Take a look at BookScan’s bestselling juvenile titles for the week ending April 25: an astounding 73% were titles from one of several series.
But these are not your Baby-Sitters’ Club of yesteryear: “Harry Potter turned the whole paperback series notion on its head,” says Megan Tingley, SVP, Publisher, Little Brown Books for Young Readers. “The strategy used to be predicated on the idea that these were the kinds of books people wanted to read once, read quickly and move on. Harry Potter and Twilight created a market for hardcover series with more complex, substantive storylines where readers could live in the world a bit longer. I think people came to want something different out of their reading experience, and it became more about depth than speed.”
The perception of what a book is has changed, agrees Susan Katz, President and Publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books. “The same way kids watch a movie they love many times, they read the books they love over and over, and I don’t know if that was the case with [series like the Baby-Sitters Club].”
“Series were and still are a great way to market a property and to engage readers,” says Dan Weiss, Publisher-at-Large at St. Martin’s. However, he says, today “the main impulse is to try to make the books as distinct as possible because they need to stay on the shelves longer. We’re publishing in more expensive formats and the monthly cycle we did back then is no longer driving it, so the books have to be a little ‘bigger.’” Here’s the new face of series publishing.
Trends in 2010
“It’s very rare for a book to start out as a single volume these days,” says Katz. “Most of the proposals we get for teens and tweens now are proposed to us from the first as series, and trilogies are very common.”
“When we bring an author’s proposal or manuscript to acquisition, often sales will ask if there are more, and we’ll sign them up as a series from the beginning,” says Stephanie Lurie, Editorial Director of Disney-Hyperion Books for Children. “Other publishers might be more cautious at first and they’d rather see how the first book does before taking on more.”
The long series that were popular in the eighties are “just not possible anymore,” says Amy Berkower, President of Writers House. “In the age of Sweet Valley High and BSC and Choose Your Own Adventure, publishers discovered they could publish originals very effectively to their target audiences. At the time there were lots of bookstores in malls, so that girls who went to buy makeup or hang out [could also buy books]. Since then, the mass market has consolidated and made it hard to get out a book a month.”
“Sixteen years ago, nearly anything on Saturday morning television could be turned into a children’s book or series,” says Susan Knopf, SVP, Director of Marketing and Development, at packager Parachute Publishing. “Our first printing of Power Rangers books was about two million copies.” She says that over the next couple of years, as TV lost its power over the children’s marketplace because of market fragmentation, less advertising money, and competing entertainment sources, Parachute began to seek out other licensing opportunities. Inspired by Knopf’s four-year-old nephew, they created a John Deere for Kids franchise. “Unlike a licensed property, where there are existing characters, places, style guides, and art, we took a brand and created all of those assets ourselves. When we sat down to work out the characters, we found ourselves having long conversations about things like whether there would be humans in Johnny Tractor’s world. If so, would JT and his friends talk to the humans?” The series has over fifty titles, a board game, puzzles, children’s dinnerware sets, and toys coming later this year.
For older readers, “what seems to be selling at very high revenue dollars is the hardcover series that follows up in paperback,” says Katz. “In some cases, we are selling more hardcover.” Berkower agrees that “what we see happening now is really the hardcover trilogy. [Writers House] recently sold three big trilogies and we’re about to sell a fourth. Two of those were YA dystopian, and two were middle-grade fantasies. I think the series formula has now migrated to hardcover.”
However, the more frequent, paperback model isn’t dead. Scholastic VP, Publisher Suzanne Murphy pointed out that with the company’s relaunch of the Baby-Sitters’ Club, one title will be reissued, in paperback, every other month. “We’ve planned out at least a year ahead,” Murphy says. The company has also seen success with its series for middle-grade girls, Candy Apple. The books are written by different authors and published every other month. Scholastic will launch the paranormal series Poison Apple, aimed at the same audience, this summer. Knopf says that “for all the change, some things remain remarkably similar.” Parachute relaunched Goosebumps in 2008 with R. L. Stine’s new Goosebumps HorrorLand, a bi-monthly series published by Scholastic.
“We have to publish at most one year apart, and if the author isn’t able to keep up with that, their sales suffer,” says Lurie. “Harry Potter and other literary series have established a one-a-year expectation, so the publisher has to figure out how to introduce the series the first time, build word-of-mouth among kids, teachers, librarians, and booksellers, and then make sure it stays in people’s minds after that.”
Want to look at the various types of series production from an academic point of view? Amy Pattee, an Assistant Professor at Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science whose dissertation was entitled “Everywhere, Or a Reflection? Describing The ‘Sweet Valley High’ Experience” and who writes the YA review blog YA or STFU, sees two current trends. “The ‘media product’ series novel is created and marketed for mass appeal and multimedia potential,” she says. “These series are marketed directly to the consumer—young adults—and tend to bypass the traditional gatekeeping structures associated with library and scholastic publishing.” She associates the second mode mode with “the more supposedly ‘literary’ end of publishing,” series “that either take advantage of the popularity of an author, like James Patterson’s Maximum Ride, or build on and from the popularity or notoriety of broad trends in YA publishing. Hunger Games, Uglies, Chaos Walking, and Maze Runner have certainly responded to and stoked the dystopian trend in YA fiction. These novels seem to appeal to both adult gatekeepers and YA readers and are not marketed through popular media in the same way that the media product series are.”
