“Publishing is a natural extension for any brand that has a strong identity and a clear commercial proposition,” states Emma Cairns-Smith, head of licensing at Egmont Publishing Group.
It’s widely agreed that publishing is right up there with toys as one of the cornerstones of a successful licensing programme. Not only is it one of the only categories where you can create a standalone story which can exist without the back up of TV, but a strong publishing programme adds credibility to a brand and aids parental buy-in.
“Publishing very much complements the traditional space and also gives parents comfort because reading is so aspirational,” says Alison Faulkner, worldwide publisher manager at Chorion. “Publishing is a guilt free entrance to a licensed brand for parents.”
Egmont’s Cairns-Smith concurs: “Research with Thomas [The Tank Engine], in the past, has shown that children who know the brand through TV and publishing go on to buy more merchandising product than children who only know the TV. Books resonate at a deeper level with children, perhaps because of the special time they associate with reading with a parent/grandparent/friend, which in turn makes them want to expand the world with toys, t-shirts, etc. For pre-school brands, toys and publishing are still king.”
The key, of course, is all in the story. “There are no gimmicks or special effects, just the story,” offers Vicki Willden-Lebrecht, MD of The Bright Group. “It either engages or inspires or it doesn’t get read, so when books are a phenomena and people love them, it’s because the characters have depth, the story is engaging, it is rich in content and, therefore, perfect to lend itself to being the basis of a brand.”
Chorion’s Faulkner adds: “There is always room for a literary-based licence provided that it has captured the imagination. It doesn’t matter where the creative idea has come from.”
Indeed, while the list of the pre-school properties with successful publishing drives is almost endless - Thomas & Friends, Dora the Explorer, Peppa Pig, Timmy Time, Noddy, Tinga Tinga Tales, Postman Pat, Mr Men, Spot, In The Night Garden… to name just a few - there has been significant growth in non-traditional brands moving into the licensed market.
Egmont, for example, has recently launched an Orla Kiely baby book line, while Bang on the Door (which began life in stationery) and video games such as Zoiks are also exploring the opportunities that publishing presents.
Going the other way, The World of Eric Carle and, in particular The Very Hungry Caterpillar, is currently enjoying a very strong design-driven merchandise programme, handled by Chorion. The picture books have sold over 90 million copies worldwide, while licensing and merchandise programmes are currently ongoing in the US, UK, Germany, Australia and Japan, with plans to expand into France and Korea this year.
“We are very careful to protect the heritage of our brands, whilst finding new readers and making them available to as large an audience as possible,” explains Faulkner.
In terms of retail, the loss of Woolworths and EUK, as with many other sectors, came as a bit of a blow initially. “The loss of EUK was a difficult time,” Faulkner continues. “However, I would say that it is the closure of Borders that has affected children’s publishing more. The High Street is reduced to WHS and Waterstones now, which is a challenge.”
Christina Macphail, category manager for publishing at CPLG, agrees: “There was no great impact; the Woolworths book department was notoriously badly managed, although there was some presence of licensed product in the colouring/activity sector. The loss of Borders has had a much greater impact on the market generally.”
With the gap created by the loss of Borders and Woolworths, a number of other retailers are now expanding their offerings. 4Kids licensing manager, EMEA, Elisa Pezzutti says: “Independent book stores are becoming less and less, while there has definitely been a trend for supermarkets to expand their categories and portfolios. They are becoming more powerful.”
CPLG’s Macphail concurs that the retail landscape is much more diverse than before: “There’s more focus on non-traditional outlets, supermarkets have become increasingly important, as has online (such as Amazon and Play.com) and lifestyle opportunities (like Urban Outfitters).”
“The grocers are taken very seriously by publishers,” points out BGI’s Willden-Lebrecht. “We also use this leverage to cross fertilise with brands across different categories and promotions.”
Various digital initiatives are likely to have a huge impact on the sector moving forward, however, throwing out a host of new challenges for licensees, licensors and agents.
“The development of e-reader devices is obviously key at the moment,” comments Macphail, “and is raising challenges both for rights holders and publishers in terms of content, delivery, distribution and pricing. There are also new creative opportunities being presented by devices such as the iPhone and iPad, which could reinvigorate formats which are struggling in traditional channels – such as picture books – by offering a new channel of distribution. These developments are also changing the way in which rights are licensed/split.”
Elsewhere, 4Kids’ Pezzutti believes further growth could come from the manga and novel sectors; Egmont’s Cairns-Smith is confident we will see more non-traditional brands waking up to the possibilities publishing presents; while Fredrika Carlsson, senior agent for children’s fiction at BGI, believes that more surreal themes (encouraged by the success of Twilight and Avatar) will come to the fore.
Cairns-Smith concludes: “Children’s books and magazines is a hugely attractive area to be in. As well as the feel-good factor associated with encouraging literacy, sales have been much more resistant to economic downturn than many other areas.”