Books Unbound

Never mind children's books that just sit around waiting to be read. The Pimlico Book Co. sends readers into sensory overload with stories that rattle, squeak and squirm.

March 10, 2001|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Inside the Pimlico Book Co. office, partners Andrew Murphy and Steven Bloom struggle with their latest project at the "workbench." They've been at it for hours when their third partner, Bloom's wife Elizabeth, walks in. They look up a bit guiltily, but she knows they're only doing their job: snapping a red rubbery thing against a piece of cardboard, trying to figure out how to turn their "Icky Sticky Frog" into a game.

It may sound like all fun and games, but this is a highly competitive business (named, incidentally, for the road they live and work on and not the racetrack down the street). The race they are in is to put their unusual kids' books and toys on the map - and they're betting on a beloved character named Harry Potter to help them out.

This Pimlico creates the literary equivalent of video games - interactive books that vibrate, spin and rumble, as well as get read. Think of them as pop-up books with extra pop for a visually overstimulated generation.

"It's a very busy life for small children," says Bloom, 55. "They're exposed to all kinds of media. We're keeping the written word in front of them."

In this world, the written word is accompanied by small buildings that shake ("Earthquake!"), plush finger puppets ("Powerpuff Girls") or a red tongue ("The Icky Sticky Frog") that snaps off the book cover like a rubber band. The frog book has been their biggest hit - selling more than a million copies and spawning the birth of "The Icky Sticky Anteater" and a yet-to-be-determined game.

"Steve saw bands made out of rubber selling out of one of the trade books," says Murphy, 33. "We couldn't figure out what to make out of them. Finally he saw that he could make a tongue out of it." The publisher was so tickled with the idea, he created a book around it.

Clearly, this trio is on to something. Last year, Pimlico brought in $3 million in revenue and opened a Hong Kong office. Currently, they have 25 projects in development. And this summer they'll introduce their most ambitious ventures yet: two Harry Potter-themed items, a journal with a built-in nightlight and an elaborate stationary kit, both aimed at the kids-at-camp set.

The company was the brainchild of Steven Bloom, an industry veteran who has worked for heavy hitters including Random House. He also had his own book brokerage firm, Blaze, but burned out making the three-day-a-week commute to New York. "I was tired of the split life, developing my own social life separate from my wife," says Bloom.

They jokingly refer to their poolhouse-turned-office as "World Headquarters." (The Blooms, who have a grown son, live in Northwest Baltimore, in a house 10 paces from the office.) Each partner has a role: Steven Bloom is the president, coordinating manufacturing details and the continuing expansion of the company. Murphy is creative director, fine-tuning ideas while turning them into realities. Elizabeth, 51, is the chief financial officer who also takes care of practical logistics - food, shelter and Fed Ex.

Steven Bloom's experience in the business gave him the contacts to break out on his own - and the ability to see a book as more than just binding, ink and paper.

He met Murphy while both were working for Ottenheimer Publishers in Owings Mills; Bloom as a contractor and Murphy as a staffer. They developed a rapport that turned into a business partnership that's now so strong they even vacation together.

In the industry, what they do is known as "book packaging," a specialized field that includes novelties, boxed sets and coffee table books. Publishers hire them to jazz up books, either offering specific ideas or asking them to whip up something from scratch.

Michael Harkavy, vice president of Warner Bros. Worldwide Publishing, Music and Interactive Entertainment, has known Bloom for years. "When you bring Steve a creative challenge - `How do you make another book look special?' - he's got this innate ability to ... give you a sense of the unusual. It's his gift. There are only a couple of people we know who are going to deliver something breakthrough."

Scholastic - the American publisher of the Potter books - encouraged Pimlico to come up with formats for their books. They submitted 12, two were chosen.

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