Writer Jeff Kinney has sold more than 150 million copies of his book series, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” Creating one of the most lucrative franchises in the traditional publishing industry is just one of several unlikely pages in the book of Kinney's career.
“I really wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist,” Kinney said in an interview with On the Money. “I didn't have the chops to make it.”
Kinney studied computer science in college and worked at Funbrain as a designer of educational games. The semi-autobiographical and nostalgic cartoons were originally posted on Funbrain's company website in 2006.
He spent 8 years developing the first-person, illustrated diary of middle schooler Greg Heffley before he brought it to an editor.
“I wrote ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid' as a nostalgia piece, looking back like ‘The Wonder Years,'” said Kinney, referring to the 1980s TV series set in the 1960s. “But I found out that I was a kids' author.”
Kinney's first book was published in 2007, at an initial run of just 15,000 copies. Since then, “Wimpy Kid” has become a brand valued at nearly half a billion dollars – thanks to the books, licensed products and three feature films that have earned $225 million at the box office.
Last year, the Amulet children's book imprint of publisher Abrams printed 5.5 million copies of the series' 9th book.
The “Wimpy Kid” books are sold in 90 countries globally and have been translated into 45 different languages. Even The Vatican got in on the hype, releasing a Latin version of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” earlier this year. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School,” the series' tenth book, will be available November 3rd, with Kinney embarking on a global book tour for promotion.
“Sometimes I sit across from a kid in Madrid, Spain or in Brazil and we don't share a language or a culture, but we share these stories,” he said. “I think it's that we have childhood in common, it's a universal language.”
An ‘Unlikely' book store owner
The author's newest chapter is as owner-operator of an independent brick and mortar bookstore in his town of Plainville, Massachusetts. Dubbed An Unlikely Story, the three-story building opened this spring, after a labor of love and a multi-million dollar investment from Kinney.
The store will now join the 2,000-plus independent bookstores currently operating in the U.S., according to the American Booksellers Association.
“Bookstores usually tend to run at 2 to 5 percent margin, so you're not going to get rich off it,” said Kinney. “People are coming from miles around, even from overseas, to visit this store.”
Kinney's huge global readership may have helped turn An Unlikely Story into a destination, but the store has thousands of books available beyond the Wimpy Kid brand.
“This small town is choked with traffic and we have police details, it makes me feel that there is a need for this,” he told CNBC. “They're not there for my books, they're there because of books.”