Participant Media's tagline is “entertainment that inspires.” Founded in 2004, the production company has released a wide swath of films, both documentaries and features, from Al Gore's green call to arms, An Inconvenient Truth, to Stephen Gaghan's thriller about the global hunt for oil, Syriana. Now, after a deal signed a year ago, it's officially in the book business, with the first of a series of titles based on its films landing in stores.
Lynn Hirshfield, who attended the Radcliffe Publishing Course before moving into the film business (where she worked for everyone from Scott Rudin to Tim Burton), is behind Participant's book division, filling the newly created position of v-p of publishing. Hirshfield, who handled the marketing campaign for the Inconvenient Truth film and has been at Participant since 2005, started searching for a publishing partner for the company more than a year ago. After surveying various publishers, Participant settled on PublicAffairs to create books based on its films.
In September 2008, the companies signed a deal to do four paperback originals, all of which are intended to promote the social messages in Participant's films. The first book, Food Inc.: A Participant Guide: How Industrial Food Is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer—And What You Can Do About It, came out on May 4. Since its release, PublicAffairs has gone back to press on the title three times. (The film, Food Inc., opened on June 12 in select markets and will slowly roll out wider across the U.S.)
When PublicAffairs initially discussed the approach to the books with Participant, the companies agreed on a three-pronged strategy to create more in-depth tie-ins. Susan Weinberg, at PublicAffairs, said the vision was to do titles that would “go beyond the film.” To that end every book will focus on the film, then expand on the topic and, finally, outline ways in which readers can get involved and enact change. The Food Inc. title, for example, goes into the making of the film, then presents information on, and from, leading figures examining the food industry (writers like Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan both appear in the film) and suggests things people can do to change food policies locally and nationally.
Hirshfield said the Participant books will all offer more information on the subjects of the films they're tied to and, more importantly, instruct viewers how to “take action.” The next film PublicAffairs is doing a tie-in for is Cane Toads, a documentary about Australia's current problem with the destructive amphibians, introduced into the ecosystem 75 years ago to attack the sugarcane beetle. (The moral of the film is not to toy with the ecosystem.) The book, to be called Rogue Species, will detail various manmade natural disasters.
Although Hirshfield sees PublicAffairs as an ideal partner—“we do social things and their tagline is books about things that matter,” she said—as Participant looks to do various kinds of books, the key will be hooking up with other publishers in that vein. Hirshfield, who wrote the 2006 children's book Sassafras: The True Confessions of a Poodle Princess, inked a two-book deal with Penguin and Puffin to do socially minded books for younger readers. The first title, an activist guide for readers aged 10—17 is called Girls Gone Green and is slated for spring 2010. Hirshfield, who interviewed various teens while working on the campaign for An Inconvenient Truth, said these books will have the Participant Media logo and, while less directly tied to Participant films, touch on some of the issues they explore. The second book in the deal is planned for 2011.