Licensing is a growing focus for many publishers as they look to generate awareness and spur book sales for in-house developed and acquired properties, and bring in incremental revenue.
“We’re always combing through our list and assessing the potential for merchandise,” says Jean McGinley, director of subsidiary rights at HarperCollins. “But it has to be strategic.” Harper is currently licensing Fancy Nancy (with licensing agent Established Brands), Goodnight Moon (Wildflower Group), Frog and Toad (Jim Henson Productions), Splat the Cat! (Moxie & Co.), and Biscuit (handled in-house). While some programs can produce significant revenue, “the mission is really to raise brand awareness,” McGinley says.
“It’s like a billboard for the books,” explains Valerie Garfield, Simon & Schuster’s v-p and publisher for novelty and licensed publishing. Products or media extensions can pique retailers’ interest, she says. “It’s hard to get the attention of the consumer and the buyers. This gives us a conversation to have.”
S&S works with Moxie & Co. and other agents to license Nancy Drew, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, David A. Carter’s Bugs & Boxes, illustrations from Misty of Chincoteague, and others, and has recently been developing in-house brands with licensing potential.
Another driver of the increased focus on licensing over the past several years is that manufacturers, retailers, and licensing agents have become increasingly convinced of the commercial appeal of book properties. “Everyone always talks about TV and movies, but there is a market for these classic book brands,” McGinley says. She notes that when Harper was soliciting new licensing agents for Fancy Nancy and Goodnight Moon, interest was high. “We were very happy with the agents who were coming in and pitching,” she says. “We know we get it, but now it seems like everybody understands the potential of these brands.”
Laura Becker, cofounder of Moxie & Co., which works with Harper and S&S, as well as authors Nancy Tillman and Devon Kinch, reports that potential licensing partners view books as safer and a surer bet than entertainment-based properties. “They’re familiar, they’re well-loved, they’re trusted, and they’re not a passing fad or trend,” she says.
Some publishers have created formal licensing divisions focusing on brand extension. In June, for example, Penguin Young Readers Group launched a licensing and consumer products arm to collaboratively look for media and merchandise opportunities for properties from its offices in the U.S., U.K., and Australia, as well as to acquire global publishing licenses. The division, which oversees Mad Libs, Spot, Corduroy, Llama Llama, and Ladybug Girl, among others, works closely with Penguin’s digital, publishing, sub rights, and publicity departments.
“At the end of the day, we’d like to see viable media and merchandise extensions that also contribute to the bottom line,” says Lori Burke, director of licensing. “But it’s really about service to our authors and illustrators, about recruiting new readers by providing them with an entry point to the brand, and about reaching our customer base in a new and exciting way and integrating that with the reading experience.”
Random House U.K. recently set up Random House Enterprises to focus on extending its properties into merchandising, television, film, gaming, live events, and sponsorship. It hired Jo Edwards as its first head of licensing and is currently working with Random House Children’s Screen Entertainment to license its book-based TV shows.
Simon & Schuster, meanwhile, is internally developing new properties with licensing and media potential. “My imprints are doing a lot more homegrown brands where we control the rights,” Garfield says. From the beginning, S&S develops a story arc that can extend across several books and media, creates a cast of characters that might lend themselves to different ages and formats, and integrates traits that make the property more attractive for toys or other products. When it comes time to show the property to licensing agents, v-p of subsidiary rights Stephanie Voros can present character bibles, long-term story arcs, and descriptions of the world in which the characters live.
“It’s a different thought process that goes into it,” Garfield says. “We don’t just have a great book that would make a great movie, but we have this whole rich history and rich basis for development.”
Working with Authors
Although publishers often want merchandising rights when signing an author contract, that can prove difficult, as merchandising rights tend to be tied in with media rights, which may have already been optioned to a production company. Authors and their literary agents might also want to retain those rights.
Even so, publishers can renegotiate with authors once a property is ripe for licensing. Splat the Cat! creator Rob Scotton, for example, initially retained licensing rights, but ultimately granted them to HarperCollins. McGinley points out that publishers’ sales, publicity, and marketing departments can support the licensing program as well as the books, and that they have established relationships with licensing agents, all of which can lead to better results than when the author goes it alone.
Of course, not all properties are licensable. “We look for books that are either established or legacy properties, or show signs of being future classics,” Becker says.
Her publishing colleagues also consider various criteria before pursuing a licensing program. “There’s the character, story, and potential play patterns, but you also have to take a fine-tuned look at what’s happening at retail,” says Daisy Kline, v-p of marketing and brand management at Scholastic Media, charged with creating global brands including Clifford, Magic School Bus, Goosebumps, and I Spy.
Publishers stress the importance of integrating books into all product-marketing initiatives. “It’s always about the books,” Kline says. “It works best when all of our divisions are working together across content, packaging, marketing, and consumer messaging.” Clifford’s 50th birthday celebration this year includes a cross-category initiative at FAO Schwarz that features books, plush, games, puzzles, and home entertainment.
Burke notes that customers and other partners have embraced Penguin’s ability to create custom programs, such as merchandise shops, at retail, events, schools, and publicity tours. “Merchandise and media extensions offer great opportunities to promote the brand and the book outside of frontlist releases,” she adds.
Publishers’ licensing agents typically work with their sales departments to develop promotions in trade and mass channels, such as displays featuring books and merchandise, and copackaging of book-and-product. But part of the appeal of licensing is the possibility that the brand will be seen in nontraditional venues. “Everybody’s first thought is about our retail partners where the books are sold,” McGinley says. “But you want to go as wide as you can go, in a strategic way.”
The integrity of the underlying book is always of paramount concern. “Some characters live in books only, and that’s okay,” says Garfield. “And no matter how strong a publishing and licensing plan, if the stories at the heart of it aren’t connecting with consumers, you’re at zero.”