'Fang' Is a Book Character. And Even He Has a Blog
A blown knee, an injured ankle and a couch. What started as a chance encounter between a movie producer and a children's book author—both nursing injuries while at a brunch hosted by a mutual friend—has turned into a cross-media franchise to promote the recently published children's book "The Black Belt Club." The happenstance meeting led the people behind the book down a path with other savvy publishing companies engaging in a new wave of audience-building, sales-enhancing efforts that utilize multiple media.
Michel Shane, co-president of Hand Picked Films Inc. in Los Angeles, had injured his knee while skiing. Dawn Barnes, karate-guru-turned-author, had injured her ankle. The pair ended up on the same couch during brunch and started talking about Barnes' new book series.
"The Black Belt Club," published by Scholastic Inc. in New York, is a cross between a comic book and children's literature. Illustrations are integrated with the story, which is about four children of diverse backgrounds who teleport to different worlds. It emphasizes teamwork, cultural awareness and the importance of ancient history. The book is illustrated by Bernard Chang, whose work was made famous by his contributions to Marvel Comics' "X-Men."
Shane—who along with his partner Anthony Romano produced Stephen Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can" and the film "I Robot" starring Will Smith—first gave the book, still in manuscript form, to his 11-year-old daughter, who said she loved it and would read it again. Later, Shane's seven-year-old daughter also asked to read the galley proof of the book instead of playing on the playground. "That for me just nailed it," Shane says. "This was our core market."
Now with the first two books in the series of 12 already on the market, Hand Picked Films is developing the whole cross-media franchise, including a feature film and TV series. Other mediums will include DVD titles, computer games and online animation. "Awareness is what it is all about," Shane says. "We believe that will give us great cross-pollination between all media. The book feeds the film, the film feeds the book, and so the cycle goes."
The cross-media initiative for "The Black Belt Club" also includes the Web site TheBlackBeltClub.com, where kids can learn more about the ancient art form of karate. In addition to a quiz to test their knowledge, kids can put together different karate moves and then see the moves animated.
Barnes, who is a third-degree black belt and founder of the Karate Kids chain of children's karate schools, is currently working on book three. As an author, she is following a path that is becoming increasingly popular. She says that the only way to reach readers, especially children, is by using a cross-media strategy. "Children basically are getting information on culture and philosophy while they're enjoying an action adventure tale," she says.
Cross-Media for "Maximum" Success
James Patterson, the best-selling author known for his string of books featuring detective/psychologist Alex Cross in "Along Came a Spider" and "Kiss the Girls," is using his own money for a cross-media strategy to promote his latest book series "Maximum Ride." The young-adult trilogy—with one book already out and the second expected on the market next year—is about six genetically-engineered kids that have wings and can fly around the country.
Warner Bros. Entertainment—part of Time Warner Inc. in New York, which publishes "Maximum Ride" under its Little, Brown and Co. imprint—acquired the movie rights to the young-adult thriller earlier this year. This is not Patterson's first foray into film. Paramount Pictures adapted both "Kiss the Girls" and "Along Came a Spider" into feature films starring Morgan Freeman.
But the feature film is only part of his cross-media strategy. Patterson hired his former colleague Steve Bowen as a consultant to launch the initiative. The two previously worked together in the advertising world at J. Walter Thompson in New York in the '90s; Patterson was chairman, and Bowen was president. Bowen has now put together what he describes as a "virtual team," including a small ad agency, a public relations firm and a Web designer, among others. "He really believes that books need to compete with all other forms of entertainment," Bowen says.
The virtual team put together a mix of radio, print and television advertising all tagged with the Web site's URL, MaximumRide.com. "What we set out to do was create a parallel universe where kids would be attracted by the story," Bowen says. On the Web site, one of the characters, Fang, even writes a Web log, or blog. Bowen says that this blog adds to character and plot development, and will help to keep readers interested in the story until the next book is released.
Bowen says there are also plans to add a quiz and a contest to the Web site. An instant-message capability, where readers send Fang a message and Fang replies, is also in the works. "We just felt that the Web represented an opportunity to capture their imagination around this story in a way that amplified this book rather than detracting from it," he says.
Book Concepts in a Hands-on Environment
It is not only authors and movie executives who focus on cross-media strategies. In the realm of nonfiction, Chicago-based Dearborn Trade Publishing, part of The Washington Post Co., is tapping customizable Web-based tools to try and "bring concepts in the book to life," says Eileen Johnson, vice president of business development at Dearborn.
Dearborn has partnered with WisdomTools Inc., in Bloomington, Ind. The goal is to take the content of the book and identify learning objectives. Characters are created and put into scenarios that cover issues from the book. "We've got whole profiles on these characters, and they are put into scenes in a workplace," Johnson says. The story-based platform, created by using graphics, video and audio, is designed to draw in the reader using discussions, quizzes and surveys.
The books being used in this model are not run-of-the-mill textbooks, where cross-media e-learning platforms are more common. Books include such business tales as "The Radical Leap: A Personal Lesson in Extreme Leadership" by Steve Farber. It is a business parable that starts on a sunny beach and ends with the main character learning concepts of "Extreme Leadership."
Another book being enhanced in this way is about how to hire, train and manage a work force, called "Getting Them to Give a Damn: How to Get Your Front Line to Care about Your Bottom Line" by Eric Chester. "Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force" by Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, and "The Forgotten Half of Change: Achieving Greater Creativity through Changes in Perception" by Luc de Brabandere are also being developed.
Johnson says it is important to get the authors of the book involved right from the start in any cross-media strategy. "The authors live and breathe these subjects and these topics every day, and if we don't have their backing on this, I don't think it would be as successful," she says.
The cross-media platform at Dearborn is geared toward corporate sales, which makes up about 35 percent of the company's sales. Johnson says this area is the biggest area of growth right now for the publisher. "This is revenue-driven for us and has a lot of potential," she explains.
Brian R. Hook is a freelance journalist in St. Louis. He has written for dozens of publishers, including Dow Jones, U.S. News & World Report, and Kiplinger's, in addition to various trade publications. He can be reached at BRHook@msn.com.