Somewhere between the ages of five and 11, kids stop reading. Well, maybe not all of them, but a recent study spearheaded by Scholastic Inc. shows that readership drops off as children age. The results show that 40 percent of kids between the ages of five and eight read for fun every day. Only 29 percent of nine- to 11-year-olds read as frequently, and that number declines sharply through age 17. Running Press Book Publishers thinks it knows why—and how to reverse this troublesome trend.
Running Press, a Philadelphia-based imprint of The Perseus Books Group, will release a new young adult (YA) title, “Cathy’s Book: If Found Call (650) 266-8233” on Oct. 2. The book, which has garnered headlines recently for both its ground-breaking approach and some controversial marketing arrangements, is the first of its kind from Running Press in that its content will drive young readers to seek answers to a plot full of twists and turns through media other than the pages on which it is printed.
“The No. 1 reason that kids give for not reading is that they can’t find anything they like to read,” says Rick Joyce, marketing director of Perseus Books. “Our take is that the books aren’t speaking to them. They’re not living in the world [kids] live in. And if you look at television, film, music, magazines and the Web, it’s a dense, rich environment with choices, with interactivity, with products, with other teenagers that they recognize … some of the young adult category has gotten maybe a little stale.”
That’s where “Cathy’s Book”—and all of its interactivity—comes in.
“The book is only the tip of the iceberg,” Joyce says. “There’s more story not in the text.” The story, which chronicles the adventures of a teenage heroine named Cathy investigating why her boyfriend broke up with her, prompts careful readers to uncover secrets and answers via Web sites they can visit, phone numbers they can call, and letters, photos and diary entries.
“If you read the book and look at some of the evidence [contained within] the book, you can identify ways to, for example, crack the access codes for voice mail messages,” says David Steinberger, Perseus’ president and CEO. In fact, a quick dial of the phone number in the book’s title leads to a voice mail greeting from Cathy herself: “Hey, this is Cathy … Emma, if this is you, I left my book under your porch. Take a look. I think there’s stuff buried there we haven’t figured out yet. OK, leave a message at the beep.” An operator then prompts the caller (reader) to enter an access code to “retrieve your messages.”
The objective of authors Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman was to wrap a seemingly endless net of interactivity around readers—effectively spinning so deep a web of realism that they become part of Cathy’s world. Where many young adult books fail to pique the interest of their market these days is where “Cathy’s Book” is likely to succeed, Joyce says. “This book, we think, is an anecdote to that decline [in youth readership] or the kind of book that would get a kid who doesn’t read to read. It’s a book to be read with a cell phone and a mouse in your hand. … We feel strongly that there’s something ground-breaking about this narrative experience, but whose experience spans all the media that we use and that teenagers recognize as being part of their life.”
Perseus and the authors’ own interactive marketing company (42 Entertainment) have gone so far as to launch Web sites for fictional companies that appear in the story. For example, one character plans to start a cellular phone company in China named Doubletalk Wireless. Readers are able to “Google” the company’s name and will find a listing for DoubletalkWireless.com.
It is this very element of realism that helped create some controversy several weeks ago. An early version of Stewart and Weisman’s book found its way into the hands of a Proctor & Gamble (P&G) executive, and P&G approached the duo about what Joyce calls a “co-marketing agreement.” The authors
replaced a number of products mentioned in the book with P&G products in exchange for marketing opportunities including Cathy’s presence on two prominent P&G Web businesses: BeingGirl.com and CoverGirl.com. A group called Commercial Alert immediately cried foul, calling on 305
editors nationwide to refuse to review the book, “because it really is an advertisement.”
But Steinberger says the bad press hasn’t tempered the industry’s enthusiasm for the book, pointing to an “initial distribution well in excess of 100,000 copies.”
He admits Perseus knew the risk it ran with the marketing deals. “We expected to get some controversy from this … and we’re not overly concerned.”
He adds that Perseus has fielded offers from publishers in well over 10 countries and says, “We received e-mails from some of these publishers saying things like, ‘Don’t show this to anyone else until you’ve received our offer.’ So that really confirmed our tremendous enthusiasm here, in-house, about this book, that we had something really special. And this was one of the steps that led to our taking up this initial distribution number pretty significantly.”
Aside from the spotlight shone on the book as a result of the controversy, its interactivity has allowed Joyce and his marketing team to be creative and, in some cases, revolutionary with its marketing campaign. “Some of [the promotion] we want to do, like the book, blurs the boundary between marketing and narrative,” Joyce says. “And I think … that’s the most interesting way to put this book out—not with a lot of ads, which we’ll do after the book launches.
“We think the Web is the main way to get the word out … it’s a YA audience, so they’re not reading reviews in The New York Times. So our marketing campaign is heavily Web-focused.” Cathy’s character will have an editorial presence on BeingGirl.com and CoverGirl.com, and Proctor & Gamble will run ads for the book on both sites. “We have a lot of interest and excitement from a lot of online companies who want to feature, write about or be involved with the book, so you’ll see it hopefully in some instant-messenger-type products and on some teen-oriented Web sites,” Joyce says.
“We’re creating a MySpace account for Cathy and then linking to it from some other fictional characters in the book and also real folks … so that it has a reality in that world.”
Running Press has already inked a deal with Stewart and Weisman to write a second book in the series, and Joyce predicts there will be more projects of this genre to come from the publisher. In light of all of the early press and the global interest in this title, Steinberger says he has particularly high hopes. “We would like to see this book hit national best-seller lists. That’s a clear goal.” BB
Matt Steinmetz is the publisher and brand director of Publishing Executive.