This month Scholastic is launching AFK (Away from Keyboard), a marketing initiative that pulls together the publisher’s array of licensed books tied to video and computer games. The program’s name is inspired by the acronym gamers use to alert others online that they are stepping away from their console or computer.
“Gaming is such a huge part of kids’ lives,” said Debra Dorfman, v-p and publisher of global licensing and media consumer products at Scholastic. “AFK came about because this is where kids are living, and because we’re living in that space too. We’ve been partnering with these huge gaming companies that see the value of publishing for their brands.”
Over the years, Scholastic has become a key player in gaming-related publishing for children, releasing original fiction, guidebooks, and other formats for Assassin’s Creed, World of Warcraft, Five Nights at Freddy’s, Pokémon, and more.
“In licensing, we’re always looking for the hottest properties, and they’re often gaming properties,” said Mara Lander, senior marketing director, licensed publishing and brand management at Scholastic Trade.
The idea behind AFK is to draw gaming fans to Scholastic’s books during times when they are offline. “Parents and teachers see the benefit of gaming, but want their kids to be off the screen, too,” said Lander. “We want them to see us as the next step when they leave the keyboard.”
A significant portion of gamers (29%) are under age 18, according to the Entertainment Software Association. And their parents support their gaming activities, with 71% of parents saying video games have a positive influence in their child’s life and 67% playing video games with their child at least once weekly.
AFK will not just draw kids from games into books, but the other way around as well. “Sometimes kids are interested in the games their friends are playing, but aren’t sure where to start,” Lander said. “Books can act as an entry point to gaming.”
New Gaming Partnerships Ahead
One of the first new licenses to fall under the AFK umbrella is Halo, Microsoft Studios’ military science fiction franchise. Scholastic will launch its Halo series with an in-world gaming guidebook, Halo: Official Spartan Field Manual, in fall 2018, followed by an original fiction series starting in spring 2019.
“Everyone uses the word partnership, but there’s just such an alignment between our two companies,” said John Friend, head of Halo consumer products at Microsoft Studios. “We knew we would eventually do a project with them. It was just a matter of figuring out what.” While AFK was not a fully formed idea when Microsoft and Scholastic started talking about doing original books, Microsoft knew its titles would be promoted alongside other gaming tie-ins, which was appealing, Friend said.
Microsoft oversees a robust Halo publishing program for adults, with Simon & Schuster selling more than 13 million books, including 12 New York Times bestsellers to date. Dark Horse is its comic book publisher and Egmont is a new licensee for high-end, art-driven reference books. The Scholastic deal marks the first time that the 16-year-old, $6.5 billion franchise has published into the YA market.
“We had hit a maturity level where the first fans of Halo have had kids and are introducing them to the universe,” Friend said. He noted that, as of Halo 5, the game has become T (for Teen)-rated, and the company has also authorized some licensed products, such as Halo construction sets from Mega Bloks, that appeal to younger consumers.
“People’s concept of games is growing,” Friend added. “They’re not just playing but they’re watching and getting into the universe. When you’re on the console, you’re fighting, but the core story is about heroism and how the universe is worth fighting for and saving. That feeling is attractive to all ages.”
The average Halo fan plays for 30 to 40 hours per month. “That’s like watching an entire TV series each month, over and over again,” said Friend. “They’re really engaged and they want to find out what goes on behind the scenes. We want to give them a place where they can dive deeper. The stories we’re about to bring to life with Scholastic are accessible to new fans, but really true to the core.”
Another new property under the AFK banner is Hello Neighbor, a survival horror video game for kids that launched in December 2017. The original middle-grade fiction publishing program will start with the first book in fall 2018, followed by a second novel in spring 2019.
The first Halo YA novel is by Cassandra Rose Clarke, while the first Hello Neighbor title is by Carly Ann West. “We’re really proud we have some awesome women writing these books,” Dorfman said, noting that games and gaming tie-ins appeal to both girls and boys.
Currently most of Scholastic’s game-based publishing is focused on the middle grade and young adult markets, but books for younger readers are a possibility as well. “It’s important to remember that kids today have been playing games almost since birth,” Lander said. “We want to appeal to anyone who plays.”
Scholastic has an internal gaming task force consisting of employees—mostly women—who love games, play often, discover new games before they’re widely known, and meet regularly to discuss which gaming titles might be appropriate for publishing. “They’re looking out for things with great stories and wide appeal,” Dorfman said, reporting that new licensing announcements are expected in the near future.
The AFK program, which is launching across all of Scholastic’s channels, is an opportunity for the company to promote older titles as well. “We can bring the backlist forward and connect it to the frontlist,” Dorfman explained.
The company is creating an educator guide for the classroom and library market, highlighting how to integrate gaming-related books into the curriculum. “Librarians were one of the first groups to embrace graphic novels in schools, and now they’re one of the first to embrace gaming,” Dorfman said. “They’re using games to lure kids into the library, and we want to be there with a book.”
On the consumer side, the AFK program will have a presence at conferences, gaming events, and consumer and industry conventions, starting with the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo in April, where Scholastic will host a panel about how publishing can expand on the world of a video game. A dedicated consumer website for the AFK program will launch at the same time.