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Anne Rice and Tom Clancy Aspire to Be Bugs Bunnies

November 13, 1995

Gothic horror fans have spent millions of dollars on Anne Rice the author. But will they pay up for Anne Rice the tote bag?

Ms. Rice is about to find out. Next spring, she will attempt to turn her own name into a commercial brand along the lines of Bugs Bunny or James Bond. Ms. Rice plans to market jewelry, posters, T-shirts and other products sporting images of her popular vampires _ and even the author herself.

Not long ago, the tweedy world of publishing would have considered such efforts vulgar. But as the media business consolidates, marketers are increasingly searching for powerful brand names they can use across product categories: in books, movies, toys, CD-ROM games and other merchandise. Some marketers say the publishing business is one of the last untapped sources of media megabrands _ with names like Grisham, Crichton and King.

Indeed, the best-selling author Tom Clancy this week unveils his own media start-up, dubbed C.I. Entertainment, for Clancy Interactive. It plans a joint venture with Viacom Inc.’s Simon & Schuster publishing unit to produce original CD-ROM games and other multimedia products based on themes similar to those in Mr. Clancy’s techno-thriller novels. Among the initial offerings are a ``virtual exploration″ of a nuclear submarine, a game featuring Mr. Clancy’s beloved hero Jack Ryan, and Tom Clancy’s First Contact: Derelict, a new space adventure game. None of the new products will be drawn from an existing novel.

Mr. Clancy’s agent, Robert Gottlieb, brashly likens the author’s potential franchise to that of Viacom’s Star Trek, which has been exploited in books, movies, TV shows and games. ``Tom Clancy is becoming an entertainment destination in a variety of media,″ Mr. Gottlieb says.

Mr. Clancy has already proven the enormous market value of his name, with 10 best-selling books that have sold more than 50 million copies in all. They include two books he didn’t even write by himself: the ``Tom Clancy’s Op-Center″ paperbacks about a team of international crisis-managers. Mr. Clancy created the characters and supervised the books’ production, according to his agent.

``There is a revolution going on and nobody knows where it’s headed. I think I have a clearer picture than most, and that vision is big,″ Mr. Clancy says. ``There are no limitations.″

For authors, such product-development companies offer a powerful way to stake a claim to intellectual property at a time when new technologies are blurring the traditional rules of ownership.

But Ms. Rice, Mr. Clancy and any other author who follows their lead must confront a classic marketing conundrum: How to wring revenue out of a brand name without plastering it on so many products that it loses its meaning for consumers.

For an author, ``there are some natural line extensions, such as movies and some interactive,″ says Clive Chajet, chairman of Lippincott & Margulies, a New York-based image-consulting firm. ``But if you go beyond that, the product risks reducing the value of the brand name.″

A writer’s hardcore fans could well be alienated by a broad marketing blitz, adds John Lister, chief executive of Lister Butler Inc., another prominent brand-image consultant. Mr. Lister’s wife is an Anne Rice devotee, ``but I don’t think we’ll be having Anne Rice coffee mugs in our house soon,″ he says.

Some big authors aren’t convinced the merchandising strategy makes sense. Michael Crichton, author of ``Jurassic Park″ and other science-fiction bestsellers, launched a software company in 1980. It produced one product, a computer game called Amazon, and Mr. Crichton shut down the company two years later. Today, the Clancy/Rice approach leaves Mr. Crichton cold, says his spokesman, Joe Marich.

Count John Grisham out as well. His agent, David Gernert, says Mr. Grisham draws the line at movie adaptations and audio-book versions of his legal thrillers. ``At some point you reach a point of diminishing returns as you lose quality control,″ Mr. Gernert says. ``John Grisham is an author and he writes books.″

But at Alfred A. Knopf, Ms. Rice’s publisher since 1976, vice president Paul Bogaards brushes those worries aside. ``Her readers have been asking for this for years,″ he says.

Ms. Rice has already spawned a loyal following that gobbles up anything Rice-related. Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat Fan Club has 5,000 dues-paying members around the world. And hordes of fans subscribe to Ms. Rice’s ``Commotion Strange″ newsletter or log onto 10 different Anne Rice Web sites on the Internet.

Ms. Rice declined to comment about her new venture, but Knopf says the author’s family in New Orleans will supervise a network of local artists and manufacturers. ``If anything, this is the kind of thing that could help (book) sales,″ says Mr. Bogaards. ``It gives her characters a life outside her books.″

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