It’s been a little over a year since my friend Keza and I published You Died, a book about the video game Dark Souls and its cult following. We published our project in the traditional fashion, with a small Scottish press called BackPage (staff of three, basically). No month-long Kickstarter campaign. No stretch goals. No afternoon of badminton and falafel wraps with Keza and me for those who pledged €5,000 to support the project. None of that.
It’s my first book. And, to be candid from the start, when Keza first invited me to join her as a co-author I had misgivings about whether I’d be able to deliver my portion of the words. I’m a slow writer and have struggled in the past when it came to projects that exceeded four- or five-thousand words (the upper limit of the magazine features I’d filed throughout my journalism career). What I told her was yes, I’d love to. I suspected that, if I was going to manage the feat, my chances were infinitely better if I had the accountability of a collaborator holding my hand over the flame.
There’s an area in Dark Souls called Tomb of the Giants (from which I drew the pun “Tome of the Giants” for the book’s Twitter profile). It’s deep underground and almost pitch black. When you first enter you’re forced to traverse chasms using toppled stone sarcophagi as bridges. Since you’re only able to see a few inches in front of you at any given time, there’s a constant fear that you’ll either stumble off the edge into the abyss or confront some ghastly foe. That’s what writing a book feels like, only the sarcophagus you’re crossing is the span of the Golden Gate and the bones it contains belong to all the well-intentioned writers who've started projects that never saw the light of day.
I would have coveted a blog post that mapped out the various twists and turns. A snapshot of what to expect from the process. When Keza and I set to work there weren’t a huge number of books that resembled the one we’d set out to create so it was hard to tell how much appetite there was for such a project. Anecdotally there appeared to be a growing segment of people reading and producing thoughtful, book-length criticism and literary nonfiction about games. Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives (which sold an impressive 11K copies in hardcover during its first year), Brendan Keogh’s Killing Is Harmless and several others. Commercial considerations weren’t the primary driver of course. After formally reviewing Dark Souls for Edge back in 2011 I simply struggled to purge the observations about the game’s design that continued to clutter my mind – its staunch difficulty, the world’s layout and ruined architecture and opaque backstory, the way in which all the pieces fit together. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. While playing other games I’d find myself instinctively using them as a lens to better understand Dark Souls, that old undying ember.
Even if you’re labouring away on a passion project, it’s only human nature to ponder its commercial viability. My wife and I hope to purchase a home here in Ireland someday, but the prospect of fishing €20,000 in spare change from between the couch cushions for a mortgage deposit seems all but impossible. Without any prompting required, my brain set to work grinding out hypotheticals: the Dark Souls series has an intensely devoted following and has sold millions of copies, if even a small percentage of those people felt compelled to buy a book about the game, maybe the royalties could help pole-vault my family over that financial hurdle.
Just as You Died involved me writing a book about Dark Souls that I wanted to read but didn’t yet exist, this blog post is me offering the publishing backstory, sales figures and personal reflections I would have appreciated referencing as a first-time author. I hope it’s useful for anybody embarking on a creative project, literary or otherwise. Not as a means to assess whether your project is worth the effort, but simply to leave the outline of some footprints so you can be reassured that others have ventured into the dark before you.
[Disclaimer: Any opinions shared in this post are strictly my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of my esteemed co-author.]
When Keza surprised me with a Google Chat message in January of 2015 to ask if I had any interest in teaming up to write a book about Dark Souls, I was already working on my own Dark Souls book for a separate publisher.
Though I hadn’t formally signed a contract, I’d been approached by a journalist colleague of mine named Brendan Keogh a year prior. He and fellow Australian academic Dan Golding were launching a publishing company called Press Select. They planned to release a series of ebooks inspired by the 33 ⅓ music books. Instead of a single book about a single album, however, each book they published would deep-dive into an individual game (a dream that has since been realised by the good people at Boss Fight Books). I’d volunteered to write Press Select's volume on Dark Souls. I had a title ready to go: Nobody Wants To See You Go Hollow: The Story of Dark Souls. (Because I set aside the project I'll forever be left to wonder whether that title would’ve actually fit on the front cover.)
