How Did D&D Become a Best-Seller?
  • How Did D&D Become a Best-Seller?


    Dungeons & Dragons is back in the news again thanks to Xanathar's Guide to Everything ranked on several best-seller lists. This isn't a first for D&D -- several D&D books were best-sellers when they launched -- but it is remarkable for an edition that's now several years old.


    This Sounds Familiar...

    D&D is no stranger to best-seller lists. ICv2 reported back in 2014 on the success of the Fifth Edition Player's Handbook:

    Itís a screenshot worth framing and hanging, at least if you work for Wizards of the Coast. For the second day in a row, the Dungeons & Dragons Playerís Handbook is topping not only Amazonís Science Fiction & Fantasy category, but is #1 overall in book sales, beating out such other essential back-to-school fare as The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Disorders, 5th Edition, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

    One year later, Morrus reported that two of the three core rule books for Fifth Edition were still on the New York Times' best-sellers list for Games and Activities:

    It's been year since D&D 5th Edition hit our store shelves (if we're counting the Starter Set); or since August 2014 since the Player's Handbook released. The D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual is hanging in at #7 on the "Games & Activities" bestsellers list at the New York Times, while the Player's Handbook is #3.

    A check today shows both books are STILL on the list two years later, with each slipping by just one rank. Which brings us to Xanathar's Guide to Everything.

    The Eye Sees All

    The wily beholder decided to outshine its predecessors by reaching #1 on Publisher's Weekly's hardcover non-fiction list and the #1 on the Wall Street Journal's non-fiction list. Xanathar's Guide is also #12 on USA Today's best-selling books and #12 on Amazon's Top 20 Most Sold Non-Fiction Books.

    This is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that Xanathar's Guide won these accolades late in D&D's publishing cycle. Xanathar's rankings seem indicative of the game's overall success, but there are other factors to consider as well. Scott Thorne at ICv2 posits what's different about Xanathar's Guide that's making it so successful. It has a lot to do with why the Player's Handbook hit best-selling lists but the Dungeon Master's Guide didn't -- player content:

    While WotC has released a number of Dungeons & Dragons hardbacks over the last few years since the release of D&D 5th Edition, this is only the third one that offers much material for the player...for every DM, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of two to eight players, meaning a market two to eight times as large for player-focused materials as there is for DM-focused ones. WotC has a huge untapped market out there for D&D player-targeted books and Xanatharís Guide is the first "official" (yes, there are a lot of third party materials targeted at players but I have found that both D&D and Pathfinder players usually prefer to purchase and use the "official" materials released by the respective companies) player-oriented book released by WotC in almost two years.

    The pent-up demand for the Xanathar's is evident in Amazon's designation of the book as Most Anticipated, which means that there were more pre-orders for Xanathar's than any other book released that week on the Most Sold Nonfiction Chart.

    The other factor is deep discounts, with the book selling as much as 50 percent off the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) in some cases.

    What's a Best-Seller Anyway?

    To understand the success of D&D in the larger marketplace, it's important to put these numbers in context.

    The Wall Street Journal's list reflects nationwide sales of hardcover books during the week ended last Saturday (note the number of bookstores listed that are now out of business):

    ...at more than 2,500 B. Dalton, Barnes & Noble, Bookland, Books-a-Million, Books & Co., Bookstar, Bookstop, Borders, Brentano's, Coles, Coopersmith, Crown, Doubleday, Scribners, Super Crown and Waldenbooks stores, as well as sales from online retailers barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com.

    Amazon's Most Sold list includes:

    ...copies sold and pre-ordered through Amazon.com, Audible.com, Amazon Books stores, and books read through the their digital subscription program -- determined by a percentage read of a free reading sample.

    Publisher's Weekly list uses NPD BookScan. USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list:

    ...ranks the 150 top-selling titles each week based on an analysis of sales from U.S. booksellers. Contributors represent a variety of outlets: bookstore chains, independent bookstores, mass merchandisers and online retailers.

    Given that D&D is a book-driven medium, it's understandable that it will do better than video game books in best-selling lists dedicated to games. But Xanathar's ranking in non-fiction is a significant achievement, outpacing advice books, cookbooks, and a biography of Elon Musk. It's also the fastest-selling D&D book in the game's history, indicative of a turning point in the popularity of the game itself.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 50 Comments
    1. Jacob Lewis's Avatar
      Jacob Lewis -
      Well done! It is bittersweet to see the game I grew up with and stayed with for most of my gaming life has finally become popular and accepted by mainstream with the edition that lost my interest. I'm happy for you, D&D. But I've moved on.
    1. Fandabidozi's Avatar
      Fandabidozi -
      @Jacob Lewis
      Do you do weddings as well?
    1. Jacob Lewis's Avatar
      Jacob Lewis -
      Quote Originally Posted by Fandabidozi View Post
      @Jacob Lewis
      Do you do weddings as well?
      Sure! I hear D&D and MTG have been courting for a while now. Have you heard anything to suggest the inevitable blessed merger? It should be a grand spectacle!
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      Now I'm nervous.

      The key to bigger sales has almost always been player content and agency, that's why 3.x did so well.

      But hopefully the suits don't think this is a sign to crank out spat books. It seems that the slower turn out of official material has kept the bar for entry low. Giving a new audience time and leisure to digest the rules.

      Because believe me, while lots of gamers love to be rewarded with game mastery, some of the attitudes that come with that can turn off new blood.

