For more than a year, Chamberlain Bros., an imprint of the Penguin Group publishing giant, has been experimenting with a new hybrid product: paperback editions of classic books packaged with DVD versions of the story.
The company is betting that customers will like having the chance to read “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo and then watch Lon Chaney in the title role. Or to work their way through “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy and then watch the 1948 film starring Vivien Leigh.
“It’s a really cool idea,” says publisher Megan Newman.
But so far, the Chamberlain Bros. book-DVD packages, priced from $15 to $19, aren’t moving. “We really did have high hopes for them,” Newman says, “but sales have been lukewarm, in all honesty.”
In a case study of the allures and mysteries of marrying new and old technology, Chamberlain Bros. is now trying to figure out if a cool idea can make good business sense.
Across the industry, many publishers are conducting similar experiments. And some have had great success.
Rugged Land, for example, hit big with “Payton” and “Favre,” book-DVD packages on NFL greats Walter Payton and Brett Favre, both of which have sold more than 110,000 copies and made the New York Times bestseller list. Also reaching that list was “War Stories” by Oliver North (Regnery), which included a DVD of North’s Fox television series of the same name.
The puzzle of book-DVD packages is one that Newman inherited in October when she was named Chamberlain Bros. publisher. (Newman also heads the Penguin imprints of Avery and Viking Studio.)
In the coming months, Chamberlain Bros. will be publishing book-DVD combinations of Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage,” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet,” and a collection of four plays by Eugene O’Neill.
The DVDs, provided in white envelopes attached inside the back covers, offer a look at some legendary actors -- Bette Davis in the 1934 film of the Maugham novel, Paul Robeson in the 1933 movie of O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones” and highly respected ensemble casts in the two Shakespeare plays produced in 1978 and 1980 by the BBC.
Yet for all the great acting, most of the movies are more than half a century old and filmed in black and white. That’s because the publisher can afford to include only films for which the rights are free or relatively inexpensive. Modern versions, such as the “Romeo and Juliet” featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, are out of the question.
“To attract younger customers, we’re going to have to tweak our packaging to make it look up-to-date and essential,” Newman says. “There’s nothing now that screams: ‘Wow!’ ”
The book covers are a bit dowdy. But, more important, the future of these book-DVD editions rests with determining their market -- and, surprisingly, that may be college campuses.
Academics used to heap disdain on movie versions of great literature, but no longer. Many literature professors today routinely bring films into the classroom to complement the reading of the classics.
At Goucher College in Maryland, for example, Jeff Myers recently had his freshmen read Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction short story “Minority Report” and watch Steven Spielberg’s film version, and then write a paper comparing the two.
“Then I had them take another short story by Dick and make changes of their own to it and, in groups of four, do a radio drama,” Myers says. “The results were quite impressive.”
James Butler, an English professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, focuses on the novel “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley and the many cinematic versions that have followed as a way of looking at cultural conventions from era to era. “I teach the novel first,” he says. “Once I do that, what happens with [the story] in popular culture is quite interesting to the students.”
Some, however, complain that the image of an actor in a film can override the mental picture they developed of the character while reading the book. “That’s quite frequent,” Butler says.
At the University of Denver, English professor Eleanor J. McNees says, “If the publisher were to approach me [about using book-DVD combos], I’d be game. Anything that can pull them into the literature is worth a try.” And, far from being a drawback, McNees considers the older films a plus and believes her classes would too. “It is kind of interesting for students to see a black-and-white version,” she says. “I’m almost more intrigued by that idea than seeing some of the more recent ones which we have in our [university] collection.”
Not everyone in publishing, however, is sold on bundling books and DVDs.
Naperville, Ill.-based Sourcebooks Inc. made a name for itself a few years ago by offering lavish, photo-filled, coffee-table books with audio CDs included. The publishing hybrids, on subjects ranging from major news events to famous sporting moments, sold in the hundreds of thousands and spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller lists. But the publishing house hasn’t taken what might be considered the inevitable next step: packaging books and DVDs together.
“We’ve looked at a lot of DVD projects,” says Todd Stocke, vice president and editorial director, “but it’s extremely difficult to make the content work and make the costs work. There are a lot of [publishers] who have been unsuccessful with DVDs.”
Stocke argues that books go together with CDs in a much more direct way than they do with movies. “There’s a theater of the mind that people experience when they’re reading a book, and there’s a similar theater of the mind when people are listening to something. Video is a different experience for the brain.”