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Philip Athans, Blogger

April 13, 2012

9 Min Read

In the mid-eighties, TSR, Inc., the company founded by Gary Gygax to publish the world’s first role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, boldly launched itself into the novel publishing business beginning with the now legendary Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman.

I believe that the video game business is in a similar position now, in regards to publishing, as TSR was when they started their novel lines. Because D&D was a game that was sold in the form of a book, TSR developed, by necessity, the infrastructure necessary to publish books. Novels were a simple and logical extension of that. Now, with e-books rapidly gaining market share and on track to capture 80% or more of the overall publishing business by the end of 2014, video game studios are able to create tie-in e-books with the same ease: They have built their business around delivering digital content, so an e-book is as logical an extension of that as paper books were for TSR almost thirty years ago.

“I would agree that e-books are particularly conspicuous by their absence in the video game space,” Mary Kirchoff told me in an email interview. The former TSR/Wizards of the Coast executive editor/VP of Marketing, Publishing, and Tabletop Games and former CMO of video game publisher 38 Studios added, “The marketing and purchase of e-books related to digital games is a no-brainer and should be a seamless and instantaneous extension of the game experience and available for immediate purchase and download.”




According to Jean Blashfield Black, who headed up the very first books team at TSR, “It was quite difficult to get the powers-that-be to agree to do novels. It was such a leap into the unknown for a gaming company. When they started publishing the games, it all happened at a slow, step-by-step pace, with not too great a leap at any one time. Not so the novels.”

But Jean finally managed to make her case, and began a publishing program that is still successful today. Such was the untapped demand for D&D fiction that the first book in Weis & Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles series found a place on the coveted New York Times best sellers list. “We began to expand from there,” Black continued, “into an expanded Dragonlance world and then the Forgotten Realms.”

I came to TSR, myself, in September of 1995. I had submitted a proposal for a D&D project and my resume found its way from the head of the games department to Brian Thomsen, then head of the book department. I stayed on when TSR was acquired by Wizards of the Coast in 1997 and spent a total of fifteen years in positions of increasing responsibility, eventually ending my tenure there as senior managing editor, overseeing the books editorial team.

At one point during that time we were publishing nearly a hundred titles a year, and seeing more than one each year find its way to the best-sellers list. In those periods “between editions” when interest in the D&D game—or at least the current run of D&D supplements—waned, novels continued to click along, generating a steady stream of revenue year after year.




One of the principal advantages to doing your own publishing in-house is control. You have a direct hand in the quality of the books, decide your own schedules, and so on. And it’s that quality message that’s of greatest importance.

Jean Black told me she thought that many of the initial novels in the expanding Dragonlance line saw the world of Krynn, “often redefined by some of the outside authors. A tight rein on the material was never maintained. Perhaps it should have been, since all attempts to create a Dragonlance encyclopedia or even accurate timeline failed over the years. There were too many contradictions within the large number of novels.”

By the time I got to TSR in 1995 this lesson had already been learned by both the RPG designers and editors, and the Books team, who, spurred on by an increasingly vocal and ever-growing fan base, kept a tighter and tighter eye on continuity.

Coming into the organization as a gamer and fan, I immediately understood the importance of internal continuity across books, games, and other media—what we now call “transmedia.” That’s a subject for another article, at least, but it was always a part of the overall quality message I did my best to continue to nurture at Wizards of the Coast.

This eye on continuity is principally the job of a good line editor. This is someone with a real eye for detail, and real experience handling novel-length text. This is a skill-set at least as specialized as any of the technical or programming disciplines game studios take such care in recruiting.

As Jean Black put it, there’s “. . . no point in publishing books that weren’t as good as they could be. That’s one of the things that concerns me about e-book publishing. Since anyone can do it, no one is doing the strict evaluating that should go in to any book before it is published. I’m unwilling to see e-books as something other than a different form of a real book that deserves all the respect that a book coming out of a traditional publisher always got.”

If your brand deserves a quality game, it deserves a quality book no less.




Once an experienced editor is in place, the next step is recruiting authors.

Authors of tie-in fiction tend to fall into three major groups that I’ll call: Insiders, Hired Guns, and Names, and there are certain advantages and disadvantages to all three.