It would be disingenuous to say I failed to finish writing that book; in truth, I’d barely begun. I had the aforementioned title, a rough chapter outline containing prompts such as “The Curse: A Personal Lament (book of Job?)” and a joint interview I’d done with indie developers Terry Cavanagh and Jasper Byrne at a noisy Cambridge pub about their thoughts on the game’s influence on other game designers. I’d crashed at Terry’s apartment afterward and stayed up late watching him begin a fresh playthrough at soul level 1. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Sadly, all of the relevant interview files from my digital recorder got corrupted by time I began working on You Died in earnest, causing a 10-minute slice of the conversation – tangential small talk, naturally – to play on a loop for the sound file's whole duration.
Keza already had a deal secured with a publisher called BackPage that specialised in football biographies and other sports-related titles. The company’s founders had both covered football for newspapers before starting the company. They stumbled upon the world of video games after finding unexpected crossover success with a book about the addictive sports sim Football Manager that had sold over 10,000 copies. A Google search for award-winning video-game writers had led them to a celebrated article about EVE Online written by Keza and they’d pitched her on writing a book about the burgeoning esports phenomenon. She had a different idea: how about a book about Dark Souls instead? BackPage came around to the idea.
Before she approached me, Keza had been working with a different writer. That partnership had run aground, however, when it became clear that her collaborator intended to write an academic critique of the game and did not share Keza’s desire to profile members of the Dark Souls community. Though initially reluctant to leave my existing Dark Souls project behind, I liked the idea of joining forces with one of the world’s most foremost experts on the Dark Souls series. Keza had been instrumental in raising awareness of Dark Souls’ predecessor Demon’s Souls in the West after pitching a review of the game’s original Japanese version to a UK website while residing in Japan. I also felt like we had a better chance of writing the definitive Dark Souls book if we pooled our efforts instead of racing each other to publication of competing volumes. I’ve always preferred co-op to PvP.
I sent a sheepish email to Brendan and Dan at Press Select letting them know that I intended to work with Keza and BackPage. They couldn’t have been more gracious, wishing me the best of luck and inviting me to pitch them ideas in the future if I had other games I wanted to explore in depth. It's fortunate that I answered Keza's bat signal, as Press Select would be quietly put out to pasture not long after.
Though both Keza and I had cutting-floor scraps from previous interviews we’d done with Dark Souls’ development team, we hoped to amass fresh material that would allow us to paint a detailed picture of Dark Souls’ development. The game’s publisher Bandai-Namco showed little interest, sadly. Their promotional priorities had moved on. To be fair, there's little business incentive to cement the legacy of a title that's already been on the market for several years. Keza hoped to get some additional time with From Software at the tail end of a Bloodborne press trip to secure some fresh interview material about Dark Souls for the book. That access would not materialise.
We mistakenly assumed the credibility we’d banked as journalists over the course of our working relationship with Bandai-Namco PR and From Software would make them more willing to support the book we were writing with developer access. I’d visited From Software’s Tokyo offices on two separate trips to Japan. At one point a UK PR rep for Bandai-Namco suggested that we’d have a better chance of gaining their support if we agreed to give the publisher sign-off rights on the book’s content. We politely told them to dive-roll off a high ledge. No author wants a corporate censor going over his or her work with a Sharpie in hand.
I was on a streak of fabulous productivity throughout 2015 but only if you’re using my tally of completed Destiny bounties as a KPI. I’d made little progress on the chapters I’d committed to writing. Keza would periodically check in on my progress, causing my guilt levels to spike off the charts. I had excuses, flimsy ones. The reality is that it’s hard to spend eight or nine hours at work generating pages of writing for your day job and then come home and sit down at the computer to make progress on a personal writing project. Lots of writers successfully juggle both and locate the motivation to power through. I am here to tell you, I find that machine-like perseverance difficult to summon. Also my personal insecurities were raging. The usual messages: you're a failure, you'll never finish this book, your writing sucks, people who say nice things about your work are lying because they feel sorry for you. Depression is never a boon to productivity.
As ever, deadline terror is the most effective motivator.
