Publishing and Marketing 08: The Black Library Marketing Maze
I’ve been a fan of Black Library for a long time, going on about 11 years now, roughly. It all started with a copy of William King’s third Space Wolf novel, Grey Hunter, and was soon continued on with the first six novels in Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts series. Since then, I’ve read a lot of the novels, and the short stories, and the anthologies, in all the different formats that have been put out. I took a long break in the middle, around late 2008 however, and didn’t get back into the swing of things until later 2010, by when there had been some big changes to everything, new series, new authors, new formats even (the Hammer and Bolter eZine). It was an exciting time
Right up until late 2012 that is. For someone just getting back into BL fiction, those two years were well-spent, catching up on a lot of the stuff that had been put out in the intervening years, and during that period. I repeated often last year and the year before that, that BL was enjoying very much a golden year since the Horus Heresy series continued to gain more recognition, with each book going on the New York Times Bestsellers List, with lots of new authors coming in, some truly amazing artwork from a whole new generation of artists and so on and so forth. BL had even embraced digital publishing wholeheartedly and were making some great inroads.
But then, they started dropping the ball with their marketing. Curious, inexplicable decisions were being made. And a lot of it was coming together at the same time. And it baffled me. Still does. Which is why I’m writing this post at this time, and not before. Because by now I’ve seen a lot of the fall-out from all the decisions that they’ve made in the last year or so.
So read on, and enjoy. And if not, I welcome any opinion that differs from mine. Also, authors are welcome. Any time. You can find all previous Publishing and Marketing posts here.
The first of these is the lack of information on new titles. You see, it used to be that they would release information on new releases up to six months in advance, at least. We would know what novels, anthologies, and audio dramas would be coming out in that period. All of them, except for any special releases such as the short audio dramas they started last year, Bloodspire by C Z Dunn and Deathwolf by Andy Smillie being two of them. Or the limited edition novellas such as Horus Heresy: Promethean Sun by Nick Kyme and Space Marine Battles: Catechism of Hate by Gav Thorpe. Or the 1000-word eShorts like last spring’s 15th Birthday celebration releases.
It was a pretty good system. It let readers and fans know what was coming down the line, what things were planned. Personally, it was a great system. Of course, as someone who maintained a release schedule thread on the Bolthole fan-forum, I had a vested interest beyond being just a reader, but even then, it was great as a teaser. It showed me how in advance the release schedules were being planned. It showed me what the writers were working on now and as someone who was also doing lots of interviews at the time, it was the perfect material to talk to the authors about.
Even if blurbs weren’t available, we would get the cover artwork, which was just as good. More than anything, this kind of information created great material for discussions and speculations. And that’s the biggest value of it. Being able to have those discussions, wondering what kind of path the writer would take, it was great.
But then, for some inexplicable reason, they stopped doing that. For a while, it was that there was no new information. Cover reveals were infrequent at best. At first it was just a minor annoyance. I didn’t mind it so much because the information was still fairly in advance. But when it all kept dragging out, when we were barely getting information 2 months in advance, if that, then that’s when it started to move into the frustrating category.
Things went further when they removed the section from their site where upcoming releases were listed individually by month. That was, for me, the final straw. I just stopped paying attention after that. The publisher itself was clearly not interested in providing information, so I didn’t want to bother with it anymore. What was the point when we would find out about releases on a month by month basis? If I go to the Black Library website right now, I see six releases earmarked for next month. Four of these releases are reissues of novels, but with new artwork. One of them is an audio drama that was released a few months back in mp3 format and is now getting a CD release. So of those six “new” releases, there is actually one just one new novel. Just ONE new novel. One piece of new material. One. Out of six releases.
And that brings me to the second reason why I think Black Library’s marketing is so all over the place.
