Move over, Harry. There's a new big cheese on the Scholastic menu, and his name is Geronimo Stilton. Stilton, a bespectacled mouse journalist, is both author and star of a new series for middle-grade readers about his adventures on colorful Mouse Island.
Already an international superstar, Stilton is poised to take the U.S. by storm this month as the first four books in Scholastic's Geronimo Stilton series hit bookshelves, boasting a first printing of 100,000 copies each and supported by a $350,000 marketing campaign—hardly a mouse-sized effort.
Originated in Italy by publisher Edizioni Piemme in 2000 with "Geronimo Stilton" billed as the author, the books became an immediate hit, captivating children with "universal, funny stories that are simple, but deep, and have good values," according to Piemme vice-president Elisabetta Dami. Technically, a human author pens the series, though Piemme and its partner publishers have vowed never to reveal the writer's identity. "Many young children believe Geronimo is real; we don't want to spoil that," said Dami.
The books' design features include full-color illustrations throughout, as well as words and phrases that are set off with varying type designs, fonts and colors.
The series had quickly grown to more than 50 titles by late 2003 and in that three-year span, Piemme sold four million Geronimo Stilton books in Italy alone. The books have since outsold Harry Potter and earned spots on Italy's general (adult) bestseller list, becoming the country's most popular children's book series ever.
In addition, Piemme has expanded the Geronimo line to include 10 book-and-cassette audiobooks, special fund-raising titles for children's charities and, most recently, a scratch-and-sniff book, The Kingdom of Fantasy (September 2003), which sold 160,000 copies in three months. To date, the series has been translated into 25 languages and rights sold in 180 countries. Piemme plans to publish close to 50 new Geronimo titles in 2004 and a stationery line will be unveiled this fall.
Such success has brought the attendant hoopla. Geronimo's "appearances" in Italy are mobbed, requiring local police to take safety and crowd-control measures. Merchandising, film, music and live stage projects are already in the works and/or being licensed around the globe. In fact, it was Warner Bros.'s interest in Geronimo that got Scholastic into the game. "Craig Walker and I were tipped off to the series by Paula Allen at Warner Bros.," recalled Jean Feiwel, publisher and editor-in-chief at Scholastic. "Paula said they were looking at the property and she wanted to know what we thought of the books," she said.
Soon afterward, Feiwel and Walker met with representatives from Piemme to see what all the buzz was about. "The format of the books themselves—with the full-color elements—was unique, and Piemme's presentation was impressive and different. We were thoroughly charmed by them," Feiwel said. "Of course, the bestselling status of the books was appealing. But Piemme was so passionate and committed to the characters and to the selling of the books. They did a lot of innovative things that created success all over Europe. We could see it was a phenomenon that had clearly taken hold and we believed that it could have applications across the water, so to speak."
Scholastic purchased world English-language rights in December of 2002, and is making Geronimo Stilton its first monthly paperback series since the Animorphs debuted in 1996. After Geronimo's multi-book premiere, one new title will be published per month.
"Retailers want to know how they can make people come into the store again and again," Feiwel said. "We know from experience that a good series can achieve that. With series like Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events or Junie B. Jones, retailers and publishers hear that one book a year or one book per season isn't enough—readers want more. But a series has to be sustainable and deliver consistent entertainment value over time. Someone has to be thinking about where a series and its characters are going by, say, book 17—there must be an arc, and an author who can do the work to a certain quality. With Geronimo, Piemme's vistas are huge, in terms of what they have imagined for these characters."
Moving forward, Scholastic is translating the first 50-plus books from the Italian and working with one writer who is doing minor rewriting. "The translations are not verbatim, but they definitely maintain all the flavor of the series," said Feiwel.
Craig Walker, v-p, trade paperbacks, is overseeing the series. As the first four books—Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye, The Curse of the Cheese Pyramid, Cat and Mouse in a Haunted House and I'm Too Fond of My Fur!—arrive at U.S. retail, they will quickly be landing in other English-language markets, too. Scholastic in the U.S. is fully coordinating with its counterparts in the U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand, as well as with its book clubs and book fairs, for the launch.
All told, Feiwel estimates that a total of one million copies of the first four books will be released through these combined channels over a four- to six-week period. "We believe that this type of full-court-press distribution is the best way to quickly establish a new series," she noted.
According to Elizabeth Eulberg, publicity manager for Scholastic, the publisher is introducing Geronimo to booksellers, too, via a number of marketing efforts. Scholastic produced 17,000 copies of The Rodent's Gazette and distributed it to accounts in 2003. Plans are to publish the paper quarterly. Standees, store newsletter kits and advance copies of the books also served as enticements for retailers in recent weeks.
Reader outreach will be a major component of Scholastic's publishing plans. (On this front, the company adapts a page from the Piemme marketing playbook.) Ballots that poll children about their opinions on issues that are important to them (school, friends, family, community) will soon be distributed via displays, book clubs and online at the newly launched Web site area, www.scholastic.com/geronimostilton. An outside firm will tally all the responses in March and results will be printed in a future issue of The Rodent's Gazette and released to the newswire services as well.
Geronimo has also become part of Scholastic's national milk carton promotion. The VIR (Very Important Rodent) will be featured on over 166 million milk cartons, to be distributed in schools across the country this spring.
Only time will tell, but both Piemme and Scholastic are hoping that their collaboration turns out to be what Geronimo himself would call "a whisker-licking-good story."