On Niche Audiences, Immersive Media, and Publishers’ Myopia

“With the Witcher, Andrzej Sapkowski created one of the most memorable characters in modern fantasy. The series inspired one of the most popular videogames of recent years and we’re thrilled that the Netflix adaptation, which launched in December, is introducing the Witcher to a whole new audience. The demand for all eight books in the series increased steadily last year in anticipation of the Netflix launch. Since its release, sales have been phenomenal in all formats – print, ebook and audio – and Orbit’s US division is currently reprinting over 500,000 copies to meet the exceptional demand.”

“The Witcher Is a Publishing Phenomenon,” Orbit Books

There are no guarantees that film and TV adaptations of novels will drive sales of the books themselves, so it’s actually not a no-brainer that the recent Netflix adaptation of The Witcher is driving demand for the novels it’s based on. While Orbit’s measured framing of the Netflix-driven spike is measured—pressing F for CD Projekt Red’s hugely popular video game adaptations—a snap analysis from NPD suggests more weight is reflexively given to prestige TV shows than video games.

Imagine defining a franchise whose most recent release sold 1.5 million copies in pre-orders; 6 million copies in its first 6 weeks; and over 20 million copies total before the Netflix series even had its first teaser trailer… as a niche IP? Imagine dismissing millions of “avid fantasy book readers and video gamers” as a niche audience, as if the massively hyped Netflix series wasn’t counting on them to help generate anticipation and word of mouth?

That’s exactly what NPD inexplicably did.

“Before December 2019, The Witcher was not well known in the U.S. outside of avid fantasy book readers and video gamers. Now, it’s probably harder to find someone in your social circle who hasn’t heard of it. The Witcher, once a more niche IP, has become widely known due to a very successful first season of its new Netflix series, catapulting it to a new level of awareness and creating tremendous value across the entertainment spectrum.”

Sartori Bernbeck, The NPD Group

NPD’s analysis notes an uptick in book sales in late 2019 tied to the Netflix series but doesn’t offer any context with previous sales bumps, or lack thereof, over the previous five years—from The Witcher 3‘s E3 reveals in 2013 and 2014 to its “universally acclaimed” release in 2015 and subsequent DLCs—all of which drove lots of attention for the franchise well beyond the novels’ core audience. The implication of a social circle hierarchy is a hint, too.

Press F to Pay Respects

Video games are a global industry that’s as big as film and roughly three times as big as trade publishing. Fortnite, one of most popular video games ever, generated more revenue in 2018 by itself than three of the so-called Big 5 publishers—the same game Netflix’s CEO noted was its primary competition. Video games have intensely engaged audiences who not only buy and play a variety of expensive games across multiple genres on their expensive gaming platforms of choice, but they voraciously consume a wide range of directly and indirectly-related content, the vast majority of it created by super fans in the form of YouTube videos, Twitch and Mixer streams, mods, forums discussions, and even fan fiction.

And yet, a Netflix show is apparently the “upmarket” vehicle to reach new audiences while “avid fantasy book readers and video gamers” are dismissed as niche genre audiences.

  • Is the assumption that gamers aren’t readers while Netflix subscribers are?
  • Or that gamers are a monolithic audience who don’t engage with other franchises or across media?
  • Do games deliver a superior immersive experience, making novels less appealing?
  • Is there any actual data to support any of these assumptions, or is it just selective confirmation bias?

It reminds me of how Romance often gets dismissed as niche despite being one of the most robust and diverse categories in publishing—RWA’s recent self-implosion notwithstanding—with one of the most engaged and tech-savvy audiences of readers and authors.

It also reminds me of American Dirt, the generic “topical” thriller that got a seven-figure advance; a speculative 500,000-copy first printing; and was positioned to drive a national conversation about immigration simply because its publisher invested a lot of money in its marketing to reach its core audience, ironically dismissing—and ultimately dissing—the very audience it claimed to be giving a face and voice.

Know Thy Audience(s)

“The share of Americans who report not reading any books in the past 12 months is higher today than it was nearly a decade ago. Today, 27% of adults say they have not read any books in the past year, up from 19% in 2011.”

Andrew Perrin, Pew Research Center, September 26, 2019

One of corporate publishing’s biggest problems is the myopic belief that books exist in a vacuum, unaffected by changing consumption and purchasing behaviors in adjacent media. It’s how Macmillan can use Amazon data to decide libraries are negatively impacting ebook sales rather than their own consumer pricing, or competition from self-publishers. It’s how the Authors Guild can claim author earnings are on the decline, accepting libraries may be at fault without acknowledging myriad other factors at play—including other forms of immersive media.

That kind of reality distortion filter combined with prioritizing chasing bestsellers, the primary audience for which is typically defined as “white, middle class women readers, and their book clubs,” leads to things like The Witcher being framed as a niche IP; American Dirt as a disingenuous representative of #OwnVoices; and vibrant communities co-opted and reframed to fit, and prioritize, the white gaze.

“It’s been really hard to see Rage Baking whitewashed with a tinge of diversity, co-opted, monetized and my impact erased and minimized under the veneer of feminism and uplifting women’s voices. It has been especially hard to have that happen during Black History Month and to be accidentally tagged in Instagram stories by people who have purchased the book.”

“The Privilege of Rage,” Tangerine Jones

How a publisher defines, segments, and prioritizes its audience impacts every decision it makes about every book it acquires, publishes, and markets. As I noted in the new annual report for the Panorama Project, despite the growth in ebooks and audiobooks over the past decade, there are reportedly fewer people reading books today, and fierce competition for their attention and discretionary spending. In the absence of any major consumer research focusing on how book consumption and purchasing behavior has changed over the past five years, there are many unsupported theories attempting to explain why consumer ebook sales plateaued, and then began a gradual decline.

Consumer pricing, library lending, and self-publishing are believed to be among the primary factors, while little consideration has been given to the impact of other forms of digital media that have experienced exponential growth—including film, TV, and gaming.

It’s one of the “known unknowns” I referred to in my op-ed for Publishers Weekly back in December, and I’m glad the Panorama Project will be tackling it with the Immersive Media & Reading 2020—Consumer Survey. Stay tuned for more on that in the upcoming weeks!

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