Scholastic’s Hit-Maker David Levithan on Hunger Games, Digital Reading and Transmedia

Photo credit: Jake Hamilton

By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

For book publishers, companies concerned with revenues and profits, the digital revolution today is all about e-books – and maybe a little bit about apps and digital audio. But for those on the cutting edge of digital media experimentation, where revenue is scarce and profit nearly unheard of, it’s all about building new reading experiences.

Scholastic’s vice president, publisher and editorial director David Levithan straddles both worlds. On the one hand, he’s the editor who helped dream up and spearhead Scholastic’s imaginative 39 Clues transmedia epic that has readers moving seamlessly between printed books, games and online experiences; on the other, he’s the publisher who made it into a best-seller and multimillion dollar business. Oh, and he also had some time on the side to help edit and then publish a little trilogy called The Hunger Games.

With 15 million copies in print and nearly two million kids signed up for the 39 Clues website (and 1,200 more signing up every day), Levithan and team have cracked the code for transmedia success – and they’re poised to do it again. The first book in Scholastic’s Infinity Ring transmedia series is set to hit bookstore shelves on August 28.

Levithan’s career history is the opposite of the reading experiences he creates – twisting adventures that have readers jumping from book to website to trading cards. Scholastic has been his only employer. He started at the company as an intern between years at Brown University in Providence at age 19. Following that first internship, he spent the next few summers at the company. When he graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s of arts degree in English and political science he went back to New York and asked for a job.

Levithan, 39, started as an editorial assistant and worked his way up the publishing ladder: assistant editor, associate editor, editor, senior editor, executive editor and then editorial director. He was made VP, publisher and editorial director of Scholastic in 2009, reporting to Ellie Berger, president of Scholastic Trade Publishing.

We spoke with Levithan about the success of the Hunger Games as an e-book, what’s new and hot in transmedia, and why the reading experiences of the future may depend on how children consume content today.

Related: Scholastic Media President Deborah Forte: Early Days for Children’s E-Books


Jeremy Greenfield: Can you tell me a bit about the digital side of editorial at Scholastic?

David Levithan: The children’s space is in its infancy, but we are definitely looking at digital-original publishing and digital applications for our brands and books.

We are definitely seeing that young adult digital is a huge part of our business. Hunger Games opened doors for us. It was the first property we had where we saw digital go through the roof.

One of the biggest challenges we have always had has been as a children’s publisher, crossing over to adults. The Hunger Games led the way in us seeing it that it’s so much easier to cross over to adults in the digital space than in the traditional space.

We saw that the boundary between YA [young adult] and adult in the digital space is almost non-existent, which is a great opportunity for us.

Related: Hunger Games Best-Selling Book of All Time on Amazon, E- Outsells Print Nearly Four-to-One


JG: Why do you think that is?

DL: Part of it is the geography – it’s right there in front of you and you don’t have to go to a different section of the store to buy it. Part of it is the “no shame” in reading it on an e-reader – but I don’t’ think the packaging of adult books is much different than in teen books.

It’s also linking to the buzz in the blogosphere. So many places that cover books like Goodreads don’t make the distinction between teen and adult. It’s easy to just see a book as a book. Whereas if you see it in a newspaper or in the bookstore, it’s much more separated than you see it online.


JG: Will there be another Hunger Games?

DL: The success of the trifecta of Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games is going to continue. I wish I could tell you what the next one is going to be. The borders between adult and YA are no longer there. Readers react to a good story.


JG: There’s more to digital at Scholastic than e-books, though.

DL: The real groundbreaking work we’ve done has been in multiplatform [transmedia] publishing. We were the first in that space. It was four years ago that we launched 39 Clues but we were working on it for four years before that. We have an editorial group and another called The Lab for Informal Learning. For 39 Clues, the two groups merged, one with the story expertise and the other with the digital expertise. We worked together for many years to create the space of multiplatform publishing for children.


JG: When acquiring content for Scholastic, how heavily is transmedia and digital potential figured into your calculations?

DL: Most of the multiplatform properties we are working on are built in-house. From the inception point, we are thinking of it as multiplatform or transmedia. We want to continue to innovate and do different things but we also want the level of control over it that growing it in-house gives us.

We don’t look at projects coming in and try to graft transmedia onto it. All of the parts have to be synchronized perfectly with each other and each part has to cater to each platform.


JG: How do you even start with huge projects like 39 Clues or Infinity Ring?

DL: We have the vaguest idea of a story and then find our lynchpin author who is going to flesh it out for the dream team of authors we’re going to sign up.


JG: Each book has a different author. Why?

D: It’s a bunch of things. First off, the frequency that the books come out: To ask a single author to write a great book every four months is hard. What we’ve found with 39 Clues and we’re finding with Infinity Ring is that each author puts his or her own spin on the storyline and the readers love that. It’s like the Harry Potter movies: each director brought a different feel to each of the movies, and that’s what kept the movies very interesting.


