Pubcos pick top spin-off contenders

So in the interest of saving TV and film development execs a few trips to the local Barnes & Noble, 'Hot publishing properties' reveals a sneak preview of titles chosen by publishers around the world for their high spin-off potential....
April 1, 2000

So in the interest of saving TV and film development execs a few trips to the local Barnes & Noble, ‘Hot publishing properties’ reveals a sneak preview of titles chosen by publishers around the world for their high spin-off potential.

Then, ‘Anatomy of the book deal’ (page 122) looks at the next step, the optioning deal, with case studies exposing how such deals are being structured.

With the Harry Potter hype in full force following recently inked deals with Warner Bros. for two features and a massive merch program, publishers the world over are looking for a new literary hit of Potter-esque proportions. While it’s doubtful that another kids book will take the world by storm on such a scale any time soon, pubcos are still filling their summer and fall release schedules with books they feel have solid TV or film potential. The new offerings range from the absurd (a girl who has the plaid, rather than Midas, touch) to the curious (a school for kid angels, ducks who live in the country of nonsense) to the downright morbid (a baby-shaking murder).

Following the success of the neurotic ramblings of 30-something angst queen Bridget Jones, several publishing houses are offering up teen or tween journal-style books. The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes, by Anne Mazer, is a new six-book series from Scholastic with good optioning potential, says Craig Walker, VP editorial, director of media and trade paperbacks. Mazer is a well-known young adult author, but this series, based on a girl with three öber-siblings (perfect older twin sisters and a genius little brother) aims for ages eight to 12. The first book in the series, Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining, is a journal-style account of Abby’s discovery that she may not be as ordinary as she feared because she has a unique talent for writing. Adding to the cool-quotient is the fact that the book is illustrated by Monica Gesue, illustrator of the Why Me? column in Teen magazine.

‘Like Bridget, Abby is always coming up with a plan,’ says Walker. ‘The series is about girls who think they can change themselves.’ The books will retail in North America for US$4.50 each to start, and several promotions are planned for the July 2000 launch.

Heartland, by British author Lauren Brooke, is another series featuring a girl narrator that Walker says has spin-off potential. The series centers around a girl coming to grips with running a ranch with her grandfather and older sister after her mother dies and her father leaves. The books present readers ages eight to 12 with a girl’s extraordinary ability to heal horses and, eventually, herself. The first title, Coming Home (130 pages), will be available across the U.S. in June 2000. Promotions may include freebie ‘power bead’ bracelets with book purchase. Walker says the books have promise for either the big or small screen because ‘it’s a very dramatic story. It’s cinematic in the way the Horse Whisperer is exciting, but it’s for girls.’

Next up from Scholastic is Pixie Tricks, a series for girls ages six to eight by Tracey West. These stories are about a girl who befriends a pixie named Sprite and enters the mischievous world of pixies, fairies and gnomes. Each book features pixie mischief like stealing socks or making video games impossible to win. The first two books, Sprite’s Secret and The Greedy Gremlin, hit stores in May. Walker says the interaction between the fairy world and the human world (think Midsummer Night’s Dream) makes the story suitable for either animated or live-action series.

At HarperCollins, the focus is on books with quirky, fun qualities for young kids, says Virginia Anagnos, publicity director for Harper Children’s Books. On the downright wacky side of things, Jill McElmurry’s first picture book, Mad About Plaid (40 pages), tells the story of young Madison Pratt and her Midas touch with a twist: Everything she touches turns to plaid. Anagnos says the magic is the key to Plaid’s appeal, and she sees potential for an animated spin-off. Plaid buttons are planned to promote the title, which hits stores this month for kids ages five to 10 with a US$14.95 SRP. HarperCollins has worldwide rights to the book except in the U.K. and British Commonwealth.

Adventure series continue to be popular for both girl and boy mid-grade books this year, as is evident with The Wanderer by Sharon Creech, also from HarperCollins. The Newbery Medal-winning author wrote a story closely mirroring her daughter’s travel adventures. The story is about a girl and her three uncles, two brothers and two cousins traveling together in a sailboat bound for England, who are hit by a killer storm. Anagnos says the book would lend itself well to a dramatic film built around the family dynamics on the boat in the face of danger and adventure. The 288-page book is available this month for a mass audience and HarperCollins has worldwide rights except in the U.K. and British Commonwealth. The author will be making limited bookstore appearances, and planned promotional items include a bookmark and study guide.

Also in the pulse-racing genre, but this time following the travels of boys and men, is Antarctica, a two-book, 256-page series by Peter Lerangis with cover illustrations by Phil Heffernan. To be published this June by Scholastic Paperbacks, the first book, Journey to the Pole (US$4.50), describes a 1909 Antarctic expedition of an explorer, his teen son, his stepson and the nephew of the trip’s wealthy sponsor. Escape from Disaster, the second book (US$4.50), continues the story, with all the protagonists risking their lives in the icy environment. Scholastic is targeting the nine to 12 set, and sees Antarctica garnering interest from production companies because it’s a strong adventure series for boys with history and action.

