The masterminds behind some of the most popular books for adolescent girls are a couple of thirtysomething men who work in an average office building full of white, Ikea-esque furniture.
But don't underestimate these guys. They are experts on teen crazes, and they know their limitations enough to hire young, female editors to develop ideas that jive with what a girl wants.
Alloy Entertainment, Inc., a division of marketing and advertising giant Alloy, has developed a slew of hot book series, including Gossip Girl, The A-List, The Clique and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, which was made into a hit movie and TV's Roswell.
President Leslie Morgenstein has built the company up to its current fever pitch, starting just out of college before it became an Alloy subsidiary. Known as 17th Street Productions, the company packaged the Sweet Valley High teen books popular in the 1980s, but has come a long way since the days of those California twins, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield.
Three of their books are in the top 10 of the New York Times list of best sellers for children's books, and Traveling Pants, is the No. 1 series.
Alloy Entertainment operates more like the romance novel industry than a traditional trade publisher. It has a staff in New York of about 10 editors who diligently research what's hot in the teen world -- what girls are wearing, the music they like, the TV shows they watch.
The hook common in many of the novels is a gaggle of rich, bratty, powerful schoolgirls. It's like an episodic reading of Paris Hilton and her friends, and who can resist a little peek into how the privileged live? Others strive to be more in the Judy Blume vein, focusing on strong friendships and life lessons. Either way, teens are devouring the books.
"Look at these books. They feel fresh today, but the themes girls face in the books are enduring themes," Morgenstein said. "We are really focused on what's a great story, what's an enduring theme and what's a hook."
Staff members are in charge of everything about the book, from creating ideas to finding writers for the books, crafting proposals for publishers and creating the sleek cover art. The company then sells the book, but keeps all the other rights. As many as 50 are published each year and are well distributed among the major publishing houses.
Alloy's methods may seem a bit unorthodox, especially to budding authors peddling a carefully crafted labor of love. Write a book that isn't your idea? That seems totally uncool.
But for many of Alloy's authors, it is a chance to do something they'd never do.
Lisi Harrison, author of The Clique series, was working at MTV when she was approached by Alloy to create books about wealthy, junior-high queen bees.
"Always being a closeted wannabe author, I jumped at the opportunity," she said. "I loved the idea. I never would have changed the course of my life had that not happened. There aren't a lot of opportunities for young authors."
She used 12 years worth of experiences at MTV as fodder for her books, which have made multiple best-seller lists. Publisher Little, Brown decided to buy eight books, and she was able to quit her job and write full time.
Harrison said that Alloy was great when it came to vetting ideas, and helped with story lines but was never overbearing.
"Once I was on board, they left me to my own devices. It's very much my book," she said.