'39 Clues' goes after Harry's audience

Cover of "The 39 Clues"

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: This next story falls into the category of problems we should all be so lucky to have. Scholastic, the publishing house, has sold more than 300 million Harry Potter books since the series started in 1997. Profits were up 15 percent this past fiscal year, which included publication of book seven, "The Deathly Hallows."

But that leaves the company having to answer this question. Now what? One possible answer hits bookstores today, a new series called "The 39 Clues." And Scholastic's gone all out. Books, a website, a movie deal with Steven Spielberg, and $100,000 in prize money for readers.

But after Harry is all that going to be enough to cast a spell over kids?

From New York, Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.


Ashley Milne-Tyte: "The 39 Clues" encompasses the books, a detailed website, and packs of trading cards, which are sold separately.

David Levithan is executive editorial director at Scholastic. He says this project is a big departure for the company, but a necessary one.

David Levithan: We really saw that publishing is changing and that we wanted to fit the context of the times that our readers are living in.

Even if doing so means a lot more work than usual. He says authors and editors have to weave the evolving storyline between books, cards and website.

Levithan: One of the reasons it's taken three years for us is we had to choreograph everything from the beginning, because everything has to interact with everything else.

Every hint dropped, every possible clue, must fit. Scholastic is investing millions of dollars in the series.

Catriona Fallon is an equity analyst with Citigroup. She says Scholastic is naturally looking for a successor to the Harry Potter series. But even if "The 39 Clues" is a hit with readers, it won't necessarily make Scholastic a hit with investors.

Catriona Fallon: Wall Street demands revenue growth and earnings growth, and it just could take some time to actually see that in an environment when they're investing in their business to this extent.

Fallon says Scholastic's stock is down from the Harry Potter days -- about 30 percent since last summer. She says in a faltering economy parents don't spend as much on books as usual. Still, she likes Scholastic's idea of encouraging kids to get involved with the story online and on the page.

So does 9-year-old Rena McInerney.

RENA MCINERNY: Wow, that's, that's really cool. I'd do that.

I met Rena at Books of Wonder in Manhattan. She was shopping with her mother, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN: Personally, I think the books are enough, but nowadays it doesn't seem to be enough because everybody does everything on the Web, and you buy toys that are connected to a website.

Still, she says as long as the series is educational and fun, she's in. Books of Wonder's owner Peter Glassman isn't so keen. He's not convinced about the whole multiplatform approach.

PETER GLASSMAN: One of the nice things about having been a bookseller since 1975 is I've seen a lot of so-called cutting-edge things that turned out to be nothing more than trends. That the book as the book has survived, and everything else has come and gone.

He says he doubts many publishers could afford to mount such multimedia extravaganzas on a regular basis. Kids who read the books, or their parents, will end up paying $12.99 per book and $6.99 for each pack of cards. In the Barnes and Noble cafe a few blocks from Books of Wonder, Leeshell Quamine and her daughter are cautiously enthusiastic.

LEESHELL QUAMINE: It sounds very expensive, but I could see her going for something like that, most definitely.

Thirteen-year-old Aicha agrees. She says she loves mysteries. But she says she doesn't need cards or online extras to be drawn into an imaginary or re-created world. She says reading alone is pleasure enough.

AICHA QUAMINE: It's a different feeling from like a game or a TV show. I don't get that feeling with that kind of stuff. It's actually kind of like -- I can't exactly tell you how the feeling is -- but it's the greatest feeling ever.

She says she'll give "The 39 Clues" a try -- after she's polished off a biography of John Adams.

In New York, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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