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Star Power: Building Value into Your Titles and Company

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As a mergers and acquisitions consultant in the book, audio, and video publishing industry, I value publishing companies and have the opportunity to see what works and what does not. One important element in the success of publishing companies that shows up again and again is “Star Power.”

How It Works

In the motion picture business, Star Power is something that every executive understands all too well. If you have a Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Williams, or Tom Cruise attached to your picture, or a name director like Stephen Spielberg, that movie can be pre-sold around the world for tens of millions of dollars before it is ever made. You hear terms like “Box Office” and “Bankable” used in relation to a star’s name.

In book, audio, and video publishing, your titles can have Star Power too. You may not be able to get one of the stars of the publishing constellation like Mary Higgins Clark, Stephen King, Deepak Chopra, or Danielle Steel to publish through your company, but that does not mean that you cannot use Star Power to sell books. Star Power can be utilized by having a recognizable name in a title as in The Dallas Cheerleaders Workout video, The Great Hershey’s Chocolate Cookbook, or even Snoopy Learns his A, B, C’s.. Star power is also at play when a known actress, such as Meryl Streep, reads a classic children’s story like The Velveteen Rabbit. As crass as some publishers feel the use of cheerleaders, candy, actors, and cartoon characters might be, the fact is that they sell books. Lots of books.

Too many (mostly unsuccessful) publishers turn their nose up at associating their works of “literature” and “fine art” with the commercialization of the media. The fact is that the giants of the publishing industry like Andrews and McMeel, Simon & Schuster, Prentice Hall, and HarperCollins use Star Power every day to move millions of books. And so can you.

In a recent interview, Bill Wolfsthal, a marketing representative for Carol Publishing in New York, explained how Star Power helps sell books. As a sales rep, his customer is the bookseller. Wolfsthal only has 15 to 30 seconds to discuss with his customer the merits of each new frontlist title. A book has to capture their attention fast for the bookseller to order it. A famous author, subject, or celebrity is a hook that Wolfsthal can present in just a few seconds. If the book is about Frank Sinatra, a person well known to the bookseller, the rep can gain the bookseller’s interest and then go on to tell the buyer why this book about Frank Sinatra is different from any other.

Celebrities Are Not the Only Stars

When you think of the word “star,” most people visualize famous film and television performers or other celebrities from the world of entertainment. But as you can see from the previous examples, there are other types of stars that book publishers can incorporate into their projects.

Can a place have Star Power? Of course. Famous places can often denote grace, patriotism, quality, and prestige. How about a video entitled the Chicago Institute of Art’s Guide to Great American Twentieth Century Artists or a book entitled Santa Fe Style?

Can fictional characters have Star Power? Yes, they can. People still search the cities and woods of England for signs of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Sherlock Holmes. A book entitled The Sherlock Holmes Guide to London would definitely fare much better than the John Jones Guide to London.

One Famous Example of Star Power

You may have heard of Rabbit Ears Productions, Inc. This is a company that got its start in the early 1980s at the kitchen table of Mark Slottnick and Dorris Wilhousky. They wanted to develop children’s audio books and videos based on the concept of presenting classic tales narrated by famous actors. Twelve years ago, they started signing on up-and-coming and veteran actors like Jeremy Irons, Meg Ryan, Cher, Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, Holly Hunter, Danny Glover, Jack Nicholson, and Bob Hoskins. Stories selected included Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling and Goldilocks. Their goal was to sell children’s stories to parents based on Star Power recognition. The idea worked—at least it attracted a lot of money.

Rabbit Ears Productions launched its initial four audio titles as a joint venture with Random House around 1986. Soon Sony waded in with a lucrative offer to distribute 14 more titles. Columbia Tri-Star came calling with a $740,000 advance for the home video distribution rights, and Simon & Schuster spent $557,000 for the book rights to 18 titles. And that’s not all. Showtime bought up the domestic TV rights for about $150,000 per video, Phillips Interactive Media paid $50,000 per story for the CD-i rights, and ITEL paid $440,000 for a five-year license to distribute the videos outside of the US. And if that was not enough, Microsoft spent over $1 million for the rights to 8 CD-ROM titles, Macmillan/McGraw Hill paid over $500,000 for the educational use, and Lightspan and Sunburst both chipped in tens of thousands of dollars for other educational rights. Even BMG advanced some $4 million for distribution rights. In all, publishing partners spent over $12 million to get just a piece of the right to distribute “classic” old stories already in the public domain. The punch line is that the product line had some serious production flaws and never netted any of the publishing partners any money, but it attracted cash like ants to a picnic. Today the company is owned by Microleague Multimedia. Think about this: Would these publishing giants have spent a penny if these same stories had been narrated by unknown actors?

Star Power Strikes Again

Sometimes you can make an unknown book or author into a Star. Take the story behind the success of Pfeifer-Hamilton’s Old Turtle children’s book. When the publisher, Don Tubesing, found that there was major consumer interest in this book about God and nature, as seen through the eyes of an old turtle, he could have just let the book run its course. But instead, he painted an old Volkswagen to look like a turtle and toured the country promoting the book. Old Turtle became more than a children’s story—it became news! Pfeifer-Hamilton Publishers was able to keep the book in the public’s eye long enough to build a following. Remember, the Star of the book was not an old turtle; it was God. Over 500,000 copies have been sold of Old Turtle, and it keeps scooting along years after its first publication.

Many Possibilities

We’ve all heard the term, “Hitch your wagon to a star.” But how many of you have applied it to the publishing business? Kermit the Frog Song Book, Loni Anderson’s Hair Care Secrets, Lily Tomlin on Telephone Etiquette . . . these are all made-up titles that would probably sell as books, CDs, or videos. The fact is that Lily Tomlin and John Cleese are two of the top-selling performers in the corporate training video market. Publishers often do not see the opportunities that are right in front of them. Any travel guide has the potential to be the Mercedes-Benz Guide to (Fill in the blank). Many cookbooks have the potential to be attached to a celebrity.

The fact is that radio, television, and the movies have conditioned the American consumer to buy almost anything associated with Star Power. In the United States, we do not have royalty, so we have elevated our entertainers to the status of royalty. How else could we justify paying a comic like Jim Carrey $20 million to make one movie?

Every publishing firm can build Star Power into their list. Not every book can capitalize on this angle to sell more titles, but many can that are not taking advantage of it. Sometimes the subject itself is the Star, because it is so “hot” it sizzles. Dove Audio made a fortune with its just-in-time tales of the O. J. Simpson debacle. The subject was the Star because it held the public’s interest, and Dove Audio just capitalized on the existing demand with a quick-to-produce audiobook.

As a publisher, you are a gatekeeper of information and entertainment, and you can take advantage of the Star Power that the American public has lavished onto our icons of fame, power, and beauty. Hollywood spends millions of dollars making common people into Stars. Anyone or anything can denote Star Power. Bugs Bunny is a Star, Playboy and Cosmopolitan magazines are Stars, Wolfgang Puck is a Star, the Porsche 911 Targa is a Star, Michael Jordan is a Star, George Clinton is a Star, Harley-Davidson Motorcycles are definitely Stars, and the biggest Star of all is God.

These icons of our culture sell books, and every book has the potential to be a Star.

Stephen J. Kerr is President of Business Marketing Consultants, a firm specializing in the valuation and sale of publishing companies throughout North America. You can reach him by phone at 760/967-7916 (fax 760/967-6806), or mail via 2588-D El Camino Real, #287, Carlsbad, CA 92008.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor August, 1997, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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