HarperCollins Plays with Adopt Me! and Pac-Man

U.K.-based Farshore and its sibling imprint HarperCollins Children’s Books in the U.S. have acquired global master publishing rights to Uplift Games’ Adopt Me!, one of the most popular games on the Roblox platform.

HarperCollins was the exclusive master publisher for Roblox starting in 2018, when the platform had a lot of players but was not the powerhouse it is today. The Roblox publishing program covered a wide variety of formats and did well, according to Tomas Palacios, executive editor at HarperCollins. But after its massive platform growth, Roblox decided to move away from book publishing.

“We were thinking about how we could replicate that,” Palacios said. Emma Cairns-Smith, global licensing acquisition director at Farshore, who negotiated the deal with Uplift, and Rich Thomas, v-p and director of publishing at Harper Children’s Books, who did the Roblox deal, suggested Adopt Me! could be that next big thing.

Members of the Roblox community are both players and creators of the games on the platform; as creators, they retain the rights to extend their IP into other product categories, including publishing. “Adopt Me! became its own brand and entity and is the first Roblox game to do so,” Palacio said.

The game’s numbers are impressive: more than 33 billion visits, a peak 1.92 million users playing concurrently, 425 million users spending a total of seven billion hours playing, and more than 10 million social media followers. Palacios pointed out that a publishing program needs just a tiny fraction of those numbers to succeed.

In the game, players adopt, raise, and nurture pets, build homes, make friends within the world, and collect more than 200 animal characters, some of them rare. “It’s constantly refreshed and never stale,” Palacios said. “And the team behind it really had a vision, and they know licensing.”

The middle grade–focused publishing program will include a variety of formats. Adopt Me! Dress Your Pets, which has 24 pages of sticker activities and 24 pages of stickers, and Adopt Me! Perfect Pets Journal came out on August 15, about a month after the U.K. launch. Inside the World of Adopt Me!, which is HarperCollins’s take on the U.K.’s “annual” format, comes out in September, with a second title in this format set for February 2025. Adopt Me! The Official Game Guide #1 is scheduled for March 2024, with a second game guide planned for June 2025. And a search-and-find product is scheduled for September 2024.

All of those titles originated at Farshore and are being tweaked for the U.S. market as needed. The U.S. group, meanwhile, is developing two original fiction titles, a middle-grade novel called Adopt Me! Sophia Lee and the Queen Bee, which will be released in hardcover in July 2024, and an original graphic novel set for September 2025.

“[The Uplift team] was transparent and honest with us that they had a lot of stories that were created for gaming, and they didn’t know if they were relevant for publishing,” Palacios said. “They did have a lot of great ideas that worked for games. But we found certain moments within those that could be expanded on and turned into a published book.” After a back-and-forth, the two teams came up with a concept for a middle grade novel that is true to the game, promotes positivity, and also features what Palacios described as a great story with conflict and change. The graphic novel, meanwhile, will be shepherded by Andrew Arnold, editorial director of HarperAlley, who was responsible for the smash-hit Dungeons & Dragons middle grade graphic novel.

Another new license for HarperCollins is Pac-Man. The idea for Pac-Man: Keep Calm and Nom Nom Nom, a novelty gift book featuring inspiration, encouragement, advice, and wisdom from Pac-Man and friends, came up opportunistically at Licensing Expo 2022. “The game is really about how Pac-Man just gets through the day without getting in trouble or getting caught,” Palacios said. “Life can be a crazy maze, and no one knows that as much as Pac-Man.” The title, which is in the vein of HarperCollins’s Pete the Cat’s Groovy Guide to Life, releases September 26 and is expected to appeal to readers from the early chapter book through the upper middle grade level, as well as older fans of the game.

Andrews McMeel Adds Licenses to Growing Children’s List

For the last two years, Andrews McMeel has been increasing the number of children’s titles it publishes. With that expansion, it has brought several new licenses on board, maintaining a list that includes about half licensed and half proprietary titles.

Erinn Pascal, who has a history in licensed publishing at houses including Scholastic and Simon & Schuster, was hired in August 2021 as the company’s senior editor, children’s books and licensing. “A big part of my heart and home is licensing,” Pascal said. Previously, the Andrew McMeel editorial team had worked on both children’s and adult titles, including licensing success stories such as Big Nate. “But before I got here, we never had a dedicated kids’ book editor before.”

