The word from Book Expo: Publishers bullish on book market

In the world of children's publishing, the model of new millennium success seems to be one of familiarity-give `em more of what they already know. 'We're very much a brand-name society,' says Randi Reisfeld, Scholastic's senior manager of licensing and media...
July 1, 2000

In the world of children’s publishing, the model of new millennium success seems to be one of familiarity-give `em more of what they already know. ‘We’re very much a brand-name society,’ says Randi Reisfeld, Scholastic’s senior manager of licensing and media for trade paperbacks. ‘So having books that are branded, that have a connection with something kids already know, is a good thing.’ Reisfeld notes that while branding ‘was always there and will always be there,’ it’s taken on additional significance now that publishing, broadcasting, film and the Internet are so entwined. The upside, she adds, is that ‘books that are branded may be getting a group of kids to read who normally wouldn’t pick up a book. If you are a fan of Scooby-Doo and see a Scooby Original Mystery book, it makes reading a more fun experience, especially for kids who might not normally be apt to pick up a book in the first place.’

Certainly, the increase in the number of licensed properties is a reflection of this growing trend. A representative for Random House, which has titles from its deal with CTW and which will soon be publishing a line of Disney books, estimates that 20% of the publisher’s properties are now based on licensed properties. Simon & Schuster has established Simon Spotlight, an imprint that deals exclusively with such titles, while Scholastic’s Reisfeld estimates almost half of her company’s titles are based on other kids properties. ‘We’re at 45%, and that’s high. That’s certainly an increase over previous years and I see that as a trend that will continue.’

Among those licensed properties doing well for Scholastic is Cartoon Network import The Powerpuff Girls. ‘We were on very early to that property, and the potential of that line has yet to be tapped,’ says Reisfeld.

However necessary branded properties are, publishers also need to establish their own hot kid properties. Some of the buzz at this year’s BEA centered around Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass (Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers), an October release that one publisher refers to as ‘the thinking kid’s Harry Potter.’ The Amber Spyglass is the third in the His Dark Materials fantasy series, which is about a magical universe where everyone has a personal demon-the manifestation of their soul in animal form. Random House believes the third book will be the breakthrough title of the series and is expecting sales of the first two titles, The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, to enjoy a bump in sales.

Also generating lots of interest was Simon & Schuster’s Olivia, to be released under the Atheneum Books for Young Readers Imprint. Written and illustrated by first-time author Ian Falconer, a set-designer and magazine illustrator, Olivia is the publisher’s great porcine hope for multimedia stardom. Thanks to the previews of Olivia at Bologna and Frankfurt last year, S&S already has nine co-editions prior to the book’s publication, which Tracy van Straaten, associate director publicity for children’s books, refers to as ‘unbelievable. We really believe it’s the beginning of a franchise.’ S&S’s The Remarkable Farkle McBride, the first kids book written by actor John Lithgow (illustrated by C. F. Payne), is another original title that has breakthrough potential. Van Straaten said celeb authors always attract interest, but often people are skeptical about the quality, adding that at BEA buyers were surprised-in a good way-by Lithgow’s lyrical prose about a musical prodigy. Lithgow is doing spokesperson work for VH1′s Save the Music campaign; an orchestral piece was written to accompany the book and Lithgow is making symphony appearances.

Scholastic also has a new title based on the Cardcaptors anime series from Kodansha that’s drawing attention. The story is about an everyday young girl who, along with a male friend, has to save the world from spirits that have been released from a magical deck of cards. Nelvana, which acquired North American distribution, home video and merchandising rights for 70 half hours of the 2-D series, secured a U.S. debut for the show this fall on Kids’ WB!, and Scholastic will have a major launch of the books in six to 10 months. Scholastic’s Reisfeld says the company believes Cardcaptors has the potential to be the next Pokémon.

Scholastic also used Book Expo to promote three recently launched new mass-market series: The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes by Anne Mazer, due out this month, introduces Abby Hayes, a fifth-grader unsure of where she fits in; Garth Nix’s The Seventh Tower, which was created in conjunction with Lucasfilm (April debut); and Heartland, Lauren Brooke’s series about a young girl who possesses a unique ability to communicate with horses, which launched last month. For the younger set, two new Clifford books, Clifford Visits the Hospital and Clifford’s Schoolhouse, will be released in conjunction with the new Clifford animated series for PBS, which debuts this fall.

Chronicle Books dusted off one of the best-known and longest-running brands with a new line spotlighting Gumby and Pokey. Expected in the fall are several titles, including Gumby’s Circus (which comes with a doll) and the foam-covered concept board books Gumby’s Colors and Pokey Counts.

