Pushing the boundaries of publishing, the Games Workshop’s case.

It is the duty of a Publisher to give shape and find (or create) consumers for the works of writers, creatives (eg photographers, illustrators, musicians), scholars and even whimsical authors. Make no mistake, it is not (only) a labor of love, it is about Strategy, Planning, Logistics and I should add, Branding. Sure, we can empathize with writers, love their stories, help them promote an ideal or pursue a similar agenda within the boundaries of our mission statement but it seems many are lacking on the commercial side of the picture.


In Ultra Libris, Rowland Lorimer presents a study which shows that only around 7% of the readers find the Publisher’s Brand a purchase driving factor. When someone buys a book from Random House, Greystone or ECW, Do they think “Hey! It is from this prestigious or social committed publisher”? or are they guided by the bestseller list or word of mouth recommendation? To what extent, the branding of the publisher influences a buyer’s decision to purchase a book? To trust the house has done their usual good job for selecting, editing and designing a bibliographical work? According to Lorimer’s study, less than 10% depending on type.


Do Publishers need to brand their names through their books? Many may feel compelled to think not, because their goal is to publish according to their mission, and thus, the book itself embodies all these values, however, in a changing global market, it has become important for brands to form associations with their customers, if just because they speak about values, lifestyles, etc. Amazon, definitely instills this on their customers, from their website to their packaging, people tell proudly to each other “I bought this on Amazon”, or “I will get that on Amazon”, Indigo/Chapters follows up closely. But what about a reader saying “I am expecting the next Pop-Culture series release by ECW?”


“A brand is a promise to a customer. It tells them what they can expect from your products and services, and it differentiates your offering from your competitors. Your brand is derived from who you are, who you want to be and who people perceive you to be” [Williams, John]. People appropriate those values by using products so is at least desirable to create such an atmosphere around published products, branding is intimately related to community after all.


This is definitely not unknown in the publishing industry, citing Jesse Savage (2017), ““What do Candy Crush, CNET and WebMD all have in common? They all have magazines! (Yes, even Candy Crush.)… These days, what a magazine publishing is really about is expanding the brand.” Magazines and Books have very different structures and functions of course, in this context, Magazines work as instruments of branding, while books are the epitome of publishing, yet, both cross several other areas of interest for customers and it is now common to see magazine-like books about videogames, artworks for anime, etc.


For most books however, the variety of topics and contents plays against this goal, most of the publishers rely on their editors to bring diverse manuscripts to turn them into books and add them to their catalogs, sometimes they try to adjust the topics that conform their offer by appealing to some very loose arguments, “socially engaged, fiction, etc”. It can be easily twisted to fit with a number of sometimes disparagingly set of titles, the need to publish “something, anything” overruns the chances for constructing brands or lines outside these loose concepts.


On the design aspect, there is also little cohesion on the offer by a publisher that could point to a sort of branding, some nonfiction books, like O’Reily manuals on informatics, definitely share a visual identity across their covers, sometimes to the point of being tremendously boring and confusing but constant nonetheless, ECW also has a pop-culture series whose books share a number of design traits such as typographic covers with intense contrasting colors. However, in most cases the necessity to have a unique cover, the availability of formats, the need to save space or make a book more bulky, cause each to be if only a bit, different. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact, it is fantastic, except that it does not help to create a branding atmosphere, many times, limiting the presence of the publisher to a very small logo in the spine and the legal pages.


There are publishers though, who can offer interesting examples of successful branding which lead to successful businesses. One of them is Harlequin, now a division of Harper Collins but which started as a Winnipeg Publisher that since 1949 specialized in Romance Books for Women and created several imprints, reached global markets with clever strategies and has sold over 6.7 billion books. The focus here is (obviously) romance and women, and this has helped create a powerful branding. However, most publishers have a broader spectrum of topics. How can publishers push their boundaries, diversify their offer and construct a brand?


A good example of a Publisher who pushed the limits of the industry, is that used by the UK based games publisher and seller Games Workshop. GW created an empire around publishing magazines, selling miniature figures and tabletop games, here are the most relevant facts to it:


It was founded in 1975 as a chain of general games shops. Today, the company has a revenue of over 118 Million GBP.


They started the “White Dwarf” magazine in 1977, a publication which for years reviewed other game subjects in the industry such as RPGs, but since 1991 the magazine is devoted to include only GW products and brands, becoming a key instrument of marketing. The magazine is still being published nowadays on a monthly basis.


In 1979, they started to produce miniatures of fantasy subjects for the Dungeons & Dragons game under the side company (imprint) Citadel Miniatures. These figures are 25-30mm in height, some require assembly and all have to be decorated with paint according to the owner’s tastes but with references offered by a team of in-house professional painters (‘Eavy metal team) whose works are published on “White Dwarf”.


