PUBLISHING MONTH: An author's view

The creator of Dear Zoo on watching his book being turned into a 'brand'.
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I have been creating books for the under fives for nearly 30 years and have been fortunate in that many of them are still in print and selling well. My best known book, Dear Zoo, was one of my first and has been a success from the moment it came out in 1982. This was a time when so-called novelty books were in their infancy. Eric Hill’s Spot had just introduced the wonderful lift-the-flap concept for pre-readers - anything that attracts them to books is a good thing. As I toyed with the interactive activity (as it is called nowadays) possibilities, the idea for Dear Zoo came to me almost fully formed – something that has never happened since.

The book was, and is still, extremely well received, slowly establishing itself as a must-have for younger children. It quickly passed into a paperback version, which continues to sell very well and is now firmly established as a classic. Just over ten years ago it was put into a boardbook format, and in many ways I think it then truly found its audience as two million copies have been sold, bringing the total lifetime sales of all editions to over four million.

I think the success of Dear Zoo is due in large part to a simple repetitive text that even non-readers can repeat and predict, which gives them a sense of being able to read. The story has an inner logic that makes sense to the child, it has familiar animals with different characteristics they can identify with, and of course it ends on a high note. This book probably succeeds best of all my books in making early learning and the introduction to reading a fun experience - this is what I have always sought to do and am delighted that Dear Zoo and books of its type remain as popular now as they were 30 years ago.

One knows time is passing when the mother of a child who is clutching a copy tells you that she had it as a child too and loved it. It seems, from letters and what I have been told and on occasion witnessed, Dear Zoo becomes an important book at a certain period in a child’s development and that they tend to become extremely attached to it.

In view of the popularity of the title, I have wanted for some time to create something else to extend the ‘Dear Zoo experience’. The publisher, MacMillan Children’s Books recognise this and are working on a rolling programme of new formats. Starting with Dear Zoo itself, a new and slightly larger cased boardbook edition will be published in June, to be followed by a brand new buggy book in July and a boxed set of four little boardbooks at the end of this year. It is vital to the success of classic books of this nature that new formats sit closely with the original and, to this end, I have already sketched out a Dear Zoo activity book with stickers which will be published in 2011.

An established and growing consumer base for classic titles naturally lends itself to the development of a merchandise programme. Spot enjoyed success some years ago and Eric Carle’s The Hungry Caterpillar is the inspiration of some rather lovely product available today.

I have felt for some time that Dear Zoo should be merchandised and believe that a carefully chosen, well-designed range of products would extend the child’s pleasure in the book into their daily activities. What is going strongly for the merchandising of Dear Zoo, as with other brands of this genre, is the fact that parents who had it as children are now reading it to their own children. Dear Zoo is often the first book a parent shares with their child, and the squeals of delight of their own baby lifting flaps to reveal the animals creates wonderful memories, making Dear Zoo a special and effective licence.

Just as the publishing programme got under way, it was serendipity that Metrostar showed an interest in the merchandising rights of Dear Zoo. Having met Claire Potter, managing director at Metrostar, and Keith Pashley, who is working with Metrostar on the brand, I was impressed by their passion for the book and really encouraged by the fact that we share the same view on the merchandising goals and how to achieve them.

It was at this point that the term ‘style guide’ cropped up, and I quickly understood how a design code is needed in order to maintain consistency of design across a range of licensed products. I had already produced some product design ideas, but clearly we needed to find a designer to put a guide together. This proved not to be as simple as it sounds. Dear Zoo is rather particular in that there is not one character, and we wanted designs to relate to the book, thus incorporating the animals and the simplicity of the story. Not easy. Some very experienced designers were reluctantly turned down, but by holding out we found an agency in Marshmallow who saw immediately what it was about and responded as we had hoped.

I have been involved recently in producing artwork for the style guide, and I imagine that there will be times in the future that additional pieces of artwork will be needed. I’m sure Dear Zoo licensees will occasionally want an animal in a particular pose, for example, and I think it’s in all our interests for the illustrator to be involved and participate in this way. While there must be coherence in a product range, there should also be a touch of variety. Metrostar and myself are keen to work closely with licensees if they so wish, so as to arrive at the best possible design outcome for their product.

The style guide will soon be available and the adventure will start - I can’t wait.

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