Everyone Into the Kiddie Pool

21 BIZ WIMPYKID Jeff Kinney
AP Photo/Gretchen Ertl

Eight years ago, Jeff Kinney was a :failed newspaper cartoonist," he says. Today,he is the No. 1 best-selling kids author in America with his "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" franchise.

"Wimpy Kid's" $500 million franchise reveals the game-changing new power of the under-21 set.

Which summer hardcover has the largest first printing? Dead Reckoning, the new Sookie Stackhouse novel by Charlaine Harris? Nope. How about the Tom Clancy thriller Against All Enemies? Guess again. David Baldacci's One Summer? Uh-uh. It's a kids book: the 1 million printing of Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid Do-It-Yourself Book.

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is the big fish in publishing now. With seven of the top 10 hardcovers in 2010, it displaced Twilight as the best-selling juvenile/young-adult series in the U.S. Only Stieg Larsson edged Kinney for the title of best-selling author in the U.S., with his Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy moving 12.8 million copies compared with 11.5 million -- all hardcover -- for Kinney's Wimpy Kid series.

Eight years ago, Kinney was a self-described "failed newspaper cartoonist," playing too much Doom and struggling to come up with an idea that would jump-start his career. Today, Kinney is the No. 1 best-selling kids author in America and chief architect of the $500 million Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise that has captured the playground with its irreverent attitude, playful drawings and spot-on understanding of a kid's frustrations.

Its success is no fluke. The kids section is one of the bright spots for publishers these days. Even though evidence that reading is in trouble is everywhere (from a National Endowment for the Arts report warning that kids are doing it less to the troubles at Borders and Barnes & Noble), sales of juvenile/YA books -- the catchall category for books aimed at readers under 21 -- are growing strong. And of course, it's no secret that these books are driving development in Hollywood as well. Says Al Greco, a marketing professor at Fordham University who follows the book business, "Juvenile/young-adult is the biggest growth category in publishing right now."

Juvenile/YA sales now surpass adult trade fiction and nonfiction sales combined. As recently as 2006, adult trade and juvenile/YA sales were about even at 474 million and 464 million books, respectively. But in 2011, Greco projects that Americans will buy 484 million juvenile/YA books and 411 million adult trade books. He estimates that juvenile/YA revenue will rise $100 million to $3.29 billion in 2011 even as overall print book revenue declines for publishers. While e-book sales have grown more slowly than in adult trade, he projects that will change rapidly during the next two years. Greco has a simple test to drive home the growth of juvenile/YA books: He counts the shelves at bookstores like Barnes & Noble. In 2007, Greco counted 62 shelves and one display table ("dump," in book lingo) devoted to them at a New York-area store. In April, the same store devoted 92 shelves and four dumps to books from the category.

Since the '90s, juvenile/YA sales have been fueled by just four series that have dominated best-seller lists: Goosebumps, Harry Potter, Twilight and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Because a hit kids series has a long shelf life and multiple titles, Greco says they are now as crucial to a publisher's bottom line as a hit movie franchise is to Hollywood.

Take perennial favorite Harry Potter, now more than a decade old: It still sold more than 1.8 million books in the U.S. last year to add to a career total in excess of 400 million worldwide. The Twilight series, which topped the juvenile/YA charts in 2008 and '09, moved 8.5 million books in the U.S. last year, and its lifetime sales exceed 100 million worldwide. Lifetime book sales for the current champ Wimpy Kid, which just celebrated its fourth birthday, are already at 50 million copies.

Even Goosebumps, R.L. Stine's spooky-funny horror series from the early '90s, still sells about 2 million books a year. With its TV spinoff and broad array of licensed merchandise, Goosebumps pioneered the idea that a kids series could be a multimedia hit. What makes Wimpy Kid unique is that it's the first series aimed squarely at middle-grade readers (kids 8-12) to dominate the list since Goosebumps, and it succeeds not by selling a particular product so much as Kinney's knack for turning the mundane and trivial into comic gold. "Consider Diary of a Wimpy Kid the Seinfeld of the tween set," says Dan Coates, president of the kids marketing and trend-spotting firm Youth Pulse. That's a description Kinney would like because he describes Greg Heffley, the titular wimpy kid, as a middle-school version of Larry David: well-intentioned but always getting in trouble for saying out loud what other people are thinking.