We needed to launch the book during the hype window surrounding the release of Dark Souls III, allegedly the series’ final instalment. Hitting this launch window for the book was a non-negotiable. It felt like our best and only chance at catching a wave of topical relevance. Our book centered on a game that was already creeping up on five years old. The attention life cycle in the world of video games can be harrowingly brief. A game that’s been on the market for five years might only command the price of a fast-food value meal. Not exactly a recipe for front-page gaming news. Furthermore we didn’t expect any mainstream, non-endemic press to have any interest in our Dark Souls ruminations (spoiler: they didn’t). If the video-game community was already writing about the legacy of the Dark Souls series on the occasion of the trilogy’s conclusion, perhaps they’d be more inclined to reference our book.
As 2015 wore on, a pall of urgency settled over the project. Keza and I would need to leave time for revisions, proofreading, typesetting and printing. At one point Keza mentioned that if we didn’t finish writing the first draft of the book by the end of December, we wouldn’t make our April 2016 launch target. I swallowed hard.
By the time autumn rolled around, the only copy I’d filed was my contribution to the book’s Prologue. It was time to knuckle down. The first “chapter” I finished ended up being an unwieldy 14,000-word travelogue entitled “Chasing The Sun: A Tour Of Lordran” in which I contemplated the game’s universe, taking each zone in turn. I don’t know how I expected a chapter of that length to survive intact; 14,000 words is roughly the length of a Kindle Single.
The simple justification is that I’d been dying to write about Dark Souls’ world – all of it, in exhaustive detail. I can recall thinking to myself, wasn’t this the attraction of writing a book in the first place? Having room to say everything you’ve ever wanted to say about a subject that fascinates you. The luxury of going deep, a spelunking expedition to the center of the earth and (finally!) sufficient rope to make the descent, or possibly hang yourself in the attempt. The luxury of creative self-indulgence. After realising I couldn’t feasibly replay each area of the game to refresh my memory on the microscopic details, I took to writing on the living room couch with my laptop while streaming YouTube Let’s Play videos from expert players (EpicNameBro, et al) on the television. It felt like the period earlier in my career when I’d play music CDs on repeat for hours at a time while writing reviews of them.
It was Keza’s idea to split up the 'Tour Of Lordran' chapter and have it snake through the entire book, deploying a batch of areas as interludes every few chapters, a structural solve which I resisted at first but quickly warmed to. Good ideas can come from anywhere, but it was in moments like this that I appreciated the perks of working with such an attentive co-author.
Though we’d banked a handful of chapters by Sept/Oct 2015 time frame (Prologue, Tour of Lordran, Dark Souls’ development backstory, Twitch Plays Dark Souls), we completed the overwhelming majority of the book during a surge of productivity stretching from late November 2015 to the end of January 2016. I did most of my writing on my laptop at the kitchen table after getting home from work. I’d work till 1 or 2am in the morning, crash, then repeat after getting home from work the next day.
Keza and I exchanged messages constantly via Google Chat, updating each other on progress, fielding questions about game-related details, sense-checking lore theories or just indulging a quick therapeutic moan. During the co-writing of the Appendix in which we described Dark Souls’ cast of characters and their role in the game’s narrative, we used a shared Google Doc, either writing directly into it or copy-pasting in our contributions. It felt thrilling to watch the document filling up with words at such a brisk clip.
I took a week off work at the end of January 2016 to complete my last several chapters. I needed an environment suitable to deep focus so I set up camp in the guest bedroom of my parents’ house in the Wicklow countryside. I proceeded to work for four or five days from a small desk in that room, sitting down at my laptop right after waking up. My mom would bring in a bowl of soup and bread on a tray, which I’d eat quickly and then return to my writing, finishing the day’s work at roughly 10pm. I conducted several Skype interviews (including all the subjects of the “Challenge Runners” chapter) during those days, transcribing them and writing the relevant chapters immediately afterward. It’s the most productive, focused sprint of writing I’ve ever undertaken. I had back pain for weeks afterward from hunching over my laptop for so many hours interrupted, or from being almost 40 I guess.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE... PAPERBACK
No Microsoft Office applications were used in the making of You Died. No emailing of Word docs back and forth. No confusion over versions during editorial revisions. Using Google Docs with shared editing privileges we could leave margin comments on each other’s work, track changes and suggest revisions. All of our raw materials – interview transcripts, illustrations, photos, idea brainstorms, chapter outlines, master content schedule and deadline spreadsheet, blog posts for the You Died website, collected player quotes, and more – existed in a Google Drive shared between Keza, myself and our two editors at BackPage. No separate online database needed to host all the project files. Our primary BackPage contact Neil hadn’t used Google Drive previously and required a bit of skilling up, but I can’t imagine having worked any other way.
