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Publishers Weekly Children's Features

Talking Trends
Karen Raugust -- 6/5/00
Brand and lifestyle properties seen as areas for growth

Entertainment properties, whether from television, films or interactive media, have long dominated licensed children's publishing. While that still holds true--think Pokemon--children's houses are increasingly turning to a growing sector of licensing known as "brands and lifestyles." Opinions differ on whether corporate brands should have a place in children's publishing, but there is no doubt that brand licensors and publishers are teaming more often for licensed children's books.

Simon & Schuster is one children's house looking closely at brands. Among its licenses are Oreo, Lionel trainsand Cheerios; the last is responsible for two books with a total of 1.8 million copies in print. Robin Corey, v-p and publisher, novelty books and media tie-ins at Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, said the company's editorial, marketing and sales staffs recently met to analyze a list of brands relevant to children's books, narrowing the selection to six additional brands for the company to pursue.

Scholastic is seeking what it calls "lifestyle brands," meaning properties with which the company's target audience identifies and that are part of readers' lives. "None so far has been a huge knockout hit," said Craig Walker, Scholastic's v-p and editorial director for paperbacks and media, "but they go along with the buying trends of kids." Scholastic holds the publishing rights for 2 Grrrls, a gift brand with a "girl power" theme, and Bonne Belle, a preteen makeup brand. It is about to close a deal with a toy company for a group of preschool brands that it will translate into early learning, alphabet and reading books.

Other publishers are less enthusiastic about the branding trend. "We're thinking about [brands] for our educational product," said Rick Mallow, Landoll's director of licensing. "But I don't really think true brands work for us. Would parents buy [a brand] or would they buy what the kid likes?"

"There's too much branding going on. We live in brand-happy times," said Kate Klimo, v-p and publishing director, Random House Children's Books, who argued that a brand-licensed book loses its distinctiveness. "It could be a box or a piece of wallpaper."

Traditional entertainment licenses still account for most of the bestselling tie-ins, despite the current popularity of brand licenses. Pokémon, for example, has netted Golden Books, which holds the mass-market book license, well over 25 million units in sales so far and still dominates the top-20 lists at major accounts. "It helped save Golden Books," said Stephen Weitzen, president and publisher, Golden Value Books, international and licensing. "Our numbers on Pokémon have been staggering. There's never been anything in the history of licensing that's as wide and broad and deep as Pokémon."

Scholastic holds the trade rights to the Pokémon license. "I think Pokémon is one of the most interesting licenses ever," said Walker. "It's a typical action-adventure but they made it unbelievably cute." That means both boys and girls like the property, very unusual for ages 6-8. "Pokémon is really a lifestyle thing," he added, noting that children wear Pokémon clothes and backpacks, play Pokémon card and video games, and watch Pokémon TV shows and films, making it an integral part of their lives.

A number of strong girls' properties are currently available for licensing. "We haven't had that for a while," Walker commented. He pointed out that today's properties, ranging from the Powerpuff Girls animated TV series to the Bonne Belle lifestyle brand, focus on girls' individuality, unlike previous girls' properties such as My Little Pony. "It's more than a horse with colored hair."

Movies Face Tough Times
"To me, the most amazing development lately has been the fact that movies just aren't working in publishing the way they used to," said Walker, citing The Mummy and Godzilla as examples of films with strong box office totals but lower-than-expected book sales. "We used to rely so much on movies, but lately people just aren't buying the books," he continued. "We're not looking at movies as such rich territory for licenses as we used to."

Scholastic recently acquired the rights for The Sixth Sense and will introduce middle-grade readers this fall. Walker noted that the company's Star Wars books, including the Jedi Apprentice series, stand alone as novels rather than being wholly dependent on the film. "They didn't rehash the movie over and over," he said. That meant Scholastic did not suffer the fate of many other licensees (most notably DK) that were disappointed with Star Wars merchandise sales, although Scholastic's prequel books did not match the performance of those based on the original trilogy. "The first time was bigger than life," said Walker.

"We would [tie in with a movie] if it hits our demo," said Mallow at Landoll, which targets children 3-8 and holds licenses for the forthcoming films Chicken Run and Rugrats: Lost in Paris. "It depends on what [licensors] have got in their pocket to create awareness." In general, Landoll executives prefer television properties they view as having long-term growth potential. "Something more than quick, put-it-out-for-six-weeks-and-move-on movies," Mallow explained.

