What Does Penguin Have In Common With A Whale? A Publishing Deal

Pearson has been taking some decisive steps into using mobile to grow its traditional publishing business. And today sees a new chapter in that strategy: Puffin, the children’s division of Pearson imprint Penguin, has signed a worldwide deal with UK-based mobile games developer Ustwo to develop e-books based on Ustwo’s psychedelic Whale Trail mobile game, which features a whale called Willow.

The two say that this is the first-ever publishing deal for a brand that first debuted as an app. The first fruit of the partnership — a digital picture book — is due in October 2012, with further e-books and physical books coming out in 2013.

The deal underscores two different trends: that of mobile games publishers franchising out their brands for more revenues (a la Angry Birds swag); and that of traditional publishers looking for more routes on to new platforms like tablets and smartphones.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. The official announcement is being made today by Eric Huang, publishing director, media & entertainment group, Penguin, at the Bologna Book Fair in Italy.

Mills, the co-founder of the Ustwo studio, says that Ustwo will keep the rights to the game itself. However, the partnership could also see Penguin moving into making gaming apps, too: “We could do something with them app-wise if we chose,” he tells TechCrunch.

At the moment, he adds, this deal is mainly about taking the Whale Trail characters “into a bigger narrative”:

“Whale Trail was all about creating something that brings joy to users throughout the world. Penguin genuinely and passionately shares our enthusiasm for developing the brand further, and the coming together of the traditional publishing powerhouse and our first game IP, is a match made in heaven,” he says.

The news comes as Ustwo is planning an update to the game itself: right now it costs $0.99 to download on iOS, but the update, due in June, will play around with that business model and also include in-app payments for certain features, he says. The deal with Penguin could also see the app picking up more profile, too: so far it has sold 170,000 on iOS, averaging 300-400 downloads per day. On Android, it’s currently making £1,500 in sales per day at a price of £1.49 per download.

Although this may be the first time a book deal has been borne out of an app, this is not the first time that Penguin has made books based on digital brands: the company also has book series based on Moshi Monsters and Skylanders.

“I discovered Whale Trail from Gruff Rhys’ music video. When I downloaded the app, I was hooked,” Penguin’s Huang said. “I wanted to know more about Willow and his world and thought, we should publish a book.”