Munich, Germany’s Egmont Franz Schneider Verlag also has several top picks for the boy genre, but they’re more of the dragon-slaying variety. A series called Drachenherz (Dragon Sword), about the courageous Leon who solves problems with his sword and other magical tools, will roll out its first four titles in Germany this month. The series aims for a tween audience and is written by Thomas Brezina and illustrated by Dieter Kröger. The first book, Fight for the Dragon Sword, is 144 pages long, and subsequent titles will be of comparable length. Each of the titles in the series contains gimmicks, such as a plastic sword that must be placed on the book to read certain questions and get the correct answers. The books also come with paper disk ‘power point’ counting devices that keep track of whether the reader loses or gains power through the choices he makes in the book. Subsequent books will contain other gimmicks like puzzles. The next batch of titles comes out in October, and all are retailing for just over US$9 each.

Ulrike Schuldes, outgoing editor of the girls book program (Schuldes left the position last month), says these books have good merchandising potential because the instruments the character uses will have wide appeal with boys. Schuldes adds that these books are good candidates to spin off a series or film due the popularity of the author, who has already published several other successful series (like Tiger Team) and worked on TV shows for children. The books will be available at mass market and are to be supported by print advertising in kids magazines, promotions and road shows with Brezina.

Also quacking from shelves is the Nonsense Duck series (Hier kommt die Ente Quatsch). A batch of four 48-page books came out in January, and another batch of two titles will be available this June. The five-and-up reader series is about a duck who lives in a nonsense world but understands the world of children. He sets out to teach his fellow duck friends the ways of humans, with hilarious results. The series’ author, Bernhard Lassahn, was the creator of the Kapt’n Blaubar stories that spawned a German television series and feature film. Egmont Verlag has German-speaking territory rights and plans to sell the series to foreign territories as well. Marketing plans are similar to those for the Drachenherz series. Schuldes says the book series has already been a hit with kids, and the characters have high merchandising potential in Germany.

Egmont Franz Schneider Verlag has also recently developed a young adult imprint called PepperMind, which will feature rather morbid teen tales of blackmail and murder.

Both Penguin Putnam and Simon & Schuster are flagging books built around four-legged creatures for studio interest: Frogs, pigs and mice star in new series the publishers hope will be coming to a television screen near you.

Penguin Putnam’s Tim Moses, director of publicity, says the Froggy series, which debuted in 1992 with Froggy Gets Dressed, continues to be a hot seller among the two to five crowd. The 30-page picture books, written by Jonathan London and illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz, are available in the U.S. and Canada, and the latest installment, Froggy’s First Christmas, is due out this fall.

‘It has such a broad appeal; Froggy is every little boy and girl, with the same concerns and the same anxieties about dealing with the wider world,’ says Moses. Promotions surrounding the fall title include a promotional activity kit, a Froggy costume for appearances and a holiday sticker sheet. The Internet is also being used to launch a Froggy micro-Web site. Moses says Froggy has great potential for optioning because he’s a critter not limited to a particular race or demo.

Continuing in the barnyard vein, Simon & Schuster’s Olivia is a story book by Ian Falconer about a little girl pig who does amazing things like attending a ballet, going to a museum and trying her own hand (foot?) at artwork. Aimed at kids ages three to seven, the picture books are drawn and written by Falconer, who is also a cartoonist for the New Yorker. An editor at S&S who admired his work asked him to write the 32-page book, which will be released this August in North America and the U.K. with an SRP of US$17. Planned promotions include Olivia postcards.

Toby, a series of four books for one- to five-year-olds, is yet another mammalian offering from S&S. Cindy Szekeres wrote and illustrated the books, which launch next month with Toby’s Alphabet Walk, Toby’s Rainbow Clothes and Toby’s Silly Faces. Starring a curious little mouse, each book guides its protagonist through a new learning experience. In the Rainbow book, for example, Toby learns his colors through clothing choices. The books will retail with an SRP of US$6.99 each in the U.S. and Canada. A no-spill Toby cup is being developed for promotions along with a giant billboard in Times Square.

The only human kid in the S&S offerings is a musical genius named Farkle McBride, created by actor John Lithgow of Third Rock from the Sun fame. Illustrated by C.F. Payne, Lithgow’s book is about a young boy who learns to play all kinds of instruments and eventually has to conduct an entire orchestra by himself when the leader falls ill. The 40-page book is due out this fall in the U.S. and Canada with an SRP of US$6.99 and is aimed at the four to eight demo.

