Picador, Macmillan’s literary trade paperback imprint, and TED-Ed, the educational video unit of the renowned ideas conference, have teamed up to create a book-recommendation program that seeks to pair each of TED-Ed’s educational animation productions with an appropriate book.
TED-Ed director Logan Smalley explained that the program started informally about a year ago after the TED-Ed team sought to base an animated short on Picador’s Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern and David Grinspon. While working on the animation about the space probe to Pluto, TED-Ed contacted Stern—who, in addition to coauthoring the Picador title, is the planetary scientist who directed the space mission—to help develop the video’s script. Stern, in turn, asked Picador to send TED-Ed an early draft of his book, according to James Meader, Picador v-p and executive director of publicity.
The result of this initial request has been a meeting of minds and media. After that informal beginning, the two parties recognized the mutual benefits of working together. Picador has a backlist of more than 1,500 titles on a variety of nonfiction topics (from FSG, Holt, and St. Martin’s). And, Meader said, “discoverability can sometimes be a challenge at Picador.” He added, “We’re always looking for innovative ways to promote our books.”
Since its founding in 2012, TED-Ed has produced more than 1,000 short animations on a wide range of topics, including how fast a human can run to what causes nosebleeds. Spurred by its work with Picador, TED-Ed has now established a formal recommendation program that includes Audible and Picador titles, and Smalley is eager to add works from other houses. Books, he said, are central to the research and production of TED-Ed videos.
To create an animation on a particular topic, Smalley said, TED-Ed pairs one of its staff producers with a professional animator. The goal of the book-recommendation program, he said, is to pair a great book with each of the more than 1,000 animations TED-Ed has created.
“We take months to create each animation,” Smalley said. “It takes a lot of research and a lot of wonderful books to produce the learning experience involved in each one. We’re bibliophiles, so we took on the goal of adding books to all of our backlist animations and to all of them produced going forward. Our dream is to have a book associated with every animation.”
This is how the book-recommendation program works: after TED-Ed decides which titles it wants to use, the publishers pay the nonprofit program a fee; once completed, each animation ends with an image of the book jacket and information about the author.
There are plenty of animations still to come. TED-Ed posts three new animations each week, and there are 40–50 in production at all times. The animations attract massive audiences. Smalley said the TED-Ed animation library—which is featured on the TED-Ed website and its YouTube channel—is viewed more than two million times per day and has generated more than 1.5 billion views over its history.
Meader focused on TED’s nonprofit mission and emphasized that the program is not a traditional marketing/publicity buy. “It’s not advertising,” he said. “TED maintains editorial control, and they decide which books will be featured. The program is an objective stamp of approval on your book.”
TED-Ed has chosen four Picador books (from a larger submission list) to start the partnership. The first two have already been posted: Douglas Emlen’s Animal Weapons was paired with Why Isn’t the World Covered in Poop?, an animation about, yes, animal poop; and The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger has been paired with the The Penniless Pilgrim Riddle, an animation that poses a mathematical riddle.
The next two Picador titles will be posted online over the summer and in the fall. The books are Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings by James Crawford and The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.
Meader noted that Animal Weapons has been part of the TED-Ed animation since March and the backlist title has shown a spike in sales in both its print and digital editions. But Meader said Picador considers the program “an experiment,” noting, “We don’t really know what successful metrics for a program like this should look like.”
“This is about more than just increasing sales,” Meader added. “We’re trying to learn how to do something creative and worthwhile online. We’re fishing around and hoping to be surprised by what we can find out about the video/book connection.”
Correction: in an earlier version of this story the number of staff producers and the number of views generated by TED-Ed animations were incorrect.