Back in early December, when we meet with Lisa Holton about her new book packaging company, Fourth Story Media, it seems like an oddly exhilarating moment to be discussing a start-up, much less a book publishing start-up. Back then, word had just leaked that Houghton Mifflin wasn't acquiring new books. Anxiety about the state of publishing, and the deteriorating state of the economy, was mounting. Everyone, it seemed, was nervous. That's why Holton's cheery attitude seemed decidedly out of place... and decidedly refreshing.

Perched in a cozy top floor of a classic dot-com-like space—Fourth Story is in a former sail-making factory on a short cobblestoned street at New York City's South Street Seaport—Holton exuded excitement. Having recently left corporate America—she stepped down as president of Scholastic Trade in 2007—she's now focused on her current job, a deep multimedia YA series called The Amanda Project that HarperCollins is launching this fall. After last year's launch of The 39 Clues, Scholastic's elaborate book-series-wrapped-in-a-contest-connected-to-a-Web-site-with-play-along-trading-cards, the Amanda Project is primed to be one of the most ambitious multimedia children's series to date.

And, whether the Amanda Project fails or succeeds, its existence speaks to the fast-changing face of children's publishing. Kids, more so than adults, are ready for books delivered on a multitude of platforms, willing to follow stories that begin in print and wend their way onto computer screens and various handheld devices. This makes for both an exciting and anxious moment in children's publishing, as longtime progenitors of print and ink tales are trying to figure out how to present content, and a reading experience, in a wholly different way.

While other publishers have done books with digital, off-the-page content—Running Press's 2006 YA mystery, Cathy's Book, sent readers to phone recordings and URLs, and Dutton recently acquired an adult series from CSI creator Anthony Zuiker that will pair a print mystery with a collection of grisly film clips—39 Clues set a new standard for this emerging genre. More elaborate and more expensive than previous efforts, 39 Clues is a planned 10-book series that attaches an ongoing mystery plot to playing cards, an online contest and a deep Web site featuring games, videos, elaborate backstories and more. (The sales pitch on the back of the books announced—“Read the Books. Collect the Cards. Play the Game. Win the Prizes.”)

Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children's Books, called 39 Clues the “first very formal large stake in the ground” in this arena. She also believes these kinds of projects are steering a bold new direction for children's publishing. “The 39 Clues and the Amanda Project are today, they are 2009, and this is us figuring out the way to the future.”

The 39 Clues, which embedded a boy-friendly gaming element into a story about two kids who go on a global treasure hunt, has become more of a ready-made brand than a mere print book series. (This is likely one of the reasons Steven Spielberg bought the film rights last summer.) The series also presented Scholastic with an immediate opportunity to make money on more than just books—to date, according to a Scholastic representative, there are 500,000 Card Pack #1 sets in print, along with 2.5 million copies of the first three books in the series. (Currently there's no advertising on, but this might change.)

And, although the series was an involved endeavor—David Levithan, executive editorial director at Scholastic, said the project incubated for roughly three years—it offers something print publishers are chasing: nontraditional ways to make money on their intellectual property.

Wired and ready: (from l.)
JillEllyn Riley, Lisa Holton,
Ariel Aberg-Riger and David Stack
of Fourth Story Media.

Holton doesn't warm to the description of the Amanda Project as a 39 Clues for girls, but there are elements that make the comparison apropos. The series, which she calls a “Rashomon-style” tale, follows a high schooler named Amanda who, after showing up as the new girl in town, disappears. Each book, penned by a different author (à la 39 Clues), is written from the point-of-view of a different student—all part of an enclave searching for Amanda. The online component—built heavily around girls' interest in social networking and creating their own content—is the fascinating part. Readers can go to an ancillary Web site to discuss (and create) potential fates for Amanda, and HarperCollins plans to publish storylines contributed by readers.

The Amanda Web site, which will launch with the first book in September, is currently being beta-tested by 200 teenage girls. For non beta-testers, all that currently features is a short YouTube clip offering a window into the series. As one female voiceover in the clip explains, “The book can be in our real lives and in our online lives.”

The meticulously designed look of the site along with the depth of its functionality—it will allow users to create online alter egos, to blog and to create and share artwork, among other things—is the product of many hands, including Web developer Happy Cog, and various designers, coders and architects.

While both HarperCollins and Holton were mum on the specifics of how Amanda might generate money off-the-page, Katz confirmed that the project is “intended to bring in revenue in a variety of ways.” Certainly Holton is hoping Amanda shows the capability of what Fourth Story Media can create.

Before launching Fourth Story, Holton became obsessed with all things digital—she says she spent the last year “living at game conferences.” She sees her company as a conduit for publishers that want multimedia properties but don't know how to bring them in-house or build complex digital add-ons. Along with her three other fulltime staffers—editorial director JillEllyn Riley, creative development and marketing manager Ariel Aberg-Riger and director of new business development David Stack—Holton is looking to help publishers develop “the ability to bring together talent and technology.”

