At some point in this post I’m going to talk about Game Night sales and vaccinations, but I’m going to start off about talking about one of the pitfalls of reviewing, which is that a review is not so much a description of how much you enjoyed the book as a prediction as to how much someone else might enjoy it.

From time to time I talk about books I’ve read here, and I’ve realised that when it comes to the degree to which I might recommend a book (and perhaps whether or not I might recommend it at all) there are two factors that come into play.

  • How much I enjoyed reading it.
  • The extent to which I can predict which other persons might enjoy it and the degree to which they might enjoy it.

It’s like you end up with two scores: a personal enjoyment rating, and an ability to recommend offset. For example, two books might give me the following:

Book that is hard to categorise

Personal Enjoyment: 5 out of 5

Recommendation Offset: -2

Recommendation: “Well I absolutely loved this myself, but…”

And:

Book that sits solidly within a genre

Personal Enjoyment: 4 out of 5

Recommendation Offset: +1

Recommendation: “It’s a good book. If you liked [genre/other book] I’m pretty sure you’ll like this.”

What does this have to do with Game Night sales? Well having realised the above in connection to writing reviews I’ve realised that it applies just as much to more informal word-of-mouth recommendations. And one thing that has become clear from Game Night reviews (and by extrapolation from informal word-of-mouth also) is that for many, perhaps most, people, it comes with a conditional, negative recommendation offset.

Or to use the format I defined above, for many people it appears to be:

Game Night

Personal Enjoyment: 4 or 5 out of 5

Recommendation Offset: 0/-2

Recommendation: “I really like it myself, but unless you’re a roleplayer don’t bother reading it because you won’t get the jokes.”

And I’m not just making this up. Here are some snippets from actual Amazon reviews:

First off, if you’ve never played an RPG before, stop reading this now; click onto another page, this dainty is not for you. If you’ve role-played, but didn’t really enjoy it, you’d better leave too. Still with me? OK then I’ll begin.

And:

It’s a shame that if you are not a role-player that a lot of the humour of this book will be lost. But if you are, it will probably be one of the funniest books you ever read.

And:

Guffaw or run for the hills, it all depends on whether you are already a gamer

Now I don’t actually think this is a correct conclusion to draw. For instance the following comes from a review written by a Discworld fan who’s never roleplayed in her life:

I picked up this book at EasterCon 2008 and read it so fast. It is funny, original, clever and oh – did I mention funny.

I am not into RPG – have never played dungeons and dragons or anything similar but I understand the convention and know that Roleplaying groups are supposed to be dysfunctional, argue with their Dungeonmaster etc. That is more than enough information to understand this book.

I read this and recommended to a friend who sat up all night reading it. We have both recommended to lots of friends and they ALL said they loved it too.

The friend she mentions greeted me at a convention the day after I sold her a copy of Game Night with the wonderful line:

“I didn’t sleep half the night and it’s all your fault! I couldn’t put it down, because it’s brilliant!”

And these are by no means the only non-roleplayers to tell me that they really enjoyed the book.

It’s very frustrating. But I can’t really complain, because I did originally envisage Game Night as a niche product targeted at roleplayers, and the fact that it was equally enjoyed by non-roleplayers came as a pleasant, but somewhat unexpected surprise. When originally conceiving it, I hadn’t thought that its niche status would be a problem. After all, if twenty million people worldwide have supposedly played Dungeons and Dragons at some point, I would only have to sell the book to a tenth of a percent of them to achieve sales of twenty thousand.

Excuse me while I pause for hollow laughter.

As it happens, Game Night has sold a little over 1600 copies in a bit over two years, a lot less than I was naively hoping for, but a figure that I now realise is pretty good for a novel published by a small gaming press, and which is not available through conventional book distribution channels.

And this is where we come to the discussion of vaccination promised earlier. You might point out that the Recommendation Offset mentioned above was conditional: it was only -2 when the person was talking to a non-roleplayer. Surely Game Night could have achieved a viral-like spread purely through roleplayers recommending it to their roleplaying friends? Well this is where the theory behind vaccinations comes into play.

See, to totally eliminate a disease, you don’t need to achieve vaccination rates of 100%. Get them up to something like 95% and you will kill it off completely – because the 5% of unvaccinated people don’t meet each other often enough for the disease to successfully spread.

And I think that’s what happened to Game Night. To a certain extent, all book publicity word-of-mouth is conditional; you’ll only recommend a horror novel to your friends who like horror books, for example. But Game Night was in some ways a genre within a genre within a genre (roleplaying inside of humour inside of fantasy). So perhaps its perceived niche status caused readers to only recommend it to a very select number of their friends, and just as with a disease in a largely vaccinated society, this prevented it from achieving that dreamed of viral status.

The conclusion: another good reason to add to the list of reasons as to why you should try to ensure your book fits into a recognisable genre.

And you know what? I think that considering everything, 1600+ sales is actually pretty damn good.

Where do I go from here? Well the novel I’m currently working on is the same style of humour as Game Night, because the last thing I wanted was:

“Well I really enjoyed it… but it is very different from Game Night.”

…but with a much more universal theme/subject of time travel humour.

Watch this space.