I was instantly struck by a talk at The Bookseller Children’s Conference 2021 about the latest buzzword – the metaverse. Nick Walters, managing director of SuperAwesome, delivered an eye-opening presentation, Helping Brands Engage with the Metaverse. This highlighted some of the exciting things we can expect to see in the digital world very soon, and what this means for the publishing and bookselling industries.

So, you might be thinking, what is the metaverse exactly?

Walters describes it as a “digital environment that is immersive, highly social, a place where you have an identity that you care about, and where activities that would once have happened in real life are being recreated digitally.” In game space, we have already seen live events (one was attended by an incredible 15.3 million users on Fortnite) including concerts, movie premieres, libraries, and in-game shops. Ultimately, the metaverse is a space in the virtual realm where “life” takes place.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all had to find ways of adapting to the new normal. Office meetings have migrated over to Zoom, shopping has mostly been conducted through online retailers, and communication with loved ones has taken place virtually. Such technological advances really have been a saving grace in this strange period of history.

Changes to children’s lives have been monumental. With school closures and restrictions on socialising, the ability to connect with others virtually has been vital. This year, my younger sisters experienced feelings of isolation like many others, but luckily, they found solace in online platforms such as Minecraft and Discord. For them, the metaverse allowed for friendships to continue blossoming in an increasingly lonely world.

As Walters explains, the metaverse has also nurtured creativity in children. MinecraftRoblox and Fortnite are some of the major gaming platforms which enable users to interact with virtual and augmented reality, in an “open, independent developer ecosystem”. Players can curate unique experiences, with some platforms even allowing users to create and publish their own content. This generation are increasingly invested in the identity that they represent in the virtual world, which also dictates how they spend their time – and money. In fact, an eye-watering $652million was spent by users in Roblox during Q1 of 2021, through purchases of digital items for avatars.

By now, you might be wondering how all of this directly relates to publishing and bookselling, right?

The metaverse is transforming the way that industries operate. Publishers can now interact with platforms like Roblox by “creating and releasing their own experiences on these platforms”. The ability to self-publish content in established platforms is an innovative way for companies to build brands, boost promotion and sales, increase engagement, and – in the case of publishers – sustain identities of book franchises. Furthermore, this process happens organically in the metaverse – both from a user-led and brand-led standpoint – so this is an exceptional development in consumer culture.

Another topic raised at the Conference by Ailsa Bathgate, editorial director of Barrington Stokewas the impact of the pandemic on children’s reading levels. Interacting with the metaverse can help boost children’s engagement with book franchises through means of imagination and exploration. Children can enjoy stories in a way which privileges the audio-visual, and reading skills progress autonomously through role-playing, communication, and gameplay. As in the case of Erin Hunter’s Warrior Cats, young fans built online communities around the book series via Roblox and Discord, where users could inhabit an immersive world. There have been over 70 million plays since its release two years ago, which goes to show the possibilities for future franchises.

A final word…

For publishers, there is so much potential here and this is an exciting time to be working in the industry. Converging commerce with digital platforms is an incredibly smart business move, as companies can access established fanbases comprised of millions of daily active users. This relationship with the digital world should be one that all publishers seek to foster, particularly while the concept of the metaverse is still nascent. So, if you’ve been intrigued by the idea of this digital cross over, I’d encourage you to take the leap, and get involved. The possibilities of brand-building through the metaverse really are infinite.