Licensed children’s books are typically tied to current films and popular television shows. But as tweens and teens spend increasing amounts of time in the digital world, children’s publishers are looking toward online and mobile properties as a way to entice readers to the print medium. In particular, they are developing licensed books inspired by virtual worlds such as Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters, and Poptropica, hoping that these brands, with their large and loyal fan bases, spur tweens and teens to try some real-world reading.
“The exposure is huge on a lot of these sites,” says Debra Dorfman, v-p and publisher, licensing and nonfiction, at Scholastic, which sells a Moshi Monsters guidebook and a how-to-draw title and guidebook tied to another virtual world, Free Realms. Club Penguin, now owned by Disney, launched in 2006 and hit 150 million registered users in September 2011, while Poptropica, part of the Penguin publishing family, has attracted more than 180 million readers since its 2007 launch.
“When you look at the stats, it just bowls you over,” says Ciarán Coyle, managing director, international, at the Beanstalk Group, licensing rep for Movie-StarPlanet. That site attracts 30 million visitors a month; the number of regular users is expected to jump from 18 million at the end of 2011 to 80 million by year-end 2012.
Many virtual worlds attract broad audiences, geographically and demographically. Most originate in Europe but go global quickly. Meanwhile, several properties appeal to both genders, unusual for licenses targeting tweens and teens. Moshi Monsters, for example, attracts boys and girls ages 7 to 10, and fans come from more than 100 countries, according to licensor Mind Candy.
Penguin U.K. has published 10 Moshi Monsters titles in that country, according to Eric Karp, Mind Candy’s head of licensing, Americas. Scholastic began distributing one of these titles in the U.S. last March and has been giving it another push this season to school and trade channels. “We went out a little early,” says Dorfman. “But we’re hopeful that it starts to see some traction.”
Mind Candy’s other U.S. publishers include Reader’s Digest, which will release a line of added-value novelty books later this year, and Prima Publishing for a guide to Activision’s Nintendo DS videogame.
Penguin began publishing Club Penguin books back in fall 2008. “We were, definitely and happily, early out of the gate with the publishing,” says Francesco Sedita, president and publisher, Grosset & Dunlap/Price Stern Sloan. “It was a very measured and interesting conversation with the accounts at first, and it took some chipping away. Unless you had a child who was on the site constantly, you didn’t know it. But a season or so in, there was this amazing groundswell.”
More publishers have begun to tie into virtual worlds during the past year, as the sites gain visibility and attract fans. In the U.K., Macmillan Children’s Books is one of the initial licensees for Bin Weevils, a world that has become second only to Moshi Monsters among English tweens. As many as 1.5 million unique users visit each month, with site traffic tripling in the past year. The first three books hit U.K. shelves in September 2011.
In a virtual world, tweens are in charge: they can customize their own avatars; explore different environments; purchase and collect virtual goods; create artwork, watch video clips, or view animation; play games, read comics, or participate in mysteries or quests; and chat with friends in a monitored environment.
Most properties offer clear opportunities for guidebooks or handbooks, especially given the collectability of virtual clothing, pets, and decor. “Kids love collecting, especially boys,” says Dorfman.
Macmillan U.K. published a Bin Weevils handbook last September. “It’s the core book and probably always will be,” says Gaby Morgan, editorial director. But puzzle, activity, and joke books also are natural formats. Macmillan has released a book of jokes submitted by fans on the site, as well as a puzzle book; future plans include search-and-find, doodle storybooks, choose-your-own-adventure fiction, sticker activity, and dress-up party books. “We look at what [formats] we have and how the property fits,” Morgan explains.
Last August, Random House announced a three-year global deal for nonfiction tied to the Stardoll virtual world. The first five titles, released September 2011 in the U.K., include Top Trends, Fashion Factor, Super Stylist, My Style Diary, and an official handbook featuring members’ customized avatars. The agreement followed Mortal Kiss, a print version of an interactive story Random House developed with Stardoll in 2010 that has received more than 17 million views. A virtual sequel, Fool’s Kiss, launched last August.
Telling a Story
Fiction tied to virtual worlds can be difficult when “so much of the content is user-generated,” says Coyle. Users create unique story lines and characters on the site, which are hard to translate to books for a general readership. Conversely, books are tough to personalize, which is a big part of the virtual worlds’ appeal.
