NEW YORK - The masterminds behind some of the most popular books for adolescent girls are a couple of thirtysomething men who work in an average office building full of white, Ikea-esque furniture.
But don't underestimate these guys. They are experts on teen crazes, and they know their limitations enough to hire young, female editors to develop ideas that jive with what a girl wants.
Alloy Entertainment, Inc., a division of marketing and advertising giant Alloy, has developed a slew of hot book series, including "Gossip Girl," "The A-List," "The Clique" and "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," which was made into a hit movie and TV's "Roswell."
President Leslie Morgenstein has built the company up to its current fever pitch, starting just out of college before it became an Alloy subsidiary. Known as 17th Street Productions, the company created the "Sweet Valley High" teen books popular in the 1980s, but has come a long way since the days of those California twins, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield.
Three of their books are in the top 10 of The New York Times list of best sellers for children's books, and "Traveling Pants," is the No. 1 series.
Alloy Entertainment operates more like the romance novel industry than a traditional trade publisher. It has a staff in New York of about 10 editors who diligently research what's hot in the teen world - what girls are wearing, the music they like, the TV shows they Tivo.
The hook common in many of the novels is a gaggle of rich, bratty, powerful schoolgirls. It's like an episodic reading of Paris Hilton and her friends, and who can resist a little peek into how the privileged live? Others strive to be more in the Judy Blume vein, focusing on strong friendships and life lessons. Either way, teens are devouring the books.
"Look at these books. They feel fresh today, but the themes girls face in the books are enduring themes," Morgenstein said. "We are really focused on what's a great story, what's an enduring theme and what's a hook."
Staff members are in charge of everything about the book, from creating ideas to finding writers for the books, crafting proposals for publishers and creating the sleek cover art. The company then sells the book, but keeps all the other rights. As many as 50 are published each year and are well distributed among the major publishing houses.
Alloy's methods may seem a bit unorthodox, especially to budding authors peddling a carefully crafted labor of love. Write a book that isn't your idea? That seems totally uncool.
But for many of Alloy's authors, it is a chance to do something they'd never do.
Lisi Harrison, author of "The Clique" series, was working at MTV when she was approached by Alloy to create books about wealthy, junior-high queen bees.
"Always being a closeted wannabe author - I jumped at the opportunity," she said. "I loved the idea. I never would have changed the course of my life had that not happened. There aren't a lot of opportunities for young authors."
She used 12 years worth of experiences at MTV as fodder for her books, which have made multiple best-seller lists. Publisher Little, Brown decided to buy eight books, and she was able to quit her job and write full time.
Harrison said that Alloy was great when it came to vetting ideas, and helped with story lines but was never overbearing.
"Once I was on board, they left me to my own devices. It's very much my book," she said.
Other successful series, such as "Traveling Pants" and "Gossip Girl," are written by former Alloy employees.
"Gossip Girl" author Cecily von Ziegesar was part of the original pitch for the series. She was picked by Little, Brown editor and is now writing an 11-book series.
Her experience at a New York prep school helps her create the vicious, back-stabbing and juicy lives of the characters in her novels.
"They just sort of flow out of me. It's very easy to recapture your teenage years," said von Ziegesar, who is currently working on book eight.
She agrees that it may seem odd to some that she wasn't the inventor of the series. "People don't really get it - it's such an unusual way to create books. But I'm very much the writer of my books, the final product is very much mine," she said.
Churning out best-sellers for teens can get a little exhausting, she acknowledged, and it's good to have other creative minds at work.
Alloy partners with most of the major publishing houses. Cindy Eagan, executive editor at Little, Brown books for young readers said they are a blessing. She already publishes four series with Alloy including "Gossip Girl" and "The Clique," and is starting a new series in the fall called "The It Girl."
"Clearly this works for us," Eagan said. "I feel we have a great partnership. Everyone on the Alloy team I talk to almost everyday about everything, book design, manuscripts, you name it."
Eagan said she receives a finished manuscript from some writers, and others are just outlines created by Alloy. Either way, the partnerships have been wildly successful.
"It's like a TV show, a series, except it's not on TV. But the concept is the same: working together to script something, to help the writer with ideas," she said.
Since the company has found a niche in the teen publishing market, Alloy is branching out to conquer movies and television. Alloy produced the new "Traveling Pants," film, based on Ann Brashares' book. The film made more than $23 million in its first two weeks at the box office.
"We were pretty hands off. It was our first attempt at producing a film," Morgenstein said. "Since 'Traveling Pants,' we have become very involved, very hands on in the development (of films) alone or with partners, and in television as well."
The company has developed at least a dozen pilots for major networks and has about 10 feature films in development.
Parent company Alloy owns Delia's clothing store, several magazines and a Web site devoted to teens. Company CEO Matt Diamond says Alloy reaches 85 percent of 10-to-20 year olds through its Web site, or through advertising in college newspapers or media boards placed in schools or malls.
That's pretty helpful when promoting a new book or film.
"Everything we do in our company, we are now able to feed it into the marketing machine," he said. That means ads for books and the "Traveling Pants" films are placed in Delia's catalogs and in stores, and Web sites are built off the main site to create a buzz.
"We know what teens want," Diamond said. "And we know how to use what we have here to get it to them."
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