Five Things: March 14, 2024

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_ONE

Libraries struggle to afford the demand for e-books and seek new state laws in fight with publishers | Susan Hiagh

“I’ve always gone to the library to get the latest John Grisham or the latest James Patterson (novel). Those come out so often that you have to have really deep pockets in order to be able to afford to buy them.”

That quote, buried deep in an otherwise unremarkable recap of a well-known industry problem, is the rarely spoken reason for publishers’ library ebook problem: glut, and consumer preferences. Publishers aren’t always wrong that library ebooks are having an impact on consumer sales, but their interpretation of what’s happening misses the forest for the trees.

The bestseller model requires volume because bestsellers can’t be profitably predicted, and corporate publishers aren’t very good at marketing. (With sincere apologies to the individual marketers doing their best with limited resources and too many books.) Chasing that model is a strategic choice, though, and the downsides of that strategy are very predictable. Corporate publishers have chosen to prioritize that model, flooding the market with hundreds of new books every month, most with minimal marketing support and vaguely defined audiences. Meanwhile, readers are making an economic choice by using public libraries to help them read what they’re interested in reading — in their preferred formats, according to their individual priorities.

It’s no secret that many library borrowers also buy the books they really want to own — including ones they initially borrowed from the library — and they’re being more selective than ever because there are more books than ever, and the vast majority of books are still a luxury purchase for even the most avid readers.

It’s not all publishers’ fault, though. While libraries should be seen as invaluable partners that help ensure more books find their readers, even when publishers aren’t sure who or where those readers are, they also need to do their part and stop throwing so much of their digital budgets at bestsellers. Prioritizing hold ratios for bestsellers also means de-prioritizing depth and diversity, and unlike corporate publishers, meeting “consumer demand” is only part of a library’s mission.

__TWO

Why more libraries are adding tabletop classics to their bookshelves | James Wallis

“Games are a good fit for libraries,” he says: they’re good for adults and children, they offer social interaction in a safe space, and there are positive educational aspects too. “All the benefits of reading also apply to board games.”

If you work in the publishing industry or identify as a “bookish” person, it’s easy to forget that libraries aren’t just about collecting and lending out books. A public library’s mission is primarily about providing “free, equal, and equitable access to information” to members of the communities they serve, and that mission extends to a wide range of materials, including games. This article focuses on the UK, but the underlying issues — access, cost, interest — are all applicable in the US, too, where plenty of libraries offer a variety of gaming-related materials and programming.

One notable area of overlap for trade publishing is roleplaying games and the expensive sourcebooks many of them require to be played. While most piracy concerns in publishing are generally overstated, it’s been an ongoing challenge for TTRPGs for years, and libraries are one of the best alternatives to piracy publishers have. The sooner publishers of all types recognize that fact, the sooner more useful licensing models for lending could be developed and implemented — but that kind of collaboration only comes from partners who respect and trust each other.

___THREE

Subscription services are changing our relationship to gaming | Diego Nicolás Argüello

As physical copies become harder to purchase, subscription services like Xbox Game Pass are becoming a more affordable alternative. But these services aren’t just influencing the way we pay for games — they’re changing how we think about them, too.

This one’s from an Argentinian perspective, but as above, it’s easy enough to draw parallels to the US, and more specifically, Amazon and ebooks. I love my Game Pass subscription, but I also recognize the significant downsides of an all-digital, all-streaming, no-ownership approach to media. I also periodically buy games I really want to play that aren’t available on Game Pass, but the bar for that happening is much higher than years ago when buying a game outright was the only option, and often requires a good sale.

Games are way more expensive to make than books, but way too many game publishers are also chasing bestseller status in over-crowded genres, raising the bar for success to nearly unattainable, and unpredictable, levels. A subscription service like Game Pass potentially makes smaller games more viable but, just like streaming services, they have to get the content balance right to minimize churn and maintain profitability. (aka, fewer $200 million blockbusters; more $10 million movies.) When they do, games that aren’t available via subscription are at a notable disadvantage.

Example: Diablo IV is about to hit Game Pass, which makes its slightly more appealing competitor, Last Epoch, less interesting at full price — especially with the inevitable bugs that are now standard for new releases at launch. Meanwhile, No Rest for the Wicked has some compelling differences that make a purchase more likely, regardless of how much I might be enjoying Diablo IV when it comes out. In either case, reading books loses for a few weeks.

____FOUR

The untold story of Kickstarter’s crypto Hail Mary—and the secret $100 million a16z-led investment to save its fading brand | Leo Schwartz & Jessica Mathews

For Kickstarter’s employees and early investors, the surprise investment felt like an opportunity to make things right. After all, this was no small top-up to keep the lights on, but a staggering $100 million investment that valued the startup at around $400 million. But there was a catch. The investment came with the expectation that Kickstarter would attempt a pivot to blockchain as its new benefactor—the crypto fund of venture behemoth Andreessen Horowitz—sought to capitalize on the latest hype cycle. [Archive Link]

This is a long, interesting read for a variety of reasons, but there were two key takeaways for me.

One: Always follow the money, dig deeper than the press release, and ask the right questions. I remember when Kickstarter announced their intention to embrace blockchain and the immediate backlash that followed as a perfect example of business executives not understanding the audience their company was actually serving. Or, more likely, not caring. Skepticism about blockchain, crypto, and NFTs was already sky high at that point, especially among creative types who were often the prey in many of the obvious scams that popped up in that period. It’s not at all surprising that a massive investment in a stagnant business had strings attached. They ALWAYS do.

Two: AI is the new Web3. Always follow the money.

_____FIVE

Racing Santander refused to play in the Copa del Rey – and it helped save them | Colin Millar

“This was the most important game of their lives, for the players and the coach,” Higuera says of that home match with La Real on January 30, 2014. “Yet it was a gesture that exemplified our club. It was a moment of honour, of dignity. Nobody can ever take that away from us.” [Archive Link]

My brother-in-law lives in Northern Spain, and while we were visiting in 2016, just two years after I got into soccer, I realized Racing Santander was his local club and they were playing a preseason game while we were there. We bought tickets, had great seats, and enjoyed one of the most entertaining live soccer matches I’ve ever been to — including our visit to Camp Nou in Barcelona the week before, where the crowd of 70k+ reverently whispered “Messi” when he took the field.

There were barely 2,500 people at El Sardinero that day, ~10% of the deteriorating stadium’s capacity, but they were loud and proud, cheering on their third-division team like they were the best in the world. It left a mark, and Santander became my favorite team I could only see in person, despite being 3,500 miles away. Since then, I’ve seen them once more in person (Summer 2022, the preseason of their return to the second division), occasionally catch them on ESPN+ when they’re playing a team big enough for ESPN to bother televising, and for a few years they were my starting club in Football Manager, which helped me virtually connect with players who were otherwise just names in lineups and game results.

With all that, I didn’t actually know the sordid details of their fall from grace, which happened a few years before I’d embraced Spanish soccer, so this was a fascinating and inspiring read that makes me love them even more! Although our trip to Sevilla and Madrid moved Santander down our best places in Spain list, I’d still love to catch them play more than any other team in Spain if I had the chance.


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