Thomas & Friends, Winnie the Pooh, Mr. Men and Little Miss: each one a multi-million pound property selling millions of copies in multiple languages around the world. In 2008 Roger Hargreaves was the best-selling author in the UK, according to Nielsen data. Big business indeed – but it’s easy to forget that at the heart of each of these brands is something very simple: a good story, well told.
I’m lucky enough to manage many new properties at Egmont, as well as some of the most important classic characters in children’s literature. We talk of brands, of properties, of licences and of characters, but to our consumers – children and their parents – these are beloved companions, friends who keep us company, make us laugh, entertain us and sometimes even scare us. (What would Winnie the Pooh be like without Heffalumps and Woozles? Or Noggin the Nog without Nogbad the Bad?) They are there for us through thick and thin, through happy times and sad.
Our duty as publishers is to safeguard and cherish these properties – but it’s not to put them in glass cases and allow them to gather dust. We’re not museum curators. We’re a commercial organisation and we have responsibilities both to our shareholders and to our licensors. Our readers are with us for only a few years, and if a brand is to appeal to new generations of children, it must remain fresh, appealing and fun. How is it that Mr. Tickle is still making millions of children giggle nearly 40 years after he was first published?
At the heart of every great children’s story is an original idea. Combine this with good writing, original imagery, effective storytelling and a worthwhile message and you have all the key ingredients of the magic potion that can make a classic character. But I’m a firm believer in the ageing process too. Classic characters by their very nature need time to mature, and if they are to develop successfully they require a long-term partnership and collaboration between the brand owner and their publisher: a shared passion for the property, a shared understanding of the values that make it special and a shared commitment to quality.
Formulating a long-term strategy together enables classic titles to sit alongside products that are fresh and new, but also hold true to the brand’s core values. A properly-segmented portfolio might include magazines, colouring and activity books, annuals and novelty formats alongside original storybooks, providing entertainment for young and old.
This year Egmont is publishing a celebratory 65th anniversary edition of the Reverend W. Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine. It will sit alongside dozens of other different Thomas & Friends titles, all designed for the many Thomas fans in the UK and around the globe: all different, but all clearly and unmistakeably Thomas.
Alternatively, look at how Doctor Who has been revived in recent years: a classic property, completely reinvigorated by brilliant writing, casting and programming. Classic Doctor Who products sit comfortably beside licensed products for the new series: all of exceptional quality but all remaining steadfastly true to the values of the brand.
Our industry is changing rapidly and new platforms are being launched all the time. This month will see more stories from licensed properties appearing on the iPhone and the iPad. Does this foretell the end of the traditional book? I don’t know. But what I do know is that as long as we, as publishers, continue to cherish and nurture good brands and good writing – as long as we remember how to make children smile and laugh, to sit wide-eyed and enthralled, captivated by great storytelling – then we will always have a future.