Publishers’ expansion into new products as they strive to reach more retail channels was a major theme at New York International Toy Fair, held February 11-15 at the Javits Center. Bendon, for example, has added a number of nonbook items to its line of coloring and activity titles and other book formats, both under existing licenses and for new properties, such as Kathy Ireland. “We’ve become more of a children’s consumer products company, with a focus on educational items, manipulatives, activities, and early childhood development games,” said Bendon CEO Ben Ferguson. “We have diverse distribution today across all major retail channels, with over four million planogrammed pockets in more than 69,000 retail outlets. But to grow that distribution, we had to look at other areas and aisles within the store where our products could live.”
Parragon, which exhibited at Toy Fair for the first time this year, is making a similar transition. “We were strictly a book publisher, but as the book market has changed, we’re adding a lot more book-plus [items],” said Grant Brandeis, national account manager at the company. Many of Parragon’s new product lines fall into the craft and activity category, such as the new Professor Murphy’s Emporium of Entertainment brand and Lulu Jr.’s book-making kits; the company introduced both lines at the show.
With their expansion into crafts, these publishers are competing with specialists such as Klutz, Silver Dolphin, Innovative Kids, and SmartLab, as well as with toy companies—especially as the latter get more involved with book publishing. Goldie Blox, a marketer of engineering kits for girls, includes a storybook in its products, while Wooky Entertainment has added editorial content to its Style Me Up fashion sketchbook line, which includes a new Disney Princess license. Wooky is in talks with bookstores such as Books-A-Million about distribution.
Both publishers and toy makers note that these sorts of products allow them to broaden their offerings in the toy and gift channel, but they may be a harder sell for bookstores. Michael Levins, CEO of Innovative Kids, and the incoming president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA), said: “We’ve reached out to make the bookstores understand that sidelines can work for them.”
Tech innovation has long been a key theme at Toy Fair, and that remained the case in 2014. One area of interest over the last two years has been “augmented reality,” which allows users to unlock video content via an app by taking a photo of the toy. This year, augmented reality started to make its way into books. In addition to its range of traditional titles, A.M. Productions showed its Incredebooks line of AR storybooks, while Popar Toys offered AR books, as well as puzzles, games, maps, and charts.
Like publishers, toy makers are adapting to children’s increasing use of mobile devices. Many are coming out with their own child-friendly, content-filled tablets. Publisher School Zone is taking this path with its Little Scholar tablet, which comes preloaded with e-books, games, and TV episodes based on School Zone-created content. After launching on School Zone’s Web site in November, the Little Scholar tablets are being sold in bricks-and-mortar stores, starting with Toys R Us. “There is some confusion in the market [because of so many dedicated tablets available],” acknowledged Barb Peacock, School Zone managing director. “But the retailers know our books and they know our software, and the content is the same on the Little Scholar product.”
After a long decline in the number of publishers who have attended Toy Fair, due to industry consolidation and other trends, several new publishers exhibited at the show in 2014. In addition to Parragon, first-timers from the publishing industry included National Geographic Kids, Lulu Jr., and Landoll.