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Publishers push into web-toy territory

IT looks like publishers are borrowing a page from toycos that have carved out a new product category with web-connected playthings in the last 18 months. According to industry tracker The NPD Group, the category's US retail sales grew a whopping 350% between July 2007 and July 2008, from US$130 million to US$460 million. NPD toys and video games industry analyst Anita Frazier says a good portion of that growth was driven by breakout category leader Webkinz, but the fact remains that nearly 50% of four- and five-year-olds in the US use a desktop computer, and the average age of a child's first time using one is 5.7. And US publishing giants seem to be keeping these facts in mind as they move forward with new initiatives that incorporate more involved web features.
October 1, 2008

IT looks like publishers are borrowing a page from toycos that have carved out a new product category with web-connected playthings in the last 18 months. According to industry tracker The NPD Group, the category’s US retail sales grew a whopping 350% between July 2007 and July 2008, from US$130 million to US$460 million. NPD toys and video games industry analyst Anita Frazier says a good portion of that growth was driven by breakout category leader Webkinz, but the fact remains that nearly 50% of four- and five-year-olds in the US use a desktop computer, and the average age of a child’s first time using one is 5.7. And US publishing giants seem to be keeping these facts in mind as they move forward with new initiatives that incorporate more involved web features.

New York-based Scholastic, for one, has ambitious multi-platform plans for new property The 39 Clues, which launched just last month. Much of the book series’ retail program will play on the satisfaction that kids get when they enter secret codes embedded in the books to unlock exclusive content online. VP and publisher Suzanne Murphy is hoping that young readers will follow the story of Dan and Amy Cahill as they attempt to solve a mystery by uncovering clues revealed through the books, corresponding trading cards and website. Over the course of the two-year program, kids will be fully engaged to search for the clues online, but they also can’t solve the mystery without reading all the books in the series. And with a US$100,000 mystery-solving cash prize up for grabs in each of the territories where the program is rolling out, there’s even more incentive for kids to get in the game.

Tying books to the web was inevitable as kids continue to seek a more immersive experience, says Murphy. Moreover, when it comes to publishing properties, she adds that kids were already flocking to the web to discover more about their favorite books and authors, and to discuss plotlines. ‘Integrating a web connection into original publishing is another great opportunity to help kids have that sense of being part of something,’ she reasons.

Adding value to a book is hardly a new tactic. As HarperCollins VP and publishing director Emily Brenner notes, books have been packaged with plush for decades. However, she says the prospect of obtaining additional virtual content is a strong driver for kids, and is sometimes perceived as more valuable than an actual physical object. It also benefits retailers as it presents them with a less cluttered in-store statement. And HarperCollins is taking its big 2009 series Bella Sara online for those reasons.

Each book based on the tween girls property will contain a special code in its pages that lets readers receive exclusive e-content to help them decorate their horse stables at BellaSara.com. Since the property’s launch in the US last year, BellaSara.com has attracted more than two million registered users from 240 countries, and Brenner notes that the site and books will be driving traffic back and forth to each other.

The girls won’t get the same images, which will encourage them to seek out exclusive items they don’t have from their friends registered on the site, adds Brenner. To get the program moving, HarperCollins is publishing illustrated novels twice a year starting in January, and will release a sticker book in summer 2009 – both formats will naturally be embellished with glittery covers and fantasy images. Price-points are pegged between US$4.99 and US$12.99, and the program will get a boost at mass-market and book retailers by playing up the exclusive content with displays, sidekicks and POP signage.

Meanwhile, over at Simon & Schuster, Pulse/Aladdin deputy publisher Mara Anastas is using the web to boost its already established Pendragon series. She says that internet elements are becoming an expected component by consumers, much like how extra features on a DVD release are now standard. Anastas says providing these extras doesn’t add significantly to production costs, and S&S’s big pushes like the Pendragon program already have websites.

This series by D.J. MacHale for 10- to 14-year-old boys has an active online fanbase at www.thependragonadventure.com. But to gain some more traction for the release of the 10th Pendragon book on May 12, 2009, S&S is reprinting the previous nine installments, each with a code that will grant readers access to fun extras (special content, opportunity for higher scores) for re-branded online casual games based on a particular title’s themes and action on the same site.

Anastas says it’ll be a viral campaign where kids will likely start swapping codes with each other. It will be promoted at mass and book retailers through POP signage boasting the online game, and cross-promoted through the back-list titles and on the site.

And for girl readers, the company has teamed up with B*tween Productions for a program on www.beanconstreetgirls.com. S&S started releasing Beacon Street Girls titles this fall embedded with codes in the backs of the books that give users MartyMoney to purchase online gifts for their friends in the BSG Club and access to exclusive content on the site. In a cross-promotional effort, the BSG codes will also be included in other Simon & Schuster titles that may attract the same demographic, such as the publisher’s Nancy Drew titles.

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