Much like other publishers focused on the kids' and teen educational market, Canadian house Orca Book Publishing added a line of graphic novels to its list in hopes attracting teen readers as well as their teachers and librarians. In 2007 Orca launched the Graphic Guide Adventure Series, a line of fictional adventure graphic novels aimed at middle graders, produced by the team of writer Liam O’Donnell and artist Mike Deas and focused on the environment, skateboarding, soccer and, now, media literacy.

Orca Publisher Andrew Wooldridge said the first three books in the series--Wild Ride, Ramp Rats and Soccer Sabotage--got a “great reception.” He’s also been looking for new ways to promote the Graphic Adventures line, which offers fictional adventures supported by non-fiction research. The result of that promotional search is Media Meltdown, a new title in the Graphic Adventure Guide line that is focused on how the media works, that was also offered as a free PDF download on October 1, the same day the book’s $9.95 print edition went on sale. The result was an online feeding frenzy. Wooldridge said that since Oct. 1, the download has attracted more than 106,000 hits to its Web site and about 25,000 downloads of the book--indeed at one point the Orca servers crashed from the traffic.

Like the other books in the series, Media Meltdown “is an adventure story with nonfiction content,” said Wooldridge, who called the free download “a great way to get attention to the books.” Media Meltdown is focused on how the media works; consolidation and how money and power affects news coverage as well as the role of advertising. Orca is offering the entire 64-page book for free as a PDF download. Unlike some authors who remain wary of undermining sales with free digital releases, Wooldridge said the the Graphic Guide creative team approached him about doing the free promotion: “The author asked us to give the free promotion a try,” said Wooldridge, who was encouraged by the gesture. “There’s a hunger for material like this,” he said. “Teachers see the book online or see the Web site and it all leads to book sales.” Indeed, while Orca is conservative with its print runs, Wooldridge said the first three books have averaged sales of about 25,000 copies.

Orca has set up a promotional site for the Graphic Adventure Series featuring a blog, previews and info about the creators and each book. There’s also a media resource page for Media Meltdown with games, free stuff and a make-you-own comic application that’s tied into the Media Meltdown plot and characters. Two more books are to come in the Graphic Adventure Series: Food Fight, an adventure set in the agri-business industry and another book that will focus on democracy. “Both books should lend themselves well to online promotion,” said Woolridge.

Orca was founded as a trade book publishing house 25 years ago but over the years it has refocused its list towards the educational and library market. The house publishes about 65 books a year with a focus on teen fiction and teen-oriented titles, with a speciality in books for remedial readers, Wooldridge said. Orca distributes its own titles and also distributes the books of 10 Canadian children's book publishers in the U.S.

“We started as a trade house, but now the trade is about 15% to 18% of our business,” said Woolridge. “The rest is all libraries and educational market, which still helps us drive trade sales. Lately we’ve had our best years and both markets have been on the increase.”