Toy Fair attendance was lighter this year (though Barbie had her usual place in the spotlight).

The number of exhibitors at last week’s New York International Toy Fair was down from years past—less than 30 booths featured publishers or authors, for example, compared to the typical 40 to 45—and traffic was light.

Many publishers said they had a productive show, however, noting that attendees were serious about writing orders. “There are far fewer tire-kickers, so to speak,” said Sharon Winningham, v-p sales and marketing at School Zone. “We’re really impressed with the quality of the buyers,” added Barbara Lonnborg, director of Boys Town Press, a first-time exhibitor showing its initial children’s title, a hybrid book/scrapbook.

Not all publishers were happy, however. In fact, at least two leading mass market publishers are considering scaling way back next year, or not exhibiting at all. Very few of the large mass merchants—the Wal-marts, Costcos, and Family Dollars of the world—sent contingents to walk the show this year, as they usually do, according to exhibitors.

Costumed characters were, as always, a Toy Fair fixture.

Among the publishers that had booths at the 2008 show but were missing this year were HarperCollins, Kaplan Publishing, Playmore, Brighter Minds and Walter Foster. Meanwhile, mergers led to a combined booth presence for some formerly separate exhibitors, including Harcourt and Houghton Mifflin and EDC/Usborne and Kane Miller; several other publishers reduced their booth space this year.

Like many consumer products industries, the toy industry witnessed sales declines in 2008, and the tough environment certainly contributed to the quieter show. According to NPD Group figures released during Toy Fair, U.S. retail sales of toys generated $21.64 billion in 2008, a decrease of 3% from $22.3 billion in 2007. The fourth quarter, which accounts for a significant proportion of annual industry sales, experienced a drop of 5%.

Plush offerings from Yottoy included several based on Little Golden Books titles.

Just a week after the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act’s key lead and phthalates provisions took effect, safety was top of mind at Toy Fair. Groups working to revise the CPSIA and exempt certain products from its provisions, including the Handmade Toy Alliance and CPSIA-Central, held press conferences; nine testing labs had booths, including four new exhibitors; and many displays featured signs touting product safety and U.S. manufacturing. A number of retailers roaming the aisles reported receiving conflicting information from vendors about the Act and said they were still confused about how to comply. Exhibiting publishers noted they were getting more questions about safety from attendees than usual, albeit in many cases not as many as they expected.

In a well-attended half-day seminar on the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, Consumer Products Safety Commission acting chair Nancy Nord and John “Gib” Mullen, CPSC’s assistant executive director, Office of Compliance and Field Operations, made some of the most encouraging statements yet for publishers of “ordinary” (ink on paper or board) children’s books published after 1985. “We all agree these just consistently fall below the lead limits of the law,” said Nord. “[Publishers] don’t have to test and we won’t spend our enforcement resources on these products.”

Mr. Men plush from Fisher-Price.

“We’re creating a little immunity box for you,” Mullen added. “You can sell with impunity.” Still, he tempered that statement when he noted that state Attorneys General also are charged with enforcing the law, and the CPSC cannot prevent them from filing suit against companies who fall into the “immunity box.” He and Nord also pointed out that the law makes it extremely difficult for the CPSC to grant exemptions for particular industries, as publishers have sought.

Toy companies and publishers continue to go green. Toy makers highlighted products made from organic cotton, recycled materials and more environmentally sound packaging, for example, and displayed their green products front and center. Meanwhile, publishers featured titles with green content and those made from materials such as recycled paper and soy or vegetable inks.

One Tree, from InnovativeKids' Green Start publishing line.

Dover was encouraging other publishers to adopt a Green Edition program that identifies titles produced in a pro-environmental manner; books such as Let’s Go Green, a coloring book, include information on the number of trees and amount of water saved and the amount of air emissions and solid waste eliminated through the manufacturing and shipping process. InnovativeKids got a good response to its new Green Start line, made from 98% recycled materials; the books include stories about nature and tips for protecting the environment. “That line is just blowing out for us,” said Shari Kaufman, president and publisher. Other publishers highlighting green titles included Macmillan with its Organic Baby and Natural Baby lines and Learning Horizons with its Earth Lover’s Activity Books.

Licensed toys—those tied to TV shows, movies, brands or books not owned by the toymaker—typically have a wide presence at the show, but that was not the case this year, when there were relatively few licensed toys in evidence. A large percentage of the licensed products on display were tied to Disney brands, but book-based properties had a high profile, too. This included not only the usual TV- and movie-supported book characters (e.g., Twilight and Curious George), but also a growing number of book-only licenses, from Frog and Toad to Five Little Monkeys.

Madame Alexander's display showcased Eloise, Madeline and Fancy Nancy, among others.

Many of the book-based products, both entertainment-supported and book-only, were in typical categories such as puzzles, games, dolls and plush toys. These were often from companies that specialize in book-based toys, such as Briarpatch, which introduced Frog and Toad and several other literary licenses on games and puzzles; Merrymakers, which offered Scaredy Squirrel, Bats on the Beach and Olivia plush; Madame Alexander, which prominently displayed dolls tied to Eloise, Where the Wild Things Are, Fancy Nancy and others; Kids Preferred, which showed its new Elmer the Patchwork Elephant plush, among other book-based toys; University Games, which displayed board and card games tied to Five Little Monkeys and 39 Clues; Yottoy, which introduced plush tied to Golden Books and expanded its Mo Willems line to include Elephant and Piggie; and I Can Do That!, which added Curious George board games to its Dr. Seuss assortment.

Aurora's plush, based on Dragon from Scholastic.

Other notable displays included Cardinal Games’ Twilight products, Aurora’s new plush based on Scholastic’s Dragon, Fisher-Price’s talking plush tied to Mr. Men and Little Miss, and toys linked to Alex Beard’s The Jungle Grapevine, a fall release from Abrams, at Hosung, Fundex and Great American Puzzle Factory. Book titles had a presence in nontraditional categories as well. Melissa & Doug had a large display of garden-themed toys tied to David Kirk’s Sunny Patch; DuneCraft offered science kits linked to Curious George, and Skullduggery highlighted a broad line of educational model kits based on DK’s Eyewitness brand.

Few breakthrough or buzzworthy products garnered attention at Toy Fair this year; the $100 Smash-Me Bernie doll from ModelWorks, capitalizing on the Madoff scandal, probably attracted the most press. Instead, toy makers and publishers were generally sticking to the products that sell best, avoiding risky new introductions and emphasizing low price points. Paradise cited its preschool board books based on classic licenses including Sesame Street and Baby Looney Tunes as strong sellers, while Bendon has high hopes for its line of puzzle books, including licensed titles tied to American Idol and Disney properties; president Ben Ferguson predicts one million units sold within the year.

“We really want to go back to basics,” said Andrew Steinberg, president of Modern Publishing, citing formats such as color-by-number and connect-the-dot books and classic licenses such as Batman and Wonder Woman. “We’re going back to the tried-and-true activity books that work.”