Wimpy Kid is big business. Abrams won't divulge an exact dollar figure for how much the series has grossed, but a conservative estimate would start at $350 million. In 2010, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie, a live-action adaptation, grossed $75.7 million worldwide on an estimated $15 million budget. The sequel, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, released March 25, is already at $58 million (on a $21 million budget). Add to those figures the gross of the DVD of the first movie plus merchandising -- based on the live-action movies and the "classic" cartoon images -- and the Wimpy Kid franchise has generated at least $500 million in revenue and counting. Kinney's take? His book royalties alone were more than $25 million in 2010.

The franchise looks to continue to grow. Kinney just returned from his first international book tour ("It's getting ready to explode over there," he says), and the script for a third movie is on his desk awaiting an official green light from Fox. He also has his eye on television. "I personally would love to do an animated special or two or three like the classic Charlie Brown specials." Coates thinks the franchise has staying power.  "We are bullish on the long-term potential for the series and its transmedia offshoots," he says.

Wimpy Kid aside, the rise of juvenile/YA sales has mostly been driven by older-skewing titles that also appeal to adult readers, especially women (who buy three times as many books as men). Says screenwriter Terri Tatchell, who is adapting Amanda Hocking's self-published YA sensation the Trylle Trilogy for the big screen and is a big YA fan, "You don't know how many grown-up women have told me they haven't left their bed all day" because they were curled up with a good YA novel. And the line between YA and adult is blurring. Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later, a sequel that catches up with the Wakefield twins in their mid-20s, made the New York Times best-seller list this past winter. A similar update of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, Sisterhood Everlasting, hits bookstores in June.

Hollywood is also taking cues from juvenile/YA books. Twilight and Harry Potter are the best-known film franchises to be developed from YA fiction, but the list also includes recent entries like I Am Number Four and How to Train Your Dragon. Adaptations of The Hunger Games and the Sex and the City prequel Carrie Diaries are in the works. On television, the list of shows developed from YA books includes The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars.

Expect more movies in the Wimpy Kid vein as well.  Gotham Group is pitching a feature-film version of Stine's latest book, It's the First Day of School … Forever! as a Diary of a Wimpy Kid-meets-Groundhog Day story. Lisa Cholodenko, the Oscar-nominated director of The Kids Are All Right, is reported to be in negotiations to direct a live-action adaptation of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. The classic children's book from 1972 about elementary school-age Alexander's humorously bad day, and its two sequels, are also being touted as a Wimpy Kid-like story with franchise possibilities.

Kinney, for one, thinks he knows why the middle-grade genre is working: "There's nothing that grabs me more than when someone starts a story with, 'When I was kid …' "          

BIG NAMES GOING YOUNG: More established authors in adult fiction are looking to cash in on the under-21s

Candace Bushnell
Bushnell revived the Sex and the City franchise in 2010 with a prequel series: Her Carrie Diaries explores the early years of her heroine. The first book sold more than 300,000 copies. In April, Summer and the City (Balzer & Bray) published 500,000 copies.  

John Grisham
Due in June with a print run of 750,000 is Theodore Boone: The Abduction (Dutton), the sequel to Grisham's Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, a thriller aimed at middle-grade readers but so entertaining that The New York Times declared, "You don't have to be a kid to enjoy it."

James Patterson
Known mostly for his thrillers, Patterson's three YA series (Maximum Ride, Daniel X and Witch and Wizard) sold 2.5 million copies last year. This summer, he's after the Wimpy Kid audience with Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (Little Brown) in a 500,000 first printing.