Keza edited my chapters, I edited hers, a process that working in shared Google Docs made infinitely easier. On the few occasions in which an errant change slipped through, it took just a minute or two to pull up the revision history and restore a previous iteration of the document.
Keza and I have different writing styles. Mine tends toward the florid. I cast about in search of illumination through analogy. I enjoy wordplay and the occasional questionable pun. I’ll wander off the path to explore tangential connections. For better or worse. Possibly because I came of age as a writer at a music magazine rather than a newspaper where style choices that distract from the story’s core facts tend to be plucked by copyeditors like unsightly eyebrow hairs. Keza brings a disciplined rigour to her phrasing. When editing my copy she’d lawn-mow passages that were flowery to the point of allergic reaction, imposing a helpful check on my more self-indulgent tendencies. When I edited Keza’s work I suggested opportunities to add extra colour or humour to passages that felt excessively dry.
I like that You Died accommodates both styles. A dinner buffet containing carved strips of both white and dark meat. That’s why I don’t feel overly panicked when a reader review of the book voices a preference for Keza’s contributions. For example, one GoodReads commenter named Ben writes, “I prefer MacDonald's sections to Killingsworth's, who's prone to the kind of hyperbole I expect online and bought a book to escape.” Another commenter named Nicholas writes, “The Killingsworth sections are sometimes a bit jokier than I was hoping for, with some groan inducing play on words.” (People groan during orgasms... right?)
DRAW YOUR WEAPON
One of the most enjoyable parts of creating You Died had nothing to do with writing. I relished the search for the artists who would create the book’s cover art and interior illustrations. Keza put out a call for submissions via her Twitter account and we started going through entries. This was a point at which our collaboration could have hit the rocks. What if she fell in love with a cover artist or concept that I found repellant? Or vice versa? Just like a marriage, when you have two people in the mix (and the decision-making powers are equal) there is always a risk of stalemate.
Fortunately Keza and I had a very similar vision for what we wanted the book to be. We didn’t want a cover that focused on the more horrific aspects of the game (corpse-like hollows, gore, etc). We wanted something refined and evocative. When Scottish illustrator Paul Canavan sent over a spread of cover concepts (see below), both Keza and I were immediately drawn to the sword of Artorias. We loved the moodiness of it. Darkroot Garden just happens to be my favourite area in the game. And the image of the grave of Artorias, with its symbol of mortality, thematically reinforced the book’s title You Died.
Beyond the cover painting, Canavan contributed a massive volume of work to the project, drawing pencil sketches for each of the areas explored in my Tour of Lordran passages, 20 sketches in total, completed over the course of just a few weeks. Personally I never thought we’d be able to afford to work with Canavan. BackPage managed the payment/budget conversations directly with our two illustrators so, to this day, I don’t know exactly what compensation they received. I suspect it was modest and I’m deeply grateful for their generosity in taking our labour of love their own. Without their illustrations the book’s quality would be significantly diminished.
In the same way that Keza and I brought contrasting writing voices to the project, we liked the idea of having two different visual styles present in the book. I’d gotten in touch with my favourite illustrator Richard Hogg to see if he might be interested in collaborating. Though enthused about the prospect, his schedule didn’t allow him to sign on. He suggested I reach out to Angus Dick, a friend of his who’d done some animation work on Hohokum, a video game that Hogg helped design. Angus is a huge Dark Souls fan with an instantly memorable style that brings out the game’s humour and fundamental weirdness. When I reached out, he responded with instant enthusiasm about working together.
