With his slight build, round rims and British accent, Harry Potter, the international star of the children's literati, has already inspired comparisons to beloved book characters including The Little Prince and Mathilda. Magical and quirky, the Potter series is reputed to be among the bestselling publishing cross-over hits ever with 55 million prints and counting in circulation in the U.S. alone. But what sets Potter apart from the pack is not so much the creativity of J.K. Rowling, but rather, the bite that the traditional print book series takes out of the multi-media world: toys, gadgets and a Hollywood movie replete with special effects that would make even the most hardened Hogwart shudder.
"The Harry Potter books have made publishing history," says Barbara Marcus, president of children's books at Scholastic Press (www.scholastic.com). "They have been bestsellers since their release in 1997, and over the past several weeks, our accounts have reported significant ramp-up in sales. Some accounts have reported that since the opening of the movie, Harry Potter weekend book sales have doubled and even tripled from the previous week."
Potter's success is a tale altogether different from its magical plot. Instead, what makes the considerably long reading books (upwards of 300 pages each) so popular among children (and adult) audiences is one-part traditionalism and the other part adaptability. The author's rise to fame is a perfect example: struggling writer makes good with a simple idea about a boy and his magic wand. But even before the print dried on the first installment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the story would be lifted off the page in truly calculated 21st century style—and merchandising. Much like famed children's author Roald Dahl's ability to make supernatural subjects believable, Scholastic's Arthur E. Levin also succeeds in capturing, and providing, the sustenance of modern youth's diets—a combination of television, film and the Internet.
And while the Potter books may have begun simply enough, the stir they've created is far more complicated than plot, paper and printing presses allow. Other products have since been added to the mix: conversations with its author, journals and stationery, coloring books, pop-up books and bookmarks. Even the publisher's Web site features a discussion chamber where Internet-savvy kids can log on and chat. Similarly, the Lumos font used to create the now-famous Potter moniker also has a URL. So it seems, it pays to be more than one-dimensional in a fickle market.
According to Cynthia Burlingham, author of Picturing Childhood, "Movable parts appeared in books as early as the sixteenth century, but not until the mid-eighteenth century were movable books conceived as entertainment for children or adults. The toy trade also became increasingly important as the children's market grew." Today, says Burlingham, the proof is in the proliferation of souped-up children's books. But she clarifies, "The continued vitality of children's publishing, despite competition from a host of newer media, suggests that the illustrated storybook remains unparalleled."
Despite the profitable results that multi-media initiatives have earned in the children's' publishing market, not all professionals agree that high-tech is always better than traditional print.
"The liveliest CD-ROM story 'book' doesn't have the cuddle factor of a picture book shared at bedtime," says Harold Underdown, editor at ipicturebooks (www.ipicturebooks.com). "On-demand publishing, in which single titles of books are printed when needed, also seems to me to have a natural niche. Academic and specialty publishers can use it to sell copies of their books in bookstores that can't otherwise carry them. This technology could also enable publishers to keep a novel or black-and-white nonfiction title technically 'in print' indefinitely, even if not widely available."
But in keeping with new media's provocation, Scholastic simultaneously released a flagship title for its new e-publishing initiative, A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen. In fact, the publisher plans to release additional titles in its new e-book program from new Teen Imprint, PUSH, as well as reference titles for the home, school and library markets. Similar plans are also in place for itles from the "Dear America" series and other children's picture books.
"The enhanced e-book version of A Time for Courage provides Scholastic with the opportunity to demonstrate the potential of digital content, while extending one of our most powerful brands, 'Dear America,' in a new exciting format. A Time for Courage provides a rich reading experience, adding even greater depth to this already engaging and educational property," explains Marcus. "Currently, our e-book publishing program supports our overall marketing objectives to increase product awareness, reach new audiences and to create brand extensions."
In the adult reading world, Random House (www.randomhouse.com) first made international news by successfully defending the U.S. publication of James Joyce's masterpiece, Ulysses. But by the early 1930s, the company moved into children's publishing and eventually acquired Golden Books.
Since then, Random House developed Kids@Random, a portal designed to honor its many noteworthy titles, including Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Thomas and the Tank Engine. The site is probably one of the best examples of how children's' publishing has welcomed multi-media products (i.e., The Grinch video is marketed right alongside a reissued, collector's edition of Dahl's children's book classics).
According to Kim Hawley, sales manager for Walsworth Publishing (www.walsworth.com), "Books are becoming more interactive with electronic chips. Some publishers are trying to compete with new technology, especially in the reading and educational markets." But Hawley is suspicious of the trend. "Publishers have pushed the limits of design to the point that (children's books) are difficult to read," he explains. "Harry Potter, however, is an original." Hawley admits that after bringing home a number of interactive, highly graphical, and often highly confusing books for his grade-school-age children, the Rowling's series won hands-down. He attributes the success to the fact that children can use their own imaginations when reading the simply printed books. "They don't have to have a master's degree just to read a book," he adds.
