Television shows, from Columbo to Criminal Minds, have long inspired book series in the mystery genre. Creating licensed novels based on a detective show—attracting TV fans and satisfying the show’s producers, while not alienating avid mystery readers—can be difficult. Yet the track record of such publishing programs is good, with several achieving bestseller status and some outliving the show on which they’re based.
“The difference [between tie-ins and other mysteries] is, you want to make sure you’re extending the brand of the show properly, and make sure the show’s creatives are involved and on board,” says Gretchen Young, Hyperion’s v-p and editorial director, ABC Synergy. Hyperion, which, like ABC, is owned by the Walt Disney Company, publishes books tied to ABC Studios’ Castle, with sales of more than one million copies, in e-book and print formats, of three titles to date. “But just like any good fiction, you want to tell a great, page-turning story and have sharp character development. It’s never easy to do, but when it’s someone else’s mythology, you want to be extra careful.”
“Publishing is a huge cornerstone for C.S.I.,” says Liz Kalodner, executive v-p and general manager, CBS Consumer Products. CBS has worked with Simon & Schuster, another CBS company, on 30 novels over 10 years based on C.S.I., C.S.I.: New York, and C.S.I.: Miami, with 3.5 million-plus copies in print. “Simon & Schuster was our first licensee. On top of that, we’ve developed the brand further.”
Shows with viewerships that span the generations can be particularly attractive for tie-in programs, according to Sandra Harding, senior editor at Penguin’s New American Library imprint, which publishes the Murder, She Wrote and Monk series and published Burn Notice, Psych, and Criminal Minds in the past. The structure of the show makes a difference, she adds. “Is it a show that you can create discrete adventures from? Some have complicated plotting and subplots that run over several episodes.”
Choosing the right author is key. “The core cast, the tone, and the world are already there and are a springboard from which you can work,” says Harding. “But that can be a pro and a con. The author has to be comfortable reflecting that tone and integrating the devices from the show into the books. You have to stay true to the show, while still bringing a fresh take.”
Some authors are associated with the TV program. Lee Goldberg, author of the Monk and Diagnosis Murder books, was a writer for both of those shows as well as of mysteries not based on TV shows. Others are established mystery writers. Donald Bain, author of Coffee, Tea or Me? and 115 other books, is the coauthor, along with the fictional Jessica Fletcher, of the Murder, She Wrote series.
Some are written by unnamed ghosts. The character Richard Castle is billed as the author of Hyperion’s Nikki Heat books, tied to Castle. The show centers on Castle’s ride-alongs with detective Kate Beckett, the inspiration for Nikki Heat. Hyperion’s third Castle novel, Heat Rises, debuted at #1 on the New York Times hardcover fiction list in October 2011; a fourth, Frozen Heat, is due this September.
Tie-in books can help producers keep fans’ interest when a show is off the air or in repeats. Hyperion offered downloads of 10 chapters of the first Nikki Heat novel between Castle’s first and second seasons. “It kept the fans invested and engaged, and they were at the ready when the next season started,” Young says.
This summer, Hyperion is releasing a series of three e-novellas in May, July, and August. The conceit is that they are new books by Richard Castle that bring back a character, Derrick Storm, who had been the protagonist of Castle’s previous bestsellers before Castle and the Heat series began.
“For us, the idea that we can keep the stories being told and keep engaging the fans is appealing,” says Kim Niemi, senior v-p, NBC Universal Television Consumer Products Group, licensor of Monk, Psych, and Murder, She Wrote. “If we can outlive the first run of the show, that’s a really successful program for us.” The Murder, She Wrote franchise made the leap to publishing in 1989 and is still going strong, with 38 titles to date and two new hardcover titles a year. Monk’s TV run ended in 2009, but the publishing program continues, with two books released each year for a total of 14 so far.
“[The longevity] shows people’s devotion to those characters and the world,” says Harding. “The books give them a place to go for more stories even after the show ends.”