      To this day, I believe some of that helped kill off Battletech even before FASA closed its doors.
    1. darjr's Avatar
      darjr -
      Donít be nervous. WotC wants dnd to be evergreen like Monopoly. There may be variants but they donít want to ruin it. And it seems they attribute the success of xanathars to the go slow approach, both in pent up demand and the time it took to understand and playtest.

      Think of it this way, that single book is crushing the sales numbers, at least initially, according to the dnd news twitch, of all the other books. IMHO they donít want to go to the effort and expense to produce a ton of splat for a combined fraction of sales.
    1. dave s1's Avatar
      dave s1 -
      Some of the bookstore chains you've mentioned have been out of business for years.
    1. Warpiglet's Avatar
      Warpiglet -
      This is nothing but good news. People can debate all they want about the exact figures or whether some rule is good or bad but more popular means more players.

      Additionally, the release schedule is part of the success unless proven otherwise. They have a coordinated marketing plan.

      Overall, I am really pleased.

      So there are limited releases which means I am personally likely to buy things up. Hate to miss the one or two things a year...

      But I think the emphasis on relative simplicity is important too. I refused to DM 3rd edition. I liked some of the bells and whistles, but the workload was more than I could tolerate. I do not think this is the case any more and I am starting a campaign.

      How does this help sales? A few of my friends bought books due to the emergence of a new campaign, made possible by the design choices...
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      Quote Originally Posted by darjr View Post
      Donít be nervous. WotC wants dnd to be evergreen like Monopoly. There may be variants but they donít want to ruin it. And it seems they attribute the success of xanathars to the go slow approach, both in pent up demand and the time it took to understand and playtest.

      Think of it this way, that single book is crushing the sales numbers, at least initially, according to the dnd news twitch, of all the other books. IMHO they donít want to go to the effort and expense to produce a ton of splat for a combined fraction of sales.
      I hear you, but never underestimate the short sightedness of a hungry V.P. looking to pump up her/his numbers before moving on to his/her next stepping stone.
    1. darjr's Avatar
      darjr -
      Quote Originally Posted by Von Ether View Post
      I hear you, but never underestimate the short sightedness of a hungry V.P. looking to pump up his numbers before moving on to his/her stepping stone.
      Yea, though part of my point is that the greedy option is a lot more like what they are doing now. The splat treadmill will kill the golden goose. Even the short sided are in it now, because the goose is laying golden eggs.
    1. Mistwell's Avatar
      Mistwell -
      Generally, I don't think "extremely successful" is going to result in "Let's make huge fundamental changes to the chosen publishing strategy for this line of products."
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      But also bear in mind that the decision-makers change a lot at WotC. Today's priorities might not be tomorrow's.
    1. Mistwell's Avatar
      Mistwell -
      True but I am pretty sure, "making more money than we've ever made before" will remain a high priority. They could mess with success, but it doesn't seem likely.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mistwell View Post
      True but I am pretty sure, "making more money than we've ever made before" will remain a high priority. They could mess with success, but it doesn't seem likely.
      I dunno. Look at what Patreon just did. Corporations shoot themselves in the foot all the time, and even when they do the clever thing, not everybody agrees! The OGL, for example, wasn't an easy unanimous decision. All it takes is the next change in regime, and somebody in a meeting says "Hey, each of these books is a bestseller. So why aren't we releasing one every week?" And if the champions of "They're bestsellers *because* we're not releasing them each week" are now working for video game companies, or at their new third party RPG company, who can tell?
    1. Zarithar's Avatar
      Zarithar -
      It's interesting to see Borders and B Dalton Booksellers on that list, since neither of those chains exist anymore. Great news for D&D though!
    1. Converse02's Avatar
      Converse02 -
      Why is Xanathar's listed under "non-fiction?"
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Converse02 View Post
      Why is Xanathar's listed under "non-fiction?"
      I keep asking. Nobody seems bothered by that!
    1. M.T. Black's Avatar
      M.T. Black -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jacob Lewis View Post
      Well done! It is bittersweet to see the game I grew up with and stayed with for most of my gaming life has finally become popular and accepted by mainstream with the edition that lost my interest. I'm happy for you, D&D. But I've moved on.
      What do you play these days, Jacob?
    1. GreyLord's Avatar
      GreyLord -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      I keep asking. Nobody seems bothered by that!
      Well, it's easier to get to the top of the list in Non-Fiction than it is in Fiction!

      Less joking, more honestly...

      It's probably due to D&D being classified in the non-fiction section of books normally. Just like Mythology is normally in the Non-fiction section, D&D falls under the section called Games in many libraries and stores. This also includes other RPGs and games (Such as chess, or poker). Typically this section includes rules for games (So what the rules are to chess, or poker, or D&D) as well as hint books and guides on strategy and such.
    1. M.T. Black's Avatar
      M.T. Black -
      Quote Originally Posted by Converse02 View Post
      Why is Xanathar's listed under "non-fiction?"
      RPG books are hard to categorise! Ultimately, it seems they are seen as "rules books" rather than "story books". Game rules books (such as "Hoyle's Rules of Games") are typically categorised as "non-fiction". That makes sense to me - it wouldn't make sense to categorise Hoyle's as fiction.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by M.T. Black View Post
      RPG books are hard to categorise!
      No theyíre not. Watch:

      Theyíre fiction.

      Thank you. My book categorisation service is free.
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