Exhibitors and attendees at last week's Licensing International Expo in Las Vegas—including publishers, licensing agencies representing book-based properties, and retail book buyers—were cautiously optimistic that the licensing business may be about to turn a corner after a rough 2008 and 2009. As has been the case in recent years, much of the focus was on the tried-and-true, including classic properties, entertainment franchises, and retro licenses.

As part of that trend, plenty of licenses with roots in books, comic books, and comic strips were on display. “That [emphasis on classics] is a powerful opportunity for us,” said Mark Freedman, president of Surge Licensing, which is launching Archie Comics merchandising in anticipation of its 70th anniversary. “Archie is feel-good stuff.”

Penguin had its own booth for the first time—a number of its brands have had a presence at the show through licensing agents—and was pitching two paranormal series, Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy and Heather Brewer’s The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod. “The fan base is rabid for merchandise,” said Lori Burke, director of licensing. “And people who are reluctant readers or who don’t know the books can come into the world through the gaming or the merchandise and then start to read.” Attendees responded positively, she reported. “They knew the brands and were happy we were at the show.”

Other book-based properties this year included Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which has a dual licensing program based on the film and the Jeff Kinney books, handled by 20th Century Fox; Elf on the Shelf, a self-published holiday title that has sold over one million copies, and author/illustrator Ed Emberley, both represented by Iconix; and artwork from Rand McNally Junior Elf Books and other vintage titles from the 1950s and 1960s, licensed by The Toon Studio.

A number of children’s book illustrators exhibited, including Synthia Saint James, who has written or illustrated 22 titles, and Stacey Peterson, who illustrated Madonna’s The English Roses: Too Good to be True and the American Girl title Friends: Making Them and Keeping Them.

Digital Directions

A lot of talk on the show floor was about digital media, from interactive gaming to social networking to mobile applications. Apps ranging from Where’s Waldo? games to Roger Tory Peterson bird identification programs have garnered strong sales, and publishers are increasingly asking licensors, many of whom are in the process of forging their digital strategies, for rights to create apps from the books they produce under license.

Although Hasbro, whose licensees will publish 150 book titles this year, expects to retain rights for most digital applications going forward, it did allow IDW to create apps from its licensed G.I. Joe and Transformers comics, with 200 titles currently available for Apple platforms. “The comic genre has been at the forefront of digital publishing,” said Matt Gildea, Hasbro’s director of publishing and paper products. “So we gave the rights to them and we learned from them.”

“We do grant publishers rights on a case-by-case basis,” reported Dave Rupert, senior v-p global publishing, hardlines, product development and Canada-licensing at Warner Bros. Consumer Products, which has a catalog of 10,000 licensed book titles. In some cases digital rights could be granted along with book-publishing rights, while in other cases Warner could retain digital rights as part of a global strategy. “There’s no one right way to do it,” Rupert said.

“If a publisher requests rights for digital, it’s a whole different negotiation,” noted Joanne Loria, executive v-p of the Joester-Loria Group, which has signed publishing deals on behalf of Discovery Channel, Baby Genius, and other clients. “How royalties are structured is different from print publishing.”

Sesame Workshop has a new e-book download site and has licensed ScrollMotion for iPhone, iTouch, and iPad apps. “We’re just kind of trying everything,” said Scott Chambers, senior v-p, worldwide media distribution. “It won’t make traditional books obsolete, but it provides a new way to access the content. The more ways you give them access, the more young kids can experience reading.”

Using social media to support a licensed property also was a theme. “Social media is clearly a critical part of a marketing plan,” said John Frascotti, Hasbro’s global chief marketing officer, in a keynote panel that opened the show. “It’s as important to my children as electricity and water.”

“Consumers want to be active participants,” added Disney Consumer Products chairman Andy Mooney at the same presentation. “If it’s harnessed properly, it can be enormously important.”

Meanwhile, as digital-origin properties become a bigger part of children’s lives, the number of licenses from this world has been growing. Two Pearson Family Education Network sites were being pitched for publishing and other merchandise, including Funbrain, a kids’ educational site represented by P.S. Ink for publishing and Moxie & Co. for other categories, and Poptropica, a virtual world under the creative direction of Jeff Kinney, licensed by Iconix.

Where the Boys Are

The entertainment licensing business tends to be cyclical, with the emphasis going back and forth between preschool and tween, boy and girl. This year, boys age 6-11 seem to be in vogue. These properties have not always been the easiest to translate to publishing, but with the success in recent years of Clone Wars, Bakugan and the like, publishers are willing to consider them.

Warner Bros. was spotlighting ThunderCats, a new manga-style series based on the 1980s TV show, and plans to sign publishers for formats from comics to coloring and activity books; Cartoon Network was pitching Generator Rex, signing DC Comics and seeking publishers for select book formats; and Disney was highlighting the Disney XD series Phineas & Ferb and its newly acquired Marvel brands.