Random House will publish books based on the live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas later this year. "Because it's a Christmas release and because we're the home of Seuss, we're sensitive to the brevity of the window and sensitive to the classic Dr. Seuss," said Klimo. The company will release a combination of formats that "are engineered for the moment" and those that "complement and don't compete with classic Seuss."

"We've been pleased with the [movies] we've done," said Nancy Pines, v-p and publisher of Pocket Books for Young Readers, which releases two or three film tie-in programs a year. Successes include books associated with Rugrats: The Movie, Clueless, Little Women and Good Burger. "If you want to say there's a correlation between box office and publishing, [Good Burger] just blows it," she said. Total box office was less than $24 million, but Pocket's first tie-in title netted 250,000 units in sales and the second netted 210,000. "Our book sales were out of sight, phenomenal," said Pines, who added, "I think it's a direct testimonial to the assistance of the studio." Nickelodeon supported several promotions aimed at book channels.

The difficulties surrounding film licenses is partly attributable to competition among an increasing number of children's films, as well as competition between films and television, computers and other activities. "It's not about weak movies," Weitzen at Golden said. "It's about a shift in the ability of movies to carry for a long period of time. They used to become perennial backlist bestsellers. They don't any more. The old models have changed."

Children's publishers agree that TV licenses, while still risky, remain stronger on the whole than films. "TV seems to be selling books," said Klimo at Random House, who called their series of books based on Dragon Tales, an animated preschool series on PBS, "a howling success."

Similarly, Weitzen said Golden's books based on Between the Lions, a PBS literacy series, have received a strong initial response. "It's an example of how we're trying to do business in the future," he explained, noting that Golden is the exclusive worldwide publishing licensee for all formats.

Strategic Alliances
Children's publishers are continuing to look for strategic partnerships with licensors. Simon & Schuster recently announced an alliance with PBS Kids, for example, which will lead to titles tied to Zoboomafoo and Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat, among other series. The company also has an alliance with Nickelodeon, which is owned by the same corporate parent (Viacom) as S&S.

"I think, in general, [long-term partnerships] can be a pretty productive way to work," said Walker of Scholastic, which has a first-look deal with Warner Bros. "It gives you some history together and it makes things easier and more productive."

"The reason for a strategic partnership is that you're not competing with another publisher for the same characters' shelf space," said Klimo. Random House recently signed a deal with Disney for books based on the studio's television, film and classic properties; the deal will run through 2006.

In some alliances, said Klimo, "you take the good with the bad." She explained that Random House's partnerships are with the likes of Disney and Children's Television Workshop for just that reason. "The faith in the property is so much a given," she said. "There aren't any facets of the Disney partnership that don't have applications to at least some bestselling books."

Mallow noted that Landoll is being more selective of properties within the scope of its partnerships, which include ties with Nickelodeon, DreamWorks and Disney (the last with Landoll's American Educational Publishing division). It will not license a partner's properties if they do not specifically apply to the age 3-8 demographic, for example. "If they're going to be a good partner, they have to respect 'no,' " Mallow said. Landoll recently renewed its license with Nickelodeon; since 1997, it has sold 30 million units of 30 Rugrats titles under the agreement, which includes all Nickelodeon properties.

Publishers pointed out that the number of licenses being pitched to them, both from ongoing partners and other licensors, continues to rise. "The amount of submissions we get is amazing," S&S's Corey reported, "and we're just one publisher. The activity comes from both the selling side and the buying side."

"You can't have all the licenses. You don't want all the licenses," said Golden's Weitzen. "It used to be that a TV deal and a toy deal with Hasbro or Mattel really meant something. Now there's so much stuff, it's hard to break through." Mallow concurred: "There are so many things out there," he said. "But the big consumer-products companies are pulling back a little bit. They're saying, 'We need to make sure we have all our ducks in a row before we launch the program,' which is good."

One aspect of licensing has never changed, and that is the risk. "You have a feeling, but you really never know what's going to hit," Corey said. "You have to be ever-vigilant in tracking sales, and know when to cut back and when to cut out your program."
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