Also being touted under the Chronicle banner was North-Star’s new imprint SeaStar, which showcased the fall titles Give a Dog a Bone by Steven Kellog and Robin Jarvis’s fantasy tome The Dark Portal, the first of a planned trilogy.

Little-Brown showed its commitment to the children’s arena by previewing its new kids imprint Megan Tingley Books, which launches in September with Laura Hulisk-Beith’s The Book of Bad Ideas and two by Todd Parr: Underwear Do’s and Don’ts and The Feelings Book. Other titles set for fall release include: Toot & Puddle: Puddle’s ABC by Holly Hobbie; I Love You Like Crazy Cakes, written by Rose A. Lewis and illustrated by Jane Dyer; and Edward Fudwupper Fibbed Big, a new title from Berkeley Breathed. On a licensing note, the latter book is being turned into an animated short that will be playing with Rugrats in Paris: The Movie when it is released later this year. However, it was Simon & Schuster that snagged publishing rights to all the tie-in Rugrats in Paris books.

S&S’s Van Straaten also noted that there was an increased interest in YA titles geared toward older youth. ‘There’s a trend now to acknowledge there’s an older, grittier, edgier teen reader-the 16-, 17- and 18-year-old-who is much more sophisticated. They’re not new; the genre has been there for 20 years. It’s just the recognition is finally happening.’ That spotlight was underscored in 2000 when the American Library Association established the Michael L. Prince Award for teen books. Van Straaten now says that many bookstores are experimenting with teen sections, and she expects teen books to increasingly take a place center stage in the Book Expos to come. Especially because, she believes, ‘some of the best writing today is in these books. And adults don’t read them, which is too bad. If The Catcher in the Rye was published today, it would be a YA book-and because of that designation, wouldn’t have much readership.’

Over at Pleasant Company, a new American Girl book line was being touted starring the character Kit Kittredge, a young girl who grows up during the 1930s. The first titles in this line will be Meet Kit, Kit Learns a Lesson and Kit’s Surprise, all three of which are scheduled for a September release. Pleasant Company was also showcasing a September release of an Angelina Ballerina book, after licensing the publishing and merchandising rights from HIT Entertainment. In addition, Pleasant Company will rerelease five of the nine backlisted titles, hoping to capitalize on Angelina Ballerina’s debut as an animated series in 2001. All the Angelina Ballerina books are written by Katherine Holabird and illustrated by Helen Craig. Pleasant Company is also trying to expand its reach with another new series set to debut in September, this one aimed at boys: Matchbox Books. Each title will come packaged with a Matchbox car.

Lyrick Publishing is bringing back two of its most successful brands. In July, a new Tales of a Pup Wishbone mass-market series will launch, the first titles being Wishbone and the Glass Slipper and Wishbone and the Forty Thieves. Barney also appears in a new series called Babies & Barney, with Hooray for Babies the first title. In addition, Lyrick used Book Expo to announce two new projects. The first is Suzy Spafford’s board book series Little Suzy’s Zoo, and the second is a series starring characters licensed from Humongous Entertainment’s line of CD-ROMS.

Abrams’ introduced two new Hello Kitty books, Hello Kitty: The Girl, The Story, The Book and Hello Kitty, Hello World. The publisher also has plans to launch series based on other characters licensed from Japan’s Sanrio.

This year, the larger publishers were unanimous in their belief that the children’s market was stronger than ever, and the mood at the smaller publishers was just as bullish. While much less reliant on branded properties, the smaller houses found continued strength in their originality and production values.

Upstart publisher Maher & Maher presented its Mario’s Pizza Deliveries series, which has 10 educational titles featuring a pizza deliveryman and his sidekicks. This is an original creation self-published by the Maher brothers (based in Michigan and California), nothing to do with Nintendo’s Mario. The books are packaged with follow-along CD-ROMS. Mario has been optioned by former Simpsons producer Phil Roman for an animated series slated to debut in the fall of 2001. The voice talent who does Mario on the CDs, a friend of Roman’s, turned him on to the books, and Roman had them come up with additional characters for the proposed TV series, which the Mahers will now incorporate in future books.

Royal Fireworks Press previewed a new science-fiction series aimed at teens, Tom Townsend’s The Fairy Ring, while California newcomer Seven Locks Press touted its Papa and Noelle picture book series by Victor Hahn-Frank the Frogasaurus Meets T-Rex in the Forest, which is already available, and the third title, Frank the Friendly Frogasaurus Has a Bad Day at School, due out in September.

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