Cross-promotion between the books, shows, and spinoff products such as DVDs—online, in social media, on-air, in-package, and at retail—elevates all three. “It’s a great parallel track,” says Leslie Levine, founder and president of Castle licensing agent LicensingWorks! who reports that Castle interactive games, board games, trading cards, calendars, and T-shirts will launch this fall. “The publishing has seeded the demand for Castle products in certain retailers.”
While successful book series can grow from TV, the opposite is true as well. For example, Showtime’s top-rated Dexter is based on a Doubleday series by Jeff Lindsay that started with 2004’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter. The show debuted in 2006.
The trade paper edition of the first book (upon which the initial TV season was based) features a tie-in cover showing Michael C. Hall, the lead actor in the show. “The series was selling nicely beforehand, but the sales really jumped up after the show,” according to Jason Kaufman, v-p and executive editor, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, who notes that every hardcover released since the show’s premiere has reached the New York Times bestseller list.
Doubleday has never published tie-ins to existing TV shows. “I wouldn’t be averse to it if it was the right show,” Kaufman says. “It’s hard to do it well. There can be a perception that it’s just a spinoff, like a piece of merchandise. Not that it wouldn’t work, but it’s difficult.”
Another growth area for detective and mystery shows has been graphic novels. IDW has published C.S.I. titles, for example, while Marvel will release its second Castle book, featuring Derrick Storm, in October.
Kelly Sue DeConnick, co-writer with Brian Michael Bendis of Marvel’s Storm books, says creating a story within the world of a television show can be a challenge, not unlike that of writing within a shared comic book universe. “But ultimately none of that matters,” she says. “It all goes back to good storytelling. Fiction, no matter the format, is all about making us feel human and connected. Everything else is packaging.”
Building Book Sales with Lego
In 2011 toymaker Lego saw its U.S. sales rise 22%, compared to a 2% decline for the toy industry as a whole. That growth is reflected in Lego’s expanded licensing program, led by publishing.
“As learning and imagination are core Lego values, publishing has been a natural place for us to connect with Lego fans over the last eight years,” says Lee Allentuck, Lego’s senior licensing manager. “In fact, it’s our fastest-growing licensing category. Publishing allows us to extend the Lego brand to new channels, while adding depth of engagement for Lego fans and attracting new builders to the Lego world.”
Scholastic has been a licensee since 2003, currently publishing at least five titles a season, with eight scheduled for fall 2012. “It’s always been steady, but we’ve seen a real spike in the last two years,” says Debra Dorfman, v-p and publisher, paperbacks, licensing, and nonfiction.
DK Publishing’s current Lego partnership dates to 2008, although the two companies had collaborated occasionally before that. The first book from the new relationship was the Lego Star Wars Visual Dictionary, which ended up spending 81 weeks as a New York Times bestseller, including 18 weeks at #1. “We thought we had a strong product, but it just took off,” says Therese Burke, senior v-p, sales and marketing. DK now has 27 Lego titles in print, some featuring Lego figures or bricks, with nine more planned for 2012.
Properties under the Lego umbrella range from Lego City to Lego Hero Factory, along with co-branded offerings such as Lego Star Wars, Lego Harry Potter, and Lego Batman. A recent introduction, Lego Friends, is the company’s first brand for girls; DK and Scholastic will introduce books this fall.
Lego Ninjago, backed by a Cartoon Network series, is a current boys’ favorite. Scholastic and DK publish Ninjago titles, as does Papercutz, whose publisher, Terry Nantier, believes the TV exposure has helped propel the property. “I don’t think anyone realized what that was going to unleash in terms of the success of the toys,” he says. “We just can’t seem to contain this thing.” Papercutz’s first Ninjago graphic novel, released in November, has 300,000 copies in print; a third releases in May.
Lego books are cross-promoted with toys and licensed products at retail and through the two million–member Lego Club. “Customers are crossing back and forth between the books and toys in a very natural way,” Burke says. “They’re truly complementary.”