As 2011 approaches, we asked a range of editors and executives with responsibility for licensed publishing about this year’s trends. The consensus: there were no real blockbuster properties this year, but several licensed lines performed well; the focus is on core formats such as 8x8s, board books and leveled readers, often with a value-added twist; 2011 looks to be the year of the boys’ property; and all eyes are on digital formats.

Dennis Shealy, editorial director, Random House/Golden Books Young Readers Group

Shealy reports a strong year for Golden Books, with licenses such as Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story 3, Dr. Seuss Enterprises and Random House’s The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That and Henson’s Dinosaur Train among the highlights. Random also has had success with boys’ superhero properties, including DC Superheroes—“a stellar, under-the-radar success”—and Iron Man Armored Adventures, boosted both by the popularity of the live-action movies as well as the age-appropriate TV show. “It’s not the dark, sinister thing,” Shealy says of the series. “Tony Stark’s not boozing it up with Playboy bunnies or anything like that.”

For next year, boys’ properties to watch include The Green Lantern, Generator Rex and The Avengers, as well as Disney/Pixar’s Cars 2. “You can’t go wrong with cars and trucks,” Shealy notes. Meanwhile, publishers have been seeing a lot of pitches from licensors for live-action properties. “Those are a trickier proposition for children’s books,” he says. “Golden Books’ sweet spot is 4-6, and cartoons are really where it’s at.”

“Our licensed publishing revolves around certain bread-and-butter formats,” Shealy continues, citing 8x8s and leveled readers, as well as some board books and coloring/activity. “But we’re constantly tweaking them. We still publish straight-on Picturebacks [8x8s], but if you do a version with stickers or 3D for $1 more, the consumers don’t balk, because they’re getting something for it.”

On the digital side, Random House has developed ebooks for Barbie and Thomas the Tank Engine. “Every meeting I go to is hijacked by ebooks,” Shealy says, pointing out that there are extra wrinkles when working with a licensor that owns rights to the assets and can generate its own content. “How to manage the content and the rights is tricky. There will be the growing pains of figuring it all out. But in the end, digital formats are not a cannibalization. Once the stuff is out there it will live side by side with print formats. We have two dozen Disney Princess print formats that all sell and all live side by side.”

Jennifer Perry, v-p worldwide publishing, Sesame Workshop

“For our 41-year-old brand, the biggest trend is digital publishing,” Perry reports, noting that the nonprofit company behind Sesame Street has launched digital initiatives recently ranging from an ebook store and apps to retail-products-with-downloads such as the VTech V.Reader and the LeapFrog Tag Jr., to the Playaway handheld digital audiobook for schools and libraries. “We’re trying to figure out the digital landscape and what is appropriate for preschoolers in this area,” Perry says, adding that the trend is taking off a little more slowly internationally than in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the organization’s print publishing activity, through its 25 licensees, was up in 2010. Perry notes a particular trend for sales growth in the value channel, including dollar stores, grocery/drug and the “See Spot Save” sections at Target. Core formats for Sesame Street, both in the U.S. and abroad, include 8x8s, board books and coloring/activity—“our Little Golden Books had a banner year,” Perry says—but there were successes in other areas as well. A case in point: family-centric titles that the parent and child experience together. Sesame Workshop released its first family cookbook with Wiley in 2007, followed by a 40th-anniversary edition and a Spanish edition, and in 2011 it will be adding a second cookbook title. In 2010, it issued a family craft book with Parragon.

Valerie Garfield, v-p, publisher for novelty and licensed publishing, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing

“The theme for me this year is that there is no ordinary in licensing,” Garfield says. “All the rules are out the window.” She points out that the traditional model, which has been to consider properties once the entertainment has launched, looking at sales projections and waiting to see who the toy partner is before signing on, has changed. “Now, we might look at a toy before it’s on TV, or a videogame. We’re seeing everything under the sun, and we’re looking at how we might be able to help build a brand.” She notes that S&S is also launching its own series, starting with three middle-grade offerings, the Cupcake Cure, Cheer! and Creepover. All are planned as continuing series and “brands” in their own right, and more such series will launch each year.

“It’s been a tough couple of years for licensing,” Garfield says. “Retailers have less tolerance for licenses that don’t perform right away. But the strong licenses are still intact.” She mentions Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants, which celebrated their 10th anniversaries this year and last, respectively. “A great evergreen brand with a lot of support can still perform.” She also believes relaunched classics will continue to be strong; in 2011, S&S is publishing books tied to the classic Smurfs and Sony’s new Smurfs movie. “It’s not a safe property, but it’s a known commodity,” Garfield says. “The recognition factor makes it a bit easier to get into retail.”

Francesco Sedita, v-p, publisher, Grosset & Dunlap and Price Stern Sloan, Penguin Young Readers Group

“There’s been a major comeback for boys’ licenses,” says Sedita. Penguin’s current Dinosaur Train line, for example, is generating strong sales in its early days. “We love the property,” he says. “I knew it would work, but I didn’t know it would work so quickly.” He also looks forward to launching World Wrestling Entertainment books in spring 2011. Girls’ properties, often with a short lifespan, seem tougher than boys’ these days, he adds, although he sees Penguin’s Strawberry Shortcake as an exception, and he has high hopes for Betty and Veronica, launching in 2011.

On the more nontraditional side, Sedita believes there is strong potential for print publishing tied to virtual worlds. “Virtual worlds are on the rise in the past few months,” he says. Penguin is publishing books tied to Disney’s Club Penguin and a guidebook for Lucasfilm’s new Clone Wars virtual world, and is launching an entire imprint for Penguin’s PopTropica educational world.

“I think licensed publishing is as moody as the rest of publishing,” Sedita observes, adding that there are always surprises in the form of unexpected failures and successes. “You have to believe that all the pieces of the puzzle are there, but you expect things not to work sometimes. You’re always rolling the dice.”