Originally published 10/24/14 at http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/GardSkinner/20141024/228576/

Ever thought about trying to write game-related science fiction for a major publisher? Here’s the journey, these were the battles:

August, 2010… The idea to write a full novel as a tribute to modern gaming tech, designers, titles and environmments seemed, at the time, like an idea that had probably been done. What I found was that while a few dove into gaming as a player, none had told the story of our NPC. Of our AI.

Game Slaves cover by Dominic HarmanGame Slaves (originally titled First Person Shooter) was completed in December, 2010, nine months before Ernie Cline killed it with Ready Player One.

Dec, 2010… I got a literary agent in about two hours. I was following the guy’s Twitter feed, and he was spouting about how innovative it was. Two days later I mailed back the contracts, and that would be the last I’d hear from him.

He disappeared. Off the grid. I got a note later saying he’d been let go from the agency, and then nothing. Welcome to publishing.

June, 2011… The second agent had the manuscript ready to pitch by mid-summer, and then it went out to every major publishing house. One of the first replies we got asked for a revision to the ending. I made it like it is now – a puzzle to solve – and then it was time to wait.

September, 2011… A few rejections rolled in. We looked for common threads. Are the concerns about one thing? Or are they all over the map?

They were all over the map except this. We started to see the NY houses responding with,

“In our experience, gamers don’t read books.”

“Gamers don’t read books?” That, to be honest, pissed me off. By the numbers, saying gamers don’t read is like saying humans don’t read. Pew Research reports 97% of kids play games. That means gamers may be the largest demographic in the world.

In industrialized countries, are there more gamers than Christians? Or Muslims? More gamers than there are men? Or women? In the U.S. there are certainly more gamers than adults. More gamers than there are children.

December, 2011… The book sold to an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt who had a rep for taking chances. Then, as I was a debut novelist, she played it very straight. She said not to expect a lot of marketing support. I was on the back of their list. That I’d need to push it out on my own. That I needed to show there was a reader base for this kind of work.

December, 2012… The edits and design are done. I approached it like this:

I figured, correctly, that Harcourt would take care of the mainstream publishing channels. Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, School Library Journal, The Bulletin and the rest.

I would need to find a way to let the game industry know I’d done something that was, in essence, a modern gaming narrative stuffed into 350 pages. A tribute to our heroes, villains, and our worlds.

HMH hired the incomparable Dominic Harman to do a cover that I insisted look like a game case. (It’s part of the narrative, part of the puzzle.)

Character art by Cameron DavisInterior design is by Cameron Davis, famous for his characters in Guitar Hero and other titles.

So it began. I started rounding up emails of every gaming journalist, editor, and personality I could find. Followed them. Interacted. I sent them notes asking if they’d like a copy. Hundreds of them. I talked about AI stagnation, sentient software, the limits of environments, and all the other elements that are the building blocks of the book.

And I worked with my editor to keep the novel readable by both gamers and casual gamers. I wanted a deep puzzle in there. Something that wasn’t easily solved or discovered. And I think we served that need.

It was due to be released in September of 2013, then… the release date got pushed back, so Game Slaves came out on Jan. 7 of this year, after the Christmas season.

January, 2014… Fortunately, the institutional reviews were all great, calling it “Smart, old school science fiction,” and “True to gaming.” (The Johns Hopkins/MUSE Bulletin gave it a starred review).

But the big question still remained: Do gamers read? Without that, it couldn’t be successful because it wasn’t about witches, vampires, or angsty teens who won’t decide who to date.

Cline had seriously killed it with his 80s MMO approach, but Game Slaves puts your boots down in environments more like those in Halo, Borderlands, and Gears.

March, 2014… The numbers in the book publishing industry are relatively small. Just a few thousand copies puts a novel on the bestseller lists. It guarantees a sequel. It builds a brand.

Then you consider the number of gamers worldwide, and wonder how many of them would buy a book about the games they play? Geekwire claims there are 1.2 billion gamers in the world. ESA reports 58% of over 300 million US citizens game.

  1. So, theoretically, just in the US, if even just 1% of the 174 million gamers reads books.
  2. And, take it farther, just 1% of 1% made a purchase.
  3. That would sell 17,000 copies. That number, in book publishing, is absolutely huge.

I wanted to see if I could even tap that market on the smallest level. One percent of 1%.

Unfortunately, what I learned is… I suck at marketing my work. Of the very few journalists who responded and received a copy, none chose to get back or run a mention.

Months of non-aggro Twitter peaked me out at 85 followers. I ran ads on Facebook, and I don’t think the clicks it got were real accounts. Of all the releases and PR I tried to distribute, not a single gaming website believed it rose to the level of industry news.

The reader reviews, while often smart, never mentioned “Hey that part was like Red Dead” or “Now I know why NPC run into walls.” Or the jokes about unlimited ammo. Or edges of environments. Often, they just said the violence was too gory. (Which is crazy if you’ve ever waded through bloody ragdoll locust body parts or shot a raider full of acid bullets.)

What I learned there was, book reviewers are not gamers. For the most part, they just didn’t get it, or I’d failed to connect with what might interest the current gaming generation.

October, 2014… The sales did not materialize. Sequel shelved. In the end, Harcourt did their part. I did not succeed at doing mine.

But, it hasn’t changed my mind about if gamers read. Gamers are everyone. They are everywhere. And, I still believe they would respond to the right book.

What a great ride it’s been – a very interesting four-year game I got to play.

If you have any questions, please reach out.

-GS