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Q&A: Jen Bergstrom

The associate publisher of Simon Spotlight Entertainment—Simon & Schuster's hip, new imprint for teens and twentysomethings—talks about the launch, its runaway success, and taking on the ultimate competition.

- September 28, 2004

In the race to capture the dollars of the coveted 18 to 34 demographic, has the book world faltered? Magazine publishers have swooned over lad mags and shopping rags, television networks have ramped up reality-TV programming, and movie studios have Lindsay Lohan scheduled out through 2006. In publishing, there have been sporadic efforts to cater to this crowd—the proliferation of genres like chick lit or the grouping of titles under umbrellas like Random House's Teens@Random. But there has never been anything so concerted as an imprint devoted to finding out exactly what's on the minds of these elusive consumers.

All that changed earlier this month, when Simon & Schuster launched a new imprint, Simon Spotlight Entertainment, to focus exclusively on courting this demographic. The imprint is an extension of Simon Spotlight, a successful S&S imprint within the Children's Publishing division that mainly does kiddie lit media tie-ins, and it's being headed up by associate publisher Jen Bergstrom, a former Simon Spotlight exec. So far, the imprint seems to have hit a nerve: The lead title, He's Just Not That Into You, by two ex-Sex and the City consultants, is already a bestseller and the book's writers are currently making the talk-show rounds. Bergstrom recently took some time out to speak with mediabistro.com about how the imprint intends to get a new generation reading again.

Birthdate: December 21, 1968
Hometown: New York, New York
First section of the Sunday Times: "The Style section. It's the women's sports pages."

This is an interesting chance to get a behind the scenes look at the rationale and thinking that goes into the development of an imprint. Tell me a little bit about the start-up process. Why was the decision made to branch out into this market?
I have to tell you, it was when Queer Eye for the Straight Guy hit TV. It was the first reality TV show, I think, that everyone in my office really responded to. We started talking about the books we could do or would want to do to tie into that show. And we realized that there was a niche audience out there that really wasn't being published for. It was this 18- to 34-year-old group—actually, I have to start raising the age as I grow older. I'm going to be 36, so I said in an interview this morning "It's 18 to 35" and the interviewer said, "But Jen, it says 18 to 34 in the press release," and I said, "I know, but I'm 35 now. Just change the age." I've got to grow with my demo.

But we loved Queer Eye. It started a really cool conversation at one of our editorial meetings and we decided to go to the powers that be here at Simon & Schuster and see if we could get the OK to launch an imprint that would be completely dedicated to taking brands and TV shows and celebrities and issues that are hot or in the media and leveraging them into a new format that would encourage reading in what we're calling a pain-free and gotta-have-it kind of way. And no one here was really doing that. Specifically saying you want to publish books that people within a certain age are going to buy was a new concept to S&S. And the fact that we're also part of Viacom and the MTV family—the reception was incredible. Our CEO challenged us to do it, he fully supported it, and we ran with it. That was almost a year ago, and our first two titles are just shipping as we speak.

So the original brains behind this were people at Simon Spotlight who wanted to branch out even more?
Exactly—wanted to publish books that they themselves wanted to read. It's the old "you have to be one to know one." And this list really started directly out of us talking in meetings and by the watercoolers about what shows we were watching, what we were interested in. It's very media-centric. Everything's got a pop-culture framework to it.

Who do you see as your typical reader?
Our typical reader obviously falls within the age group. They are hooked on at least one reality TV show, they own an iPod, they can't live without TiVo. They can be married or single, but they are thirsting for a new voice or a new attitude. We just signed up Lewis Black, for example, the comedian, to do a book filled with his rants on our spring list. You don't get more irreverent than Lewis Black. He is like the poster child for this imprint.

Our runaway bestseller right now—and it's officially a bestseller—is a book He's Just Not That Into You, written by two consultants and writers from Sex and the City. Oprah featured it on her show; it's already number one at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. What we love about it is it's this no-excuses guide to understanding guys. It's sort of like the new Rules for dating. It's very irreverent, it's fresh, it's smart, it's savvy, and it's written by two people in the media. And most of our authors on our list fit that profile—they've either written magazine pieces, they've written for television, or they're celebrities who are breaking out.

What was your role in creating this? What's your background like?
I've been at Simon & Schuster for eight years, and I've been the publisher of their children's media line of books. So I've been publishing anything that's on TV for kids, but my target audience has been three to five year olds—a little different. But it's always been media-based, and in this business, those contacts—because a lot of it comes down to buying rights and negotiating deals—are the same people. For instance, when we're talking to Comedy Central about a book that we're doing with them on The Man Show, it's the same person at Comedy Central that I talk to about doing something on one of their Nickelodeon properties. So the people were the same, we hired four editors at various levels, promoted an intern—we've got simply the hippest, coolest editorial staff. I mean, I consider myself pretty cutting-edge, and these guys will come into meetings and tell me about celebrities that I haven't even heard of that they think are going to break out. And so far, they're batting 1.000. We've done some unauthorized bios, we've done a book on Ashlee Simpson. They know who's hot, much like, I think, editors on magazines do. If Entertainment Weekly were to do a line of books, it would be this line of books.