The company published their own game, Warhammer in 1984, a battle simulator with miniatures (designed and produced in house of course), heavily inspired on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings myth, fused with other genres of fantasy, hence we can find humans, orcs, elves, vampires, mummies, chaos entities, etc.


By 1987, they published a spin off version of their frst game titled Warhammer 40,000which is a space opera story set in a grim and dark future in the 41st millenium original species such as space orks, elves and aliens can be found as integral part of the story.


As of year 2001, they are the official makers of the Lord of the Rings Battle game as well as the Hobbit miniatures game under license, they have even expanded the story of LoTR to encompass characters found in other sources of Tolkien’s Mythology.


Over the years, GW further developed and expanded the story lines on its two universes and focused on creating products around their core offer, they did this by publishing novels to tell the stories that happened in those “Warhammer Worlds”, several editions of the game followed, and to this date, they have published over 400 novel titles and 300 short stories, not counting different editions of the game, supplement, story books, comics, art books, etc.


They also have a line of official paints to be used in their miniatures by labeling them Space Wolves Grey, Bad Moon Yellow, Blood Angels Red, etc. People had to become familiar with their storylines to understand those names, even if they did not approach the company products for that reason.


Compared to similar products in the market, a GW miniature cost from 2 to 10 times more than an equivalent from a competitor, even if the latest may be of higher artistic quality. GW produces their own miniatures and this has allowed them to control the sale price, what is most interesting since it is not based on the artistic merit, level of detail or even the amount of raw material, but in how useful they are on the game, so a miniature whose rules grant them better statistics or powers, have a higher price than an equivalent with no such profile.


This is a clever system because every month, they publish (through their magazine) a new feature that usually renders some previous one obsolete, prompting their customer base to acquire the next iteration.


They own a worldwide net of stores and branches with direct sales operations in the UK, the United States, Australia, China and Japan. With around 70% of sales coming from outside of the UK, truly international. Official retailers can also be found on other countries such as Canada, Mexico, Europe and Latin America.


Their online store services worldwide in five major languages, it is the only source to get every product on their catalog as well as access exclusive content the online store, such as limited edition products, bundle deals, etc.


They organize local and global events such as conventions, expositions and tournaments.


They have sold rights to videogame developers since 1993, to other miniature and model manufacturers since 1991 and even to other board game publishers since 2000.


They created several imprints to develop subjects not directly associated with their current official lines.


How could a game and reviews magazine publisher became the biggest and most successful hobby miniatures company in the world? In summary:

They sell miniatures
They sell original stories, though books, games and magazines
They sell miniatures through stories (repeated on purpose, not a mistake here)
Have created support media for their product lines
Reserve many exclusive releases to be available on their online store only.
Offers out of print stuff exclusively on their online store (no discount, sometimes expensier))
New releases almost on a weekly basis
Publish new rules and supplements that bring the previous ones obsolete at least every two years.
They build and consolidate product lines around their brand and core products (ie paints, tools)
Despite their success, they have never merged, bought or acquired smaller businesses, on the contrary, many of their ex-employees have started their own companies.
They sell rights for products outside their area of expertise.


In short, GW success has to do with storytelling, creating empathy with their customer base, making them an aware part of the process, keeping them hooked with the story but not ceding control of their line development. Like many big companies, GW has been viewed as the evildoer of the gaming industry, accused of ripping on their customers wallets and corrupting the honorable labor of gaming make. Sounds familiar?


I wonder how many publishers actively care for their customer/reader base? I think not many, in fact, there are few channels to connect with them, as reflected in most marketing budgets for books, most of the time is the author who does the public relations labor, many might think it is his job because the publisher is “simply giving shape to his/her book”, so that relation is bridged through the writers, bad choice, we must start empathizing with our audiences, so they become an asset along with authors. Publishers need to start thinking in ways to generate communities not only sell books to figured numbers in the P&L sheet but to people, this way, they can actually offer writers a tangible base to publish their works and get rid of this “gamble” idea that surrounds the industry.


How can we translate the GW strategy into the book publishing? It is about time to start expanding publishing beyond its usual comfort zone, so it becomes a creative detonator. Some press houses are now finding selling points outside bookstores for cook and wine books for example, but more can be done. Integrating such a cookbook with a tv show segment, or (cheaper) creating a youtube channel where we see the recipes actually be prepared, organizing events on restaurants that serves some of the recipes, publishing “expansions” to the original book instead of a new edition, adding content online, make a plush doll! Whatever! Doing something else. We need to start looking beyond those boundaries, use our creativity to find new ways to engage with the audience. If we are only to perpetuate the current model of business, it is granted we will be asking the same questions soon, only in a more critical stage.


