Pixels on page: How video game books are defying the digital revolution

Matthew Jarvis
Pixels on page: How video game books are defying the digital revolution

Nobody reads books now.”

It's a common sentiment and, with paperbacks increasingly replaced by websites, e-readers and apps, it might be tempting to close the book on the traditional publishing sector.

Books may appear even more of a terminal case when it comes to games, with countless wiki sites, online walkthroughs and YouTube guides sounding the death knell.

According to market tracker Nielsen, the UK Computer Games: User Guides sector (which includes strategy guides) was worth 2.1 million in 2014, compared to 2.6 million in 2013. This 20 per cent drop in value was primarily due to a drop in the popularity of premium-priced books.

While in the short-term prospects look poor for video game books, the opposite is true when a bigger picture is acquired; since 2010, the User Guides segment has actually grown by six per cent in terms of value, with unit sales rising eight per cent.

In fact, the second quarter of 2015 outpaced that of both 2013 and 2014; User Guides and Programming titles together grew 12 per cent in terms of units during the period versus last year.

The market has grown hugely,” observes Omar Khan(lead image, left), editor at Titan Books.

A few years ago, game publishing was mainly limited to strategy guides, and concept art books were pretty rare. Now, we're working across four core categories: art books, illustrated in-universe books, novelised fiction and comic books. The studios we work with are now really in-tune with the sort of tie-in books we'd like to bring to the marketplace.”

"A guide is the best merchandise a game can be accompanied by."

Frank Glaser, Future Press

GENRE DIVIDE

One of the biggest issues facing game books is data. Or to be more specific, the confusion surrounding it.

It's difficult to measure the market, as books such as Minecraft and Skylanders and so on are categorised as children's books – not gaming,” explains Scott Morton, media analyst at Nielsen Book Research.

However, some interesting points can still be drawn when the data for both sectors are combined at a title level.

For 2014, Egmont's range of Minecraft handbooks occupied the entire Top Five best-selling video game book titles. The Official Construction Handbook was the best-selling game book of the year, generating more than 2.6 million.

In fact, the Construction Handbook is the best-selling game book since Nielsen records began in 1998, followed by three further Minecraft titles – the Redstone, Beginner's and Combat Handbooks, respectively. The success of the books led Egmont to a dominant position in the market, with a 2014 value of over 10 million, versus less than 1 million for each of its competitors.

The Minecraft handbooks are an evolution of the traditional strategy guide, a form of game book that has been around almost as long as the medium itself. But brand new types of tie-in publication are emerging, too.

Though art books still perform very well, there's been a noticeable upswing in demand for ‘in-universe' titles,” Khan explains.

Narrative-led games are all about inhabiting characters, which is why in-universe books, ‘written' by characters that fans are supremely familiar with, work so well. There's huge scope for the narrative content in each of these books and their collectible format sets them apart from other types of books.”

Frank Glaser(lead image, right), founder and MD of Future Press, agrees that collectibility is key.

Heavyweight, hardcover collectible game guides sell the most,” he reveals.

If a new title is listed at Amazon and it comes in hardcover and paperback editions, the former is always on top – it's not even close. In general, art books don't sell as much as game guides, but the market is getting bigger and there are some properties that are exceptions to this, such as Zelda: Hyrule Historia.”

MIGHTIER THAN THE PEN

It is the traditional strategy guide that has been hardest hit by the growing power of the internet.

Traditional paperback game guides are slowly but steadily disappearing,” observes Glaser.

People who get stuck once in a while don't buy game guides any more: they just look for help online.

Having tons of additional info and features to make the books collectible and appealing even after the game has been played through is essential.”

Khan adds: Online wikis are slowly rendering strategy guides obsolete.

To keep physical books competitive versus the digital space, it's truly key to include meaningful exclusive content – like limited-run slipcase editions, which feature exclusive art cards and objects signed by dev teams. Where possible, we endeavour to work with studios to promote books with in-store signings and product launches.”

Websites have replaced physical guides as go-to assistance for many types of game. But there will always be exceptions to the rule.

The best-selling brands for guides in the market continue to be Pokmon, Elder Scrolls and GTA, because their genres grant a high attach rate and their sales numbers are extremely high,” says Glaser.

RPGs in general are better suited for game guides due to their complexity, huge content and secret stuff to be found. FPS games, on the other hand, have a terrible attach rate – around one to two per cent – and are only worth covering if they sell extremely well.”

"Online wikis are slowly rendering strategy guides obsolete."

Omar Khan, Titan Books

THE NEXT CHAPTER

It's clear that a page had been turned for game books. What's next? Could we see the sector embrace trends such as indies?

If the game has enough content to merit a guide, it could absolutely be useful,” Glaser responds.

It has to make financial sense, though. A guide like Bloodborne takes five months of crunch time for ten highly skilled people, so an indie guide would require a different setup in order to work. Maybe something digital from a smaller team, that follows the spirit of being an indie studio.”

Although game books may seem archaic in the digital age, Glaser and Khan agree that they've never been more relevant.

With everything transitioning to digital so quickly, game guides should be more embraced by traditional retailers,” advises Glaser.

The necessity for people to go out and visit a physical store becomes smaller and smaller, so guides combined with a good bundle offer can bring online customers back to stores. A good strategy guide is the be

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