You see, last year in late October/early November, they announced that all future Horus Heresy novels would be released in three different print formats instead of the regular good old mass market format. The first was going to be a premium hardback edition, to be released three months prior to the actual release date. Or so they said. Since at this point we had no idea of the release schedule for Horus Heresy novels, this bit of information made zero sense. The second format was going to be a premium trade paperback edition, which would be the same size as the hardbacks. And that’s the biggest kicker. Up until now, when Black Library said trade paperback, they meant the larger format (than the mass market) that all the Space Marine Battles novels were released in, or the format that some of the newer novels were being released in. Now, trade paperback also meant a large trade paperback edition. These would be released on the so-called actual release dates. The third and final format was mass market, to be released six months after the release of the trade paperback editions.
Confusing right? Compounding the entire problem was the fact that the hardback novels would be accompanied by a premium digital eBook which contained exclusive four pieces of illustrations, done by an artist who had previously worked on (at least) two graphic novels for Black Library. Initially, these eBooks, referred to as “enhanced eBook editions” were to be released with the hardcovers and would be succeeded by regular eBooks when the trade paperbacks were released. Not too bad. But then they made another (what I call) mistake. The first Horus Heresy novel to be released in these new formats, Angel Exterminatus, got its trade paperback and regular eBook release as “scheduled”, but then the powers that be said that this was a mistake and that the regular eBooks wouldn’t be released until the mass market formats were released.
All of this created a ton of confusion among the fans. Every day questions about the format releases were being asked in forums, on Facebook, and on Twitter. I’m sure that Black Library fielded quite a few emails about it to. And calls, probably. To be perfectly honest, this was all a giant clusterfuck.
See, the thing is, they changed formats when the series was twenty-two books in already. TWENTY-TWO. Angel Exterminatus was the twenty-third novel in the series. And as previously announced, there were going to be fifty books in the series all told. At least. FIFTY books. All that this decision did was create havoc with the release schedules. We already had no idea when these books were going to be released. Now we didn’t know what the release dates would even be. And the whole shenanigans with the digital releases?
Nothing helped matters. It was pretty damn disappointing.
And that brings me to the third point. All this… I don’t know… secrecy was just weird. Other publishers (take whoever you want: Tor, Angry Robot, Del Rey, Orbit, etc), they all release information on their books several months in advance. They don’t hold back, for whatever reason. And this information is publicized on all the publisher websites, and even on the reading social site Goodreads, where shelves and lists are created for just that reason. The marketing folks at Black Library clearly thought different. And they kept on going on about how the information was available in industry trade publications. I asked several times just what these publications were. I never got an answer.
All this secrecy is just sad. It represents the larger issue at work with Games Workshop and with them it actually makes sense. Allow me to indulge in a bit of amateur conspiracy theorizing. With Games Workshop, all information on new releases, whether the model ranges or the army rulebooks, or main rulebooks, etc, is all heavily guarded. There are leaks of course, but that’s to be expected really. The information is often too juicy to not release, if someone gets their hands on it. But it makes sense why they safeguard it. Its all about competition on the tabletop gaming market. Of building the proper anticipation and… mystique for the product.
But with the novels? With the audio dramas? With everything else? Who’s the competition? Who’s going to “steal” the information and pass it on? It doesn’t make any kind of sense to me. Does Amazon count? Amazon was/is notorious for leaking information about future publications. Before, it didn’t matter because we used to have information directly from the publisher, and much longer in advance too. But these days, Amazon is the primary source among fans. That goes for what books are coming out, their artwork, and sometimes even the blurb IIRC. Now that is messed up.
Additionally, with all this secrecy, any kind of discussion and speculation is dead. The authors are certainly not allowed to talk because of NDAs. And the publisher isn’t talking. So where do fans go from there? Nowhere, that’s where they go.
From the perspective of a reader, all this secrecy means that I can no longer get excited about future books. I can no longer discuss them with other people on social media or on forums. Black Library, and by extension Games Workshop, had made it a moment-by-moment process. Which just doesn’t work.