“Harry Potter kind of broke the mold 10 years ago in getting boys to read,” said Rupert of Warner Bros., which licenses that property. “Now we’re giving boys equal time.”

“Boys in this age group, 6-11, is kind of a hard category to crack [for publishing],” added Christina Miller, senior v-p at Cartoon Network Enterprises. “Girls’ properties are easier in that age group. But Generator Rex has lots of storytelling, and you have the ability in publishing to tell the story in a more immersive kind of way than on television.”

Feature films are another tricky area for both publishing and merchandise, due to the short window of opportunity, lack of early access to artwork and content, and the unpredictability of release schedules. Many skew toward boys or men and their publishing activity is mainly in comic books. “We don’t chase after novelizations any more,” said Cindy Irwin, director of licensing and publishing at Sony Consumer Products, which was licensing The Smurfs movie, among other films. “They’re very labor-intensive to clear the rights, and they don’t do that well because of the short window.”

In many cases, studios are positioning their films as one cog in a long-term franchise, making them more attractive to potential licensees. Disney’s publishing program for this year’s Toy Story 3 encompasses 40-50 books, including 20 film tie-ins and 20-30 refreshed backlist titles. That compares to the average of 15 or so for the average Disney movie.

The publishing program for TRON, Disney’s remake of the classic film, will be more limited, led by the Disney Press imprint, but the film will be followed by a TV series. “That will continue to feed the publishing content after the tie-ins,” said Tonya Agurto, v-p licensing for Disney Publishing Worldwide.

Some sort of unique twist also can make a movie tie-in book stand out. For The Last Airbender, a film based on the TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender, Nickelodeon has licensed Del Rey to do a tie-in manga that tells the film’s story from the perspective of another character, rather than the film’s protagonist. “You can see the film and you still have a reason to read the book,” said Paula Allen, Nickelodeon’s senior v-p, global publishing. “It’s something above and beyond the movie.” In addition, Simon & Schuster will publish a junior novelization and story books, Random House has puzzles, activity books and games, and Penguin will issue a Mad Libs title.

For Despicable Me, Universal Partnerships and Licensing has granted Little, Brown rights to do a board book with finger puppets called Sleepy Kittens, which is a book that appears in the movie; a character reads it aloud in a pivotal scene. Little, Brown is also releasing four other titles, including a junior novel and 8x8.

Areas of Expansion

Licensed book titles are increasingly being sold everywhere from drug chains to apparel stores. Candlewick and Walker Books’ Where’s Waldo? Ultimate Travel Guide can be found at Urban Outfitters in the U.S. and U.K., as well as in Hudson News, Spencer Gift and Hot Topic, according to Nicole Blake, executive v-p, marketing and consumer products at Classic Media, which licenses Waldo.

Value stores, such as dollar chains and Target’s See Spot Save section, are particular growth areas. Sesame Workshop is one of many licensors that has signed publishers specifically to service the value channel, and See Spot Save sections alone have sold five million Sesame Street books in three years, according to Chambers.

Warner’s Rupert pointed out that books can be adapted more easily for the value channel than many other licensed products. “You can do a book for 99¢,” he said. “A t-shirt, you can’t. You have that flexibility with publishing.”

Licensors and publishers also are looking toward international markets. “Our book business is booming in Australia,” Chambers said, reporting that sales have tripled as Sesame Street approaches its 40th anniversary there.

Classic Media, which is starting to expand internationally, licenses Tinga Tinga Tales, a TV series for which Penguin has global English-language rights. “For every market, publishing will be the lead product, in advance of the toys,” Blake explained.

Book-based licensed properties often translate well to different geographic territories. Tamra Knepfer, executive v-p, brand management and marketing at Chorion, reported that two of that company’s literary properties, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Gaspard and Lisa, are popular in Japan, especially among young women. Seventy licensees make several thousand Gaspard and Lisa products in Japan.

Across the show floor, a wide variety of properties, beyond TV shows and films, were being pitched to publishers. Two that were receiving positive responses, according to their agents, were the Girl Scouts, representing by The Wildflower Group in association with Creative Properties, and Crayola, handled by P.S. Ink. The Girl Scouts brand is being pitched to publishers for the first time, for chapter books, guidebooks, and activity books. “There are over 300 badges, and all have potential for books,” said Liz Conyngham, partner at Creative Properties, who adds that the Girl Scouts’ different levels—Daisies, Brownies, and Scouts—extend from K through 12. “It’s a really rich treasure-trove of assets.”

Crayola retained P.S. Ink to extend its brand into additional publishing formats, such as creativity titles and picture books, to supplement the licensed coloring and activity books being sold by Dalmatian Press. “We want to spread into higher price points and out across broader formats,” said P.S. Ink’s Patty Sullivan.

The show spotlighted one emerging area for licensed publishing: cookbooks. Wiley published a family cookbook tied to Sesame Street and is following that up with a similar title tied to Nickelodeon’s Dora and Diego, with a SpongeBob book planned for 2011; other properties, including Girl Scouts, had cookbooks on their radar as well.