Andrews McMeel is debuting a half dozen new licensed children’s publishing programs in 2024. One is Afro Unicorn, an inspirational property celebrating diversity, created by entrepreneur April Showers. The company is producing a series of graphic novels for its newish early readers line, which focuses on ages six to nine with a secondary market of English-language learners. The first title, Land of Afronia, comes in spring 2024; Afronia Academy follows in summer 2024; and two more titles are ahead in 2025. “This is entirely April’s vision,” Pascal said.

“These are really fun adventure stories that happen to be written for early readers,” she added. “I don’t like to call them reluctant readers but distracted readers. They read a lot when they’re playing video games or watching TikTok, but a book can be more intimidating. This will give them something that will pull them into reading books.”

Pascal reached out to Showers after discovering Afro Unicorn’s licensed party supplies. She already had a literary agent and had put together a proposal that fit perfectly with what Pascal was thinking. The books will introduce some new characters, in addition to featuring the main Afro Unicorn characters, and will delve into some of the lore of the world of Afronia for the first time.

Another new license is Tara Tremendous from WonkyDot Studio, a podcast about a 14-year-old girl who has every power of every superhero in history. The program will start with a graphic novel in 2024, followed by a middle-grade chapter book in 2025, both written by creator Stewart St. John. “It’s a fresh take on superheroes,” Pascal said.

A YA graphic novel tied to Neopets—the virtual pet brand that was introduced in 1999 and recently relaunched with new owners—is set for release in summer 2024 in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the property. That initial title will be followed by another in fall 2024 and two in 2025. Andrews McMeel published a well-received adult cookbook in June 2023 based on the property and plans to debut a tarot deck in spring 2024.

For Squishmallows, the kids’ collectible brand from toy company Jazwares, the publisher is planning an affirmation book, Squishmallows: Radiate Positivity, in January. “It’s about living your life like a ’Mallow,” Pascal said, explaining that the title is full of love, kindness, encouragement, humor, and uplifting words and exercises. Andrews McMeel also publishes calendars based on the property.

The company is also the master licensee for two movie programs from Universal Brand Development and Dreamworks Animation, Kung Fu Panda 4 and Despicable Me 4. This is the first time it has published against these franchises, but it worked with the licensor on Puss in Boots: The Last Wish last year. It is publishing a junior novelization and an activity book for each, with Kung Fu Panda coming in spring 2024 and Despicable Me in summer.

Expect to see more new licensed publishing from Andrews McMeel. “I’m looking for properties that are ripe for storytelling, and that lend themselves to original stories that are wanted and needed and actually say something,” Pascal said. She noted that the ideal property is fun but contains more serious themes, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion or social-emotional learning.

Disney and Its Licensees Mark 100th Anniversary with Disney Wish

Walt Disney Animation Studio’s feature film Disney Wish, releasing this November—at the culmination of the Disney100 anniversary celebration—is about an idealist named Asha whose powerful wish is answered by a cosmic force called Star. Together the two confront King Magnifico and save Asha’s community, in a film voiced by actors including Ariana DeBose, Chris Pine, and Alan Tudyk. The film’s behind-the-scenes team includes many of the same people involved with the Frozen franchise and Encanto.

The film honors Disney’s 100 years of history, with the title inspired by Pinocchio’s “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The mix of 2D and 3D animation is an homage to the evolution of animation styles throughout the studio’s history. “Wish is an original story with original characters inspired by the last 100 years of Disney Animation films, while setting the stage for the next century of epic adventures,” said Elizabeth Ansfield, lead editor for the Disney Wish publishing program. “Needless to say, there is a lot of excitement surrounding this film.”

The publishing program includes a Big Golden Book, Little Golden Book, board book, Step into Reading titles, junior novelizations, and a graphic novel from Random House; novelty books from Studio Fun, Phidal, and PI Kids; Disney Wish Ultimate Sticker Book and Disney Wish Pop-Up Peekaboo! from DK; coloring and activity books from Bendon; The Art of Wish from Chronicle Books; and Disney Wish: A Guided Wishing Journal from Insight Editions; along with titles from Disney Press. Worldwide, including the U.S., 200 titles are planned so far.

“The stellar art and editorial content provide an extension of the film for kids, families, and fans to enjoy with a wide range of products and price points for the marketplace,” said Hunter Heller, director of licensing for Disney Publishing Worldwide.

Ansfield said that while all Disney films lend themselves to wonderful books, this film feels particularly special. “Wish has all the ingredients that make a dynamic and original story: a strong and inspirational heroine, a dastardly villain, engaging music, great humor, and delightful sidekicks,” she said. “Its strong central message—‘There’s no greater power in the universe than someone with a true wish in their heart’—presents many opportunities for inspiring and relatable storytelling. The filmmakers have also opened a lot of narrative space for us to expand on the story and take the characters on new adventures.”

