Capitalizing on the TV and film interest in book properties

From optioning book rights to developing spin-off books when a property makes it to TV or film, children's book publishers are finding ways to reap the benefits of media crossovers....
April 1, 1999

From optioning book rights to developing spin-off books when a property makes it to TV or film, children’s book publishers are finding ways to reap the benefits of media crossovers.

Staunch bibliophiles might argue that the birth and eventual mass popularity of television would spell the end of books, but nothing could be further from the truth. (This year, overall sales of children’s books are projected to increase by five billion units-a gain of 11%-and are expected to grow another 17.5% over the next three years, according to a report that ran in Publishers Weekly last February.)

In fact, for publishers of kids books, TV has been a promotional boon. Channel surf from this kids cable channel to that kids programming block, and you can’t avoid stumbling upon a TV show that’s been adapted from a kids book or book series. Take your pick-HBO Family (Paddington Bear, Dear America), Nickelodeon (Little Bear, Franklin, Animorphs), CBS’s Saturday morning lineup (The Dumb Bunnies, Anatole, Flying Rhino Junior High and Mythic Warriors: Guardians of the Legend), PBS (Arthur)-each airs its fair share of shows that are based on book properties.

TV prodcos and multimedia companies are going a step further, trying to eliminate the guesswork that accompanies trolling for kids books by purchasing pubcos outright. In July, Montreal-based multimedia prodco Cinar acquired educational kids publisher HighReach Learning. In September, Toronto-based animation house Nelvana followed suit, purchasing pubco Kids Can Press, also headquartered in Toronto, which puts out the Franklin book series. Both join an ever-expanding list of entertainment conglomerates that count pubcos with kids book divisions among their holdings, including Viacom (Simon & Schuster), Bertelsmann AG (Random House) and Pearson (Penguin). London-based film and TV producer HIT Entertainment, which bought a 40% stake in ABC Publishing last year, recently entered into negotiations to purchase the complete catalog of the now-defunct ABC from parent company Ludgate 151, sources say. The 1998 deal included, among other properties, partial rights to kids favorite book series Angelina Ballerina. Last month, it struck a deal with Angelina author Katharine Holabird and illustrator Helen Craig granting HIT control of all publishing, film, TV and merchandising rights, according to Ingrid Selberg, managing director of HIT Publishing. To Selberg, HIT’s plan to get into the publishing biz is all about positioning itself in the new entertainment universe. ‘As film and TV production companies transform into bigger and bigger multimedia publishing companies, less and less rights will be available to small companies, whether they are licensing companies or television production companies,’ says Selberg.

Jane O’Connor, president of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, Mass Merchandise Group, attributes intense TV interest in kids books to the wealth of talented writers who are choosing to work in the genre. But just what’s driving the growth in TV translations of kids books may have more to do with the realities of the television market.

‘The television marketplace is so fragmented and so glutted that people are looking for things with a preestablished recognition factor. Broadcasters, in particular, are more receptive to a property that has a proven track record in another medium than a property that has never had any exposure,’ says Deborah Forte, executive VP of Scholastic Inc. and division head of Scholastic Entertainment in New York.

Nearly all of Scholastic’s productions are based on book series-Goosebumps, Animorphs and Dear America, for example-that were put out originally by its publishing division, Scholastic Books. Forte says her department is not obligated to option the TV rights for Scholastic-owned book properties, and has in the past purchased the film rights to properties, such as The Indian in the Cupboard (from author Lynne Reid Banks) and Stellaluna (from author Janell Cannon), that were not Scholastic publishing properties. But an offshoot of the production arm optioning Scholastic kids books, says Forte, has been to bolster the company’s publishing business.

Once a prodco has optioned the TV rights for a book, a publisher may or may not experience an immediate financial windfall, depending on who retains the television rights. Today, more commonly, authors, illustrators and their agents are choosing to hold on to these rights, ‘which is the way it should be,’ says Kate Morgan Jackson, senior VP, associate publisher and editor-in-chief of New York-based HarperCollins, children’s books. Nonetheless, pubcos can still capitalize on a TV deal.

Assessing the promotional value of a TV deal

Once a publishing property has made the leap from the page to the TV screen, the result often leads to a major spike in book sales. For the three-month period covering August to October 1995-which led up to and followed the September debut of the TV series Goosebumps on Fox-monthly sales of Goosebumps books more than doubled from 2.0 million to 4.2 million. Though not as impressive, according to Jean Feiwell, editor-in-chief of the Scholastic Book Group in New York, Scholastic has seen a major increase in all Animorphs books since the show premiered on Nickelodeon last September.

The added boost in book sales that a television show provides is by no means a recent phenomenon, though, nor is it restricted to television. A year after the The Little House on the Prairie began airing on U.S. television in the early 1970s, sales of the books skyrockected 250% and have yet to fall back to pre-TV show levels, says HarperCollins’ Morgan Jackson. HarperCollins enjoyed comparable sales increases of its book Harriet the Spy after Paramount Pictures released the film into theaters in 1996.

