Candlewick is betting big that Timmy Failure will not live down to his name. The publisher has high hopes for the eponymous hero of Stephan Pastis’s Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, on sale February 26. The first children’s book from the creator of Pearls Before Swine, a comic strip that appears in more than 600 U.S. newspapers, it centers on clueless, self-confident Timmy Failure and his 1,500-pound business partner, a polar bear named Total, who together run the Total Failure detective agency. Candlewick is calling the $250,000 marketing campaign for the illustrated middle-grade novel its “most robust ever for a debut book.”
The publisher started the Timmy Failure pre-pub buzz at BEA last June, when it launched a nine-month teaser campaign that included distribution of ARCs and an array of branded promotional items (including iPhone cases, postcards, sticky pads, counter standees, and “Failure Is an Option” buttons) to major accounts, media, and librarians. Candlewick is also offering nine- and 12-copy displays to retailers, and reports strong sell-in across all sales channels. A final mailing – of playful watches featuring the bumbling hero – is going out this week, reminding accounts that “it’s almost time for Timmy!”
Pastis, who initially worked as a lawyer and began Pearls Before Swine in 1997, believes that trying his hand at an illustrated middle-grade novel was a logical next step. “This genre is so well suited for the odd set of skills that a syndicated cartoonist has,” he says. “You can write a little and can draw a little, but there’s necessarily a limitation on both in a comic strip, since it appears in such a tiny space. The wonderful thing about a book is that you have a canvas that is 300 pages wide, and it’s all free space. You can make a piece of art as big as you want and whatever shape you want. That made the book really fun – and a great challenge.”
To create the right character for his novel, Pastis began with a question: “What makes me laugh?” He found his answer quite quickly. “What makes me laugh is a character with a huge blind spot,” he says. “I like characters like Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces and Ricky Gervais’s character in The Office. They think one thing about themselves, but the truth is as far from that as it can be. So I began to think about how to put that kind of character in a book for kids.”
For inspiration, Pastis looked to mysteries he read as a boy – those starring Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. “Those characters were all brilliant, far more clever than me,” he says. “I thought, what if I turned that genre on its head and had a kid detective who’s not very smart and can’t solve anything, but is very arrogant. And then I balanced him with Total, a big, sweet bear who is as cuddly as Timmy is prickly.”
Candlewick editorial director says she immediately appreciated the book’s humor when she received the proposal for Timmy Failure from Pastis’s agent, Dan Lazar of Writers House, in May 2011. “I loved the fact that Timmy is the ultimate unreliable narrator,” she says. “He is totally clueless. He’s a really good kid who’s trying hard – but all his efforts are misplaced. Readers see that clearly through the images and the text. The comedy lies in the interaction between the two.”
Candlewick staffers with whom Bicknell shared the submission were equally enthusiastic about the book. “Since we are a global English-language publisher, I sent the proposal on to Sarah Foster at Walker Australia and Gill Evans at Walker U.K., and everyone agreed that we must get this,” she says. “Even before we acquired the book, we started working on marketing strategies.”
As it turned out, Pastis threw a bit of a curveball into the acquisition process. Given the widespread interest in Timmy Failure, Lazar scheduled an auction for the two-book property. He then made an unexpected announcement to the editors, including Bicknell, who had made it past the first round.
“Dan told me that Stephan wanted to interview the editors involved, to see what their senses of humor were like,” Bicknell explains. “Of course I loved the book, and I had the pressure of my colleagues in Australia and the U.K. wanting the books, and the added pressure of my two kids, who really wanted me to get it. So I said, ‘OK, I am going to go out on a limb and completely be my wacky self.’ And in the interview, I told Stephan the true story that my father is a standup comedian on the senior circuit in England, and he says that most of his material derives from visiting his daughter in America.”
Her tactic worked perfectly, and Candlewick, Walker Australia, and Walker U.K. clinched world English rights to the books and will release the inaugural Timmy Failure novel simultaneously. (To date, Lazar has sold rights to the novel and its sequel in a total of 19 territories.) Pastis, who says he interviewed seven or eight editors participating in the auction, recalls connecting with Bicknell immediately. “Liz was perfect – she totally got it,” he says. “Maybe it was her British background. The British have a tremendous sense of humor, and so many of my inspirations come from there. Liz laughed at all the right parts of the book, and knew exactly how to make it better. She made it a really fun process.”
Betting on ‘Failure’
Candlewick, which has a 200,000-copy first printing in place for Timmy Failure, will advertise the book online on FunBrain, GoComics, and Poptropica, as well as on Bing and Facebook. The publisher is also promoting the novel via a dedicated Web site, as well as a Facebook page, and Timmy’s blog. Also planned are promotional giveaways on reader sites such as Goodreads and LibraryThing, and social media initiatives including a “Be Fair to Bears” Twitter campaign, which launches on Feb. 27 – International Polar Bear Day.
Pastis kicks off a 12-city author tour on February 24 with an appearance at ABA’s Winter Institute 8 in Kansas City, where Candlewick will give away Timmy totes. One leg of the tour will take the California native to New York City on March 1, when he’ll visit Bank Street School for Children and appear at the Apple store in SoHo for a live event and a podcast promoting his novel.
Candlewick will release the second, still untitled, Timmy Failure book in February 2014. Pastis, who hopes the series will extend to a third book and beyond, says he has plenty of ideas for subsequent adventures and looks forward to “seeing what Timmy will do next.”
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis. Candlewick, $14.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-7636-6050-5