Ansfield noted that Asha’s companions, Star, “a little cosmic ball of boundless energy and curiosity,” and the talkative pajama-wearing baby goat Valentino, are likely to become fan favorites and are featured in their own titles, Disney Wish: The Grateful Goat from Disney Press (Oct. 2023) and Star’s Magic from Random House (Jan. 2024).

Early Superhero Flash Gordon Joins Mad Cave

King Features has named Mad Cave Studios its master publisher for comic books and graphic novels featuring the classic comic strip property Flash Gordon. The first titles in the program are set for spring 2024 and will include new stories as well as reprints of comic strips and other previously published content from the property’s history.

“One of the things that is really important to our creators is the power of graphic storytelling, and Flash Gordon is an integral part of the DNA of what makes comics comics,” said Mark Irwin, senior v-p at Mad Cave. “This was one of the first superheroes, and [Flash Gordon creator] Alex Raymond is the forefather and godfather of our industry.”

Although Flash Gordon celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2024, it has an all-ages audience, in part due to the 1980 film starring Sam J. Jones and featuring a soundtrack by Queen. “The audience is an interesting mix,” Irwin said. “There’s quite a bit of nostalgia, and there are fans of the film, which is a cult classic.” Jones even had his own booth at San Diego Comic Con. “Wow, what a great spokesman,” Irwin said. “His booth was mobbed, and it was a lot of kids and a lot of excitement.”

The publishing program will extend across all of the company’s imprints, including the adult-focused Mad Cave, the YA and middle grade-focused Maverick, and the all-ages Papercutz, and will include floppy comics, graphic novels, and comic strip collections. “If you’re nostalgic and love Alex Raymond and all the old Flash Gordon strips, we have something for you,” Irwin said. “If you’re new to Flash Gordon and don’t know who he is, we have something for you, too.”

He noted that fans are always interested in seeing classic superheroes like Flash Gordon in a new way. “I think they’ll be both surprised and excited by what we have planned.”

Mad Cave saw a positive reaction to the program at Comic Con, Irwin said. “We were a little surprised by it. There was excitement from people who want to write or draw Flash Gordon and from fans who can’t wait for the program to start. We’re still getting pitches daily from writers all over the world who want to be part of this program.”

King Features has had a strong reprint program across its classic comic brands, including Flash Gordon, with Titan. The Flash Gordon business transitions to Mad Cave with this deal. “We think the reprints are super important from a historical perspective,” said Christina Nix Lynch, licensing director at King Features, noting it’s been about five years since there’s been any new publishing on the market for the property. Mad Cave has access to content from various Flash Gordon publishers over the years, from Whitman to King Features’ own imprint, as well as rights to the Defenders of the Earth characters from the 1980s TV series that featured Flash Gordon and other King Features characters.

King Features is supporting the property with a licensing program; new content for its syndicated comic strips and Comics Kingdom, its online comics platform; and a film that is pending with Disney and its Fox division. “That will help further elevate the brand and bring it to a new audience,” Nix Lynch said. “We’re extending the brand in all areas of our business.”

Sourcebooks and Huggies Celebrate Alphabutts

Sourcebooks’ eXplore imprint, which focuses on young children’s nonfiction, is publishing a book with the diaper brand Huggies called The Alphabutt Book: An ABCs of Baby Butts & Bodies. “It’s a really fun read-aloud at its core,” said Kelly Barrales-Saylor, editorial director at Sourcebooks eXplore. “The underlying theme is that everybody has a butt and they’re all special and fun and wonderful in their own way.”

One interesting twist is that each letter of the alphabet is illustrated by a different artist, all of whom had free rein to do an illustration inspired by the text on their spread. “I love giving illustrators room to create,” Barrales-Saylor said. “And it’s an incredibly diverse grouping of artists.” Some are children’s illustrators, some work in advertising, some are fine artists, and they represent a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds, with 70% of the artists BIPOC, nonbinary, or female. The book highlights each illustrator on the page they created as well as on a spread in the back of the book.

The Alphabutt Book is a picture book focused on an audience of babies through age six or seven. Noting that alphabet books tend to be board books, Barrales-Saylor said, “We’re no stranger to creating alphabet books as picture books,” citing P Is for Pterodactyl as one successful example. She noted that children in the early elementary grades are still learning the alphabet, albeit in a different way than babies, and “it’s fun to say butts.”