Bibliography and References

Games Workshop, Our History, https://investor.games-workshop.com/our-history/

Lorimer, Rowland (2012) Ultra Libris, ECW Press.

Maxwell, John, (2012) Amazon and the Engagement Economy

Savage, Jesee (2017), The Great Magazine Debate: Life or Death in Print or Digital, Essays – Fall 2017 | Posted October 2, 2017

Williams, John, The Basics of Branding. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/77408





One Response to Pushing the boundaries of publishing, the Games Workshop’s case.

  1. ldesai says:

    Octavio, I enjoyed reading your essay. Coincidentally, Aleena Deandra in her essay, ‘Most publishers do not know their audience and how to reach them’, posits a similar argument that publishers do not bother to know their reader and develop a loyal fan base. Her recommendation is that publishers use the ‘Audience Information Sheet’ developed by Peter McCarthy and Jess Johns of The Logical Marketing Agency to get to know their audience well. I agree with what both of you say, although in a business like publishing, where a company’s brand is so inextricably linked to the authors they publish, this is tricky. Alison Jones, a publishing consultant, in her article ‘Brand building for publishers: It may not be what you think’, argues that while it is important for publishers to build their brand at a title, series and company level, they need to also focus on turning their authors into brands. “As publishers we can and should build our brands… and deliver consistently on the promise that each implies,” she says, “But at the end of the day, how we work to build our authors’ brands reflects back on us more powerfully than any marketing copy we can put out there. Quite simply when they succeed, we succeed.”

    I’d like to address a couple of other points you make in your essay. You maintain that, “Magazines work as instruments of branding, while books are the epitome of publishing.” Having worked on magazines, I can tell you that the companies whose primary business is magazine publishing see themselves as much the “epitome of publishing” as books are. Indeed, the publishing scene would be incomplete without magazines like ‘The New Yorker’, ‘The Walrus’ and ‘The Economist’, to name just a few. But I think what you mean to say is that for businesses that are not necessarily into publishing, magazines can be good instruments of branding. I agree with that. Magazines serve as mouthpieces or promotional tools for a company or when they act as part of the content marketing strategy of a business, which these days is extremely crucial, as we learnt from Shannon Emmerson and Lauren Cheal from Echo Storytelling Agency, when they came as guest lecturers for our PUB600 class. Focusing on content marketing can be an avenue for publishers to subtly build brand value without being overly aggressive. Catherine Toole in her article ‘Brands as publishers: inside the content marketing trend’, maintains that ‘content that is too product- or brand-focused does not travel well digitally, whereas content that stands on its own merits as entertainment, storytelling, education will be shared and passed along.’ So in this sense, magazines that add to the ethos of the company in terms of the stories they carry can strengthen a brand.

    You make another point about the publisher’s tendency to publish “something, anything” at the cost of building a brand. I think book publishers – the bigger ones at least – get manuscripts from agents, not editors and they have a clear mandate about the kind of and number of books they want to publish in a year. The “need to publish something, anything” happens sometimes (not always) in magazines and newspapers, purely because of the immediacy of those mediums and their dependence upon ad revenue. Speaking from firsthand experience, I worked for a monthly travel magazine from 2011 to 2014. There were months, when we would sometimes get ad confirmations at the nth hour, sometimes just a day before we were supposed to close that issue. But since we couldn’t say no to ads because of the money they bring, we would be told to generate content to make space for that ad. It is in such an instance where we would scramble for material because we had to publish something to make space for that ad. So it happens no doubt, but more in magazines and newspapers than books. I think most book publishers are very discerning in the books they publish and as Vici Johnstone from Caitlin Press told us that day in the PUB601 class, they start preparing their Fall and Spring lists many months in advance, giving very little wiggle room to squeeze a title in at the last minute. It’s not unheard of, but usually, publishers deliberate long and hard and only then release catalogues for upcoming seasons.

    About your example about Games Workshop, you make some good points there. Publishers can fare better by venturing out of their comfort zones and exploiting social media as well as merchandising opportunities to create stronger brand recall for their respective companies.

    1) Jones, Alison, ‘Brand building for publishers: It may not be what you think’, Book Machine. March 08, 2017. https://bookmachine.org/2017/03/08/brand-building-for-publishers-it-may-not-be-what-you-think/
    2) Deandra, Aleena, ‘Most publishers do not know their audience and how to reach them’. November 13, 2017. https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/2017/11/most-publishers-do-not-know-their-audience-and-how-to-reach-them/
    3) Toole, Catherine, ‘Brands as publishers: inside the content marketing trend’. Curve. http://curve.gettyimages.com/article/brands-as-publishers-inside-the-content-marketing-trend

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