What Can Book Publishing Learn from Online Gaming?

In Feature Articles by Liz Bury

By Liz Bury

Computer GamerWhat can book publishers learn from online games developers? More than you might think. Book publishers consider a book’s ability to evoke emotions in the reader as one of its special qualities. Games publishers think along the same lines. Book publishers value books for the way they transport the reader to another world, enabling them to inhabit another life. Ditto for games publishers. The difference is that online games enable players to experience emotion and inhabit another world while at the same time connecting to others. Could this be the future for reading?

Take Football Superstars from Cybersportsworld. In this Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG), players inhabit the life of a footballer, playing as part of a team of other gamers. They can woo the press, hang out in bars, and live the fantasy life of a glamorous sports star. The site’s ‘freemium’ business model means that it is free to play, but players are enticed to part with cash for added extras and advantages, such as super-boosted football boots or other virtual goods. As in the real world, brands like Puma compete with each other in Cybersportsworld’s virtual arena. The business makes its revenue from advertising, and through the sale of virtual goods, thus monetizing a small percentage of a huge user base.

The strategy of Playfish.com, developer of games for social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, involves a more subtle exploitation of the emotional connections between gamers. Their games are less about what’s happening on the board, and more about the social emotions -– joy, fear, wonder, envy — happening between players. It is these social connections that the publisher seeks to reinforce and monetize, by selling, for example, virtual gifts or mechanisms for co-operation between friends. Again it’s free to play, and the company’s revenue comes from in-game advertising and the sale of virtual goods to a minority of players.

Mind Candy’s Moshi Monsters game favors a subscription model, allowing parents to pay for a protected online space in which their children can safely play. Players adopt monsters and progress through the game by nurturing them, winning virtual currency by completing puzzles. The game has more than 7 million users worldwide.

Over the past few years, traditional games publishers have lost market share to the more fluid, faster-moving online sector. The industry is evolving from a product-based and retail-driven business, into a service-based model instead. Revenue opportunities are identified by analyzing customers’ online behavior in micro-detail, and selling enhancements or services when and where they are wanted most. A gamer might buy access to a certain area, for example, or pay for extra playing power at certain points in the game.

Monitoring customer metrics is significantly different to commissioning consumer research. It demands constant attention and requires a high level of responsiveness in delivering new services on a continuing basis. Are book publishers ready to embrace such a fast-moving business model? If they are, and can find ways to embed stories in the connections between people, whole new reading and publishing cultures may be about to emerge.

Old and new modes of storytelling could provide clues as to how books and reading may be integrated into online social activity. An author might conduct an online reading with his or her Facebook friends invited to listen and afterwards discuss the work. Gamers could be encouraged to invent stories or to virtually read chapters from books to each other in order to gain advantages or simply to entertain and delight their friends.

Imagine a game like Moshi Monsters where children earn virtual currency not by completing a puzzle, but by selecting a book from the virtual library and reading their pet a bedtime story. Competitive games for adults could test their knowledge of a particular genre or author’s work, with winners gaining privileges like invitations to VIP-only online events, or early access to new works. The world of a particular novel — or of Dickens’ London, for example — could be used as the setting for a multiplayer online game. Perhaps a gamer could take on the role of storyteller, author or librarian in a virtual community, sharing their imagination or book knowledge with others. (Head librarian at Hogwarts, anyone?)

By taking a fresh and detailed look at emerging online behavior around reading, writing and storytelling, publishers may find myriad ways to monetize book lovers’ passions. The more playful they can be, the better.

About the Author

Liz Bury


Liz Bury has been a writer and editor for 20 years, covering books, design and business risk. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Building Design and The Bookseller, among other publications. She can be found tweeting rarely @lizziebbrown and on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/liz-bury-88356a16.