JG: What’s exciting about the new transmedia project, Infinity Ring?

DL: There are so many things about it that we’re excited about. The first is that it’s a 3-D, submersive world that we’re creating. It’s still subversively educational and based in history so we have that Scholastic angle. But it’s also innovative and interactive and doing things that children’s books don’t do. Infinity Ring is a role-playing game and you play as one of the characters. In 39 Clues, you created your own story.


JG: 39 Clues was fantastically successful. What do you hope for with Infinity Ring?

DL: The hope is that it’s larger. With 39 Clues we were staking out the ground. Now we want to build on that with Infinity Ring. We have something that we think will appeal to the 39 Clues fans – and we also think it will reach other kids who didn’t pick up 39 Clues for whatever reason. We have a lot of 39 Clues fans out there who are a natural grass-roots movement for this and they’re previewing this.

But 39 Clues is four years old and we have a whole generation who are coming to multiplatform for the first time and if they happen to get to infinity ring first, they’ll be blown away.


JG: When you see how kids use the cards, read the books and engage online, do you think, “this is something that kids really like – and it’s going to stay that way” or “when these kids grow up this is the future of content consumption”?

DL: One of the great things we’ve found from multiplatform is that most of the kids that are on there love the multiplatform and they love the digital space but they’re also reading the books too.

We are building traditional readers with 39 Clues and Infinity Ring.

At the same time, we are opening their eyes to what a narrative can be. The book’s narrative can stretch out into the digital space that they view as recreational. How that translates in the content they will consume [in the future] remains to be seen.

Because of the company I’m at, we focus on eight-to-twelve-year-olds. Will there be something like 39 Clues and Infinity Ring that satisfies both things – reading and gaming – at the same time when they’re adults?


JG: 39 Clues has been going strong for a while now. Do you see it abating any time soon? At what point does it not become cost-effective to maintain the digital side of it?

DL: There will come a time – I don’t think it will be in the near future – but we’ve been astonished by the way it’s held up and the way it attracts new kids. It’s a wonderful balance of retention and new users every day. There are people who have been signed in to the whole experience for all four years and we’re seeing 1,200 new kids sign up per day.

When we started 39 Clues, we didn’t know that it would last this long. But we have not yet seen the decline. In children’s books, where a generation is really two-or-three years, we’re on the second generation of readers now but we’ve kept the first generation.

My favorite analytic, and it’s been consistent for four years, that the average site visit for 39 Clues is 22 minutes. They’re spending a lot of time reading and puzzle-solving – the fact that that has remained constant has been amazing. We get over 1,000 posts a day on the message boards.

One of my favorite things that we’ve done for 39 Clues was when we couldn’t figure out what the title was for Infinity Ring and we were deciding between three titles, we went on the 39 Clues message board and asked “of these titles, which of these would you most want to read” and 57% said “infinity ring.” That’s not something we used to be able to do with children’s publishing. It gives us a clear-eyed view into the hearts and minds of our target audience.


JG: That sounds a lot like what we’re calling “agile publishing” right now.

DL: Yes. We use the interaction to make our properties much more effective for the readers and much more interactive. With 39 Clues, we have developed it over time for the readers and the players. If there is a character they are loving that seems to be a minor character, that character becomes a major character because that’s what the fans want. And Infinity Ring will be exactly the same way. That’s groundbreaking for us. It’s every publisher’s and author’s dream to get the instant reaction when reading a book to figure out what they like and what they don’t like about it.

We also leverage it for other properties. Many of the authors in 39 Clues have other series that are huge sellers for us. We let the 39 Clues community know when they have new books out – we’d be fools not to do it. We don’t do it in a gratuitous way because we don’t want the community to feel overly marketed to; it has to feel right. We are very selective about the messaging that we send to them.

Learn more about the exciting world of transmedia at Storyworld 2012 in Los Angeles, October 17-19. Register today!


JG: Is everyone on the editorial side at Scholastic digitally savvy or do you have specialists?

DL: At this point, as far as digital is concerned, everybody is digital savvy. There was definitely a learning curve, but everybody is on board now. As far as multiplatform, we have a multiplatform team – five or six editors, a couple of designers, and our digital team. It’s a very specialized knowing how to tell a story through games and books – it’s not something we demand of every editor.


JG: As an editor, what excites you about digital publishing in general?

DL: Like all publishers, we’re looking at original e-publishing. We’re looking at things that are independent of current books but tie-in to current books.

As a company we’re extraordinarily excited about Storia and partnering on it with parents and teachers. That will be a great platform for any experimentation or innovation we want to do in the future.

It’s about trying to find as many canvasses for storytelling as possible.


JG: What are you reading and on what platform?

DL: Not counting submissions, right now, I am reading an advanced reader copy of an amazing book by A.S. King, a young-adult author. This is probably her fourth book and it’s called Ask the Passengers. It’s a riveting book about a girl whose life implodes and she has to put it back together. It’s just an old-fashioned reader copy so it’s bound in my bag right now.

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