No other publisher does it. In my (slightly) limited knowledge, there is the case of Wizards of the Coast, who don’t advertise future publications on their site, but the information is still widely available, because the authors do talk about these books. Their currently ongoing event, The Sundering, is a multi-author series where each author is writing a novel that is loosely connected to each other but is part of a much larger story, and thus each novel has its own place in that. And each novel focuses on the trademark characters that these authors have been writing about. With R. A. Salvatore it is Drizzt Do’Urden and his companions. With Paul S. Kemp it is Erevis Cale. With Erin M. Evans it is the tiefling twins Havilar and Farideh. And so on. Salvatore’s novel, which is the first, gives a list of all the next novels in the entire series. Now that’s promotion.
Then, we go to cover artwork and how that ties into the whole deal with format changes.
Last year, Black Library moved its Time of Legends meta-series into its second phase by releasing the first novels in three of the new announced trilogies, Black Plague: Dead Winter by C. L. Werner, Blood of Nagash: Neferata by Josh Reynolds, and War of Vengeance: The Great Betrayal by Nick Kyme. Then, amazingly, just 2 months (maybe 3?) after the release of Nick’s novel and just before the release of the second Black Plague novel, Black Library announced that since their omnibus editions of the previous three Time of Legends trilogies had been so successful and popular, they were going to format switch the new trilogies, just as they did with the Horus Heresy series.
But there were some important differences. Some VERY important differences. The two first novels in the new trilogies, already released, were now effectively junk for the precise reason that they were released in mass market. The format change meant that all the upcoming Time of Legends novels would only be released in the trade paperback format, the same format as the Space Marine Battles novels (among others to get that treatment of late). And, most importantly, they would not be released in mass market. Their reasoning for that inexplicable change was that the Time of Legends novels were just not popular enough to warrant mass market reprints. Which raises the question: why the hell change the format in the first place?
But that’s not all. Jon Sullivan, who had provided the cover artwork for all the novels so far, was no longer involved. So, not only did they decide to format change without offering a secondary “legacy” format, but they also changed the cover art style. And the new artwork is completely different. Gone is the old box-out feature on a pure-black cover. Now the artwork is full wrap-around just as for any other book. So there’s that uniqueness going on as well.
None of that makes any sense to me. Does it to you? I have a copy of Dead Winter and The Great Betrayal, received as ARCs last year. Now they are both useless for me for collection reasons. They are going to stick out like a sore thumb.
If there has been any one “advantage” to all this format changing, it is that I’ve been able to save on a lot of money. I read less print now than I used to, having transitioned mostly to digital, specifically my iPad and my smartphone. And since I’ve stopped receiving any ARCs from Black Library, that’s another thing there.
As a final point with regards to the format changing, I want to point out the biggest marketing blunder that it has resulted in. Up until James Swallow’s Fear To Tread, which was the 21st novel in the series (the 22nd, Shadows of Treachery, was an anthology), all the recent books in the Horus Heresy series had made it on to the New York Times Bestsellers List. IIRC, Fear To Tread debuted at #9 on the list in its first week (might have been lower, I’m not sure). But since the release of Angel Exterminatus, including it, none of these books have made it to the list. And we’ve had three other novels/anthologies since. That’s a huge advertising loss.
But for all intents and purposes, Black Library is going ahead full steam.
My next point has to with Black Library’s range of limited edition novellas. In the years that I took an unintended break from all Black Library fiction, they had released three limited edition novellas, two for Warhammer 40,000 and one for Warhammer Fantasy. Last year, two of these were reprinted as part of omnibus collections. The third, which I expected would get the same treatment since the omnibus for its respective series was quite due, has unfortunately not been released like that. It has instead been rereleased as a standalone novella, available in both print and digital.
I keep asking myself why they did that. Why they broke their own precedent like that. I don’t mind the standalone release. I think its fantastic, to offer to people who want just that. But it still doesn’t make sense.
Another point of contention is the absolute proliferation of these limited edition novellas. At first, when I heard about them being released for the Horus Heresy, such as Nick Kyme’s Promethean Sun and Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Aurelian, I was totally fine with the concept. I even supported it since it offered extra material for the collector-minded. Sort of a “here’s an extra thing for the… dedicated fans”. That was in 2011.
