Disney’s latest hot seller at bookstores wasn’t born in the halls of the American corporation, or even in a mystical kingdom. It started at the second-floor offices of an upstart Toronto publisher on Queen Street West.

In a matter of months, Joe Books Inc. has emerged from obscurity to become an unlikely purveyor of printed tales from the world’s most famous children’s brand. Its first major book – a “cinestory” of the hit film Frozen –has sold 150,000 copies since its release last November.

The two men behind the venture have scarce publishing experience but boast deep roots and large rolodexes in entertainment. Jay Firestone, an award-winning producer and founder of Prodigy Pictures Inc., met Jody Colero, who creates and licenses music for film and TV through a company he owns called Silent Joe, when the two collaborated several years ago on the TV seriesLost Girl.

An oddball duo, they clicked, and soon saw what they believe is an underserved market for turning film and TV brands into novels, comics and graphic novels. Last October, they vaulted into the big leagues, signing a wide-ranging, multiyear licensing deal with Walt Disney Co. that lets them use many of the company’s famed stories and characters, from Disney princesses to Marvel superheros.

“At the very beginning, we had a hard time believing that there was an opportunity available to us – for about a minute,” said Mr. Colero, the company’s president. “And then we stopped thinking that we should be surprised by this and didn’t look back.”

The publisher already has titles out in Canada, the United States and Australia, including a 799-page Disney Princess Comics Treasury, a 48-pageFrozen comic book that sold out, and a comic collection based on the 1990s cartoon series Darkwing Duck.

And with a mostly freelance staff of about 70, its plans are expanding. The company is adapting a graphic novel from Pirates of the Caribbean and commissioning novels based on Marvel titles such as The Avengers andSpiderman. It has a contract to novelize NBCUniversal titles such as Law & Order for HarperCollins Canada. And it won permission to release a cinestory of the next Disney-Pixar film, Inside Out, to coincide with its June 19 debut.

Mr. Colero’s partnership with HarperCollins Canada dates back years to smaller audiobook projects. Now, the publishing giant distributes Joe Books’s proprietary titles in print and as eBooks.

“All of a sudden, they had this Disney deal in place,” said Steve Osgoode, vice-president of digital product at HarperCollins Canada. “Every time I have a conversation with them about it, it staggers me.”

A Disney spokesperson declined to comment on specific licensing deals. But the pact with Joe Books was possible in no small part due to the company’s recruitment of Adam Fortier as its publisher in 2013. He had worked on Disney comics for U.S.-based BOOM! Studios, and brought credibility to Joe Books. “I was able to call [Disney] up and initiate the discussions,” he said.

Disney still does considerable publishing in-house, but has a network of licensees. By its standards, the Joe Books deal is fairly small, but it’s a big gamble for Mr. Colero and Mr. Firestone. They are the Toronto startup’s lone investors, spent a million dollars “getting it launched” and are committed to invest “multiples of that,” said Mr. Firestone, the CEO at Joe Books.

“We didn’t tip-toe into this. We were a little bit crazy,” he added. “And I have to tell you, there’s a lot of nail-biting.”

Publishers have long seen value in film and TV tie-ins, even before eBooks existed.

Spinoff novels are “story extenders,” Mr. Colero said, developing characters and deepening the attachment felt by hard-core fans, which can drive merchandise sales. Now Joe Books is considering hard covers, box sets and collectables. But it remains to be seen how much demand exists.

“This is a risky thing. I was warned by a number of publishers that I’m out of my mind to do this. Really crazy,” Mr. Firestone said. “But that’s the time to take a shot, when people are afraid of it. Right?”

MEDIA REPORTER — The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Feb. 22 2015, 5:43 PM EST
Last updated Sunday, Feb. 22 2015, 6:23 PM EST