Barrales-Saylor said the reception for the book has been positive so far. “There’s often a stigma of working with a corporation on a co-branded title,” she said. “People think it will be very corporate or have a lot of advertising in it. But this is unusual. It’s really fun and funny, and an engaging read.” The branding consists of a logo on the back of the book and a short message from Huggies stating its belief that all bodies are wonderful and explaining that the proceeds from sales of the book are going to support the National Diaper Bank Network, a cause it is passionate about, Barrales-Saylor said.

Huggies and its creative agency, Quality Meats, pitched the book in nearly finished form, with Sourcebooks substituting just a few words. The title will be on the market just six weeks or so after acquisition.

“It’s been very collaborative and positive, and that made the whole thing even better,” she said. “And you’re supporting a great cause.”

Initially, the book will be available in Sourcebooks’ regular trade outlets, but it plans to work with Huggies to see if there are any unique distribution opportunities through Huggies’ corporate channels.

Zombie Season Hits Roblox Through Deal with Scholastic

Scholastic has entered the Roblox metaverse with its new book-and-game property, Zombie Season. While the publisher has offered multiplatform properties in the past, notably 39 Clues, this is the first time it has experimented with Roblox. “Roblox has 65 million daily active users and 40% of them are under 12,” said Erin Berger, senior v-p, trade marketing and publicity, at Scholastic. “You can’t argue with the numbers.”

The Roblox game, developed by Scholastic’s marketing department with digital marketing agency Media Monks, launched this month in beta form, while the first book in the middle-grade book series, written by Justin Weinberger, comes out on September 5 and possibly a little earlier in the school channels. A second title is planned for May 2024 with a third to follow.

The property is set in zombie-ravaged California, where this year the annual zombie season is worse than ever. A group of kids sets out to discover the zombies’ mysterious origins while they set traps and laid defenses by day and fight the zombies when they appear at dusk. “It’s a fast-paced, exciting, fun read,” Berger said.

The complementary game invites players to join the fight and help find clues to the zombies’ origins. Some of the characters from the book make an appearance, as do clues and audio excerpts from the book. “The book and the game are satisfying on their own, but doing both enhances and amplifies the experience,” Berger said. A QR code on the book leads readers directly to the Roblox game, while the game features billboards of the cover and other subtle reminders of the book.

The property also has a presence on Scholastic’s proprietary digital destination, Home Base, which, akin to Roblox, features games, environments (islands) for different books, chats and newsfeeds, author readings, and a place to log reading streaks. “There’s a lot to do, and kids spend a lot of time there,” Berger said. “Zombie Season is heavily featured and very active, but we didn’t want to just default on Home Base. We wanted to try something new.”

Berger noted that the book series will be promoted in trade and school channels, with author appearances and a school tour, mailings including mini “super chillers”—a Super Soaker-like device that knocks out the zombies—and more. “We really believe in this series,” Berger said. “Yes, we have this massive thing with Roblox, but we’re still pulling all the traditional levers in addition to that.”

In Brief

Jeffrey Brown, author of the bestselling Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess, is set to publish a new Star Wars-inspired title for Chronicle Books in November. The Mandalorian and Child follows the adventures of Din Djarin, the Mandalorian bounty hunter, and his charge Grogu (a.k.a. “Baby Yoda”). All told there are 35 products in this franchise to date, including nine books…. The Joester Loria Group, the global licensing agent for The World of Eric Carle, named Penguin Ventures as the sub-agent for the property in the U.K. and Ireland…. Kartoon Studios paired with VeVe for a collection of 8,000 Stan Lee Digital collectibles that sold out almost instantly. Kartoon Studios, through a joint venture with POW! Entertainment, owns and manages the global rights to Stan Lee’s name, likeness, signature, voice, and IP under the Stan Lee Universe brand…. WildBrain CPLG has signed several consumer products deals for HarperCollins Productions’ Carmen Sandiego, including Threadless for print-on-demand products in several categories, The Loyal Subjects for fashion dolls and figurines, and Tonies for a digital audio device and content…. Studio Fun International is adding to its list of Peppa Pig titles with a new format that includes a removable pop-it toy on the cover that readers can play with as they read. Peppa Pig: Pop It with Peppa! comes out in September 2023 and is for ages two to five…. Penguin Young Readers’ Bluey publishing program, under license from BBC Studios, is expanding with the release of Bluey and Bingo’s Fancy Restaurant Cookbook as well as several holiday titles, including a bilingual story, a box set, and a coloring book... Random House Children’s Books partnered with Little Tikes to launch the early-literacy-focused Story Dream Machine, a portable projector that allows children to watch, listen, and read along to Random House classic storybook collections, including Little Golden Books. Content includes both Random House-owned and licensed titles.