A dozen years ago, Derek Landy made a splash by selling his first manuscript, Skulduggery Pleasant, to HarperCollins and HarperChildren’s UK in a three-book deal worth $1.8 million. The books were published in the U.S. to critical praise but modest sales. HarperCollins stopped publishing the series after the third installment.
The books had a happier fate in Landy’s native Ireland and the U.K. There, Skulduggery was a hit. The books won prizes, and Landy garnered a fan base large enough to demand that he keep writing. Though Skulduggery, a suave skeleton who dresses and talks like a film noir detective, disappeared from American shelves, the 11th installment of his adventures, Midnight, will be released abroad on May 31. The 12th book is scheduled for June 2019.
Now HarperCollins 360, the company’s global publishing division, has decided to try, try again, with plans to relaunch the Skulduggery series in the U.S. The ambitious schedule calls for the release of the first three books on May 1, books four through six in September, books seven through nine in January 2019, and books 10 through 12 next June.
“By book 12, we’ll be simultaneous again with the U.K.,” said Jean Marie Kelly, affiliate publisher with HarperCollins 360.
This time, Skulduggery is not starting from scratch. Landy says there’s a “small but vibrant American readership,” which kept up with the series after HarperCollins stopped publishing it in the U.S., adding, “Some of them go to great lengths to get the latest book, ordering from the U.K. or Canada.”
Kelly says the growth of social media in the past decade has given the publisher an easier way to reach out to those readers, and to enlist them to help spread the word about a series they already love. Skulduggery has a Facebook page, a dedicated website, and an Instagram account. Landy tweets on his behalf regularly. The publisher has used the series’ social media platforms to recruit “super-fans,” who will act as ambassadors to spread the word about Skulduggery’s return to the states. In exchange, the 25 readers chosen (dubbed “Sanctuary Agents” by the publisher) will get a signed copy of one of the newly released editions, a copy to pass on to a friend, a T-shirt, temporary tattoos, and “special correspondence from Landy.”
HarperCollins 360 has also redesigned the covers to emphasize the role of Skulduggery’s partner, Stephanie, a sharp and fearless 12-year-old who inherits her uncle’s estate and learns that the horror stories he had written were not entirely fictional. “We did some consumer insight work, interviewing moms and kids, and the message we got from them was that having a strong female heroine was one of the things they loved about the books,” Kelly said. “[Stephanie] is not Skulduggery’s sidekick—she’s a full partner in their adventures.”
Will the second time be the charm? Landy thinks some skittishness about a skeleton as a main character when the books were initially released hurt momentum. “I think our American publishers got kind of nervous. Nobody thought a skeleton would scare kids but there was some talk that it might scare the grandmothers who buy books for kids,” he said. “There was a bit of a freak-out, a stumble, which led to another stumble, and the books just kind of flatlined.”
Kelly says a decade ago the market had shifted, with dystopians in ascendancy; books with humor were crowded out.
But Landy thinks American readers are a natural audience for Skulduggery. “It’s a mystery that they didn’t take off because the story is so influenced by American books and movies,” he said. “In the end, we all thought it was worth another try.”