By Dena Croog
“Home-grown” series have become an exciting initiative at Simon and Schuster’s children’s division ever since the launch of Spotlight’s Cupcake Diaries in May 2011. The growing trend involves editors creating story arcs and characters in house and then finding authors and illustrators to put the ideas into books. Home-grown books—also referred to as in-house created or, more technically, “IP” (intellectual property) — are an opportunity for publishers to create something internally and have complete control over editorial, design, and much, much more.
Meeting Readers’ Needs
Cupcake Diaries, which was developed at in-house brainstorming meetings, was a product of conversations about the need to better reach middle grade readers with solid, relatable characters.
“We talked about series and authors that we had grown up with, like Norma Fox Mazer and Paula Danziger,” said VP and Publisher Valerie Garfield in an interview with Publishing Perspectives, where she reflected on the evolution of the home-grown series phenomenon.
Garfield noted that at the time of Cupcake Diaries‘ inception, the Teen books were sophisticated and the Beginning Reader program was strong; however, there was a gap for the kind of reader who was a really good, solid reader, but content-wise wasn’t ready to be reading books like Twilight, for example, that parents might not think are appropriate or that might go over a child’s head.
The brainstorming meetings resulted in the creation of series arcs, character arcs and plotted-out outlines, and a new approach was formed.
“If you acquire something and you think it has potential or you think it has legs for a series, you’re hoping it goes beyond maybe three, maybe six books,” said Garfield. “In this way of thinking, we had already determined that we were going to commit to at least six, and then another six to get to twelve. So we were really thinking long term and long reach for these series from the inception.”
Once the in-house teams had really hunkered down to create the individual series, solicited writers worked off 12-15-page outlines of developed story. Spotlight went full force with their home-grown middle grade series, launching three in 2011 (Cupcake Diaries, You’re Invited to a Creepover, Cheer), three in 2012 (Saranormal, Pool Girls, Dear Know-It-All), and two in 2013 (Crush, Sew Zoey).
Little Simon Soon Followed Suit
“When we first launched the home-grown series at Little Simon, with [2012’s] Heidi Heckelbeck and Captain Awesome, we were looking to see if there was any new kind of format that Little Simon could dive into,” said the imprint’s Editorial Director, Sonali Fry. “Our novelty formats that we traditionally worked on — which were the high-end novelties, the more expensive ones, like the $30 pop-up — weren’t selling like they used to. So we really had to revamp our model and we were looking to see what would work in the marketplace and what hasn’t been done.”
They started to focus on chapter books, which print domestically, allow for more control with lead time, and are a cheaper format to produce. Seeing that the needs of the younger, 5-7-year age group were not being met, they focused on bridging the gap between the popular Ready-to-Read books and readers that many publishers produce, and the full-fledged chapter books.
“We wanted a format that little kids would feel was substantial enough that they could handle on their own or with a little bit of guidance, but it felt like more of a grown-up book,” said Fry. “So we got a whole bunch of different samples in. We worked with Production to price out the paper and the trim size. We worked with Design to figure out what font would work best and what point size. And then we started working on the themes.”
The common challenge was putting a fresh twist on something else already out there. Drawing from the popularity of vampires and zombies, the team turned to the idea of a girl who’s a witch in disguise—and Heidi Heckelbeck was born. Fry said that though being a witch isn’t the main part of the series — Heidi deals with the same kind of issues any 8-year-old child would go through — the fact that she’s a witch is a nice side storyline.
Captain Awesome, a humor-packed series about a boy who imagines himself as a superhero, was created with a boy audience in mind.
Collaboration is Key
When it comes to developing characters and story arcs for home-grown series, collaboration is key.
Cupcake Diaries, as described on the series’ website, “features a group of four unique girls who form a cupcake club as a way to navigate through the wild terrain that is middle school.” One might draw a parallel to the process of developing a “home-grown” or in-house-created series like Cupcake Diaries: representatives from different departments—editorial, design, production and marketing—each with their own unique points of view, team up in brainstorming meetings and navigate through the wild terrain of children’s publishing.
Having the complete team together during the beginning stages and as the series are developed has been a positive experience. In addition to these meetings having an editorial slant, the marketing department might identify and suggest different ways to incorporate hot trends. In addition, the design team’s understanding of the series from its inception helps them to develop the look and tone of the covers and artwork, which have an effect on sales.
“Every two weeks on the opposite week of our cover discussion meeting is a brainstorming meeting where you come into that room and you can say anything,” said Executive Art Director Chani Yammer. “We’ve created lots of books out of that meeting. It’s one of the most fun meetings we have. Someone says one thing out loud or reads one article and it sparks a conversation.”
The development of recently released Crush is one example of where different departments contributed ideas to strengthen the core concept.
“Crush is probably the most collaborative effort we’ve had so far in Spotlight,” said Kara Sargent, the imprint’s Editorial Director. “With that one, the idea for the series came from a smaller editorial meeting. In a brainstorming exercise we were talking about different genres that we could tap into. We started talking about the romance genre, and if it would be possible to make age-appropriate romance for middle grade. From there we started talking about crushes, and then we kind of all realized in the room together that there were a lot of possibilities to do a really fun series about first crushes.”
