The 39 Clues: Books 2.0 or Marketing Genius? Or Both?

The Book Fair is in town and I was finally intrigued enough to ask a question about The 39 Clues. The question: What’s the deal with these books? The answer…well, who knows yet. Here’s the basic idea:

Two young kids find out they are heirs to a mysterious and immensely powerful family known as the Cahills. It turns out that nearly everyone who was a great thinker, artist, musician, etc in the past was actually a member of the Cahill family. Their grandmother dies and each grandchild is offered a lump sum of money ($1 million) to walk away forever or a chance to hunt for the secret to the Cahill’s power. Treasure hunting ensues with all that comes along that path.

In older day’s this would have made for a great book. There’s some mystery, there’s treasure, there are unwitting children who get wrapped up in a story bigger than themselves. In the post-Harry Potter world, this would have been 7 great books. We would be waiting months, if not years, for the conclusion of the Cahill’s story. Millions of real dollars would have been poured into retaining the audience as they grew older. The question remains however if we are living in the post-Harry Potter world, or the pre-39 Clues world. You see, there’s far more to The 39 Clues than a treasure-hunt story.

First of all, there are 10 books, not one. The first book: The Maze of Bones was released in September of 2008. The tenth book is scheduled for release in September 2010. That must be a typo, they can’t POSSIBLY release 10 books, of any merit, in 2 years. On the contrary, the second book was released in December and the third is scheduled for March 2009. There are multiple authors signed on for the project. The first book and main story arc were authored by Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Each of the next four books will feature a different author, presumably in a one shot deal bringing the total number of authors to 10. Each story will stand alone as well as being part of the bigger story-arc of The 39 Clues. Scholastic has stated that each book will offer a short review of previous events for those who pick up the series in the middle of things.

So now we have a 2 year window to keep reader’s attention; a much more manageable task. This part of the model is not new, many series have been written by multiple authors. What makes the series different is what makes me question it most. By reading the books and searching for the 39 clues, the readers (at least those aged 6 to 14) become eligible for prizes. The grand prize, to be awarded after the release of the final book, is $10,000. When I was 12 years old, if you had offered me that kind of money to read a book I would have read it forwards, backwards, upside-down, in Chinese, and any other way possible. That’s not to say money was a motivating factor for my reading, I was an avid reader anyway, but with the possibility of winning money attached I would have been hooked.

How do you distinguish yourself as a potential $10,000 winner? First you have to read the books. This is a good thing. At approximately 200 pages each we’re looking at roughly 2,000 pages worth of text by the end of the series. As a teacher, I’m never going to complain about books that get kids reading. Reading the 10 books gets you 10 of the 39 clues…which begs the question: where can I find the other 29? Therein lies the real intrigue of this series.

Online Community

The 39 Clues website helps move you toward the other 29 clues. You see, when you purchase the first book, there are 6 playing cards included. You are directed to the website where you must create an account. Once created, you are placed in one of the four families (think Houses, Harry fans). Each family has their own archives which provide additional information on events that occur in the book.

The website is also the home of an online card game that helps readers earn access to more clues.  Each of the books comes with 6 cards (an eventual total of 60 from the books).  These cards include a code that can be typed in on the website to load the cards into your online deck which is used to play a game against others searching for the Clues.  The first series of cards contains 55 additional cards for the first 3 books.  I found somewhere that there will be an eventual total of 355 cards spanning all 10 books.  The cards are available in packs of 16 (2 foil packs of 8) for about $7 each.  Once a code has been entered for a card it is no longer usable.  This prevents kids from sharing the cards with their friends.  The cards are rated according to availability, some are common, some uncommon, some rare, and some ultrarare.  It appears that entering codes from duplicate cards will increase the power of that card in your deck.

So, we have a book series written by a number of popular YA novelists.  Which is to be completed in 2 years time.  That involves students winning prizes for their reading and ability to play against others in an online game.  And I can’t quite tell what I think about it…


  • Certainly this gets kids reading. My 7th graders have been reading entirely in a Post-Harry Potter world.  They are used to series books, but often seem to lose interest as a series takes too long to develop. The 2 year time frame is great for this.
  • Multiple authors. This provides an opportunity to discuss different stylistic elements of different authors working with the same characters. I’m sure there can be a ton of room for fan-fiction about unsuccessful Clue hunts.
  • Built in community and networking. Students no longer have to hope someone next door is reading the same book. Nor do they have to sit back and hide the “dorky” book their reading if others aren’t into it. Their is a built in online community for them to connect and collaborate with over these stories.
  • Subversively educational.  That was a description I read in one article which was meant to imply students would learn something despite thinking they were just caught up in a mystery/adventure book. Think Da Vinci Code for pre-teens.
  • Big draw for gamers and card collectors.  I grew up watching some of these communities develop.  From the books that were spawned off the Dungeons and Dragons games, to video games with book tie-ins, to Magic: The Gathering and the eventual failed book attempts there, gaming and reading have seemed to go hand in hand on some level.  Here there is a real attempt to put the two together initially rather than attempting to force them together as an afterthought.


