Since his debut in 1975 in Golden Books'Just for You, Mercer Mayer's Little Critter has appeared in 125 books. The character is currently benefiting from a burst of activity, including a new frontlist publisher, an increased number of titles and formats, growing marketing support and a long-awaited TV series moving closer to fruition.
Mayer was a noted writer/illustrator by the time he developed Little Critter in the mid-1970s. His first children's book, A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog, from Dial Press, was published in 1967, and his illustration work included J.D. Fitzgerald's Great Brain series. To date, he has written and/or illustrated 300 books, 250 of them for children.
Little Critter wasn't immediately embraced by potential partners, however. "I took it to one publisher," Mayer recalled, "and [the editors] flipped through it and asked, 'Do you really want to publish another dumb little animal book?' I said yes I did, and I took it elsewhere." Little Critter books have gone on to sell more than 120 million copies over the last two and a half decades.
HarperCollins's mass market imprint, HarperFestival, recently acquired English and North American Spanish-language rights to 26 titles from Mayer's Big Tuna Group, and will publish the Little Critter frontlist starting in fall 2004. The first releases will include two 8x8 storybooks, two coloring and activity titles and a hardcover storybook; novelty and board books are among the other formats planned.
"We have a lot of movie-based titles, but we wanted to be more aggressive in the mass market," said Jodi Harris, editor at HarperFestival. "We wanted to take a character who lived in the mass market and make it go further."
While Little Critter has historically been focused on 8x8 storybooks, Harris explained that Harper will give attention to every format, adding that she expected a strong presence in chains and some independents as well as mass retail channels. "It's such a strong character," she noted.
Random House/ Golden Books has 50 to 60 Little Critter titles that are still active, including the original Just for You, some of which are in multi-title storybooks. According to Mindy Jones, associate marketing director of Random House/Golden Books for Young Readers Group, Random has been publishing two frontlist titles per year under its current contract and sold more than three million Little Critter storybooks in 2001.
Random House had been involved with Mayer before it purchased Golden, starting with a spin-off license, Critters of the Night, in the 1980s. It also published a few Little Critter titles that had debuted as a proprietary line for Barnes & Noble, developed by Mayer under his Green Frog imprint. Random tried integrating Little Critter into its Step into Reading line, but that initiative wasn't considered a success, said Kate Klimo, v-p and publisher, Random House/Golden Books Young Readers Group.
A relatively new partner for Little Critter is McGraw-Hill, which has been bringing the character into the educational market since 1999. It started by marrying Little Critter to its existing Spectrum workbooks, a combination that has resulted in sales of over 500,000 copies. "We wanted to come up with a license with some educational panache and some integrity, especially for preschool and lower grades," said Tracey Dils, trade publisher for McGraw-Hill Children's Publishing. McGraw-Hill then used Little Critter to launch its First Readers series, based on the Open Court Reading curriculum developed by McGraw-Hill's SRA imprint; the first 18 titles have averaged sales of 30,000 books per month. Dils noted that this line has been doing well in libraries, and six of the titles have been released with library bindings. This year, McGraw-Hill expanded Little Critter into 16 32-page workbooks under the Brighter Child imprint, and Dils believes the $2.99 price point should help the workbooks make more inroads into mass channels.
McGraw-Hill has expanded its relationship with Mayer beyond Little Critter with the re-release of some of Mayer's earlier, out-of-print picture books. The first batch was introduced in February 2002, followed by additional titles in early 2003 for a total of eight. The books, which include A Silly Story and The Great Cat Chase, were originally published by Parents Press, Golden Books and Dial Press.
With HarperCollins as the character's new frontlist publisher, Mayer said, "It's a good opportunity to spread the word about Little Critter." He also pointed out that the publicity will help boost other publishers' offerings as well: "It helps all of Little Critter."
And while Little Critter has not been marketed extensively over its lifetime, a number of initiatives are planned for this year and beyond. It's too early to know specific marketing plans associated with the Harper introduction, but the new publisher is likely to generate awareness among retailers and consumers for all Little Critter titles.