Oh, and the Headless Girl Thing Is Over
“People are seeing there might be a crossover for an adult readership, so now you tend to see fewer characters on YA covers, more metaphorical covers, more black covers,” says Tingley. “Middle grade is tougher because the general thinking is that the readers like to see the characters on the cover, so those tend to be illustrated rather than photographed.”
“The biggest issue is that these books have to look different enough so that the consumer doesn’t think they already have it at home, but similar enough so they’ll know it’s part of a series,” says Katz. “And what’s more important, the series title, or the title of that particular volume in the series? If you go down the road with a certain look, is there going to be enough left for books two, three, and four?”
“If we know how many books are in a series, we might think about the look for all three of them from the beginning,” says Lurie, “how the spines are going to look when the books are placed spine-out and if we can do a photoshoot with the characters for all three books at once.”
“Nothing beats a great logo and series name,” says Murphy. “Creative packaging is key, too—special effects, foil, embossing, glitter. You want to use the bells and whistles where you can.” Knopf says she is “excited by some of the creative ways type, or text, is being incorporated into the covers of books just hitting the market.”
We Need a Novella, Quick
“The web has become an incredible tool for serving up and attracting fans to continue their lovefest between books,” says Katz. “Once a group of readers like a series, they want to meet in a place where they can extend their love of the property and interact with other fans.” HarperCollins published The Amanda Project, whose website has grown 500% since its launch.
“Sometimes the suggestions come to us from booksellers,” says Lurie. “They’ll say they’re seeing so much demand for a series that they need a book to help them bridge the time between books two and three, so we have to come up with new content that’s related to the series. We might do a short story collection or a novella [or both for the Melissa de la Cruz series Blue Bloods] or a lost chapter, and make it available only online or do a custom edition for Barnes & Noble or Target. We’re working on graphic novels of the Percy Jackson series, Young Bond, and Artemis Fowl to help satisfy some fans and appeal to new ones.”
“As you build a series, it’s important to commit to at least four to six books up front and stick with it,” says Murphy, “and if you’re lucky, in books three or four, you’ll see things start to grow.” She says that most of the time, in order for a series to be able to extend its brand to toys, clothing, and other products, media tie-ins like television shows or movies are essential “to enter the consumer product realm in a big way.”
The new series have been widely successful internationally. “These books seem to travel very well,” says Berkower. “Sweet Valley High and BSC sold all over the world, but I don’t think they were as successful in their respective territories as these hardcover trilogies seem to be. They seem to be like the Dan Browns; they take on worldwide cult status.”
If You Like Thomas Kinkade, You’ll Love This
The publication of the BSC prequel and the announcement of a St. Martin’s Sweet Valley book for adults created excitement among twenty-something bloggers who read the books as kids, and with its reissue of the Dear America series (including new titles by authors like Lois Lowry and Kirby Lane Larson), Scholastic hopes to reach former fans, “readers who are now grown up and either teaching or parents themselves.” Twilight and Harry Potter obviously appeal to multiple generations, but it remains to be seen whether current series like 39 Clues will inspire adult bloggers to wax nostalgic in the 2020s. So what about creating series for adults themselves?
“When characters start young and have a period of time to grow older, they can grow up with the reader,” says Weiss. “We’re trying to coin the phrase ‘new adults,’ and we’d like to see more of it. I think it’s an overlooked category.” Lurie notes that Hyperion Adult recently signed Blue Bloods author Melissa de la Cruz to write a witch series for them, “and we’re hoping to expand the universe of both series.” (For more on crossovers, see here.)
“People see potential because of the books that have crossed over,” says Tingley. Besides the obvious, she mentions The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Lovely Bones, and The Life of Pi as titles that attracted strong teen readership. “That said, I am pretty skeptical,” she says. “I just read [a manuscript] that people were buzzing about as being [right for] either adult or children’s, and I don’t know why. Most books do fall squarely in one category or another, and in the bookstore there’s an adult and a YA section.”
But Berkower believes we are going to see more series for adults. “Look at series like Lost and The Sopranos and The Wire,” she says. “It’s not only kids who want to get lost in a world and look forward to the next book. It makes sense to do more adult series. There are a lot being done in the paranormal today—I have The Fever series [by Karen Marie Moning]. The fans are called ‘Moning Maniacs’ and they’re panting for the next one.” Knopf mentions Parachute’s Cape Light, “a series for adult readers for which we developed a world and characters as they might exist within a Thomas Kinkade painting. Berkley is publishing the eleventh title in the Cape Light series in the fall and just launched the first of our Cape Light spin-off series Angel Island.”
Berkower notes that while many thriller writers have done continuing character series, “in that world, the brand is the author as opposed to the series itself. It’s great to brand the author, but the market might take note of how successful series publishing in the kids’ world has been. I wonder if there’s a little bit of stigma attached to doing series which the kids’ market has overcome and the adult market might look at seriously.”