Last year they released three more, although one was for the Space Marine battles series and another was a standalone that tied into the Raven Guard short stories and audio dramas already penned and released by author George Mann. This year has already has seen four, not two, not three, but four, limited edition novellas. The first one was for a new purported series, Lords of the Space Marines. The second was for the Horus Heresy. And just before the limited ordering window for that one closed, they announced a new limited edition novella. There wasn’t the usual months-long wait in between. They were advertising a new limited edition novella, for the Horus Heresy no less, before the order window for the current one was even over. Said second novella went up on preorder just now, and this window will last for an entire week, as usual.
What I’m trying to say is that these limited editions are no longer limited edition. They are becoming too common. They are just another collector’s item now, one with a total quantity restriction. They are losing their charm, their uniqueness, what made them special in the first place. We’ve seen three of them already this year. What’s to say that we won’t see another two at the least? Might they be announcing a fourth one by this next week? I doubt they will, but I can’t rule out the possibility at this stage, not now.
The only positive about this whole new range of products is that Black Library has finally reduced the reprint window to one year, instead of the two years it was before. I no longer have to wait two whole years to read these stories, and that’s great. Although the side-effect still remains, that there won’t be much of a discussion of these novellas by that time. And that problem is also there with the ridiculous format change for the Horus Heresy novels.
And finally, the last point.
It doesn’t take a genius at all to see that the Warhammer Fantasy range has been suffering of late, quite a bit actually, when compared to the Warhammer 40,000 range. For every one WHF audio drama that is released, there are four, maybe five released for Warhammer 40,000. What’s sad is that we barely even get a single WHF audio drama a year. A friend of mine has made the following remarks on the release schedules of the WHF novels in compariosn to the 40k ones, and he offers a much better explanation than I could:
They’d probably sell a lot better if they bloody advertised them even remotely as actively as 40k. Heck, there are NO Warhammer Heroes novels scheduled for release til AT LEAST next july. All of the novels in that series we’ve seen this year were excellent reads.
They quite literally release more Horus Heresy material these days than Fantasy, and Fantasy had a lot of series going on in the past.
Remember Malus Darkblade? C.L.Werner wrote a short story for the BL Weekender, which was almost 10 months ago. We’ve gotten e-releases of over half of the stories from the anthologies, but outside of G&F’s Berthold’s Beard, I don’t remember any Fantasy story from that collection getting re-released so far. There’s the Darkblade story, and a Sigmar one, and an Ogre story as well. None of them released to the wider public yet.
They should not be surprised about lesser sales if they don’t bloody advertise their releases properly, and don’t release enough of them in comparison. Heck, their own website does a ****** job at showing you the Fantasy releases, and most of the good old stuff is seemingly getting pushed into Direct Only territory. Heck, they don’t even update those sections properly anyway.
Either way, I am highly annoyed over the lack of Fantasy releases, especially audios. There’s only so much power armor I can bear.
You can find the original comment, with the respective thread, here. The defense that Warhammer 40,000 sells far better than Warhammer Fantasy and thus Black Library makes the “obvious” decision to market the former far more at the cost of the latter, it doesn’t work. Its a cyclical, self-fulfilling argument. And there has been so much of power armour (Space Marines that is) releases all year. It is quite depressing really.
Warhammer Fantasy is a great setting, easily on par with the best (and worst I suppose, just to be objective) that other major fantasy tie-in settings have to offer, such as Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance or Magic: The Gathering. And yet, it almost always gets the short shrift from the publisher. Why? Because Space Marines sell more? I scoff at that. And of course, its not just the audio dramas, but also the novellas, whether the limited edition ones or the regular ones such as Andy Smillie’s Flesh of Cretacia.
So yeah, there you have it. All these marketing and release decisions that Black Library has been making in the last year are only hurting their product ranges. They are ignoring all the diversity they have, all the great stories that they could be telling, and wasting it on the same old, same old.
Posted on September 27, 2013, in Book News, Editorial, News, Publishing & Marketing and tagged Black Library, Book News, Editorial, Games Workshop, Marketing, News, Publishing, Publishing & Marketing, Publishing and Marketing, Warhammer 40000, Warhammer Fantasy, WH40K, WHF. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.