After receiving approval from the higher ups, the idea was then brought into a brainstorming meeting, where suggestions came flooding in from different people within different departments. The result was a full series that the staff felt excited about and invested in. Sargent noted that though individual editors were tasked with coming up with the general storyline, it’s exciting that so many people were involved in the initial stages and that the Design team came up with a great approach for the covers that captures the feel of the series.
Yammer, sharing in the excitement of being involved from the ground floor up, explained it well.
“You’re a little bit more invested in it when you’re in the room from the beginning,” Yammer said. “You see the spark of the idea and then it’s a book — it’s ours. We made that.”
Changing Roles of Editors and Writers
This model of series-making alters the roles of editors by placing more emphasis on product development—eg, coming up with themes, creating detailed story lines, pricing out the format itself, and working with Design to find the right illustrators (ie, ones who not only have the right fit with the series but who also are able to sustain it for the long haul). It’s no longer just about getting in finished manuscripts to edit. Much effort goes into coming up with the nuts and bolts of the publishing program.
“The editor is given a lot of creative freedom to shape ideas and general concepts instead of only being able to shape the prose,” Sargent said. “The editor is able to choose the writer she wants to bring the project to life, which is different than the traditional model where a project comes in with a writer attached to it. So it’s kind of a new direction for editors.”
The editors cast a wide net to find just the right writers. For each of the Spotlight series, for example, Garfield said they approached and then “auditioned” writers who had a good middle grade sensibility and whom they thought had the right tone and grasp of that age.
“Most of our characters are around the 11-12-year-old mark — it’s a very specific voice,” said Garfield. “We wanted the characters to ring true and be real, but we were also very cognizant that, based on the series, we didn’t want them to sound too old.”
Though writers, who use pen names, work off detailed outlines that have already been drawn up by the editorial team, they are also given opportunities to voice their opinions about whether or not a specific plot idea is working. In this way, as Fry pointed out, the work is not limiting and the writers remain involved and feeling enthusiastic. Sargent commented that while it’s not something all writers would want to do necessarily, the ones she has worked with seem to really enjoy it.
Reaching the Readers
With home-grown books the publisher has more control over deadlines and print quantities as well as all the rights, subsidiary rights and copyright. Complete control also means that in marketing these series, there’s a freedom to customize the content of a campaign based on who the partner and audience is.
“For example, we have a new series coming out called Sew Zoe, where she’s a fashion blogger, sort of an adorable fashionista,” said Associate Marketing Director Julie Powell Christopher. “I’ve been pitching fashion companies to partner with us, and one of my pitches is: If you want to have a designer draw a dress for Zoe to wear on the cover of Book 4, we can do that because we own all of it. We can customize our campaigns for that.”
As another example, Christopher mentioned an idea for a campaign for the recently released Crush, where girls name their favorite crush and vote on a boy’s name that will be used in one of the books later in the series.
As for publicity events for these home-grown series, the middle grade, 7-12-year-old age group is particularly responsive to bookstore events. Book signings and author events are planned as the books become established as a series, as opposed to from the get-go, said Paul Crichton, VP sand Director of Publicity. Since oftentimes multiple authors write under one pen name, publicity tries to match up an author who is local to the bookstore that’s requesting the event—similar to middle grade or YA events that aren’t in-house created but that have authors writing under pen names.
Much of the feedback has been positive. Crichton said he is impressed by how positive reviews have been in publications such as School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Christopher said that big marketing campaigns on children’s websites such as Stardoll, Fun Brain, Poptropica, and Roblox are showing impressive click through rates and feedback, especially for series that don’t have an author name behind them. Christopher also said that booksellers are thankful to fill their shelves with the Little Simon chapter books, with their large text and easy-to-read format.
“We have the capacity to really fulfill publishing where there’s a bit of a dearth of certain books out there,” Crichton said. “So if we have booksellers or accounts coming to us saying, ‘We need more of this or we need more of that’—these in-house created ones are perfect opportunities to almost tailor and cater those specifically to what the demand is.”
Springing Forward, Summer Launches
Many of the home-grown series are proving successful, particularly Cupcake Diaries (over 750,000 copies in print), Heidi Heckelbeck (over 400,000), and Captain Awesome (over 300,000).
“Because we’re fully invested and because we’re launching these based on long-term commitments, there’s obviously a lot at stake in these series and I think there’s a lot of commitment to them,” said Garfield. “So in terms of that, we look at these series differently. It’s not, ‘Ok, we’ll publish one book and see what happens.’ It’s definitely a long-term investment—and you can see the difference in the marketing spent and the push behind these titles. I would say financially they’ve been incredibly successful for us because of those reasons. I hope it’s also because they’re great stories that stand on their own, but there’s a lot of push and a lot of broad commitment behind them.”
In recent months, Little Simon launched The Critter Club and Galaxy Zack. Garfield looks to summer as a good time to launch a couple more middle grade series, such as Crush and Sew Zoey (both under the Spotlight imprint) because that’s when children will have more time to sit down and really get to know the characters.
Home-grown books are also being produced under Simon and Schuster’s Books for Young Readers and Pulse imprints, and the concept has flowed into non-series-related books such as novelty, activity and board books. Though Garfield isn’t aware of other publishers developing home-grown series in the same scope as Simon and Schuster (ie, committing to at least three new series a year), one might think it likely for the trend to spring up more and more at other publishers.
“Success breeds followers,” said Crichton. “I feel that the early success these books have had might potentially lead to other publishers changing their publishing strategies.”