Publishers Explore the Metaverse

June 18th, 2007 · 7 Comments
by Ronin Kurosawa

[BS: As we are off to attend O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference, we invited a guest writer to fill in. Ronin Kurosawa came highly recommended, though, in retrospect, we should have been more suspicious of his references. Still, we find his reporting to be thorough and excellent reading. One note, however: Ronin seems to be confused about the concept of a per diem. He thinks it means “per word”.]

Bantam Dell Book Shop in Second Life For months now the media has been buzzing with reports about Second Life, a virtual reality world that looks something like a video game, but acts more like a business platform and social network. If you’ve heard only one thing about Second Life, it’s probably that a resident by the name of Anshe Chung has earned a million real dollars in the virtual real estate market — a fact that has turned her avatar into a Business Week cover girl.

Over the past year, Second Life has become a platform for everything from elaborate marketing campaigns to presidential campaigns. Businesses of all sorts have started entering Second Life looking for ways that they might use the simulated world to conduct real business.

Apparently all of the media hype caught the attention of the Booksquare lady. She hired me to investigate the possibility that there might even be publishing industry activity taking place in Second Life. She’d heard rumors to that effect and wanted me to do some research, then report back. With receipts. And a full expense report. In triplicate.

I’ll admit that I was hesitant to take this assignment — especially considering the skimpy Booksquare per diem. Eventually I agreed, because, it seemed, there just wouldn’t be all that much to report on. How much book activity could possibly be happening in Second Life? As it turns out, a lot. What I discovered is that Second Life has quietly become a hotbed of activity for publishers and writers.

It All Started With a Book

It’s not surprising that the origins of Second Life started with a book — after all, the best books are not unlike immersive virtual worlds. This particular book was named Snow Crash, written by Neal Stephenson and published in 1992. The novel describes the Metaverse, a 3-D virtual reality environment very much like Second Life. And when I say “very much like”, I mean “almost exactly like”. So much of Second Life appears to be based on Snow Crash that Stephenson should probably consider suing for royalties. Or at least get his own virtual island for free.

In September of last year, Penguin UK became the first major publisher to enter Second Life. The company’s first project was a tribute to Snow Crash. Kiosks dispensing ebook and audiobook excerpts were placed in various neighborhoods around the virtual world. A small first move, but entirely appropriate given the influence the book had in the creation of Second Life.

Jeremy Ettinghausen, Penguin’s Digital Publisher, explains “the Snow Crash project was really an entry point for us – an obvious toe to dip in the pool of Second Life.”

Prior to establishing this initial presence, Jeremy spent a considerable amount of time exploring Second Life and really getting to understand the culture of the virtual world. He explains, “Generally I think that everyone, publishers as well as other brands coming into Second Life, needs to spend some time in world and develop a deeper understanding of it before leaping in.”

Penguin UK recently launched a new Second Life project, a virtual bookshelf with samplers of ten titles the publisher believes will appeal to residents. Meanwhile, Jeremy continues to explore other opportunities in Second Life on behalf of Penguin. He explains, “We don’t see SL as a quick in-out marketing solution – I think long term engagement is needed if publishers are going to get anything from it.”

Virtual Book Stores Don’t Sell Books

Wiley Book Shop in Second LifeI suppose it’s only natural that a publisher looking to create a presence in a virtual world would automatically think about building a book store — and that’s exactly the approach the next two major publishers took when entering Second Life.

Wiley opened its bookstore in December of last year to coincide with the publication of Second Life: The Official Guide, and Bantam Dell’s bookshop debuted in March.

Neither store actually sells books — both publishers use virtual representations of books to link users to web pages with information about featured titles. The companies use their in-world locations to host events designed to appeal to the community and to connect authors with their readers.

To commemorate the publication of the first official Second Life book, Wiley hosted the first in-world book release party where Second Life residents were invited to meet and interact with the authors of the guide.

Meanwhile the Bantam Dell shop has been the site of weekly book related events, and a couple of high profile author appearances. First there was an in-world reading by Dean Koontz, and, more recently, an appearance by George R.R. Martin. Both authors read from their works, answered questions from the audience, and interacted with fans — in a virtual sort of way.

