Why Indie Publishing Succeeded Where Indie Gaming Failed

Indie game developers' quandary

The topic of this post came to me after I happened upon a couple of videos on widely disparate subjects.

While making my way through The Rageaholic's Hugo-nominated vlog series, I came across this episode explaining why hopes that indie developers will pull the video game industry out of its current sales dive are woefully misplaced.

Caution: NSFW Language ahead

There are over 150 million gamers in the United States alone. AAA developers bank on creating blockbusters that sell millions of copies each. Since major games cost millions, or tens of millions, of dollars to make, the big developers' blockbuster-focused business model involves substantial risk. A major game that sells 400 thousand copies can be considered a failure.

To put the gulf between AAA and indie sales in context, let's look at Steam. The world's most popular PC game retail/distribution platform, Steam is to indie game developers what Amazon's KDP is for self-published authors.

How many copies does the average game sell on Steam?


Keep in mind, that figure includes AAA games from big developers that sell millions of copies. No matter how you slice it, indie developers aren't yet in a position to challenge the big boys for game industry dominance.

The case of indie publishing

The second video that inspired today's post comes to us courtesy of Mike Cernovich, who recently interviewed author James Altucher after the two authors had a chance meeting.

Both Altucher and Cernovich are highly successful indie authors. Watch from the 9:00 mark to the 10:00 mark as they discuss the benefits of self-publishing compared to signing with a traditional publisher.

James specifically mentions that books by independent authors receive higher average review ratings than books sold through traditional publishers. He also points out the significant fact, reported by Hugh Howey's Author Earnings site, that indie authors as a group now out-earn their traditionally published colleagues.

Indie vs. indie performance

Amazon and the Kindle have turned the publishing industry on its head. Within a few short years, big New York publishers have gone from controlling a majority of the eBook market to less than 25%. At the same time, indie authors have captured over 40% of eBook sales.

Author Earnings unit sales
Source: Author Earnings
There are several reasons why self-published authors have come to dominate the eBook market: lower prices, higher quality, and faster release schedules are some significant advantages that indies have over the Big Five.

Then there's the fact that indie publishing doesn't have an ideological litmus test as a barrier to entry.

I'm not just speaking secondhand, here, since my self-publishing credentials are well established.

But if indie authors have managed to pick up failing trad publishers' slack, why haven't indie game developers enjoyed comparable success?

I'm less knowledgeable about video game publishing than novel publishing, but Razörfist's argument makes a lot of sense.

Print books are cheap to produce; eBooks even more so. As a consequence, anyone can self-publish a book at a level of quality rivaling any title released by the Big Five. But when state-of-the-art video game production costs routinely soar into the millions of dollars, coming up with the entry fee is a much taller order.


AAA game studios' over-reliance on blockbuster games shows no signs of abating any time soon. Sadly, neither does indie gaming's relative underperformance.

On the flip side, predicting that big New York publishers will keep hemorrhaging market share looks like a pretty safe bet. Consequently, indie authors can expect business to keep booming in the foreseeable future.



  1. I've been in the indie game development scene, although it's been a while now. And I can tell you that the cost of development is absolutely the main contributor.

    But there's one other factor that's nearly as big. A book is product that one man can complete by himself. In the 1980s and even into the early 1990s, the same was true for games. In 2016 it absolutely isn't. It's extremely difficult for one man to create a game - all by himself - that is actually competitive on the open market. It doesn't matter how much money he has. The task is just about impossible anyway.

    The amount of work that has to be done is part of it, but the kind of work is another big part. Someone talented enough at programming to code the game is unlikely to also be talented enough at artwork to provide art for the game. Or, rather, he's unlikely to be talented enough to do a good job of both, which is pretty much necessary for a game to survive the marketplace.

    1. The by yourself matters, because other people are basically completely unreliable for getting a project done unless they're getting paid to do it as their full time job. And most of us know that even then they're not reliable. So for an indie game to even get made is an achievement, much less for it to sell.

    2. Thanks for supplying the missing puzzle piece. I'm always happy to hear from folks with firsthand knowledge.

  2. Another point that Raz0r brought up in another video was the disappearance of the middle market in gaming. Because of the rise of AAA budgets for high costs and cute little indie games for pennies, there is no more room for those in the middle.

    This includes works like Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Timesplitters, or Silent Hill. Games that were able to survive and thrive, and make the market a better place, are now all but locked out of it. What it's done is sucked the air out of the room.

    It was his video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KquAz3iMjWo (NSFW, obviously)

    It's a real shame. The middle market offered some of the games I've enjoyed the most, and now it's all but dead.

    1. All keen observations. In fact, the middle sector of every market is getting mercilessly squeezed between blockbuster bloat and the dime a dozen long tail.

      Here again, publishing is the only industry that still has a thriving middle market, because indie pub has replaced the evaporating mass market paperback mid list.

      On a related personal note, I'd love to write for comics, video games, or films. But as guys like Razor and Max Landis have pointed out, there's nowhere for beginners to get their foot in the door.

    2. Yes. If anything, indie publishing is currently in the process of becoming the new middle market.

      Of course the publishing industry would never admit the reason most people no longer read is the false choice between wannabe-Ulysses and never-ending romance novels. Many are unaware they have more options than that, but I feel it will change with time.

      The entertainment industry has become a chimera of nepotism, political correctness, and virtue signalling. The last video game story that impressed me was Deadly Premonition: a game the industry went out of its way to destroy in reviews.

      If you have not read it, the story behind how the Darkwing Duck comic got off the ground is quite telling. No one at BOOM Comics thought it would sell, and when it did, they instantly milked it dry. Not long after kicking the original writer who pulled the project together, too.

      As was mentioned above by Mr. Newquist, the main reason indie book publishing hasn't succumbed to this is because one individual can do everything themselves (and hire out for what they can't) so there is no one to get in their way.

      You can have an Andy Weir in publishing, but in comics, video games, or films? It seems pretty unlikely.

    3. I plan to buy Deadly Premonition during the Steam Summer Sale ;)

    4. Funny you mention comics. My wife has had a graphic novel banging around in her head for a couple of years now. Great concept - we really want to get it made. Unfortunately, finding an artist willing to commit to it has been extremely challenging.

      It's at least possible with comics, though. We're looking at launching a kickstarter for it later this year or early next, and if we can raise a few thousand dollars I think we actually can get an artist on board.

    5. You've probably already tried this, but what about DeviantArt?

      Anyway, best of luck!