National Geographic Kids Books is charting new territory with the launch of Under the Stars, the publisher’s first-ever fiction imprint. The press will release its inaugural book, Explorer Academy: The Nebula Secret by Trudi Trueit, in September. A new book in the seven-part series will follow every six months thereafter, and additional series will be added beginning in 2019.
The idea for a fiction division came about more than four years ago at a meeting of the book publisher’s editorial division. “We were sort of everywhere,” said editorial director Erica Green. “We’d penetrated the market totally in terms of our nonfiction, and we asked, ‘How else can we reach kids?’ ”
Executive editor Becky Baines and senior v-p for content Jennifer Emmett proposed moving into fiction with a starting focus on middle grade readers. “We thought that middle grade was the sweet spot,” said Emmett. “That’s where we were strongest with nonfiction.”
The team began by working with its in-house education division to develop a core mission for Under the Stars that would align with National Geographic overall. The theme of exploration for the first series was then identified and author Trueit was brought on board. Emmett said Trueit’s involvement transformed the project. “She was able to synthesize National Geographic’s topic areas and principles and turn them into a page-turning story.” The first book takes place at a fictive Exploration Academy based in Washington, D.C., setting the stage for later books in which students from the academy will explore the world aboard the ship Polaris.
Along with the series, the publisher has developed related nonfiction thematic titles, beginning with a book on code-breaking, which is a central component to the story of The Nebula Secret. The books will be timed for release in between each book in the series.
With National Geographic’s array of multimedia content, including magazines, television shows, and games, the development of a fiction division was no small undertaking. Editors were not only responsible for creating a platform for publishing fiction, but for integrating those works into the fabric of the company’s broader media portfolio, including developing a website that connects with other National Geographic content and digitally integrating existing nonfiction videos and film with the rollout of the Explorer series. For instance, the imprint’s website will include profiles of real National Geographic explorers whose stories relate to the works of fiction.
In addition, the press has formed a partnership outside of National Geographic, working with a Chinese company, Ultimate Explorer, to create interactive entertainment spaces in China and the U.S. based on the series.
Despite the complexity of launching a division that is part of a larger multimedia empire, Green said their core goal of reaching new readers remains clear. “There’s a different set of readers, kids who love fiction and are drawn to stories, who can [now] find us in a different way,” she said.
Throughout the process, editors and designers turned to what Green called their “secret weapon”: panels of young readers who offer their opinions on everything from cover designs to content. The panels assured editors that their audience of nonfiction readers would also be interested in the new fiction. In order to be certain that they would reach new audiences, however, they also did focus groups with general fiction readers who were not part of their pre-existing children’s panel. “We talked with them about how they discover books and when they are driven online to books,” said Emmett.
The publisher will follow the Explorer series with a series about mythology and animals in 2019. By 2022, Green said fiction will account for approximately 10% of the 100 titles published by National Geographic Kids Books annually.
The opportunity to connect the wholly new initiative to the mission of the 130-year-old society has been a source of pride, said Green. “We believe in science, we believe in exploration, we believe in storytelling,” said Green. “The DNA of that mission is tied into what we do, and that will manifest itself in the fiction and nonfiction.”
Even the name of the imprint, Green noted, is connected to the most iconic part of the company’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.: a large domed lobby painted with the night sky from January 27, 1888, the day the National Geographic Society was founded. When editors started brainstorming on names for the imprint, Green said they went back to that lobby, which is still the meeting place for all visitors to the building. “We always say, ‘Where should we meet? We should meet under the stars.’ ”
Note: This article has been updated from its original version which incorrectly referenced the location of Explorer Academy as Hawaii.