The Bantam Dell shop is coordinated by Beelzebubba Rasmuson, the Second Life name for Ken Wohlrob, the publisher’s Associate Director of Internet Marketing. I met with Beelzebubba the day after the George R.R. Martin event — a huge event by Second Life standards and a respectable author event even by real life standards. During our interview he explained how the social aspect of Second Life provides unique opportunities for publishers and authors.

“It lets fans from around the globe come together and actually ‘meet’ their favorite author, or discover writers that normally they would never learn about because they are not published in their respective country. Much like the internet and podcasting, it has great potential for unknown writers as well as well-established ones.”

Bantam Dell’s commitment to running weekly events has had a major impact on the success of their presence in Second Life. The Bantam Dell location has become something of a popular hangout for the locals, while the Wiley store is relatively dead between book releases.

Wiley is investigating ways to branch out beyond the virtual book store and integrate more with the community. Margie Shustack, the VP of Marketing Operations at Wiley, tells me the company is looking at ways to better integrate with the community and is considering “a variety of promotional opportunities over the next year that may or may not involve the bookshop”.

An Island of Books

Book Island - Home of the Second Life Book Fair Selina Greene is co-proprietor of Publishing Village on Book Island in Second Life. In real life she’s Sheena Dewan, Publisher and Managing Director of Vision, Vision Paperback, and Fusion Press, publishers of trade non-fiction in the UK.

While major publishers have been using SL primarily as a marketing vehicle, Selina is actually conducting business in the virtual world. Later this year Vision will publish “How To Live Your Second Life” by Andrew Sullivan. The book deal was initiated, negotiated, and finalized entirely in Second Life. As far as anyone knows this is a first book deal to be struck in a virtual world.

Selina is optimistic about the impact Second Life can have on the publishing industry, and she clearly sees virtual worlds as more than just a marketing tool. During our interview on Book Island she told told me,

“I can see SL becoming an important forum for publishers around the world to make contacts. I can see the potential in particular for translation rights and for connecting with writers and authors, probably above all. There’s a lot of writing talent in SL.”

Book Island serves as a focal point for the book industry in Second Life, and an entry point where authors, publishers, and other publishing-related support professionals can establish a presence in-world, and connect with the growing community. Several residents have already begun collaborating on real world book projects after meeting on the Island.

Selina tells me that Pan Macmillan, Canongate, and a number of independent publishers will soon be joining the village, which is already nearing capacity.

Publishing Village also hosts a variety of events, the largest of which so far has been the Second Life Book fair — a massive three day event that was hosted at the village’s previous location on the mainland. The first Book Fair attracted 1,400 visitors, featured 42 exhibitors, and nearly 20 events.

Selina is already planning the next Book Fair which promises to be bigger and better than the first. The creation of Book Island has allowed her and her Second Life business partner Roman Zeffirelli to construct a 60,000 square meter virtual conference center to host the event.

But Can It Really Sell Books?

The big question that publishers who aren’t yet in Second Life will certainly ask is “Can it really sell books?” After all, that’s what publishers are in business to do.

Beelzebubba thinks it can. Not only that, he believes that Second Life offers publishers a unique opportunity that doesn’t exist anywhere else. During our interview he noted,

“… we are competing not just with other publishers for that nanosecond of a reader’s attention, but also with movie studios, music companies, and video game developers. What is interesting is that in SL, we’re actually on a level playing field with all of them. Whereas on the Internet they have so much streamable content already at their disposal, SL allows us to create events that don’t rely on the normal avenues of delivering content.”

All this talk about new ways of interacting with consumers and leveling the playing field invariably reminds me of the Web circa 1995. In many respects, Second Life is at the same point in development that the Web was in the mid-90’s. It’s gathering a considerable amount attention, but it still hasn’t reached a critical mass. With the population of Second Life currently growing at a rate of around one million users per month, critical mass will come soon enough.

In my next report I’ll tell you the stories of Diana Hunter and Andrew Sullivan — two writers using Second Life in entirely different ways, each achieving incredible results that might only be possible in a virtual world.

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