If you have any connection to kid lit, you’ve heard of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. And even if you’re not connected to kid lit, there’s still a good chance you’ve heard of the books.
The series gets prime retail space each time a new book comes out. It sits on end caps in general merchandise chains like Target or Wal-Mart. It sits in window displays of small independent bookshops. And it gets a prominent table display in chain booksellers like Barnes & Noble, surrounded by its fellow books in the series. The first book even became in movie, released in March 2010.
The reason the series gets so much play is simple: Jeff Kinney writes good books that kids enjoy reading. I have a lot of respect for that.
But I can’t help rolling my eyes when I browse juvenile fiction at the bookstore or the library these days. Not because of what Jeff Kinney is writing, but because of what everyone else is writing.
And … well, copycatting.
A recent visit to Barnes & Noble’s juvenile fiction section looked a bit like this:
The section was full of similar-looking book covers and series titles featuring “diaries.” Owl Diaries. Cupcake Diaries. Monster High Diaries. Dork Diaries. Dog Diaries.
Even the digital publishing platform is getting inundated with diaries. One of the best-selling series on Amazon right now is Diary of a Minecraft Zombie.
The covers also had plenty of design similarities to Wimpy Kid. The pencil sketch-style illustrations, the theme of child drawings, the concept of a drawing be taped (or in Dork Diaries’ case, Post-It’ed) to the book cover. (And I guess Monster High Diaries technically has a photograph, not a drawing, taped to a composition book cover instead of a traditional book cover.)
But you get the picture. Lots of shared elements in terms of title and/or cover design.
Writers have found a formula that works for selling books: Find what’s popular, and mimic it. It’s an excellent way to make your book fly off the shelf and catch young readers. They think, “This is similar to something else I like, so I’ll like this, too.”
I recently attended a webinar by independent author Jay Boyer, who has perfected the art (or perhaps science?) of reaching No. 1 best-selling slots on Amazon. Boyer recommends the exact formula I mentioned above. In fact, his own popular children’s book series (published under a pen name) borrows heavily from Wimpy Kid for its cover design elements. Below, at left, is a Wimpy Kid cover, followed by two of Boyer’s covers.
The similarities are unmistakable. It’s clear The Booger Book and The Fart Book are marketing themselves to the Wimpy Kid fandom. Yellow text is used in portions of both titles. The thick font with a white outline also is used in a portion of both titles. There’s the theme of sketches on ripped notebook paper, which is then taped to a surface. Even the author name in a handwriting-style font is carried between both covers.
Borrowing elements or being inspired by books already on the market isn’t a bad thing. Most writers find inspiration through other writers. But at what point does the market become over-saturated with the same idea? At what point do we lose the diversity and individuality of author voices or book/series identity?
The formula used for books piggybacking off the Wimpy Kid series is golden in terms of making money from your writing. But there’s something that rings a bit hollow about that formula. Is that formula about the readers, or is it about the writers? Is it about bringing books to the reader that challenge them to think, inspire them, shape them? Or is it about making money because they know this formula will sell?
It’s a difficult call to make. After all, if kids like the Wimpy Kid series, and if they decide to read other books similar to the Wimpy Kid series, then isn’t it a good thing young readers have an endless supply of similar books to read? Isn’t it a good thing that they’re reading, regardless of what method was used to reel them into the book?
Like all things, I suppose the flood of Wimpy Kid-style books has both its pros and cons. I hope the tide turns toward more originality in book cover art and design and series themes soon.
In the meantime, though, I’m not reading any more “diaries.”