Still, many children's publishers, like newcomer Disney, subscribe to the "more is more" philosophy. The movie mogul adopted book publishing to translate its motion pictures into print. Whereas Winnie the Pooh started out as a children's book, other converts from celluloid to print include Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story—both high-tech on screen and in bound format.
Dan Lux, founder of storyXchange (www.storyxchange.com), advises that producing a bestselling book is the surest way to hone a Hollywood deal. "New Internet services are cropping-up at break-neck speeds to help eliminate inefficiencies and bring down the barriers that previously kept buyers and sellers apart," he says.
But the trouble with glamour in this market, says Hawley, is forgetting about the target audience in the first place: children.
"They put so many images on a page that it cheats the child," he explains. "The text wraps around images…and there are so many images per page that a child could get away with not reading a chapter and still figure out what the story is about." As a learning tool, Hawley says enhanced children's books are a bust. But in regards to entertainment value, the debate shifts.
"From a design perspective," he says. "The books are very interesting. At first, the capabilities of the computer far exceeded expertise of users and the designs weren't printable." That issue having been resolved "DK Books," Hawley says, "have wonderful examples."
The publisher, Dorling Kindersly Books (www.dk.com), features both traditional and interactive learning books. For instance, Times Tables is a book featuring puzzles and tests designed to enhance the math learning experience. Whereas My Toolbox is a first word picture book shaped like a movable bag, And though the publisher also develops CD-ROMs, videos and Web pages. Anthony Forbes Watson, CEO of DK and Penguin UK says, "Take any one of DK's flagship books—no publisher has yet bettered it. We've made some painful decisions today to make sense of the business. Looking ahead…We are ready to invest in the talent and ambition to set the standard for a new generation of readers. With the power of Pearson behind us we'll take DK's unique qualities into a digital future." The publisher did, after all, begin by publishing how-to books.
What's in a household name?
Many niche publishers dedicated to courting child consumers have also had to reconsider how to print and package new book products to compete in a market saturated with brand names.
Underdown notes, "There are a number of ways to create a children's book brand name: Dr. Seuss became a brand name because his books were so consistently good and easily recognizable. Arthur has become a brand name after the success of the TV series based on the book. The Little House on the Prairie has recently and quite deliberately been developed into a brand by HarperCollins (www.harpercollins.com). Celebrities from Shaquille O'Neal to Mary Chapin Carpenter may write or lend their name(s) to children's books. Houghton Mifflin (www.houghtonmifflin.com) has commissioned writers and illustrators to create new Curious George books, to extend another 'classic' brand name."
On the heels of the Pokemon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fuss, came the initiative of adapting mainstream media into print. And while many of these television shows may be difficult to translate into print (both from technical and editorial perspectives), when successfully done, as in the case of Parachute Publishing's (www.parachutepublishing.com) Mary Kate & Ashley series, the results can be very profitable.
"We are appealing to a generation of readers who recognize television," explains Susan Knopf, Parachute's senior vice president. "We specialize in taking a media property and creating a story." She says that though the books abide by a standard digest format, there are plenty of "bells and whistles" implemented to appeal not only to consumers, but also retailers. "We use foil stamping, embossing, a pair of trading cards is included with each book," describes Knopf.
The more pressure that exists for manufacturers of printed collateral, the more intense examination of production occurs. And while children's books of yesterday may have fancied basic hardcovers and antiquarian art, the new market is more "MTV" in its mission. That is, books must catch the attention of consumers that might otherwise be weaned on the moving picture and not necessarily the printed one. "What people recognize most are the photos," explains Knopf.
The nuts and bolts
The mechanics of printed appeal is an entirely other beast within the children's publishing labyrinth. Tactile, visually stimulating books require high-art antics in production departments.
For example, at ipicturebooks.com, personalization is important. According to the company, being able to market e-books to children means appealing to their sense of novelty. Hence, the company produces custom e-books for users, featuring their names—something traditionally printed books cannot.
But for publishers, the services that printers offer can be just as influential as on-demand. For instance, at Book-Mart Press (www.courier.com), the printer not only offers traditional book printing, but also CD-ROM, audio tape and video cassette manufacturing. Even the relationships with printers have become more interactive. In addition to providing a full complement of digital prepress services, including computer-to-plate (CTP) production, Book-mart's Courier works to facilitate the efforts of production teams and composition houses. The printer published Right From the Start, a guide to digital file preparation that also features a companion Web site where customers can access full text, ask questions and download the latest drivers and utilities. In other words, book manufacturers are becoming just as high-tech as the digital generation served.
"But books are never going to be as interactive or as lively as a video game or TV," insists Hawley, which may be what sets a classic fairytale apart from the movie of the week. Knopf agrees, "Some things never change—like a good story."
-Natalie Hope McDonald