Pokemon and Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesTwo of the most successful licenses ever in the children's book market--Pokémon in 1999-2000 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a decade earlier--were based on television shows that appealed primarily to boys. Despite this potential, however, and despite the fact that rights holders of boys' TV shows continue to view publishing as a key product category, translating these properties into book form can be a challenge.

Among the publishers that have recently signed deals involving new or upcoming boys' TV properties is Scholastic, which will release digest-sized chapter books, picture storybooks and novelty quiz and sticker books based on Butt-Ugly Martians, scheduled for a spring 2002 launch on Nickelodeon. The U.K.-originated, 3D-animated property, licensed by the Just Group, is about a trio of young Martians that come to take over Earth but fall in love with it instead. "The idea and the graphics were very different," said Craig Walker, v-p and editorial director, trade paperbacks, noting the show's music video—like style, humor and boy-friendliness. "And I have to admit that the title appealed to us."

Parachute Publishing is packaging eight chapter books tied to Sony Pictures Family Entertainment's Jackie Chan Adventures; Grosset & Dunlap will distribute. Sony, which licensed Scholastic for two chapterbooks based on its extreme-sports—themed series Max Steel, also plans to sign a publisher for Men in Black: The Series, scheduled to debut following the release of a Men in Black feature film sequel next summer.

Marvel Comics licensed its Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men properties--both comics-based but supported by TV--to Big Guy Books, publisher of a book series called Time Soldiers, after discovering the company at BookExpo America. Big Guy's books are currently sold through the Web and a toll-free number, as well as in stores in Australia and the U.K. Wal-Mart also plans to start carrying Big Guys's 48-page, 10.5 x 9 inch books, which feature photo-realistic pictures of real kids interacting with creatures from other times, such as dinosaurs. Big Guy will publish two X-Men and two Spider-Man titles, with their release timed to the Spider-Man feature film set for next summer.

Other action-adventure TV series whose licensors are currently in negotiations with publishers include Yu-Gi-Oh, which has spurred $2 billion in licensed merchandise purchases in Japan, and Cubix: Robots for Everyone, both licensed by 4Kids Entertainment; Transformers: Robots in Disguise, based on the relaunched Transformers toy line from Hasbro; and Medabots, a Japanese-origin robot series from Nelvana (all are animated).

Challenges Abound

It can be difficult for boys' TV shows to make the move into children's books. For one thing, a good part of the audience for these programs is comprised of boys aged five to 10, the older of whom are often reluctant readers. One licensor specializing in boys' action properties told PW that for this very reason, most of its shows do not have book licensees on board, except some items for younger children such as coloring and activity titles.

Joy Tashjian, president of Joy Tashjian Marketing Group, which exclusively represents animation house Mainframe Entertainment for licensing, explained that boys after about age eight or nine tend to move into video games and comic books, making those categories more logical than traditional publishing for many of Mainframe's programs, which include ReBoot and GateCrasher. Digest-sized paperbacks are a possibility, she said, but most book formats do not make sense.

"Kids have changed," said Robert Gould, president of Big Guy Books and creator of the Time Soldiers series. For boys aged five to 10, he said, "Your typical standard book is no longer as interesting or as intriguing as it used to be." Big Guy's market research has shown that competition from the Internet, movies and video games have made boys demand a more film-like experience from books, which is what Time Soldiers is trying to achieve through its story lines and especially its graphics.

Lack of interest in reading does not account for all the difficulties with boys' TV tie-ins, however. In fact, a large portion of the audience is usually under age eight, when reading is still important. "Boys read what they want to read," commented Al Kahn, CEO of 4Kids Entertainment, licensor of Pokémon as well as Cubix and Yu-Gi-Oh. He noted that Pokémon required kids to read and memorize lots of information to get the most out of the property. "With Pokémon, the whole game is about reading. You have to read."

Boys' TV properties tend to "age down" quickly and, as younger kids become fans, their older brothers lose interest. "Part of the problem with boys' properties is finding those that really click without gravitating down too fast," said Rich Maryyanek, senior v-p marketing at Golden Books (recently purchased by Random House). He cited as an example Goosebumps in the mid-1990s, which became popular with young children after the book series moved into television and licensing. "It was a marvelous property with boys and girls alike," Maryyanek said. "But it sort of became not cool anymore."

Conversely, one of the reasons for Pokémon's success, according to Scholastic's Walker, was that it remained popular with older boys, who liked the electronic game even after the TV show and the first Pokémon film brought a younger audience to the property. "Lots of the boys didn't rely on the animated aspect of it," Walker said. "It was a good game; that made all the difference. Pokémon still has a lot of resonance with the middle grades."

