Tracking the 39 Clues 2009

One million dollars in cash, or the first clue in a globe-trotting treasure hunt that may lead to untold power. Which would you choose? No, it’s not the pitch for a reality show. It’s the opening premise of The 39 Clues, a multi-platform action-adventure series that Scholastic is simultaneously launching this month in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.Aimed at kids 812, The 39 Clues combines reading, online gaming and card collecting into a unique interactive experience. This synergistic new franchise spans numerous divisions of Scholastic, and consists of 10 books, a dedicated Web site where kids can play an online game and compete for cash prizes, 350 collectible game cards, as well as an audiobook. DreamWorks has already acquired feature film rights; Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can) has just signed on to write the screenplay, and Steven Spielberg may direct.For the September 9 laydown, the series is set to roar out of the gate with a one million-copy worldwide (500,000 copies in the U.S.) first printing of the novel The Maze of Bones by bestselling author Rick Riordan. In Riordan’s debut installment, readers meet the Cahill clan, whose family tree includes such historical figures as Ben Franklin, Houdini and Abraham Lincoln. Upon the death of matriarch Grace Cahill, her grandchildren Amy, 14, and Dan, 11, compete with many nefarious relatives to find the 39 clues that lead to the source of the family’s power.It started a few years ago with the idea of a treasure hunt as the plot for a book series, said David Levithan, executive editorial director of multimedia publishing at Scholastic. The loose storyline had been gradually taking shape as part of a weekly editors’ brainstorming group when then-publisher Lisa Holton and an in-house think tank, the Lab for Informal Learning, introduced an initiative to develop cross-media projects. The Lab asked us for ideas, and we put the two together, Levithan said. We wanted to look at how publishing is going to shift as technology changes. It’s so exciting from an editorial and storytelling viewpoint to explore all the ways a story can be told.Scholastic found a storyteller up to the challenge in Riordan. Rick was far and away our number-one choice, Levithan said of entrusting the 39 Clues idea to the author. The first Percy Jackson book [The Lightning Thief] had yet to take off but was selling extraordinarily well in our school channels, he said. Summing up a few of Riordan’s other qualifications, Levithan said, He was a history teacher, he wrote for the age group we wanted to reach and he was able to weave mythology into adventure stories. He was also an avid gamer. In the early stages, The 39 Clues was not an easy thing to explain to people, Levithan said. But Rick got it immediately. His sons did, too. I have no doubt that if his sons hadn’t thought it was a cool idea we would not have been able to proceed. In addition to writing the first novel, Riordan mapped out the story arc for all 10 of the titles. He created the characters and personalities of the Cahill clan and the quest, Levithan explains. We asked him to choose some favorite parts of history and work them into the story, so he used things that had been crowd-pleasers with his students, and he had a blast with it. It’s subversively educational. We have a remarkable blueprint for going forward.The nine subsequent books will be penned by an all-star roster of authors including Gordon Korman (his One False Note, the second book in the series, pubs in December), Peter Lerangis, Jude Watson and Patrick Carman, and will roll out roughly every three months over a two-year period. According to Levithan, all of the authors were given leeway to put their own stamps on their work. They all bring their expertise, talents and proclivities to the story in a fun way, Levithan added.Though Scholastic is no stranger to hugely successful projects (see Harry Potter, and Goosebumps and The Baby-sitters Club in their day), The 39 Clues is still an ambitious undertaking by any measure, and a big gamble. As such, Scholastic has pulled out all the stops to give the franchise its best shot at success.We really wanted to be groundbreaking with this, said Levithan, to be the first out there, to use everything we had. That charge to the fore has necessitated new publishing and marketing approaches. The scope of the partnerships in-house has been extraordinary, he noted. Because of the hugeness, we had to get everyone together. Four editors now work on The 39 Clues fulltime and a design team, the Lab, Scholastic Media, as well as representatives from marketing and publicity are all integrally involved in the series development. Scholastic Book Fairs is introducing the series to the educational market in a big way with launch-event celebration kit giveaways and promotions at various schools in several large markets nationwide. And from the outset, frequent communication with, and enthusiastic cooperation from global partners has been key to The 39 Clues’ evolution as well.The company has also been working with focus groups of kids-involving the books, the cards and the game-along the way. We wanted to double and triple check that everything we were doing was appropriate for the age group and that kids got it, Levithan said. The ultimate test really is the kids, seeing if their faces light up or not. Discussions with the kids so far have yielded valuable information. For instance, though there are readers who don’t like games and gamers who don’t read, it turns out that most kids in the groups are readers and gamers. And The 39 Clues is proving attractive across the always-tricky gender line, too. Some people think that anything with a tech side won’t appeal to girls, Levithan said. But this seems to appeal to both boys and girls. Ideally, Scholastic hopes that the 39 Clues has something for all of those different media appetites.Marketing MuscleInnovation came into play on the marketing front, as well. One of our biggest challenges was in conveying what The 39 Clues is, said Suzanne Murphy, publisher of Scholastic Trade. A lot of education was going on internally, about what is involved in a two-and-a-half year program like this. Armed with a pitch that Murphy’s team tried to make as clear and simple as possible, Scholastic did road shows for accounts demonstrating how the cards and game would work, and a push-out to the industry featuring 39 Clues backpacks and a limited number of inheritance kits containing an ARC and other materials. Riordan’s appearances at the Bologna Book Fair last April and BEA in June also helped generate advance buzz.Murphy stressed that a multi-pronged strategy meant keeping in mind that kids will be coming to it in different ways-online, through the books or cards. A new property with that kind of reach had to be branded very quickly. We needed to get the name and the number 39 out there, said Murphy.A viral online marketing campaign is helping to fill the bill. Visitors to (launched August 1, 39 days before the series launch) will find fictional bloggers posting about sightings of the number 39. In turn, postings about the number 39 site appear on MySpace, YouTube, Yahoo and other sites. Online advertising, 30-second television spots airing in major markets nationwide and a media blitz that includes an appearance by Riordan on The Today Show September 8 are other pieces of the marketing pie.Ellen Wartella, distinguished professor of psychology at U.C. Riverside and an expert on the role of media in children’s development, believes that this full-court press by Scholastic makes sense. Tweens these days, she said, are using all kinds of media, including mobile media&#4
4; more than ever before. This is a new example of a content creator trying to capture children’s attention in a multiplicity of ways, wherever they may be.Levithan and his colleagues know that a lot is riding on their venture, especially as it arrives in the very large shadow of Harry Potter. We don’t think of The 39 Clues in terms of anything else we’ve done, he said. Of course we want it to be hugely successful, but on its own terms.And in terms of producing a multi-platform program on this scale, We are the bellwether, Levithan said. It’s an amazing, exciting thing, and it’s also a nervous thing. If it is successful, it’s going to change publishing. If not, we’ll find something else what will be successful. Murphy has a similar outlook. We hope to learn from any bumps in the road we experience with The 39 Clues, she said. The wave has already started for us; everyone in the trade division is looking for innovation. Whatever happens with The 39 Clues, she notes, will affect things that are already in the hopper and will affect how we market our trade books in the future. Looking ahead, the multi-platform hopper at Scholastic is indeed hopping. Next February will see the debut of the Skeleton Creek series by Patrick Carman, which Levithan describes as a novel/web-video hybrid, about two kids in a small town where strange, ghostly things happen. Other multimedia projects are also in development.But come September 9, Scholastic may get its first clue as to whether it’s home to publishing’s next big thing.

Patrick Carman