Soaps And Serials

Our man has been dreaming up new business ideas since his days in the sandbox, only to watch others make a business of them. But this is the last straw.
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It just isn't fair. I've had only three commercial ideas in my life -- and now they've all been done.

You know the weighted doughnut that ball players slide on their bats as they take practice swings? I thought of that. Even as a six-year-old hopelessly devoted to the New York Yankees, I knew swinging two or three bats together to warm up was dumb. But apparently, so did others. Hillerich & Bradsby Co., the folks who make the Louisville Slugger, were recently selling the On-Deck Bat Weight (U.S. patent 3,521,833) for under $10.

Idea Number 2 was automobile tape decks. That way, on long trips my parents couldn't subject me to hours of listening to Andy Williams singing "Moon River" on the radio. With a built-in tape player, I could banish Andy forever and listen to somebody good -- like the Shirelles. I lost out on that one, too. Tape decks started turning up in cars a few years later, in 1969.

But my best idea, the one in retrospect that would have let me retire at age 10, involved Napoleon Solo, the man from U.N.C.L.E. In its first year, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." aired at 8 p.m. No problem there. But the following season, NBC moved the show to 10 p.m., well past my bedtime. I begged to stay up, but my folks didn't hear me. Neither did NBC. Hauling out my father's battered black Remington, I typed a letter to the network pleading for copies of the scripts. If I couldn't watch the show, I said, at least let me read it.

NBC never answered -- but Sidney R. Seltzer has, and that's why I'm frustrated. Some 20 years after my inspiration, Sid Seltzer has taken my idea and turned it into Pioneer Communications Network Inc.

Pioneer takes the scripts of soap operas ("Days of Our Lives" and "The Young and the Restless") and of serials ("Dallas" and "Knots Landing") and turns them into books. The novels, which are published monthly by Seltzer and his staff of seven, started showing up in supermarkets and bookstores last May. And to add insult to my injury, Seltzer has already taken the company public. Its NASDAQ listing is SOAP.

Now, if Sid Seltzer were an agent or a Hollywood producer, with all kinds of contacts, I'd understand why he -- and not me -- was destined to be rich. But he came up with this idea when he was at Xerox Corp., where he was director of new-product development for the educational publications division. You know what's worse? Seltzer's not even a fan of these shows. Maybe he'll catch an occasional episode of "Dallas" or "Dynasty," but he's yet to see a daytime soap.

So how did he come up with my idea? I'll let him tell you himself:"

"I was negotiating a deal with ABC for Xerox. And while I am talking to an executive there, I am staring at the three television monitors he has on the wall. It is the middle of the afternoon, and they are all showing soap operas. And I say to myself, 'That is very interesting.' Romance novels were hot at the time [1979], and I thought there might be an opportunity here. I asked the guy from ABC if anyone had ever tried to turn the soaps into books."

The answer was a qualified no. Years before, he recalled, a couple of publishers had done books based on soap operas, but they didn't do well.For that matter, neither have books based on some of the most popular prime-time television shows. "People see television every day," says Lester Borden, vice-president and general manager of Columbia Pictures Merchandising. "It is hard to get them to respond to a book based on a TV series. We do well on movie tie-ins and even TV miniseries, but television shows are another matter."

So why does Seltzer think he'll succeed with my idea? "We are different," he says. "First, we are a continuity series -- we'll be out there with a new book every month. The previous attempts to do soap opera books were one-shots, and you just can't put the necessary promotion behind one book like you can for a series. When people tried to do more than one book, they picked action/adventure shows like 'Miami Vice,' geared to men. And men don't buy books."

He's right about that. According to Book Industry Study Group Inc., "Book readers are most likely to be white, female, and under the age of 40" -- very much the same female market A. C. Nielsen finds watching daytime soaps and driving the ratings for nighttime serials. To hook these women, Seltzer hopes to provide them with the definitive history of their favorite shows. "There is no way at all for anyone to go back to the very beginning of a soap opera," Seltzer says. And since some of these soap operas started on radio in the 1930s, Seltzer's source material guarantees he can turn out books for decades to come.

Listening to Seltzer, I couldn't help but realize how easy it would have been to turn what was once my idea into a going business.Seltzer got a major distributor, Kable News Co., to place his books in some 20,000 locations -- supermarkets, mostly. Then he negotiated for the scripts and set free-lance writers to work with very specific guidelines on how long each book could be -- 40,000 to 45,000 words, which translates into 192 pages -- and how the TV dialogue was to be turned into prose.

