategy guides is really an understatement. Each is a hardcover volume 200 to 350 pages long, lavishly illustrated on glossy paper. These are collector’s editions. As Managing Director Louie Beatty stated, “We are very much a specialist guide publisher”.

What’s more, the company’s history of publishing in multiple languages has helped Piggyback to meet the challenge of releasing guides on the same on-sale date as the games. “We have been publishing simultaneous releases of those six dedicated SKUs from the beginning”, added Beatty.

One game and strategy guide publisher that has dramatically changed the way it does business over the past couple of years is Unalis Corporation in Taiwan. “We now put almost 90% of our resources and manpower into the field of online games and, therefore, we are no longer selling strategy guides for packages,” said Product Manager Mulder Chen. On the rare occasion when they do license a guide, they might sublicense it to other book publishers rather than publishing it themselves.

“Margins of physical books are too low for us”, Chen added. Sales for MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) and online casual games remain steady, Chen said, but PC packaged games are way down and account and now account for less than 2% of Unalis’ total revenue.

Christian Strauch, Product Manager of books for German strategy guide publisher Data Becker echoed the observation that MMOGs are significantly changing the world of strategy guides.

“The biggest difference today — apart from the Internet as a source for information — is the development in the MMOG sector. World of Warcraft has changed the whole landscape.” In general, he says, the market for game guides is becoming more difficult even as the market for games is growing, which simply adds to the usual challenges of being on time with the book (i.e. getting the necessary information from the game developer when they are still busy finishing the game), making the guides visually appealing enough to match the souped up content of MMOG games, and making sure the guide contains “valuable info that won’t be found on the Internet two days after release”, Strauch added. Though there is no strict formula for determining potential sales of strategy guides in relation to the initial rollout of a game, Strauch states that, in general, “with the really successful games, we can sell about 10% of their numbers in books”.

Though Nintendo may be testing the waters in bookstores in Germany with its games and game-related products, bookstores are unsurprisingly not the primary sales channel for strategy guides. “Sales are still strongly weighted toward traditional video game retail outlets,” said Beatty. Chen added that, though book chains like Taiwan’s Hess sell games, the locals know better than to do their shopping there, as they are pricier than traditional game retailers.

Still, as Tamburello also told the Boersenblatt, Nintendo sees bookstores and other non-traditional channels for selling games as a way to reach beyond their traditional target audience of men, to young women and older adults. There are bookworms who are game fanatics and vice versa, Tamburello points out, but in the end, these are all people who are looking for something useful and entertaining to do with their free time.

About the Author

Siobhan O'Leary

Siobhan O’Leary is a literary agent, translator and writer based in Berlin. She previously worked in the Foreign Rights department of the Crown Publishing Group (Random House) and at the publishing consulting firm Market Partners International.