  • Prohibitive cost. The books have a MSRP of $12.99 which means we’re looking at $130+ just to purchase the books.  The booster packs of cards for the game are priced at $7 per pack of 16.  That means for the 295 cards unavailable in the books a minimum of 19 packs need to be purchased.  That’s an additional $133 at a bare minimum to buy enough cards to possibly get a complete set.  This is all assuming you get a different rare/ultra-rare card in each pack which is unlikely at best.  I would conservatively put the cost at $300 to complete the set.  Though it is spread over time, this rivals the cost of many video game systems, assuming a computer with Internet access is already in the home or available at a local library.
  • Extrinsic motivation to read.  I struggle with this already with AR, now we’re telling kids that for a book to be really good, there has to be a chance to win money from it? At what point do the books become second or even third fiddle to the online game/card collecting? I’m scared to envision a world where a kid picks up two books and decides which one to buy based on the fact he could win money from reading one but not the other…
  • Are the books any good? I have no clue, I’ve only read the first 3 pages of the first book. Reviews online seem to be generally favorable, but my question is this: Will there be motivation to read the books after the contest ends? With Harry Potter, many will continue to read those books to relive the phenomenon.  I’m not sure the same will be true for trying to collect the 39 Clues.  This may be a one shot deal for Scholastic.  Alternatively, are we going to begin seeing hundreds of knockoff series that attempt to do what has been done here?  At what point does that severely take away the pure enjoyment of reading?
  • Still dealing with book series.  What ever happened to starting a book, writing it, and then ending it?  I asked a small group of my students what the last book was they read which was a stand-alone book. Of the four that could name one, most were written at least 15 years ago, before they were born. This model perpetuates the sequel-hungry book and movie industries that punish authors for having new and inventive ideas.  If something is not a guaranteed moneymaker the likelihood of publication significantly decreases, despite the decreased cost of publishing.

Despite these negatives, I’m extremely intrigued by the idea of the books. The story seems like it could have enough power to stand on its own outside of the game and promotional hoopla.  The movie tie-ins are already starting as Steven Spielberg has purchased the rights to the first book despite it being only a few months old.

Anyone out there have students who have been reading the books? What are their impressions? Are we moving into new territory in books? Or is this just a one-shot gimmick which will go away after next year?

Further reading:

Time Magazine: 39 Clues: The Next Harry Potter?

The 39 Clues Main Site


4 Responses

  1. I actually hadn’t heard too much about these books yet. With all the hype you’ve described, I don’t see how that was possible. I understand both sides of your argument. In fact, I really work on encouraging my students to read some of the great traditional children’s literature… Stuart Little, anything Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, etc. I am definitely going to be checking into these more. I’ll be very interested to see how things progress with it! Thanks for the heads-up.

  2. I have several students who are reading the series, and even had them meet as part of a “book club lunch” day. I’ve purchased 6-8 copies each of the first two books (only paid $7+ at Costco or Sam’s) and have shared all of the cards with the kids. They still like to come in and work on solving the puzzles. One drawback was that the kids have to have an email address to activate their account. One of my students did not have an email, but another student gave him an account (no further emailing needed) They are eagerly awaiting the release of the third book next month. We’ve talked about what it must have been like to get the ten authors to collaborate.

  3. Great analysis! I’m looking forward to see if this series is truly successful. I think I’ll use my own 10 year old as a guinea pig and buy her the first book!

  4. I’ve read all 10 books and I would like to say THEY ARE FREAKING AWESOME!!!!! I have gotten all ages of people to read them (a friend in collage, and even my grandmother) and they all love them. I even got one of the biggest Twilight fans ever to read them and even she says they are better then Twilight. I never really had a big intrest in history until these books, so it’s already helping there. And to the arguement that they cost to much for books and cards, well look at baseball cards and other colections, people spend the same to more money on thoes. At my libary they even have their own shelf. The contest is over and a ton of people still love them, includeing me. If you don’t beleave me just look at the fanfics for them, there are over 800 and counting.

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