Books were a hot commodity during the pandemic, with book sales up between 8-9% in the U.S. market in 2020 despite the economic downturn. Another successful sector? The board games market, which grew by 20% globally last year, making games a potentially attractive sideline for publishers. And at least two of them are ahead of the curve: Electric Literature, the web publication, took its Papercuts party game online last year, while Clarkson Potter released Stet!, a grammar game inspired by Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer’s book Dreyer’s English.
Papercuts is a literature-themed expansion pack for the popular (and perverse) party game Cards Against Humanity, although it can be played on its own. (One example of a question card, as shown on EL’s website: “What is the one thing Stephen King is truly scared of?” An example of an answer: Atticus Finch before he was racist.”) The game debuted in 2016 after a successful Kickstarter funded the printing of the initial run.
The idea was born at least partly out of necessity: “We're a nonprofit, and we have to get creative about how to raise funds to support our mission to make literature exciting, relevant, and inclusive,” Electric Literature executive director Halimah Marcus explained. “The game came to mind among staff, then we wrote all the clues and play-tested it. It was a really fun process.”
When the pandemic hit, EL had long since sold out of its two printings totaling 3,500 games, all of which were sold without a distributor—meaning through its website, in small consignment orders, and at conferences. Marcus was hoping to put out another shipment, but “that seemed to be impossible” without a distributor, which the publisher is still seeking out. “You have to order at least, I think, 1,500 copies to make it cost effective, and it's just really challenging for a small operation to store that kind of inventory—especially now that we're all working from home,” Marcus said.
So EL pivoted to developing the digital edition, hiring by adapting some open source code, so people could play online. While Marcus said the digital game hasn't quite taken off in the same way as the print version, it provided EL with an opportunity to update the cards with new literary references, “to stay on top of the zeitgeist.”
Marcus added that the game is a good option for those of a literary bent wishing to play a game like Cards Against Humanity in mixed company. “One of our part-time staff members played an online version of Cards Against Humanity at her other part-time job, and it was really inappropriate,” Marcus said. “So she said that she put the link to the digital Papercuts into their Slack like three times to be like, ‘this is what we should be playing!’ That's what we wanted—you can put cards together to be a little bit provocative, but it's also made out a respect for literary culture, and bringing a playfulness to it.”
Then there is Stet!, another question-and-answer game, which is about grammar and style and was spun off from a style guide that has sold, to date, upwards of 123,000 copies through outlets that report to NPD BookScan. The game, which is sold separately from the book and distributed by Penguin Random House Publisher Services, was released last July, and Potter currently has 40,000 copies in print. A virtual game night streamed last summer brought authors Amy Bloom and Connie Schultz, then National Book Foundation executive director and current Pantheon and Schocken publisher Lisa Lucas, and former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, to the digital table.
The game was not, Dreyer was quick to note, his idea, but that of his publisher. He and his agent and editor “talked about what might happen next with, as we affectionately refer to them, the paper products people,” he said. After some discussion of doing “a sort of guided journal,” the team landed on the idea of a game. Writing the cards, too, was a collaborative effort, with Dreyer’s friend Jolanta Benal, a professional dog trainer and the author of two titles in Macmillan Publishing’s Quick & Dirty Tips series. “She did a lot of the work to get the voice right for the cards,” Dreyer said. “I said to her afterwards, ‘you actually sound more like me than I do sometimes.’”
Unlike with Papercuts, with which the EL team built its own spin on an existing game idea by plumbing the depths of literary history and riffing on contemporary tales of publishing intrigue, Dreyer and his team had to adapt a style book into a series of amusing questions and answers for a game whose mechanics would be built from scratch. That’s where the Potter team came in: the publisher’s games specialists designed how Stet! would be played, while Dreyer and Benal adapted points from the book into the cards themselves. In the end, the game was divided into grammar questions and style questions, the answers to the former being more cut and dry, and to the latter allowing for more debate.
Dreyer said he enjoyed running the virtual game, and was particularly delighted when Bharara, a fellow grammar lover, agreed to join in. “When Preet was nice enough to have me on his podcast, I think the first question he asked was, ‘pleaded or pled?’” Dreyer recalled. Dreyer’s answer, of course, was “pled, and he high fived me. That’s when I knew we were gonna get along just fine.”
He added that it was rewarding to hear tales of others playing—and potentially creating a new generation of grammarians. “When the game first came out, I remember a few teachers saying, ‘Yeah, I've used this in my class,’” he said. “Then people told me about playing it with their families through lockdown, and people told me that they figured out how to play it online through lockdown. A lot of holding up cards to the camera and things like that.”