I floated the idea of him illustrating a bunch of different scenarios in which you can die in Dark Souls (cursed by basilisks, getting knocked off a ledge by a swinging blade in Sen’s Fortress, etc). Keza and I filled up a Google Doc with about 40 different iconic deaths and we narrowed the list down to our favourite 18. That brainstorm provided such a fun diversion. Angus’s drawings are genius. We placed one at the end of every chapter. I become so enamoured with these death illustrations that, at one point, I tried to convince Keza that we include the one of the Asylum Demon squashing the Chosen Undead on the book’s cover. Both she and Neil pushed back, assuring me they loved the illustration but were afraid that, as a cover image, its whimsy (reminiscent of Quentin Blake) felt out of step with the book’s overall tone, which aspired to be more serious and authoritative. Such checks and balances had a positive effect on the book. Debating these points clarified the path forward.
Successfully completing a book feels amazing, but it’s only the first leg of the race. Once Keza and I finished the first draft of You Died and moved into the editing and proofreading phase, we began to shift our focus to building awareness about the book’s existence. Perhaps then we might even sell a few copies.
I volunteered to set up a Twitter account for the book. Since the Souls community congregates online and the official You Died website lacks interactivity (no comment threads, discussion forum, etc), it felt important to have some kind of hub for conversation about the book. A place where people could ask us questions directly or tag us into messages and posts in which they’d written about the book. Though we amassed just 1,300 followers in total and I’m much less active in updating the You Died Twitter account now a year on from the book’s publication, it was worth the effort just to see readers posting photos of their newly arrived copies of You Died after the book’s launch.
The book you’ve written, it’s right there in people’s homes, in their living rooms, resting on the arm of their sofa, on their bed, on their desk. They’re snapping a photo of it with their phone the way a person might a delicious dinner that’s just arrived to one’s restaurant table. That felt amazing. The thing that means so much to you, means something to another person. In a universe only so slightly parallel, it could’ve been me taking a selfie with someone else’s Dark Souls book and tagging them into the post in hopes of getting a gesture of recognition from the book’s author. A digital, wordless tip of the hat.
Our publisher set up a Wordpress site for the book and urged Keza and I to update the blog regularly as a means of generating interest in the book. I don’t think I had any clear expectations of what sort of promotion or marketing support we might be able to expect from our publisher. They ran targeted Facebook ads on a handful of weekends. That was generally the extent of their post-launch investment. There was no external PR agency contracted to send out review copies and follow up. If somebody reached out to us for a review copy or we had a particular individual we wanted to get their hands on the book, we could pass along those mailing addresses to BackPage and they’d make sure a copy got sent out. Otherwise they politely encouraged us to keep the blog entries coming.
The only struggle for me in terms of the ‘website blog as marketing strategy’ was that I’d just written nearly 40,000 words about Dark Souls. I’d finally managed to say everything I wanted to about the game. The itch was well and truly scratched. The idea of squeezing out a regular stream of Dark Souls-related content after publishing the book felt a bit like revisiting the lunch buffet minutes after a competitive eating trial. I was ready to write about something else. I was happy to discuss You Died and the historical impact of Dark Souls during podcast guest spots. The medium of conversation felt fresh. I just didn’t want to keep trying to gin up fresh angles about the game.
Neil and Martin at BackPage were a pleasure to work with, true professionals. I’m not confident, however, that a traditional publishing house added any clear advantages over, say, running a hypothetically successful Kickstarter and self-publishing. You Died never landed in brick-and-mortar retail. You won’t find it on the shelf at your local library. There was no book tour (to be fair, a questionable tactic for a project with an admittedly niche audience) or any other scheduled appearances. No PR blitz. Many of the key support functions that require the unique expertise of a publishing company, that would have been difficult to navigate independently, seemed absent. The book launched and, apart from me and Keza spamming our personal Twitter and Facebook followers with updates, launch fanfare was muted. In retrospect I wish Keza and I had stepped up to schedule a small launch party to celebrate the book’s launch.