"Each book has a theme and a subtheme," Seltzer explains. "The subtheme, which uses a cliff-hanger approach, becomes the main theme of the next book. I am using the same technique the soap operas used to get you hooked. You want to come back and find out why so-and-so did such-and-such. There is no explicit sex and no excessive use of foul language. In essence, we don't do anything that can't be shown on television. We want young people to be able to read the books, because we believe they are well written" (see box at left).

It wasn't long, however, before Seltzer realized that writing was less important to his success than distribution. "Shelf space in supermarkets is expensive, and nobody is going to give you space for just one book," Seltzer explains. So instead of bringing out one series at a time, he offered eight almost simultaneously ("The Young and the Restless," "Days of Our Lives," "As the World Turns," "Guiding Light," "Another World," "Dallas," "Capitol," and "Knots Landing"). That number not only gives him critical marketing mass and the ability to design eye-catching displays, it also hedges his bets -- "Knots Landing" may flop, but "Dallas" could be a hit. And it also forecloses competition: with only a limited number of soaps and serials on the air, Seltzer's unabashed goal is to lock up this new literary genre.

He's well on his way. Already, Seltzer has struck agreements with almost all of the shows. And for the most part, TV producers have been eager to cooperate. The producers, after all, receive free advertising for their shows every time a shopper goes to the supermarket (2.7 times a week, on average). And they receive royalties of from 15? to 20? on each book sold. Since Seltzer expects to sell 100,000 copies of each book, that is $15,000 to $20,000 in found money for the producers each month.

Why can't the television production companies simply do all this? They can, but they don't want the hassle. "I am not in the publishing business," says Borden of Columbia Pictures Television, which produces "The Young and the Restless" and "Days of Our Lives." "I don't want to worry about printing, inventory, and distribution. I would rather take the royalty."

And Seltzer would rather pay it. As a book publisher, Seltzer thinks it is a bargain to pay 15? or 20? a copy to buy a builtin audience of millions who view the soaps and the serials. And he doesn't have to spend a cent to explain what his books are about -- that's done for him on national television every day. Even after he pays the production companies, the writers, the printer, and the distributors, he still enjoys gross margins of 27% (see box below). And that's charging only $2.50 per book.

"His pricing decision was brilliant," says Kathryn Falk, publisher of Romantic Times, a fan magazine with a circulation of 70,000. "At $2.50, it is an impulse buy."

But not everyone in the industry thinks it will be an inevitable impulse. "I think the idea is ridiculous," says Katherine Orr, director of public relations for Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., the Toronto company that owns the romance field. "If you are already addicted to the shows, you are not going to read the books, you already know everything about them. Somebody who likes the shows as a viewer does not necessarily want the show in a different format. Look, I like [the television show] "Family Ties," but I am not going to read the book. That is too much work."

It will be a while before we know who is right. Although Pioneer books have been on supermarket shelves since May, the nature of the book-publishing business is such that Seltzer won't have a good idea of his first month's sales for another month or so. And it will be even longer before the viewer/reader gets used to seeing the books at the supermarket or advertised in such publications as the National Enquirer, Star, and People magazine. There's even a Pioneer Book Club in the works.

But there is one thing that makes me glad it is Seltzer who has moved ahead with my idea rather than me. While romance novels were all the rage five years ago, the market is leveling off. Between 1981 and 1985, in fact, sales of mass-market paperbacks have increased just 0.7%. But Seltzer is not worried. Although the market may be similar, his product, he says, is not. And he rejects the idea that his books should be simply lumped in with romance novels that feature covers of busty maidens in the lusty embrace of bare-chested young hunks. "We are not selling romance novels," he declares. "We really are a brand-new category."

Is it all that different"

Will Sid Seltzer make money?

Is the world really waiting for prose like, "Pam Ewing stepped outside wearing a gorgeous dress that shimmered in the morning sunlight and emphasized her exquisite figure"?

Will I ever get a commercial idea up and running? Tune in tomorrow.

Last updated: Jan 1, 1987

PAUL B. BROWN | Columnist

Best-selling author (and Inc. magazine columnist) Paul B. Brown's latest book, Own Your Future, has just been published. Brown's blog appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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