“That’s part of the reason that fiction is a slower conversation,” Karp agrees. “The creation of story is very important to us. We want that narrative flow to go back and forth smoothly [between the books and the site].” He explains that a “meta narrative” on MoshiMonsters.com includes hero characters, upon which users’ avatars are based, and these would drive any fiction.
Not all sites lend themselves to fiction, Sedita warns. “You have to ask, ‘Is there really storytelling going on here?’ If not, it’s a real stumbling block.” Penguin’s Club Penguin publishing program, to which two to three books are added per season, includes choose-your-own-adventure fiction, as well as a core guidebook, activity, and poster books.
Penguin is taking a different approach with Poptropica, creating an entire imprint in collaboration with the licensor, Penguin’s sister company Family Entertainment Network. Jess Brallier, Family Entertainment Network’s senior v-p and publisher, says the idea of Poptropica was to adapt reading to the multimedia environment. “We thought about how to publish stories for kids with digital and gaming literacy,” he says. “It’s a new medium, and you can’t just tell a story in the same way.” In the world of Poptropica, readers create an avatar and then participate in the stories.
For book publishing, Poptropica and Penguin are creating new characters that can live in Poptropica and carry the brand into fiction. The characters ultimately will be featured in graphic novels. “That’s really when we’re going to define the larger essence of Poptropica,” Brallier says. “When we talk about our DNA, it’s things like art, design, adventure, and discovery. We can move that over into the book experience.” Penguin published a guidebook last fall, and storybooks about the site’s most popular Islands (areas focusing on particular genres) are in the works.
Virtual worlds generate immediate customer feedback; usage can be tracked continuously and in detail; and it is easy to gauge fans’ interest in new formats. On the other hand, the worlds’ ever-evolving nature makes it hard for publishers to keep up. “We want the books to sit on a shelf for quite some time, and these can become outdated quickly,” Sedita explains. “It’s so important to talk to the [virtual worlds’] developers about their vision and where they’re going with it.”
Virtual Marketing Opportunities
In addition to large, growing, and loyal audiences, content breadth, and fast and detailed feedback, virtual worlds are enticing to publishers for their cross-marketing potential. “You can use virtual worlds to drive people to physical retail and physical retail to drive people to the virtual world,” says Coyle. Some book titles include codes to unlock exclusive content or virtual goods. Buying a virtual book could lead to a discount on a physical book purchase. Or the site could refer users to a page in a physical book for clues on solving an online puzzle or scavenger hunt.
Some worlds allow advertising, including Poptropica, where Penguin ran an ad for its guidebook. “We saw a tremendous spike in sales on that day,” Sedita reports.
For Club Penguin, which does not accept advertising, Penguin integrated a code into a book, which opened content on the site, an initiative deemed successful. “But these things can be very hard to pull off,” Sedita cautions. “It’s just a timing thing. It’s putting a lot of pieces together and making sure they all fall into place.”
HarperCollins uses online channels, including virtual worlds, to support its Big Nate books, based on an online comic strip. Children’s editorial director Phoebe Yeh discovered the property through a conversation with Brallier, who had just launched a Big Nate Island on Poptropica. In March 2010, Harper launched a 16-book program and a dedicated online presence, with BigNateBooks.com attracting 3.7 million visitors and 7.5 million page views as of November 2011.
The property also has a presence on another virtual site, Woozworld, for which Harper is the publishing partner. Big Nate’s Woozworld room had welcomed more than 600,000 visits as of late 2011, with more than 240,000 Big Nate virtual goods sold.
“We know this is how to reach the kids,” says Yeh of Big Nate’s multifaceted virtual presence. While difficult to track, she believes it is likely that Poptropica, Woozworld, and BigNateBooks.com are driving fans to the print books. “We’re making sure they have several places to go to satisfy their Big Nate needs.”
Meanwhile, virtual worlds are starting to expand product licensing. “Licensees are accepting that entertainment and merchandise don’t just come from television or film any more,” says Karp. “And retailers are very quickly changing the calculus they’re doing on how they analyze and evaluate new properties. Online worlds are becoming very important for them.”
Beginning with this article, we will have monthly coverage of licensing issues and trends. Our licensing correspondent, Karen Raugust, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pick-your-path–style fiction reflects the customizability of the sites.