Insiders are authors who come from the existing creative pool—producers, narrative designers, etc.—of the original expression of the property. Hired Guns are professional writers who know how to do the homework, respect the material, know which questions to ask, and how to work closely with editors and other members of a creative team. I recruited and nurtured quite a number of these authors in my time at TSR and Wizards of the Coast—they’re the lifeblood of shared world fiction. Names, on the other hand, are authors who have already made a name for themselves writing original fiction. These are authors you recruit because you hope they’ll bring some number of readers into your property, lending it a certain air of professionalism or importance. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m not sure, for instance, that Name author Greg Baer’s Halo books have sold any better than those written by Insider Eric Nyland (director of narrative design at Microsoft), or Hired Gun William C. Dietz.

Both TSR and Wizards of the Coast were well-known for mining their pool of creative talent to write novels. Weis & Hickman, Troy Denning, Douglas Niles, and myself were all employees of the company when we wrote our first D&D-branded novels.

On the subject of Insiders, Mary Kirchoff wasn’t surprised to find game designers and editors who were excited at the prospect of branching out into novels. “We introduced an audition process to allow us to find the best voices available to us wherever they were on the planet,” she told me. “Those voices sometimes came from within, but the decision to work with an in-house author had nothing to do with saving money (the same royalties were paid over time) and everything to do with finding people who understood and loved the game world and who were willing to demonstrate—on spec—an ability to write compelling stories.”

I went through precisely this sort of blind audition process myself when my proposal for the Baldur’s Gate novelization was plucked out of a pool of anonymous submissions.

Though more and more Name authors are moving into the tie-in worlds, attracted by the growing audience for major intellectual properties, there are some compelling reasons to pay more for a Name author, but that’s something that should be carefully considered.

I agree with Mary Kirchoff when she said, “Consumers who are heavily invested in worlds like the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance can smell an arranged marriage a mile away. More specifically, the author’s personal investment in the world (or not) can’t be manufactured, or it shows in the work.” If the Name author is a fan, great, if not—better to find a Hired Gun who is, and end up with a better, more fan-friendly book.

At TSR Jean Black had the same experience: “Once we got the go-ahead from management, we did decide to go for the big names. We spread the word among known writers. We offered them a fairly nice deal, though they would have to be willing to take a chance, too, because we were, in effect, asking them to audition—something most of them had moved beyond. We gave them the material, and then waited to see what would come in. We received a couple of samples, at which time it became clear that the work really needed to be done by someone more familiar with the game world. It was too easy for an outsider to latch on to the wrong aspects of the game. Before I rejected anything, though, Margaret and Tracy surprised me on a Monday morning by bringing in a sample they had spent the weekend writing, presumably with little or no sleep. So we now had writers who knew the games inside and out. And the rest is history.”

As for the question of whether any of these three types of authors is more important a driver of sales than the brand itself, Mary Kirchoff and I share a certain ambivalence. Is it the brand (Halo, Star Wars, Forgotten Realms) that drives sales, or the author (Eric Nyland, Timothy Zahn, R.A. Salvatore)? According to Kirchoff: “The answer to which drives sales—brand or author—is both and, unfortunately, neither if a line doesn’t take off. Initially, the driver is whichever has greater recognition, so in most cases in game-related fiction, it is the brand first. Over time, however, with an established brand, sales can be driven by both, as individual authors occasionally burst from a brand’s stable of authors to develop a measurable following beyond the brand’s average. The obvious example is R.A. Salvatore, whose name now eclipses the Forgotten Realms brand.” This is an example of an author moving, through his exceptional interaction with the brand, from Hired Gun to Name. This should always be the ultimate goal.




A novel line can bring revenue to a property, for sure, but what other “intangibles” did the TSR/WotC novels bring to the overall brand picture? According to Mary Kirchoff, “Game-related worlds actually come to life primarily through their novels. Sure, video games have quests and dialog boxes, trading cards have flavor text, game modules of old had boxed copy. But none of those creates a continuous story with the exact same beginning, middle, and end for every player the way fiction does. No other brand extension provides the same depth and breadth of connection with the world and its people as novels—except for movies, which often spring from novels anyway.”

And no novel is ever going to cost you $200,000,000 to produce!


—Philip Athans

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