The content of boys' TV shows can also make publishers leery. "The violence thing is a problem for us," explained Walker, who noted that Butt-Ugly Martians is nonviolent, unlike most other boy-directed properties. Admitting that the show's name has been controversial, he added, "Who cares about [the word] 'butt'? It's violence that is so egregious."

"Mothers are unsympathetic with 'bang, bang, shoot, shoot,' " agreed Kate Klimo, v-p and publisher, Random House Books for Young Readers Group. "When it's a big fad, then mothers will cave, but if it's just another action figure or vehicle, they'd rather see something more enlightening." Boys' properties often focus on action and adventure, which do not necessarily result in a good book, Klimo continued. "There's not a lot there with the stories."

Successes such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Pokémon, of course, manage to overcome these challenges. Golden and Scholastic printed nearly 40 million books within six months of launching their Pokémon programs in 1999, for example, while Random House sold 1.2 million copies of a Turtles storybook, 1.8 million of a Turtles novelization and 760,000 of a Turtles pop-up book at that property's peak 10 years ago.

Of the Turtles, for which Random House was a lead licensee, Klimo said, "They combined the aggressive Ninja thing with a sort of childlike sense of humor. The humor was what put it over the top." She also noted that the characters originated in comic books before making their way to TV. "They weren't born in a marketeer's heart," she explained. "Some things benefit from literary roots, and comics are the boys' equivalent of literary roots."

Random House also publishes books based on the Batman franchise, which includes the animated series Batman Beyond; some of these titles have become perennials. "We still have 8 x 8 Batmans that sell remarkably well," Klimo said.

Retailers report a current dearth of successful boys' properties. Susan Dennis, a spokesperson for Kmart, noted that Pokémon did well but has fallen off. "Boys' tie-ins to the TV shows don't do that well compared to the girls'. The girls' stuff is doing great," she said, mentioning Barbie, Little Mermaid, Powerpuff Girls and Disney's Little Princesses as strong performers. "There seems to be more demand for it."

Formats Matter

Maryyanek explained that interactive titles that include hands-on activities make sense for a boys audience, even more than for girls, who also like value-added components. He cited as an example a Golden title tied to Scooby-Doo--currently the company's top boy-targeted TV license--that is packaged with a beach ball. "Boys are not your heavy-reading market," Maryyanek said. "We try to add things that they can do beyond the book. Girls can be captivated and captured more within the book."

"For boys, a little narrative goes a long way," Walker agreed, noting that the TV show itself usually satisfies this need. He reported that character guides were among Scholastic's bestselling Pokémon titles; they provided additional information and enhanced readers' enjoyment of the property.

Even more than for other types of tie-in books, Maryyanek cautioned against overpublishing. "There's a certain threshold with boys," he said. At the same time, the need for a conservative scope causes another problem: With just a few titles, it is difficult to attract attention in-store. "If we were out with Scooby-Doo with two facings, we wouldn't be doing as well," Maryyanek said, pointing out that while parents are probably aware of Scooby-Doo, they may not be familiar with newer shows, making in-store merchandising even more important. "It's about getting enough space to make a statement."

Most boys' TV success stories have had some girl-appeal as well. This was true of the Turtles and Pokémon and is true of Scooby-Doo. On the other hand, too broad an audience can hurt a boys' property in the book category. Walker noted that Scholastic's Malcolm in the Middle books, licensed from Twentieth Century Fox, were unsuccessful in part because the TV show appealed to all ages and both genders. "It works better if it says 'boys 8 to 12: this is for you,' " Walker said.

Despite the challenges inherent in trying to match boys' TV properties to books, licensors value publishing as a product category because of its ability to support the license. "Pokémon was and is significant in terms of the number of books sold," Kahn said. "But it's not so much what it meant to us from a financial standpoint as from a marketing standpoint." He noted that the books furthered the concept and story lines, which helped drive the entire phenomenon.

"Generally speaking, boys, unlike girls, need story lines to play," Kahn added. "Girls can make up their own play pattern, but you have to give boys the play pattern [through books and/or the show]. Once they understand the play pattern, they'll go out and buy toys and merchandise to support the play pattern."

"We treat publishing as a cornerstone [of a licensing program]," said Al Ovadia, Sony's executive v-p consumer products, who reported that the category ranks among the top four in importance, along with toys, video games and apparel.

"Publishers want to create books that can interest young male readers," Ovadia continued. TV shows' themes--such as extreme sports in the case of Max Steel or martial arts in the case of Jackie Chan--appeal to boys, who then look to tie-in books for more of the same, said Ovadia. "They're apt to pick up the book if they think it'll be a fun and enjoyable experience."