Saturday, January 05, 2013

E-books and the great video game crash of 1983

With the 2012 holidays now behind us, there has been a lot of doom and gloom on the publishing front, especially concerning the e-book market and indie authors. This isn't necessarily all that strange, because the publishing industry (especially the indie portion of it) is always full of doom and gloom. But there's a difference this time.

What's the difference?

Well, the fact is, the early numbers so far seem to agree with the doom and gloom. For instance, Barnes & Noble has reported selling fewer Nooks this past season. And there have been reports of e-book sales slowing down. And I'll freely admit my own e-book sales aren't as strong as they were a year or two ago, though they're holding steady of late.

So, should we all give up? Should we go back to our day jobs? Should we hang our heads and cover them with sack cloth?

I don't think so.

Here's why.

Because I have seen something similar to all this before. Or at least it seems so to me.

Okay, wait, hold on. This is going to take some explaining, but stay with me here.

For those of us old enough to remember, especially if one was a child or teen at the time, the late 1970s and early 1980s were a golden era for video games. That was the time when video game arcades were everywhere, Atari was the king of the world, and Pac-Man not only ate little dots, but millions of dollars worth of quarters.

Then, unexpectedly, it all came down in a fiery, bloody crash in 1983, though the decline actually began in 1982.

Of what do I speak?

The great North American video game crash of 1983.

If you're old enough, maybe you remember it. Arcades slowly started disappearing. The price of everything Atari dropped. Hell, the price of just about everything having to do with the home video game market dropped. There were even video game cartridges in the five dollar bin at Kmart (before that, most video games had cost between $20 and about $50, depending upon the company, the game's popularity, the quality of the game, etc.).

By the holiday season of 1983, people just weren't buying home video games any longer, at least not in strong numbers. Also, people weren't lining up at the arcades like they used to, though the arcades did hold on for another decade or so in bowling alleys, near college campuses, and a handful of other places (by the way, for those youngins out there who think their local video game collection at the movie theater is a real arcade ... well, you're wrong ... you had to be there, but real arcades were dark, often smokey places that were like temples to all things bright, flashy and digital).

Some of us didn't really notice the crash at the time, or at least didn't think it was all that big a deal. And maybe it wasn't, in the larger scheme of things, but it did change the future of home gaming as we knew it, and the heyday of Atari and Intellivision and Colecovision was kaput. It was the end of an era.

Why did the crash happen?

There has been all kinds of speculation over the years, and frankly, I can see how some of this speculation seems related to what has recently been going on in the e-book market. Below I'll discuss some of the major reasons for the 1983 crash, and how I think it's relevant to today's e-books and indie writers. Keep in mind, this is mostly speculation on my part as a writer and fan of classic video games.

1.) Too many video game consoles, and video games: There might be some truth to this, that there was just too much of everything out there, too much available, with only so many consumers biting at the video game market of the time. Atari was king, but it had a handful of strong competitors, and then there were a dozen or more other companies putting out less reputable gaming consoles. And the games! There were millions of them! Or it seemed so. And only a handful of them were good (though they were really good). Oh, maybe the Atari 2600 system had about 50 games that were excellent, the Intellivision a dozen or so, and the Colecovision another dozen, but there were hundreds upon hundreds of games available, of various quality and at all kinds of prices. There was so much, the market eventually imploded. Despite the seeming endless number of video game consumers, the truth is the market was somewhat limited, especially when more and more bad games came out, thus turning away some potential market.

Could this be happening to the e-book market? For some while now, a number of authors have bemoaned the multitude of free and cheap e-books. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps the large numbers of such e-books are finally hitting home, especially when many of them might be badly written or tossed together quickly in hopes of making an easy book. Consumers can be a fickle lot, and if e-books gain a reputation of being poor literature and bad information, then those consumers will catch on. What to do? Write better books. Or perhaps eventually a new form of gate keeper will emerge (I'm not saying I want this to happen, but anything is possible, especially if the market demands it).

2.) Big games that failed: Everyone with an Atari home gaming system in 1982 will remember the awfulness that was the Atari version of Pac-Man, and the Atari game for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The E.T. game is simply one of the worst video games ever made, and it had received tons of fanfare before being released to the market and promptly sinking into a pit somewhere in New Mexico (true story, by the way ... Atari buried millions-of-dollars-worth of cartridges and consoles simply to get rid of them, and maybe for a tax write-off or something). The Pac-Man game irked a lot of people at the time because it was nothing like the original arcade game, but personally, it didn't bother me so much. Anyway, that's just two examples. There were other games, though not quite so high profiled, which received lots of marketing but turned out to be flops.