Carol Roeder, VP of subrights and international marketing at S&S, says the book should have appeal that ranges into the adult demo because of its author’s fame, adding that interest from producers is a possibility because of its rhyming humor. Promotions might include a live event at the Lincoln Center and TV and radio tours with Lithgow.

Somewhat surprisingly, many of this year’s mid-grade offerings from publishers such as Egmont Verlag and S&S deal with weighty issues. Dovey Coe, by Frances O’Roark Dowell, centers around a 12-year-old accused of murdering her older sister’s boyfriend and her subsequent efforts to gain the trust and help of a big-city lawyer. Silent to the Bone, by Newbery Honor-winner E.L. Konigsburg, describes the plight of a young boy who is wrongly blamed for the baby-shaking death of his half-sister. Heady subjects for 10- to 14-year-olds, but according to Roeder, the likes of the feisty heroine trying to prove her innocence in Dovey Coe hasn’t been seen since Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, and will prove popular with young readers. She describes Bone as a ‘haunting look at child care.’

Often what resonates most with young adult readers are books that are told from their point of view or by someone their age. At Random House U.S., 15-year-old Amelia Atwater-Rhodes is coming out with her second book, the Gothic Demon in my View (SRP US$9.95, 224 pages) next month. The young author has made waves in the U.S. publishing world, having written her first novel, In the Forests of the Night, when she was only 13 (it was published last May). Like her first book, Demon is aimed at kids ages 12 and up and will be released in Canada and the U.S. Atwater-Rhodes has a high Q score for a children’s author, and has appeared in Teen People and on the Rosie O’Donnell Show. Judith Haut, director of publicity for Random House Children’s Books, says the book has definite option appeal because Atwater-Rhodes ‘writes about being a teen, but not like a teen. She’s created a whole world of vampires.’ Haut points to the ongoing popularity of the Buffy series, saying that Random House is interested in selling the rights for a TV series.

Also in the ‘sleepless nights’ vein, Parachute Press is publishing a new tween series in September 2000 by acclaimed Goosebumps author R.L. Stine called The Nightmare Room. Susan Kopf, senior VP of Parachute Publishing, says the books will appeal to kids because they create ‘a modern Twilight Zone series for kids, one step beyond reality.’ For example, in the first book, Don’t Forget Me!, a boy sees someone who looks exactly like himself and confusion and eerieness ensue. The books will be published in the U.S. by Parachute, but distributed by HarperCollins. Each 200-page book is aimed at the nine to 14 set, with promos including on-line chats with Stine in the ‘Nightmare Room Club.’

Random House U.K. is confident that the Angel Academy series by Kate Tym is a good TV series bet for the younger set. The first two books, Angels Underway and Angels Down Below, will be released in July and feature colorful angel characters Colin, Mo and Ronnie, who have to take exams to get their wings and then head down to earth to make themselves helpful to earthly kids. Camilla Shestopal, licensing director for RH Children’s Books U.K., says the books have attractive kid-gimmicks like a ‘cool room’ (where the angels hang out on earth) that would make for an appealing TV series for the six to nine set. She describes Tym’s series as ‘a unique idea with a bit of naughtiness.’ Each book is 64 pages long and retails for about US$4.80. The series will be supported by print ads in U.K. national and kid publications.

Road to Reading, a leveled reader series from Golden Books, is coming out with two titles by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack targeting kids ages seven to nine with stories about an African American kid and his friends. The first one, Miami Gets it Straight, (89 pages, streets this month) has president Stephen Weitzen enthusiastic about potential option rights interest.

Lori Haskins, editorial director of Golden Books, says the book will appeal to kids because along with the male lead, there’s a strong female character and a wonderful story that, although it has a multicultural undercurrent, doesn’t fall into stereotypical violence or poverty. ‘Miami and his friends deal with more modest problems. But this is no sanitized Mayberry,’ she says. ‘These characters talk and act like real kids and deal with issues of race and gender in a frank, realistic way.’ The books, illustrated by Michael Chesworth, will be available at all channels including mass, trade and specialty in the U.S. and Canada. The second (still untitled) book is slated for a 2001 launch. Haskins adds that Patricia already has a good reputation thanks to her Newbery Honor-winning kids book The Dark Thirty.

Although many of this year’s books have TV or merchandising potential, with some already garnering interest from producers, no one’s betting that any will reach the success of Harry Potter. According to Weitzen, although publishers always have their ear to the ground for ‘what’s next,’ a phenomenon like Potter is rare magic.

He says the sizzling breakaways need to have the multilayered depth that made Harry Potter such a success and enabled the property to translate into everything from toys by Tiger Electronics to what is poised to be box-office success. ‘After Harry Potter, I don’t see much on the horizon,’ he concludes. ‘There was Power Rangers and before that, the Ninja Turtles, but this is so much larger than that.’

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