It may seem like a minor thing, but I was disappointed that You Died never got a hardcover edition. BackPage assured us that hardcovers only make economic sense if you’re launching during a holiday season where people can justify the higher sticker price by purchasing as a gift item. I still feel like hardcore Souls fans have a collector’s mindset and would embrace a higher sales price for the more elegant production values. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll be able to do a small hardcover print run to coincide with the game’s 10th (or 20th or 25th) anniversary. If you work with a traditional publisher, be prepared to compromise on features of the product that may be personally significant to you.
I took solace in the fact that BackPage expressed interest in our idea of making our paperback feel a bit more collectible by adding a UV treatment to the moon looming behind Artorias’ grave marker, which would give it a luminescent shine. However, when the boxes of books showed up, the UV treatment had been neglected. BackPage claimed it was an administrative oversight but it was hard to shake the impression that it was simply a cost-saving measure that would be easier to apologise for than pitch ahead of printing. Sometimes I wonder if the lack of promotional investment from our publisher stemmed from their not quite knowing what to do with You Died’s subject matter, which clearly diverges from their “sports stories” identity.
One of the most telling facts: to this day You Died appears nowhere on the main portfolio section of BackPage’s website. Though I did appreciate it surfacing in a recent blog entry on the their site entitled “The book no-one knows we published”. (How many authors get to be a publisher’s dirty little side fling?)
SELLING YOUR SOULS
In the aforementioned blog post it was generous of Neil to describe You Died as a “brilliant book” that’s sold well. I feel confident in the book’s quality, though I am more sceptical in my appraisal of the book’s sales performance. The numbers look decent but unspectacular to my eye.
Sales figures for You Died as of the end of March 2017:
1,876 lifetime paperback sales + 1,682 for ebooks (Kindle, iBooks, etc) = 3,558 copies
Paperback sales breakdown by month:
March 2016 (pre-orders): 219 / April (launch month): 525 / May: 569 / June: 118 / July: 89 / Aug: 50 / Sep: 32 / Oct: 40 / Nov: 42 / Dec: 88 / Jan 2017: 40 / Feb: 27 / Mar: 37 / Apr: 30
In any close collaboration, professional or personal, it’s easy for financial matters to become a point of tension. Though I didn’t feel comfortable voicing my discomfort at the time, one of the only awkward aspects of the co-author relationship was that Keza received our book advance and maintained sole discretion over its spending. These funds enabled her to travel to Japan to do research for the book. My expenses remained fairly negligible – a budget flight to London for our joint interview with Dark Souls’ localisation specialist Ryan Morris and a handful of interview transcriptions by a freelancer that Keza arranged. At this point, without any visibility on the expenditure breakdown, Keza informed me the advance had been spent, leaving me feeling a bit like a spouse denied access to the checking account. The situation didn’t impede our working relationship, but the sour aftertaste seems to me an unfortunate and avoidable byproduct.
Author royalty split:
55% Keza, 45% Jason
Keza never treated me as anything less than an equal, respected creative partner while making decisions about the book’s content. And yet the ancillary features of the arrangement, such as the handling of the publisher advance mentioned above, reflected a distinct hierarchy. Keza requested a larger royalty share to reflect her efforts in negotiating the BackPage deal. We discussed this arrangement and it seemed perfectly reasonable to me.
During the proofreading stages, when I inquired if our names would be listed alphabetically on the cover to reflect our equal partnership, Keza demurred, stating that it “wasn’t a big deal”. I didn’t push the issue since she’d invited me be part of the project and I understood that she felt a sense of ownership.
I don't highlight such disparities to tarnish Keza's good name. I merely want to underline the fact that co-authorship is very much like a marriage. It’s easy to let your mind become preoccupied with calculations of fairness. The best advice I can give to writers considering collaborations is to lay out the expectations as clearly as possible right at the start. That way there’s no room for assumptions to distract from the larger shared goal of producing a high-quality book together and getting it out into the world.
Publisher/author royalty split:
Based on UK retail price, our author royalty rate is 10% on the first 5,000 copies sold, 12.5% on the next 10,000 copies sold and 15% on all further copies sold, 50% of net receipts on ebooks.
