Bluey book bonanza: How ‘TV star’ took over publishing
Trent Dalton is unquestionably the Australian author of the moment, given the success of his debut novel Boy Swallows Universe. But he is being outplayed - literally - in our bookshops by a six-year-old blue heeler.
Dalton has sold more than 330,000 copies of his acclaimed 2018 novel, while little Bluey has just clocked up more than a million sales in less than a year.
It will come as no surprise to fans of the Blue Heeler pup and her family - sister Bingo, mum Chilli and dad Bandit - who we first met when they landed on television in 2018.
An immediate hit, youngsters were drawn to the hilarious antics of the two kids and parents loved that the stories were relatable and not patronising or cliched.
Bluey, Bingo, Chilli and Bandit are the creation of Queensland animator Joe Brumm, who based the initial one-minute pilot - and the ensuing episodes - on interactions with
his two young daughters.
The ABC and BBC almost immediately co-commissioned the series, which was made in partnership with Ludo Studio, and they hit screens in October 2018.
From the first episode, The Magix Xylophone, where Bluey and Bingo discover their xylophone has magic powers that can freeze their dad, to a fan favourite Takeaway, where Bandit takes the kids to pick up Chinese takeaway and things go awry, the stories are focused on imagination and unstructured play - something that was key to creator Brumm.
The series also bucks an animation trend in the depiction of fathers - Bandit isn't a careless, dopey dad in the vein of characters such as Homer Simpson or Peppa Pig's Daddy Pig.
He's smart and heavily involved in the lives of his kids and although he sometimes - often - gets frustrated with them, his love for them is clear.
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Bluey episodes stream at record numbers on the ABC's on-demand platform iView and it has become by far the most-downloaded show on the player.
Season one saw more than 261 million downloads and season two had tallied more than 43 million. These figures are from May and season two only launched on March 17.
With such a stratospheric rise in popularity, it was only natural Bluey and her family would make the move to the literary world.
It was decided the stories from the series would be transferred to paper and kids and parents could extend their interaction with the adorable hounds.
Whereas the usual route for such a move to print would see the episodes directly translated, Bluey's creators and publisher Penguin Random House wanted to ensure the Bluey books were noticeably different and provided young readers a complementary experience rather than a replica of the TV show.
"Normally when you'd be doing a TV show or movie to book, you'd just be literally using the exact dialogue and putting into book format but right from the start both us and Ludo wanted to make sure the books gave something else because otherwise is it that exciting if you're just getting what you've seen - even though kids would probably still love it?" says Holly Toohey, Penguin Random House Head of Brands, Partnerships and Audio, Young Readers.
The first three Bluey books were published in November last year and it didn't take long for it to become clear this special Blue Heeler pup was going to have the same kind of impact on the publishing world as she did on TV. The books raced out of bookshops faster than shelves could be stocked.
"I think we knew it was going to be something but not to this level," Toohey says.
"We have to confirm our print quantities so much in advance and for the first three books, before they even hit the shelves we might have reprinted three times because we were like 'this is actually going to be really big'.
"I think we took a big risk actually with our initial books but it was worth it."
It was absolutely worth it.
Despite only hitting shelves in November, the three Bluey books were the second, third and fourth highest selling titles of 2019.
And the accolades kept coming.
In May, Bluey: The Beach became the first children's book to win the prestigious Australian Book Industry Association Book Of The Year - a very vocal nod to the quality of the series. The book spent four weeks at No.1, 19 weeks in the top 10 and 30 weeks in the Top 25 on
This month, the Bluey books surpassed the one million sales mark, worth an estimated $9 million.
On their way to this impressive milestone the books have been at the top of the Nielsen BookScan Australian bestseller list a total of 24 weeks since they were released in early November and the various titles have been top of the Children's sector for 34 weeks.
One thing that has surprised the publishers is the fact all the books keep staying in the charts - the new ones might push the older ones down slightly, but people are still buying them all in droves.
Over the past eight weeks five of the books have been in the Top 20 (of all books), with Bluey: Big Backyard second and Father's Day special Bluey: My Dad Is Awesome, which was only released on August 4, fifth.
"It's interesting that there are so many of them selling at the same time. There are usually three or four in the top 10 - that's all books, adults and non-fiction and everything - which is such a phenomenon that it's not just one book," says Jess Owen, commissioning editor, young readers, for Penguin Random House.
And in a sign the publishers are looking to extend the age in which kids can enjoy Bluey's stories, they are toying with the idea of releasing a graphic novel next year.
Retailers are loving the runaway success of Bluey, with a regular publishing schedule helping to keep parents hungry for more satisfied.
"Demand last year for Bluey books and soft toys was huge, not just from kids but mums, dads and grandparents were all looking for Bluey books," Dymocks Sydney buyer Jon Page says.
"You'll find Bluey and Bingo taking over the windows of our flagship store from November 17, with new Christmas-themed books. We're predicting it's going to be a very Bluey Christmas again this year."
That will be welcome news to parents of young kids ahead of the Christmas rush. The vocal support from parents, from online forums lighting up every time a new book is dropped to the many Facebook groups dedicated to the little four-legged adventurer, shows just how fast the Bluey phenomenon is growing.
Mum-of-three Melanie Clark, whose youngest daughter Jemma is four and right in the Bluey sweet spot, was drawn to the familiar storylines and the way she could relate to both the parents and the kids in the different scenarios being played out - both on the screen and
in the books.
"Bluey is the most relatable show on TV," Clark says.
"It shows play-based solutions to normal family problems; shows the parents needing to get out the front door with kids who are not driven by the same motivation. It shows the real work-life balance for parents, and delivers an important message for the kids watching that mum and dad have responsibilities to attend to."
If you trawl some of the comments in those Bluey forums, you will find many parents who have a strong emotional connection to the Heeler pup. Clark is one of those, and admits she is sometimes drawn to tears by the stories portrayed.
"The relationship between the parents is so real, and the love between the family is so relevant that it has left me in tears on more than one occasion," she says.
"The books are so engaging and true to the story of the TV episode that it is relevant even to preschoolers who can follow along in their pre-reading stage with a known storyline.
"The show is wholesome and teaches life lessons like respect, patience, fair play, and family relationships, without being trite or condescending.
"I happily watch Bluey even if no kids are home!"
Originally published as Bluey book bonanza: How 'TV star' took over publishing