In addition, for 2003, Random House is marketing Little Critter with its biggest campaign to date. The yearlong effort includes national advertising to 14.3 million readers of Parents magazine, supplemented by a targeted mailing to independent bookstores. Jones noted that the company always makes Little Critter materials such as event kits available to retailers, but this is the first time it has promoted the brand with wide and repeated advertising.
McGraw-Hill also plans additional marketing support for Little Critter. Dils hopes to make a greater connection with the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" guidelines, for example, explaining what they are, why they're important and how the books adhere to them. To this end, she wants to develop a series of vehicles that retailers can use to enforce the connection, such as customized newsletters, shelf-talkers or displays that gather the leveled readers together, creating a mini at-home reading program. "Retailers have a real opportunity with the new educational reforms," Dils said.
These marketing programs come at an opportune time. Retailers report that Little Critter, which goes through the cyclical ups and downs that characterize any classic, has not been as strong over the last few years as it had been in the past. "The Mercer Mayer license is pretty sleepy," noted Jenie Carlen, spokesperson for Borders, which carries 30 Little Critter titles. "The classic 8x8 issues-oriented titles still are strong sellers," she added. At Kmart, Little Critter is classified as a second-tier license and is not part of the company's current offerings. (For comparison, Kmart considers Sesame Street, Bob the Builder and Nickelodeon characters as among the top-tier licenses; G.I. Joe and Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat are second-tier properties.) "[Little Critter] has been trending down over the last three years," said Kmart spokesperson Susan Dennis.
"A major factor in any discussion of Little Critter's trajectory is that its core format is the 8x8 storybook," Klimo maintained. "Any license whose core format is the 8x8 must be suffering some in its success. The 8x8 category is so saturated."
TV and Merchandise
Although retailers and many publishers refer to Little Critter as a license, there has been virtually no merchandising around the character. "We definitely decided to avoid it," said Mayer, who noted that he has talked repeatedly to toy companies and other manufacturers throughout the years, but "it just never worked out. We just can't do it until it's really right."
The only nonbook products available are CD-ROMs, with four titles (Just Grandma and Me, Just Me and My Dad, Just Me and My Mom and Just Me and My Grandpa) on the market, along with two based on Mayer's Little Monsters. The software is developed by Big Tuna and currently distributed by Infogrames Entertainment.
The lack of Little Critter merchandise has precluded cross-promotions between publishers and licensees, a frequently utilized marketing tool in mass-market publishing. Golden promoted one of its books in an Infogrames title and vice versa, but that was the extent of cross-merchandising activity. Once the TV show that is in development airs, there may be possibilities for merchandising, said Mayer.
Mayer and his business partner John Sansavere have been working on a Little Critter TV show with various partners since the mid-1980s. "It's like with a machete, cutting through a forest," said Mayer of the deal-making process. In the mid-1990s, they created a 22-minute pilot, Just Me and My Dad, which Golden Books distributed as a video for a time. They had a deal with Golden and Disney at one point for 26 episodes, but that ended when Golden, which was providing some of the financing for the show, went into bankruptcy.
Currently, Little Critter is in development at Nelvana as a 13-episode animated series. The studio told PW it is in negotiations with a U.S. broadcaster and seeking a coproducer, and is promoting the show at international television trade shows. Sansavere is writing the scripts, while Mayer is working with Nelvana on the art. "We don't want it to go out if we don't feel 100%," Sansavere said.
Little Critter publishers are looking forward to the series, but they note that television adaptation often doesn't have the impact on publishing it had a few years ago. "Arthur is a good example of what a TV show can do," said Klimo. "[The book] was comfortably ensconced in the trade for years and years, and the show basically jumped the business exponentially." But today, she says, the environment is different. "Now there are so many other literary properties and controllers of literary properties that have tried to follow that model. So many properties have book roots that they're not automatic shoo-ins."
In addition to their work with Little Critter, Mercer and Sansavere are developing features based on some of Mayer's books from the 1970s as well as working on a new publishing and film property. But about 70% of their time is spent on Little Critter. "Little Critter has taken care of an awful lot of people for an awful long time," said Mayer. "We have to take care of him."