Whether all houses are as open to packaging multimedia properties remains to be seen. There are lingering questions about who will own what—a potentially thornier issue when revenue is coming from a variety of streams.

Some children's publishers seem eager to see whether new authors, with technology backgrounds and expertise, can provide the answer, acting as the single creative source for a complex project.

When Running Press, for example, signed Cathy's Book, the proposal included the non-print elements because the authors also happened to be game developers. Scholastic's Skeleton Creek, which went on sale (and live) in early February, follows this model. The book features a dual narrative about spooky goings-on in a small town—one side of the story unravels in print and the other in a series of video clips posted online. Skeleton Creek author/creator Patrick Carman, according to Scholastic's Levithan, “created his own movie studio.” (Dutton, when it announced the Zuiker deal, said he will similarly handle casting and other particulars.) Levithan noted that Scholastic structured the deal with Corman to account for his added cost in doing the film/Web production.

Kate Klimo, v-p and publisher of Random House/Golden Books for Young Readers, is embracing a Skeleton Creek—like model for what she dubbed one of Random's “transmedia” projects. The Fairy Godmother Academy—the first book in the series bows in August—is the brainchild of Jan Bozarth, an author Klimo said has “a background in music and online gaming.” (Bozarth, who has worked on games around Barbie and other children's brands, pitched the manuscript along with the Web site.) Bozarth's storyline—girls from around the globe are called upon to join a mythical order of fairy godmothers who act as stewards in an alternate fantasy world—skews to younger readers than Amanda and rolls into a Web site built around social networking. Klimo, who couldn't reveal too many details of the series, said the site is “good deeds—based.” Bozarth, like Carman, is creating the Web site, bringing on outside help as she sees fit.

Story Comes First

While Klimo didn't say flat-out that she wouldn't work with a packager on a “transmedia” project, she's acutely attuned to the notion that everything begins with story. “We've seen a lot of projects, but all felt as if they were born in a lab. We're wary of them because we've always felt, and still feel, that if you don't have a good book, you ain't got jack.”

Scenes from the video component to
Skeleton Creek. Scholastic printed
100,000 copies of the hardcover;
book two is due in October.

A similar mantra about the primacy of story came from executives at the Perseus Book Group, where two new ambitious YA multi-platform projects, both to be published by Running Press and created by Cathy's Book author Jordan Weisman, recently found a home. The two series—Nanovor and Lost Souls—will feature elaborate add-ons; in the case of Nanovor, a handheld gaming device will launch with the first book in winter 2009, created by Weisman's gaming company, Smith & Tinker. (Nanovor follows a group of high schoolers who discover a prehistoric life form in mite size computer bytes, and Lost Souls is a trilogy about a 13-year-old trying to save the world.)

Rick Joyce, chief marketing officer at Perseus, said neither of these projects dazzled simply because of their non-book bells and whistles but, rather, because of their storylines. “As publishers we still have to go back to that essential question: 'Do I want to spend time with these characters?' ” How publishers erect the games, Web sites and contests wrapped around these stories is something, in Joyce's view, that will continue to happen in a variety of ways. The key, he warns, is to have a single driving force at the center of it all, making sure characters and storylines aren't diluted or misrepresented in the creation of off-the-page content. “That center can be the publisher, the creator or the packager, but [projects like these] definitely need that. As hard as that can be for a trade book, it's exponentially harder [with multimedia projects].”

Jon Anderson, the newly minted head of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing (who also just happened to bring Cathy's Book into Running Press), admitted that the biggest challenge to high-end, multiplatform projects is, not surprisingly, the cost. “The trick is either to find inexpensive ways to do things with lower-level projects, or to devote the expenses to projects that justify those costs.” Anderson said S&S is “creating departments” that will have the digital expertise to create complex Web sites, such as the company's in-house multimedia studio, which currently creates various digital promotional material for the house.

Pioneers of a new genre:
the multimedia project.

S&S Children's current big project on this front is Jon Scieszka's forthcoming chapter book series, Spaceheadz. Slated for March 2010, the series, about three aliens who come to Earth to convince humans that ETs are good (while an adversary is running amok trying to convince Earthlings of the opposite), will, according to Anderson, feature several interactive Web sites.

In late January Lev Grossman, writing about the future of the book in Time, said the novel is on the verge of evolving “into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever.” Although Grossman wasn't speaking to what is happening in children's publishing per se, there seems to be something in his description that taps into this brave new world.

It's clear that children's publishing is embracing the spirit of the book while finding more and more ways to tell a story outside the book. The challenge, as almost all who commented for this story said, will be figuring out how to create these non-book books cheaper, faster and better. As Katz put it,“This isn't landing in the new world, this is on the road to the new world.”