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Kidlit publishers use celebrity authors to build buyer buzz

As pubcos aim to climb back from a drop-off in kids book sales, many players are betting on celebrity cachet with an author lineup that reads more like the credits of a Hollywood film than the names you'd expect to find in the kids section of your local Barnes & Noble. 'In a market that can be overwhelming because of the sheer amount of publishing, a familiar name and face gives the book buyer--the one who works in the bookstore and your average shopper--something to connect with,' says Brenda Bowen, executive VP and publisher of hardcover books at Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing.
September 1, 2002

As pubcos aim to climb back from a drop-off in kids book sales, many players are betting on celebrity cachet with an author lineup that reads more like the credits of a Hollywood film than the names you’d expect to find in the kids section of your local Barnes & Noble. ‘In a market that can be overwhelming because of the sheer amount of publishing, a familiar name and face gives the book buyer–the one who works in the bookstore and your average shopper–something to connect with,’ says Brenda Bowen, executive VP and publisher of hardcover books at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing.

And publishers dearly need to make a consumer connection these days. According to industry trade organization The Book Industry Study Group, U.S. publishers’ sell-in for juvenile book sales fell 7.1% in 2001, well below the 0.1% dip that the total industry experienced during the same period. Worse still, BISG executive director Frank Daly projects the category’s sales (which he says track closely to retail sell-through figures) to plummet another 3.5% in 2002. ‘To a large extent, the juvenile market is driven by event books, and when you don’t have a US$100-million title like a Harry Potter in circulation, it affects sales,’ says Daly.

Hoping to reverse that downward sales trend, this year’s crop of celebrity books will span the talent pool to include titles from musicians, actors and screenwriters.

Aiming to tune into kids’ musical interests, Scholastic is launching HipKidHop, a new picture book series written by various hip hop artists that’s designed to teach life lessons. The first two books–And the Winner Is… by L.L. Cool J, about a basketball player who learns the value of good sportsmanship; and Think Again by Doug E. Fresh, a story that deals with two school kids overcoming race differences–hit stores last month.

With the series, Scholastic is clearly trying to capitalize on the immense popularity of the urban music genre with kids–especially the eight- to 12-year-olds who make up the largest segment of hip hop music consumers, says Scholastic senior editor Liza Baker. All of the HipKidHop books will feature a CD containing an exclusive single from the artist/author, as well as an instrumental version of the same song so that kids can rap along with the story. Scholastic plans to release two HKH books per season, with the next pair set to hit in the spring. The second wave will include a book called Hope by reggae-rapper Shaggy, about a boy and his mother struggling against the blight of inner-city poverty.

For the more comedic palate, last month Scholastic unleashed McGrowl: Beware of Dog, the first book in a new series penned by Bob Balaban, the Gosford Park co-producer who’s better known for his nebbishy bit parts, like the NBC executive he played on TV’s Seinfeld. The series is about a bionic dog and a young boy who try to fight evil in the town of Cedar Springs.

Scholastic is supporting the six-book series with print and radio ads, as well as coordinating in-store events in L.A. and New York this fall. According to Baker, Balaban has already begun writing a screenplay based on McGrowl, and although Miramax has a first-look option on the rights, if the studio passes on the project, Scholastic is interested in pursuing it.

Counting these two new series, Scholastic will have released books by seven celebrity authors over the next 12 months, compared to the one title that it put out in 2001. Baker says that release–Will Smith’s Just the Two of Us–drew positive reviews, but modest sales. However, she insists the increase in celebrity titles is not indicative of an overall strategy that Scholastic is pursuing. ‘We’re not going to do a book just because a high-named celebrity wants to. We select a property based on how well we feel it will translate to kids,’ says Baker.

Simon & Schuster has also girded its roster of celebrity books, with plans to publish five such titles this fall, an 80% increase over last year. Kicking off the new slate will be Micawber, the third picture book from actor John Lithgow that follows the life of a high-brow squirrel who decides to open his own art gallery in Central Park. The book, which is aimed at kids five to eight, will also come with a CD of Lithgow reading from the text.

Sticking to the rodent theme, Nibbles and Me by Elizabeth Taylor charts the friendship the actor developed as a teen with a chipmunk while working on the MGM Lot. Originally released in 1946, the book has been out of print for more than 50 years. Simon & Schuster is dusting it off this October to coincide with the release of Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry, another book by the star that the company’s adult imprint will publish in the same month.

Also in October, S&S will follow up with Deaf Child Crossing, a novel penned by actor Marlee Matlin that documents a young deaf girl’s struggle to stay friends with her best pal while she’s away at summer camp. The novel, which is loosely based on Matlin’s life, is geared to middle-grade readers. In the same month, S&S plans to release A Journey: The Autobiography of Apolo Anton Ohno, a stride-by-stride account of the U.S. speed skater’s reach for Olympic gold.

November will see S&S launch Please, Baby, Please, a picture book co-authored by filmmaker Spike Lee and his wife Tonya Lewis. Taken from a line in Lee’s movie She’s Gotta Have It, the title features two parents gently imploring their child to do the right thing through a series of rhyming directives.

While it’s tempting for publishers to sign celebrities purely based on their ability to catch a book buyer’s attention, there’s always the danger that they’ll get stuck with a vanity project that doesn’t generate the level of word-of-mouth buzz every book launch needs, says Beverly Horowitz, a VP and publisher at Random House.

To try and minimize that risk, Random House is publishing kids books by well-known adult authors, including Carl Hiaasen (Sick Puppy) and Julia Alvarez (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents).

Set in the Florida everglades, Hiaasen’s Hoot features all of the quirky characters (minus the cussing) and outlandish premises for which the author is famous. Aimed at kids 10 and up, the book’s story line concerns the efforts of a runaway (Mullet Fingers) and his friend Roy to save an owl habitat from developers who want to build a pancake house on top of it. Random will release Hoot this month and is planning a national publicity tour.

Set further south in the Dominican Republic, Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez is a semi-autobiographical book about a 12-year-old girl growing up on the island while living under a ruthless dictatorship that threatens the lives of her family and relatives. Random House will support the title with a five-city tour by the author, which kicks off this October.

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