I'm not aware of BackPage’s standard contractual royalty rate, but we were told that they gave us a more favourable deal because we’d bypassed the extortionate expense of retail to sell direct to consumer. Keza and I would make the hard decision to neglect selling the print version of the book on Amazon.com because the world’s largest online retailer demands a 60% cut of sales, a figure that still makes my eyelid twitch when I think about it. (Can you imagine asking an indie author to give up that much of their already negligible proceeds? Crazy talk.)
The Kindle ebook edition would be available via Amazon, however anybody interested in the print edition would need to order through our exclusive distribution partner. Since we'd be generating all our own sales directly and had an already niche audience, the idea of funnelling all those potential buyers directly to Amazon would have been a financial sinkhole of lost proceeds.
How much money I’ve made so far:
Royalty payment #1: 02/09/2016 / Reference: Paperback and ebook royalties for Jan-June 2016 = £858.06
Royalty payment #2: 08/05/2017 / Reference: Paperback and ebook royalties for July-Dec 2016 (£559.95) + 50% of Storybundle payment (£447.50) = £1,007.45
After a year of sales I’ve received royalty payments from You Died totalling £1,865.51 (or $2,389.53 USD).
Not bad. Not life-changing either. But it’s worth reminding myself that I never longed to publish a 330-page love letter to a Japanese video game for the purpose of retiring young. As author Elizabeth Gilbert says, it's not fair of creators to thrust upon our art the additional baggage of having to supply our livelihood as well.
Would Keza and I have made out better by running a Kickstarter campaign? The Dark Souls board game was, after all, one of the most heavily backed crowdfunding campaigns in history, garnering more than $5.4 million in pledges. A French publisher called Third Edition Books successfully crowdfunded their Kickstarter campaign for a collection of video-game books, including a volume about Dark Souls, racking up €139,296 (or $155,788.65 USD) in pledges.
A journalist acquaintance of mine, Andrew Groen, crowdfunded a fabulous book about EVE Online, generating Kickstarter pledges totalling $95,729. I struggled with jealousy seeing Groen's frequent Twitter updates about his book’s successes – a lavish hardcover edition (sigh), his 10K copy sales milestone, conference panel appearances, etc. The comparison game is a dead end, an Ash Lake-style cul de sac. No matter what you achieve in your life or career, there will always be somebody whose revelry will come drifting down to you from a seemingly higher plateau. You've gotta let that shit go or you'll never be able to keep working. For a while I convinced myself that Groen was an insatiable braggart, but I realised I was just horribly insecure and not in a healthy enough emotional place to follow his Twitter updates about the success of his book (which deserved every plaudit that had come its way).
Keza and I may have reason to Startkicking ourselves. Maybe we could have reached a significantly larger audience by building visibility through a viral crowdfunding campaign. On a gut level it felt like there was something honourable in neglecting to pass the hat for donations since we already had a traditional publisher lined up for You Died, but perhaps that self-effacement hurt the book’s reach.
LOVE IS THE MEASURE OF SUCCESS
Bringing your creative work to the marketplace can be an agonising experience. In the absence of hard quantitative measurements for artistic quality, the temptation to latch onto sales math as a surrogate for that reassurance is difficult to resist.
During a trip Keza made to Germany to attend a Dark Souls III press event, a Bandai-Namco rep pulled her aside at one point to express interest in placing a copy of You Died in every press kit accompanying the game. This deal would have amounted to somebody paying us to do a PR press mailing of our book. Keza and I were giddy about the development. It felt like our Big Break (TM). Alas, nothing ever came of it. Fortunately disappointments such as these evaporate when I pick up the book and flip through the pages, smiling at the illustrations, feeling pride in the fruits of all those long hours at the computer.
So much love goes into a book, I wonder if readers ever realise the full extent. I hope people who pick up You Died can feel that reverence and enthusiasm. Falling in love with Dark Souls was ample reward for the passion invested. We even had a kid together. How many fans can claim as much? How lucky am I? Let us crumple up the sales figures and royalty statements, pitch them into the bin and right this second pronounce You Died a smashing, unqualified success.