Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Flashback: Soaps & Serials 1986

New England Business, September 1, 1986

Publisher Sydney R. Seltzer, chief executive officer of Pioneer Communications Network Inc. in Rocky Hill, Conn., compares book publishing to producing a Broadway show. A publisher may think he or she has a sure thing, but until the public jumps on the bandwagon there just isn't any guarantee.

Indeed, publishing can be risky. But there are some formulas that are fairly sure to produce a success. Seltzer contends he has one. Rather than trying to develop markets for books that have already been written, Seltzer found a market, created a specific format for its books and then lined up authors to write them. Seltzer approaches books as "products' rather than literature.

He calls the final product Soaps & Serials--a series of books based on television's soap operas.

For $2.50, readers can purchase "Unspoken Desires,' "Love's Shattered Dreams,' or any of the six other paperbacks produced by Pioneer each month. Soap opera fans can read about the early days of their favorite shows. All of the juicy details are there--the illicit love affairs, the family feuds, the sudden tragedies. The covers of these soap sagas are illustrated with couples locked in passionate embraces, but the sexual content of the books wouldn't make your grandmother blush.

Pioneer's initial public offering was in December 1985, and full production began in May. Seltzer doesn't expect to garner the attention of all soap opera fans. But he maintains that if even a small portion of the 55 million people who watch at least one daytime or nighttime soap opera are interested in reading books based on their favorite shows, Pioneer will be a winner.

"We tested for two years before we came into the market," says Seltzer. "We threw away a lot of manuscripts because we hadn't hit the right formula." Startup costs were high and the company ran into financial problems when Havens & Co., its original underwriter, went out of business just before Pioneer's prospectus was scheduled to go into printing.

"It was a hell of a situation to be in after we spent all of that money,' says Seltzer, "but we knew we had a good idea." A few months after their original attempt fell through, Pioneer engaged Monmouth Investments Inc. of English-town, N.J., as its underwriter. Pioneer was only the second underwriting venture for Monmouth, but Seltzer says he went with a less-seasoned firm because it is difficult to find a major one to underwrite a company that hasn't even gone into production. Further, because Monmouth is a small firm, Seltzer figured it would devote more attention to Pioneer's underwriting than a larger firm might.

Since the initial public offering of Pioneer Communications' 2.5 million units (which consist of one common share and warrants to buy two further shares), the issue has performed both boldly and wildly in the aftermarket. The issue went public at $1 per unit, and they have subsequently traded as high as $8 per unit. At presstime, the units were bid at $1.69. As many as 1 million units have changed hands in one day.


Seltzer knew soap operas had large followings, but the major question was whether soap opera fans would want to read about their shows. Pioneer conducted marketing studies in an attempt to lessen its chances of failure. "So Tender, So True," a book based on the GUIDING LIGHT series, was tested in supermarkets in the Troy-Schenectady-Albany area of New York. The results were quite positive, says Seltzer.

The target audience of Soaps & Serials is more likely to frequent supermarkets rather than bookstores. "We never thought of bookstores as a great marketplace for these books," says Seltzer. The books are now distributed to 22,000 supermarkets and drugstores nationwide and are in the bookstore chains, Walden Books and B. Dalton.

"I'm not an expert on the soaps, but I do know how to put a paperback together," maintains Seltzer, who has spent more than 25 years in the publishing industry. Most of his experience is in publishing educational materials for children.

In 1979, while visiting a New York television studio, Seltzer noticed three monitors, each showing a different soap opera. This first exposure to soap operas led to the idea of publishing soap novels. "It was like an electric lightbulb," he says. Seltzer had never seen a soap opera. Nonetheless, he figured a market must exist for books based on the shows. He studied the demographics of soap opera audiences and asked if anyone had ever produced a continuing series of novels based on soaps. He then queried the soap opera production companies about the licensing rights for publishing novelizations of their television shows.


It took two years for Pioneer to obtain licensing rights from Columbia Pictures Industries Inc., Procter & Gamble Productions Inc., the largest soap opera producer, and three other television production companies. Obtaining the licensing rights for the daytime soap operas was critical to Pioneer's success, says Seltzer. "I've got them all sewed up. There is no way anyone can compete with me."

Most of the licensing companies require Pioneer to produce a minimum number of books. Procter & Gamble's agreement calls for at least one book a month for each soap opera. Further, all of the companies require that Pioneer submit all proposed plot outlines, completed manuscripts, cover art and other material for approval.

"No one has been successful in the past with these kinds of books in the soap opera field," says Lester J. Borden, vice president of Columbia Pictures Merchandising in New York. But Borden contends Seltzer may have the right approach. "What he's done is put them at a low price" while mintaining good quality, he says, and displayed them in the supermarkets.

The principals at Pioneer don't want to leave much to chance. They are using calculated strategies to attract and hold on to readers of soap opera novels. In addition to supermarket and bookstore sales, Seltzer plans to begin a book club next year for Pioneer's Soaps & Serials series along with soap opera clubs.

Plan also are under way to market books based on several non-serial nighttime programs such as T.J. HOOKER and FAME and magazines based on FAME and the GIDGET television series.

In May, the company launched the first installments of its series with paperback books based on eight soap operas: THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS, ANOTHER WORLD, KNOTS LANDING, GUIDING LIGHT, DAYS OF OUR LIVES, DALLAS, CAPITOL and AS THE WORLD TURNS. Each book has a central plot and a subtle cliff-hanger subplot. The subplot then becomes the main plot in the next installment in each series.

The soap publisher claims his books represent "a new genre" in publishing. Like many romance novels, Pioneer's books are formula written, but Seltzer says the important difference is that his books are based on something most people recognize and identify with, soap operas. Further, like soap operas, they are written with a continuing story line to entice readers to keep up with the series.

Sylvia M. King, 33, of North Adams, Mass., says she doesn't read romance novels, but the idea of books based on soap operas appealed to her. When she saw the Soaps & Serials series, she bought two books based on her favorites--AS THE WORLD TURNS and GUIDING LIGHT. King has been an avid fan of GUIDING LIGHT for 23 years. "The books are well-written and move right along," she says.

According to Seltzer, "The key is to write a good story. . . . This is not schlock material." The story editor of the series is Mary Ann Cooper, a nationally syndicated columnist who writes about soap operas. She uses the original television scripts to write outlines of each book, which are then completed by free-lance romance writers. The formula for these books specifies how they are written, even to the number of words. Each book is 192 pages in length with an average of 40,000 to 45,000 words. The $2.50 cover price is calculated to be competitive.

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