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Recreating Harry Potter's Spell

Is there life after Harry Potter?

More than a year after J.K. Rowling unveiled her seventh and final Potter novel, Scholastic, its U.S. publisher, has all but fallen off the children's chapter-book bestseller lists. It has so far been unable to produce a series that can begin to fill the shoes of the boy wizard.

Now, Scholastic is hoping that the 39 Clues will provide them with a much-needed hit.

39 Clues pioneers a new approach to children's lit: More than just another set of chapter books, it is a multiplatform adventure series combining books with online gaming and card collecting. The 10-book series, which makes its debut today with The Maze of Bones, presents an interactive, immersive treasure hunt plotline; using the online component to create a community, kids can also compete for $100,000 in prizes.

The treasure hunt theme of the 39 Clues series seems fitting.

Harry Potter shattered publishing records after it was first published in 1997 (sales now exceed 400 million copies worldwide), turning into an unprecedented success for Scholastic.

But a year after the final Potter book hit the shelves, Scholastic's shares have fallen off nearly 25 percent, as the children's publisher battles harsh economic conditions and a fruitless search to find a series that catches fire with the so-called "middle-grade" age group that Harry Potter targeted (roughly 8 to 12). Disney-Hyperion's Percy Jackson & The Olympians and Artemis Fowl, as well as Random House's Books of Ember, are three fantasy series that have sprouted up from other publishers to fill the Potter void.

With 39 Clues, Scholastic is banking on the idea that favorite pastimes like computer games and card collecting, paired with recent trends like social networking, will draw children in to the series.

"What we're trying to do is extend the reading experience," says Suzanne Murphy, the vice president and publisher of Scholastic's Trade Publishing Division.

"We know from experience that the idea of being a part of the story, being part of a community of kids, has big appeal."

Murphy says that the idea for 39 Clues originated out of a brainstorming session led by children's editor David Levithan, who subsequently recruited Rick Riordan (author of the Percy Jackson books) to write Maze of Bones as well as the series' overall story arc.

Since then, bestselling children's authors Gordon Korman, Peter Lerangis, and Jude Watson have signed on for subsequent books, and DreamWorks picked up the movie rights.

"I think it's a different kind of publication that they're releasing at this point, and it really does fit into a trend we're seeing in libraries across country," says Dale Lipschultz, literacy officer for the Office for Literacy and Outreach Services of the American Library Association. "Scholastic has always been very savvy about tapping into trends."

Scholastic has printed a first run of 500,000 copies of Maze of Bones—a large number by most standards, but nothing to compete with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince's initial run of 12 million copies.

In addition to the books, which will sell for $12.99 each, Scholastic will also offer trading-card packs for $6.99 and audio CDs for $19.95 tied to the 39 Clues series.

"The fact that they're utilizing a multimedia strategy is interesting," says Drew Crum, an analyst covering Scholastic for Stifel Nicolaus. "They're creating new revenue streams and finding new ways for them to monetize their intellectual property and content."

But at the end of the day, will all of the innovation add up to blockbuster success à la Potter?

Crum, who rates Scholastic shares as a "hold," says that the combination of a difficult macroeconomic headwind for the industry and the low success rates of new titles makes him believe the impact of 39 Clues on Scholastic's top line will be minimal. Crum says that the series is not a factor included in his forecasting model for Scholastic.

An analyst with Citigroup, Catriona Fallon, rates Scholastic as a "sell," and does not expect 39 Clues to provide any real relief for the publisher.

"Despite the hype around the set of authors and the lower price points than Harry Potter, there is still a crowded marketplace for the attention of pre-teenagers," says Fallon in a research note published last week. "39 Clues may be a nice add-on product set for Scholastic but is unproven as a blockbuster to replace Harry Potter."

For its part, Scholastic may be hoping for a miracle, but is all too realistic about the tall task of replicating a literary sensation.

"There's never going to be anything like Harry Potter," says Scholastic's Suzanne Murphy. "We hope that kids love 39 Clues, but for us it's entirely different. Our feeling is, there's never going to be another Harry Potter."

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