Thursday, August 16, 2007

Selling RPG Books (and Books in a Series)

Here in the Philippines, RPG books like Dungeons & Dragons have baffled bookstores (and even some comic and gaming shops). Even as a gamer myself, I have problems pinning down exactly what category RPGs should fall under. Are they fiction? Well, some parts of an RPG book might have fiction but by no means is there a huge narrative, just excerpts. Is it nonfiction? Well, depends on your expectations. If you expect RPG books to be accurately historical based on the real world, they’re not. But they do have histories and geographical notes of fictional worlds. In many ways, they’re also meta as they address the reader and often distinguish between the real world and its make-believe setting.

Now for most bookstores and retailers, books are units that need to be moved. The only distinction they’ll make between The Da Vinci Code and Neuromancer is that the former sells more (in the Philippines) in comparison to the latter and attempt to acquire books more like the former in hopes of moving stock. Which isn’t necessarily wrong mind you but can become finicky when it comes to novels that are serials or part of a series.

When I mention books that are serials or part of a series, I’m really talking about two kinds of books. One are stand-alone books. Harry Potter is an example of one. It has seven books in the series yet I can honestly read any book in any order (although of course to maximize understand and enjoyment, you read them in a specific order) nor do I need to have read the previous book in order to grasp the current story. In this case, whether the bookstore stocks book one or book seven of the series doesn’t really matter—as far as the bookstore is concerned, they think it’ll sell. If you see bookstores stocking the entire series of Harry Potter, I don’t think (but obviously this is a presumption as I am not privy to any bookstore’s strategies) it’s because they think readers will be baffled if you read book seven without reading book one but rather because they can sell you books one to seven instead of just a single book. In many ways, books in a series can be simpler than say, a stand-alone novel like The Da Vinci code because it has a built-in system as to what are other “similar” books.

Of course the series system of books isn’t perfect. Trips to the local bookstore show that every SF&F section has a Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance section. Now as much as literary fans might bash those two derivative series’, the fact of the matter is that those kinds of books sell. Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance are really popular, at least to the mainstream SF&F crowd. The mistake of bookstores however is that while they know the series is popular, they don’t know which specific books in the series are popular. Because as much as there’s good, fun novels in those series, there’s also a ton of mediocre and bad ones. I’d also like to point out that the number of books in both series is almost approaching two hundred. I can probably say that a reading fan’s preference will probably be only an eighth of that number and that’s a kind estimate. To be fair, that observation is a generalization on my part. I’ve seen National Bookstore blindly acquire Dragonlance titles that are horrible and didn’t stock any of the good ones. On the other hand, I’ve seen what I presume to be is the manager of A Different Bookstore in Eastwood give a prospective customer an entire lecture on R.A. Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels so there are exceptions to the norm. (And I think it’s the independent bookstores who’ve managed to distinguish between their customer’s tastes, something that will eventually be lost in bigger bookstore chains unless they have a diligent book buyer or passionate customer service department.)

The other type of series is those that hinge upon books that have preceded and succeeded it. Basically, it’s the novels that leave you hanging. A couple of “recommended reading” in SF&F are these kinds of books and it’s not immediately obvious that these books have sequels. At least that was what I felt when I read Neuromancer and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. It made me wonder whether I was just stupid (a fact) or if there was something I just missed (apparently, I missed out that “hey, I have sequels and you need to read them”). Epic fantasy is also symptomatic of this. I think book one of the Wheel of Time could stand well on its own but not so for the rest of the books. Either that or it simply has a weird, non-traditional pacing. In other words, these books not only lack a satisfying ending if read independently but they also don’t have a cohesive beginning. The best way to read Lord of the Rings for example is by going through Fellowship of the Ring first followed by The Two Towers and finally Return of the King. Anything else will leave you bored or flabbergasted. So common sense would dictate that bookstores should stock the entire series, not just one book in the series arbitrarily (and not even the first book at that). But I’ve seen it happen—The Two Towers gets stocked at National Bookstore with none of its two companions in sight. Return of the King only shows up six months later and by then, The Two Towers is gone. Or how many times have you visited the bookstore hoping to get into a new series such as The Song of Ice and Fire only to find out that book one is missing? Thankfully these days, bookstores are slightly smarter about it (the movies help, not just in encouraging them to stock the books but to actually research on them; I also think healthy competition is another factor) but that’s not always case. And the fact of the matter is, they don’t need to be—such a method will still sell. I’ve heard stories of bibliophiles buying The Two Towers anyway even if the bookstore isn’t stocking Fellowship of the Ring. They’ll either wait for it to pop up some place else or borrow from a friend or library. And in many ways, that’s what’s fun about book shopping here in this country—they’re hard to collect and it gives you a sense of accomplishment when you’ve actually accomplished it, especially when you’re ransacking different bookstores or buying them pre-owned. My Thomas Covenant books were independent purchases at Book Sale over the course of a few months but hey, I got the series didn’t I? Bibliophiles aren’t always interested in just the literature, sometimes they answer a natural human impulse: the art of collecting (which is evident not just in stamp collecting but in fetishes or more addictive pastimes such as trading cards and Collectible Card Games). The other, less-benevolent reason is that sometimes, people buy them simply because they’re there and no alternative is in sight. I remember back before independent bookstores started popping up, I ended up owning five dozen Dragonlance books simply because those were the only fantasy material being stocked in the bookstore and I was desperate for fantasy reading.

Now let me return to RPG books: neither method will really satisfy RPG book buyers. I’ve seen National Bookstore stock a D&D adventure and that’s the only D&D book they had. Obviously, it won’t sell because that adventure book doesn’t have the rules on how to run the game. For that, you need The Player’s Handbook, The Dungeon Master’s Guide, and The Monster’s Manual. The first teaches players how to play the game while the latter two are for game masters, the people who run the game (they pretty much act like the computer, giving the game its narrative and form and challenge). The publisher, Wizards of the Coast, knows this. In fact, these three books are their best-selling merchandise. Yet they continue to release supplements month after month. What most bookstores and retailers don’t realize is that these supplements and adventures aren’t just there to sell, they’re there to plug the three books needed to play the game. I buy almost every D&D supplement that comes out but I’m the exception rather than the norm. Most people will selectively buy supplements. The only consistent books they bought are the three I mentioned. And that’s the heart of the problem I think. Bookstores are working on a different paradigm. They think that by stocking the latest supplements, they’ll sell D&D books when that’s not really the case. The supplements are there to drive up the sales of the big three but unfortunately, the big three aren’t always being stocked.

When it comes to RPG books, I think the paradigm that they should be operating is more like a console system and games. Console systems are game machines like the X-Box 360, the Sony Playstation 3, and the Nintendo Wii. When a third party game publisher produces a game, their maximum quantity will be the number of units sold of the console system. Nintendo for example won’t be selling 1 million units of the game Wii Sports if they only sold half as many Nintendo Wii’s. Wii Sports at best should stock as many Nintendo Wii’s sold (thankfully for the company, the latter is a really, really high number). I'm not saying that's a hard and fast rule but it's really no surprise that one of the reasons Atari eventually crashed in the 80's was because it produced more games than consoles sold. D&D books operate on a similar level: you won’t sell more supplements than the number of Player’s Handbook you’ve sold for example. And that fact is an entirely different business paradigm, at least one that most bookstores aren't used to.

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