Even though this is an e-book blog, from time to time I poke my nose over into the world of computer gaming to point out some parallels. You could say that Internet game distribution is a sort of first cousin of the e-book, as they share a lot of commonalities. They’re both about telling stories—in books, you read the stories, but in games you experience them.

More importantly, both started out as strictly physical means of media distribution—dead trees for books, dead dinosaur discs for games—but have moved into the digital forum where they’re more vulnerable to bit-copying piracy. The book publishing industry has been in a bit of a tizzy about this, but Valve, one of the leaders in digital game distribution through its Steam platform, has been looking at it as more of an opportunity.

I’ve already mentioned the way Valve’s sales entice pirates away from piracy, and how its multi-platform stance adds value to its products from a customer point of view, but Valve is just as canny about marketing, too. I touched on its Portal 2 ARG (Alternate Reality Game) way back when it started by retroactively dropping hints into Portal 1, but they did something even cleverer recently when they got together with a bunch of independent game developers to hatch up a cross-promotion scheme that would boost not only Portal 2 but their own games as well. Ars Technica has a great article looking at the promotion from the point of view of one of those publishers.

The idea was that the game developers would come up with additional levels for their games incorporating the GLaDOS character from Portal, and the games would be bundled together into a sale bundle (called the “Potato Sack” bundle, an in-joke referring to an element from Portal 2). What’s more, it would tie into the ARG: Playing the indie games would contribute to moving up the release of Portal 2 by a few days.

Gamers who unlocked a specific achievement from each game received the Valve Complete Pack, a bundle of every game Valve has ever made—and the ability to give any duplicates of games they already had to friends. The bundle is a $100 value, but since it was provided digitally there were no media costs involved in giving it away.

For the new content, Valve was happy to turn over one of its most popular characters: GLaDOS, as well as the voice actor who brought the character to life. The pressure was on to create something that did justice to the concept, and the work was described as being "some of the toughest work done all year, possibly in years," but it also proved highly rewarding. "The amazing thing is how cool Valve was about this. With most publishers, you have to sign ten pages of paperwork just to sit down and have a drink with them," [Leo Jaitley of developer Dejobaan Games] explained. "Valve sat us down, pointed out the fact that there were no hidden cameras, lawyers, or NDAs, and showed us what they were thinking. They had us play through what existed of Portal 2, and then just had us go crazy."

And in return for their participation, the indie developers experienced a rather nice sales payout. “Jaitley likened it to being able to keep a roof over their heads while forcing them to wait on the sports cars,” the Ars Technica article notes.

The Ars Technica article concludes with, “The only question: what could possibly be done to top this?” And that’s a question that anyone who sells digital, piracy-prone media should be asking themselves. Valve is thinking outside of the box (which you’d think should be easy, given that digital content doesn’t have to be packaged in a box!), pleasing fans and developers alike.

What kinds of similar promotions could e-book publishers be doing?

Well, bundles for starters. Valve regularly drops sale bundles, often of independent games. The Potato Sack Pack was a rather noteworthy (and huge) example, but smaller bundles of half a dozen games often make their appearance—and it also has individual every-game-from-one-developer bundles like the Valve Complete Pack mentioned above.

Why don’t we see publishers bundling all the books in a series together as packages? Well, actually we do, to an extent—Baen did it when they picked up the Liaden and Kencyr series a few years ago—but the agency publishers haven’t been doing that. There are some series out there that are positively huge, and extremely well-liked. 

For instance, Rex Stout wrote 33 novels and 39 short stories in the Nero Wolfe series. I imagine plenty of fans would be happy to pay $100, maybe even $150, to get a bundle containing an e-book of every one of those if it represented a savings over the cost of buying each book individually. People who might never have bought that many Wolfe novels at piecemeal prices might well be happy to drop a lump sum if it meant they could get their hands on everything. (Of course, such bundles are already circulating for nothing in peer-to-peer, thanks to the work of scanners.)

Regardless, publishers really should be looking at the things that pioneering e-sellers like Valve are doing. Computer gaming may be even more piracy-ridden than e-books, but Valve isn’t just sitting around complaining—it’s giving customers more reasons to buy. If only publishers would do the same.


  1. peanutpress recognized the value of bundling series over a decade ago. We started off by offering the first book in a series for free in order to lure readers into the series. Later we moved on to bundling three, four or more books in a series into a single promotional price for limited periods of time. Many of what are now referred to as “the Agency” publishers worked with us in these types of promotions.

    Fictionwise followed up on this when they started offering promotions featuring series books. I picked up the first 10 books in A. Bertram Chanlder’s Rim World series from Fictionwise a couple of years ago as a bundled offer.

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