Having witnessed the sales effects on books of both movie and TV adaptations, given the choice, Morgan Jackson prefers television. ‘A movie is very big, very dramatic, but the sales buzz is very short-lived; a television show, when you have one that is very successful, is sustained. I don’t think we’ve seen the full benefit of The Little House on the Prairie TV show,’ says Morgan Jackson. (She may yet-Universal Studios is working on a feature film based on Little House, which is scheduled for release in the next two years.) Whether a feature film or TV show, it’s important for publishers to exploit the popularity of the resulting adaptation while it is at its zenith in popularity.

Cashing in on the film or TV show

Publishers can draw immediate benefits from simply using cover art from the movie or TV show on a book or book series. For the movie release of Harriet, HarperCollins published books with the film’s most recognizable star, Rosie O’Donnell, on the cover.

‘There had been a steady market for Harriet the Spy before the movie came out for people who were buying it for their children and who knew it first and foremost as a book. But when you put tie-in art on the cover, there’s a secondary audience that you pull in who has seen the movie or the trailers and recognizes the cover and says, `Oh, that’s Rosie O’Donnell,’ and they buy the book for that reason,’ says Morgan Jackson. ‘That’s why you’re getting the enormous increase in book sales, which generally happens when the movie is in release or during the six-month window while it’s in release and moving toward video.’

It’s also the reason why the more nontraditional retailers will suddenly start carrying the books. ‘Our major accounts, when a book is just a book, are the retail trade-Barnes & Noble, Borders and independent bookstores, for example. When there’s media attached to a title, it’s much easier to get the books into mass merchandisers, like Wal-Mart and Target, grocery chains and variety stores,’ adds Morgan Jackson.

Kids Can Press found eager partners in Black’s, a chain of photo-developing stores, and Blockbuster Video, which were willing to distribute its line of Franklin books in Canada. The agreement with Black’s during holiday 1997 and holiday 1998 included a cross-promotion, which saw the retailer donate Cdn$1 from the sale of every Franklin book to a national kids charity. The Blockbuster tie-in took place in spring 1998. Barbara Howson, director of sales and marketing at Kids Can Press, says both deals wouldn’t have happened without the exposure the book series had received from the Nelvana-produced Franklin TV show, which has been airing on Canadian kids cabler The Family Channel since November 1997. Howson is hoping for similar retailer res-

ponse for its Elliot Moose series of books when the show, which is also being produced by Nelvana, begins airing on provincial public broadcaster TVO in Canada in the fall.

Beyond using media tie-in art to drive sales, publishers have taken to creating spin-off book series as way to drive up revenues and to extend the life of a book franchise. HarperCollins is producing six titles based on E.B. White’s original Stuart Little book. The books, which include two 8 x 8 paper overboard storybooks, three easy readers and a search-and-find book, will be released next October, six weeks before Sony’s Stuart Little movie hits theaters. Penguin Putnam’s O’Connor is currently looking at ways to create a spin-off series from Rosemary Well’s Max and Ruby books, which are published by Dial, another Penguin-owned imprint. The Max and Ruby book property is being developed into a TV show by Nelvana, with Silver Lining Productions in London as executive VP, and will hit TV in the fall of 2000.

Though creating a spin-off book series is far from being contingent upon having a TV or film component, O’Connor says it helps. ‘It’s easier in the sense that there are usually so many stories out there, so you get to see where the characters have traveled in a different medium, and maybe there are books that can be done,’ says O’Connor.

So, with the obvious benefits that come with TV and film adaptations, are publishers only looking for manuscripts that have the potential to translate into other media? O’Connor says no. ‘When we’re starting a new series, we have to be really certain that these books first and foremost fill a marketplace need in the book world, because you just never know which ones will get made and which ones won’t,’ says O’Connor. Overall, she believes the TV and film interest in books is a plus for the kids publishing business, insofar as the added media attention is encouraging kids to read. HarperCollins’s Morgan Jackson is less certain of the attributes.

‘There’s a finite amount of space in the children’s section of any given bookstore, and more and more, the regular trade books are being crowded out by Blue’s Clues, Rugrats, Disney and the movie tie-ins we do. As a result, there are some great books that aren’t getting the attention they deserve at retail, because the buyers have a limited budget, and they’re going for the media tie-in, which is safer than taking a chance on somebody’s first book,’ says Morgan Jackson. ‘If you have the Stuart Little license, then you’re happy; if you don’t, then there’s just less space on the shelf.’

For more book-related stories in this issue, turn to ‘Kids embrace reading in a digital age’ on page 62 and, in North American editions, ‘Getting boys to read’ on page R1 and publishing briefs on page R4 (searchable at

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