Can anyone see how this could relate to e-books and the indie market? Seems fairly obvious to me. There have been a number of indie authors who have made it big. When will one of them flop? Or has one of them already flopped? Considering some of the arguments floating about a few months ago concerning authors buying reviews and making up their own reviews (as well as creating negative reviews for those perceived as competitors), it might be this bird has flown, or is still flying. A few reputations were hit pretty hard, though much of the brou ha ha seems to have died down of late.

3.) The rise of the computer: Yep, the home computer was slowly gaining traction in the early 1980s, though I don't think it truly hit its stride until the mid-1990s or thereabouts. Still, the popularity of home computers was beginning to have an impact on console sales. Why buy just a console when you could purchase a computer that played games and so much more?

Again, I see direction relations here. The market for dedicated e-reading devices has dropped the last few months, yet sales for tablets continue to rise. Sound familiar? Actually, I don't consider this much of a problem as long as readers are reading on something.

Okay, that's enough about the causes of the video game crash and how I see it relates to today's e-book market. The causes of the crash mentioned above are admittedly arguable, and there are others I have not mentioned, but this post is already too long.

And I've got more to say.

So far I've been mostly doom and gloom. Video games crashed. E-books seem to be crashing (at least to some extent). Meteors are going to hit the earth. Sunspots will blow us up. Zombies and aliens will rise to eat all of us. Yaddy yaddy.

But there are positive aspects to consider.

Though the video game crash came in 1983, just a couple of years later in 1985 there came along a new home gaming console known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, affectionately referred to as the NES. By that time I wasn't much into video games any more, but I still can't forget the impact the NES had on video games and its market. It was almost like a second golden age, at least for a while.

Eventually the NES was replaced by the Super NES. And then through the years more and more home consoles took over the market for one period of time or another. Sony was king for a while with the various Playstations. Nintendo struck it big again with the Wii. The various Xbox incarnations have made big money.

Obviously there are plenty of differences between the home video game market of 1982-83 and today's e-book market, but I felt there were enough similarities to call attention to it.

But what does all this mean?

It means the end is not near. It's not even in site.

It means things will change. Not always for the better, but sometimes, yeah.

It means video games survived the crash of 1983, and it means e-books and indie writers (at least some of them ... us) will survive whatever is going on now within the publishing world, and what's to come in the publishing world.

Do I really think the end is drawing near for e-books and indie authors? No, not at all. In fact, I think the best is yet to come.

Quality and talent will shine through, and yeah, a few hucksters will squeeze by. But over all, we have a bright future ahead of us. None of us may have a clue what it will look like, but it'll be coming whether we want it to or not, and each of us will have a place in it if we have the patience and the fortitude to push forward.

We just have to wait and watch and work.

In the words of the immortal Commander Peter Quincy Taggart, "Never give up, never surrender!"


Anonymous said...

Yes I agree. Quality will shine through the quantity. I think that with the current trend for tablets that can do everything then perhaps indie authors can look at ways to incorporate different media. I'm writing a book at the moment that will include a website within the text and I am wanting to do something with moving images in the future, all this is possible and could change indie publishing. I do remember the great change of the 80's, great link to e-books. We are at a time of change for writing and it is exciting. For my part, I'm going paper free in 2013 so will read nothing but e-books. Great post Ty, happy new year to you.

Ty Johnston said...

Thanks, Zac. I agree that e-books will continue to evolve and change in the future, but actually, I also think there will always be a dedicated market that just wants to read a book and not worry about all the bells and whistles. For an example of this, look at the growing graphic novel market of the last couple of decades, that market having made an impac, but not dominating the traditional prose market in fiction. I think we'll see something like that, with some readers wanting video and sound and links, etc., while others won't want all that. Which market will be dominate? Time will tell.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've noticed my ebook sales are down for most titles in the last 4 to 5 months. But I believe you're right about the causes and that it's certainly not the end. Good stuff will out, eventually. I'm just hoping it happens before I die. :)

Keith said...

Great analysis. I remember the video game boom of the early 80s, being a teen myself at the time.

I think what we're seeing is a market adjustment. If indie writers continue to produce good books and keep the long tail in mind, they'll make it. Some may have to get day jobs for a while, but they'll survive if they don't give up. The ebook market isn't going to go away. It will change, but until new technology supplants it, it's here.

Virginia Llorca said...

Just as an aside, posts can't be "too long". If they read that far, honey, they want to read more.