This past February, the Jim Henson Company announced it was forming an internal publishing division to house new Henson-originated franchises. The next week, DreamWorks Animation made public the launch of DreamWorks Press, a new imprint for select titles, mostly based on future franchises. These are just two of the latest examples in an ongoing trend taking place over the last five to 10 years, in which entertainment studios and other licensors are assuming more control of their licensed publishing programs.
“Licensors have definitely become more involved and more engaged in the editorial process over the last few years,” said Valerie Garfield, v-p, publisher, novelty and licensed publishing, S&S Children’s Publishing. “They see publishing as a content source. It’s not the same as a mug or another licensed product. It lives on a little bit longer and it has a far reach with parents, kids, teachers, and librarians. So it makes sense that they’re more interested in being involved in the creative development.”
IP owners’ strategies for assuming more oversight over their publishing and storytelling vary, ranging from forming their own imprints and creating some of their titles in-house to, most commonly, simply working more collaboratively with their licensees to develop editorial content. They are getting involved at the beginning of the process rather than simply approving concepts initiated by the publishers. Licensors like Hasbro, Warner Bros., and Nickelodeon have been among those that have moved in this direction over the past five or more years.
No matter what their strategy for increasing their oversight of publishing content, licensors are careful to point out that their publishing partners remain an important part of the process. “We have a stronger viewpoint in how our characters are portrayed and how the stories are told, but we still rely on the core competencies and skill sets of our licensees in content development,” said Michael Kelly, Hasbro’s director of global publishing. “We want to keep creative control over where the characters are and maintain the consistency and continuity of the storytelling through multiple touch points. But we still really look at it as a collaboration between the two parties, with us guiding the way.”
Henson’s new division will focus on Henson-originated properties, using books as a launch platform before extending to television, digital productions, and merchandise. It will partner with outside publishers to release each project. The first franchise, Enchanted Sisters, will debut this fall through Bloomsbury Children’s Books. Ongoing publishing programs for current Henson entertainment properties, such as the TV series Dinosaur Train (whose U.S. master licensee is Random House) and Sid the Science Kid (Harper-Collins), will remain with their current publishers.
Lori Burke, Penguin Group’s director of licensing and consumer products for North America, noted that Penguin remains a key partner of Henson. For example, the publisher is planning to release a prequel to Dark Crystal, Jim Henson’s 1982 film, and ran a contest last fall to solicit submissions from published and aspiring authors. Executives from Henson and Penguin have selected five finalists; the winner will earn a $10,000 publishing contract. Henson “manages its own content, but when this creative publishing idea came up, it wanted to work with us,” Burke said.
DreamWorks Press will focus on select titles, mostly based on new franchises, such as B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations, a film the studio plans to release in 2015. The studio’s growing publishing staff will oversee content and production internally on these titles, while Publishers Group West will handle sales and distribution. The first in-house-produced list is expected to come out in time for the 2014 holiday season.
DreamWorks Press may also produce some unique titles based on its established franchises, including Shrek, Madagascar, How to Train Your Dragon, and Kung Fu Panda, but DreamWorks has said it will continue to collaborate on content and formats with its current publishing licensees, including Simon & Schuster, Bendon, and Reader’s Digest.
Other licensors, such as Disney, Rovio, and the Pokémon Company, to name just a few, also maintain significant control of their publishing programs. Rovio collaborates with publishing licensees on some formats, including Kappa Books for coloring and activity books, IDW for comics, National Geographic for nonfiction, and Insight Editions for a “making of” title, all in the U.S.; it also collaborates with Egmont on a variety of formats in the U.K. But Rovio has created and published many titles entirely in-house.
“It makes sense that licensors would want to build an infrastructure to manage their IP, as they look at what they want to deliver in terms of content,” Burke said. “Publishing is such a viable part of that. It’s more than just a bound book. It’s an important category to extend the life of their IP.”
In some cases, however, the editorial relationship between a more proactive licensor and its publishing licensees can hit a few bumps in the road. “It works as long as it’s a respectful partnership,” said one publishing executive, who asked not to be named to preserve her licensor relationships. Noting that the editorial process is the publisher’s expertise, while the licensor’s lies in the character development and the direction of the overall world, she added that problems come up only when the licensor gets involved in the minutiae of developing the manuscript or demands particular formats that the publisher knows will not work. “Why would you pick us if you don’t respect our ability to get the job done?” she asked.
One key to success is to be sure both partners agree on their respective roles during the negotiation process prior to the publisher signing on for a license. “I’m very clear up-front on what we want to have creative rights on,” said the same executive, adding, “You can usually tell from the acquisition process whether the partnership will work. After that, the problems usually come when there’s a management change and a new direction.”
Despite occasional glitches, licensors and licensees alike said they see a closer editorial partnership as a positive. “If anything, it’s improved our relationship with the licensees,” Kelly stated. Rather than the back-and-forth of the publisher submitting something and having the licensor reject it or return it for changes, both put more effort into the program up front. “We work more closely together, with this very collaborative attitude,” he explained. “The content is more detailed, fleshed out, and relevant.”
“Licensors’ understanding of their own content and how to realize it through the book form helps them give their publishing partners what they need,” Burke noted. “These are big brand owners with a lot of content oversight in-house, but they still have many very viable relationships with publishers. No one’s trying to cut publishers out of the process.”