05 February 2009

How Diary of a Wimpy Kid Found Its Audience

As Jeff Kinney has described in interviews, he started writing Diary of a Wimpy Kid without expecting it to be categorized as a graphic novel. Indeed, he wasn't thinking of it as a book for kids. It was simply a story he had to tell. (There's a little autobiography in Greg Heffley's adventures.)

Kinney was working for an online education site called FunBrain.com, managing content for its website. FunBrain is part of a company called the Family Education Network, which is turn was a small wing of the multinational publishing conglomerate which will remain Pearson.

Kinney's boss, Jess Brallier, had been involved in marketing many bestselling books: William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, Bailey White's Mama Makes Up Her Mind, Sylvia Branzei's Grossology, and his own Lawyers and Other Reptiles, among others.

When Brallier saw Kinney's manuscript, he thought the material could work well on the FunBrain site, doled out in daily installments. That online format would require Kinney to draw more art--illustrations for each day's entry. And just maybe it would draw enough of an audience to interest a book publisher, since Kinney still wanted to see Wimpy Kid published as a novel.

Jess Brallier is a publishing friend of mine, so he clued me into Wimpy Kid early on. Even before I had broadband, I was looking at the daily installments. And so were a growing number of other folks. (Nobody from book-publishing was biting, though.) In the summer of 2004 Jess proudly sent me some of the feature's early online reviews. On 9 July--I just looked it up--I emailed back:

One observation: the jengajam.com comments are filed in the category "animation."

And this [Pottsville] library site refers to "the ever popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid cartoon."

So at least some of Jeff's audience don't see his creation as a book, but as something in a different art/storytelling form.
Not that there was anything wrong with that.

Wimpy Kid was emerging in readers' eyes as something other than a traditional novel. The combination of text and art, and the short daily installments, made people classify Kinney's work as a sort of cartoon, even though his text drives his story. That categorization might have produced a mental block that prevented traditional book editors from seeing the potential for a Wimpy Kid book. (Not to mention that FunBrain was already giving away the content for free.) Meanwhile, the site was getting thousands of hits a day.

Two years later, Kinney finally connected with the man who became his print editor at the New York Comic-Con, a convention on comics. Charlie Kochman of Abrams was open to work in the comics format--that's why he was there. And thus graphic-novel history was made. (This year's New York Comic-Con starts on Friday.)

Jess Brallier is now recommending people take a look at Talia Rivera's blog about being a parent: "I think this wonderfully captures a mother/wife who represents a population segment from who we otherwise don’t hear. Talia is somebody we should publish; with pride, enthusiasm, and anticipation."

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