The mood at the 108th Annual American International Toy Fair, which ran February 12–16 at New York's Javits Center, seemed optimistic, and the aisles were more crowded and energetic than in the past several years. The more positive vibe comes with signs of recovery in toy industry sales, which rose 2% in 2010, to $21.87 billion, according to NPD Group figures released in late January.
Individual publishers reported varied results for traffic in their own booths, with reactions ranging from very pleased to slightly disappointed. Meanwhile, the number of publishing houses exhibiting at Toy Fair continued its slow decline, with longtime exhibitors such as Twin Sisters/Learning Horizons absent. Approximately 25 book purveyors showed their wares throughout the show floor.
Despite the gain in toy sales in 2010, the last couple of years have been difficult for coloring/activity book publishers. "We need to find other avenues of business," said Ben Ferguson, president of Bendon Publishing, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and is approaching the one billion mark in unit sales. The company is branching out into higher price points (up to $10), as well as adding its first adult titles (game and puzzle books tied to Hasbro board games) and forging longer-term, multiproperty partnerships with licensors such as Disney, Nickelodeon, and Hasbro. "All those specialty licenses are too risky for us," Ferguson said. "We can't look at just two years out any more."
A few mass market publishers said they are doing well with licenses outside the majors, however. Andrew Steinberg, president and CEO of Modern Publishing, reported that the Lisa Frank license is "blowing out" at Wal-Mart and dollar stores. "It's a perennial property that hasn't been maximized yet," he said. Modern also is introducing new formats, including a placemat coloring book.
Meanwhile, even as publishers are trying to expand their businesses through new channels and formats, their costs continue to rise, further squeezing their minuscule margins. The cost of sourcing books in China has increased, as have testing costs due to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act and retailer requirements. Randy McDonald, Vision Street Publishing's senior v-p, sales, noted that some novelty formats are just not cost-effective any more. "[The cost increase] really slows things down, especially when it comes to being creative," he said.
As the competitive landscape on the mass side is intensifying, toy companies are dipping their toes into book publishing. For years, toy makers have created books to complement some of their toys, and many entrepreneurs sell a book along with their plush toys or dolls. Now, however, some toy companies are producing full lines of titles, primarily in simple formats such as board books. Learning Curve Toys, best known for its vehicle play sets tied to such licenses as Thomas the Tank Engine, John Deere, and Chuggington, premiered a line of board books under the Lamaze brand, for which it has long created early learning toys. Similarly, Manhattan Toy, which is recognized for its Groovy Girls dolls and holds licenses for properties such as Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Dr. Seuss, introduced a range of touch-and-feel board books under the Manhattan Toy Library brand.
As has been the norm over the past several years, children's books were prominent at Toy Fair in the form of licensed products. Board game marketers in particular gave literary properties lots of space and signage this year. Discovery Bay introduced a board game tied to Rufus Butler Seder's Gallop!; Twisterz showed word games tied to Scholastic's WordGirl and Clifford; the Haywire Group offered a Guinness World Records board game; and Pressman Toy debuted its Diary of a Wimpy Kid games, to name a few examples.