What differentiates this imprint from previous houses' efforts to plug into what "the kids" want to read?
I don't know what differentiates it aside from the age group, 18- to 34-year-olds. I think maybe the question behind that question is what are we doing differently than some of those other imprints, and I would say the answer to that is marketing. Given what I said about this media-savvy reader that we're trying to attract, we're finding that we're doing a lot more guerrilla marketing than we ever have before. Our marketing people are doing everything from advertising on Match.com for one of our dating books, to partnering with a magazine and Smirnoff for our poker book. There's a lot more grassroots marketing than I think you would find with a serious fiction line of books. We're also finding that we understand our readers aren't necessarily going to be shopping at Barnes & Noble. They might be in Barnes & Noble buying a magazine or a cappuccino, but we've got just as good a shot with them buying a book at Urban Outfitters or Restoration Hardware or online.

I think what really got corporate here at S&S excited about this idea was that statistics and studies have shown recently that readership for this age group has been dwindling. And we truly believe that it's because there's nothing out there that they want to read. There's this big gap between young adult or Harry Potter and the classics. There's this middle section of readers that we think we're going to capture, and they want stuff that's edgy and irreverent and funny and smart. This is a generation that didn’t grow up with Tom Brokaw—they grew up with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

Tell me about some of the other books in the fall catalog. How did you assemble the list? Did agents just submit titles because they knew this was happening?
Well, He's Just Not That Into You was submitted to us from an agent. Poker: The Real Deal was 100 percent our idea in-house. I had been on a trip to L.A. and all of my friends—mostly my guy friends—were obsessed with poker. We decided we wanted to do a book with it, and we got, luckily, Phil Gordon, who is the co-host of Celebrity Poker on Bravo. We approached him about writing an introduction for the book, and he blew us away by saying. "No, I want to write the whole book." So we teamed him up with Jonathan [Grotenstein], the co-writer on the project, and it's another runaway bestseller for us, it's been phenomenal. And Hardly Working, which I think has gotten the most buzz when people pick it up because it's so funny, came to us after we put out a call to our favorite packagers and agents in the business. We said, "OK guys, here's what we want to do." And I think what surprised us the most is that all of those people had six things on their desks that they weren't getting sold anywhere else. And we said that's exactly what we're looking for. So we're getting ideas from three places: from agents, from ideas that we're coming up with on staff, and we're chasing a lot of celebrities.

And media tie-ins?
And media tie-ins. They're really sort of the backbone of our business—series publishing, like Everwood and Charmed and Buffy. Buffy and Charmed we've been publishing for years, but we've had them on our teen list. In creating this imprint, we decided that from a brand perspective, it was probably smart to just keep everything that was TV-driven or entertainment-based on one list. And we're always looking. There are a lot of shows that are on right now that we're watching very closely, like Arrested Development. We also like Joan of Arcadia, which is CBS's big hit, just because it's a different, middle-America audience. What we want to try to do is not become too regional.

A lot of the books seem really design-y—smaller sizes, a lot of very stylized covers. Was that purposeful?
It absolutely was. We wanted it to be different. Even our trim sizes are different. Again, this is an audience where packaging is king. We knew that with our buying habits—you know, as the same age as our readers—I buy a lot of books for friends. We wanted it to be gifty. Most of our books have rounded corners—just something that gets them to stand out a little bit more. And surprisingly, these aren't necessarily features that make a book that much more expensive. That's the other thing. We wanted the books to be as affordable as possible. We wanted these to be impulse buys. We wanted it to be a no–brainer. I love to say about He's Just Not That Into You—it's less than a manicure and pedicure, and it makes you feel so much better in the long run.

Your marquee author Lewis Black said something recently: "This whole century is about style over content." Do you worry about creating that perception?
Well, listen. He was at our launch party last week, and he did some stand-up for us. We have a finished cover, we've got quotes for the back of the book, and he said, "Now all I have to do is write it." And he turned to us and he said, "Or do I?"

I agree with Lewis, I think that's funny, but the reality is this is an incredibly discriminating audience. Phil Gordon's poker book is super smart. He's got to be writing it for a person who's obsessed with poker as a sport, so it's got to deliver. And Lewis' book is the same, and he will. We've seen bits and pieces of it, and we're just so excited.

When you Google "imprint," "teen," and "demographic," the only thing that seems to pop up are references to the "Extreme for Jesus" line of books. How do you feel about your competition?
Oh, we can so easily take him. I love that. But you know, we come up with these ideas in our editorial meetings, and we think, God, that's such a great idea. Someone must have done it already. And then someone does exactly what you did. We go onto bn.com or Bookscan, and lo and behold, there's nothing there on the subject. It's perfect. We're having a blast. I don't think any of us have ever had this much fun before.



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