Traffic at last week's 2011 Licensing International Expo in Las Vegas seemed light compared to last year, according to several exhibitors. Show producer Advanstar estimated that 19,000 attendees from 84 countries were walking the show floor, assessing over 6,000 intellectual properties on display at about 475 booths. While traffic may have been light, several exhibitors had a bigger and showier presence than in recent years.

Penguin Group USA was one company with an expanded booth. It tested the show waters in 2010, focusing on tween titles including the Chronicles of Vladimir Tod series, which led to an apparel deal. This year it was highlighting its preschool properties, including Llama Llama and Ladybug Girl. "Our retailers tell us they want to merchandise books with products, so that's a great sales point for licensees," Lori Burke, Penguin's director of licensing, said.

The topic of digital rights was the focus of many of the conversations on the show floor. For publishers of licensed books based on TV shows and films, both the licensor and the publisher often are able to create or adapt content for digital formats. This adds a wrinkle to the licensing negotiations. Some publishers want to be granted digital rights for their licensed titles, while the studios often want to retain those rights.

“At least a third of my meetings [at the show] have been about digital opportunities,” reported Patty Sullivan of P.S. Ink, who represents Jim Henson Productions and Crayola for the publishing category. “The digital world can be looked at the same way we look at formats in the children’s book world,” she adds, noting that there are many digital platforms, each with a unique roster of developers.

"Where it makes sense, we're extending rights for e-books to our partners," said Margie Chan-Yip, Hasbro's new v-p of global publishing, who says some Hasbro publishing licensees have digital titles in the works. "But we also want to make sure we retain our rights, so we can be flexible."

Sesame Workshop has reorganized its operations to better think about how its content can flourish in all formats, whether digital, TV, or publishing. "When we look at new traditional print formats, we consider how we can transfer that to digital," said Scott Chambers, senior v-p for worldwide media distribution. Sesame Workshop has not granted digital rights to any of its 30 U.S. print publishers yet, but might in the future, he said: "There's probably an opportunity for a balanced portfolio of digital business models."

At Nickelodeon, "Our digital team is responsible for apps, but for the right co-branding opportunity we would consider granting rights to a publisher," said Paula Allen, senior v-p, global publishing. "Publishers are asking for the digital rights. But we can do it ourselves, and it needs to be part of the broader broadcast and media plan for the company. It's about brand management, not about being punitive to the publishers."

Not all publishers are actively asking for digital rights yet. Francesco Sedita, v-p and publisher, Grosset & Dunlap and Price Stern Sloan, said Penguin is incrementally developing its own digital program. Its Mad Libs apps have generated three million downloads, and it currently is working on half a dozen apps for classic brands such as Llama Llama and Jan Brett. As for asking for rights to produce apps based on licensed titles, "we're talking about it, but we want to focus on our in-house brands first," Sedita said.

Licensors and publishers are still figuring out how to monetize their digital activities, but the role of digital products as an awareness-building tool is becoming clear. "We're profitable on the digital side; we're not making millions," said Chambers. "But we are reaching people." Sesame Workshop's most successful e-book to date, Callaway Digital's The Monster at the End of This Book, was launched and read one million times in the first two months it was available.

Properties on Display

Reflecting the interest in all things digital, a number of online, mobile, and social media properties were among the movies, television shows, sports events, art images, corporate brands, and book-based properties on exhibit at the Expo. Angry Birds, Annoying Orange, and Moshi Monsters were some of the digital-originated licenses being pitched to manufacturers, with publishing typically part of the plan to bring the digital properties to the physical realm. Scholastic is publishing a Moshi Monster book; licensor Rovio is self-publishing an Angry Birds cookbook; and the Joester-Loria Group agency sees publishing potential for Annoying Orange, starting with joke books.

A number of children’s book properties were, as always, on display. Newer literary licenses being pitched included Freckleface Strawberry (represented by RJM Licensing), Splat the Cat! (Moxie & Co.) and Poppy Cat (Joester-Loria). These join a list that already features Pinkalicious, Fancy Nancy, Olivia, Dr. Seuss and others. Debra Joester, president of The Joester-Loria Group, which also handles licensing for Pinkalicious, noted that book-based licenses are attractive in certain retail tiers. “They’re certainly not replacing Dora,” she said. “But they’re doing very well in specialty stores and with other retailers who like that they’re not too ‘mass.’ ”

Meanwhile, movie properties being offered for licensing at the show were dominated by franchise films, including sequels (Ice Age 2, Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, Despicable Me 2) and movies based on existing intellectual property, such as books and comics (Hunger Games, William Joyce’s Rise of the Guardians, The Lorax).

In general, publishing tie-ins to films and television properties tend to focus on a handful of trade and mass formats, but a recent area of growth has been children’s cookbooks. Nickelodeon and Wiley are following up on their bestselling Dora the Explorer cookbook (now also in Spanish) with SpongeBob’s Kitchen Mission. Penguin included a storybook with recipes as part of its program tied to Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda 2, which also has an interactive cookbook app with Castle Builders, while Shrek and Sesame Street also have been featured in cookbooks. Owners of properties including The Deadliest Catch and Lazytown mention cookbooks as having potential for licensing.

Franchise Focus

As it has become more difficult over the last several years to launch consumer products tied to television shows and films on a standalone basis, licensors are positioning their entertainment properties as 365-day-a-year franchises, releasing animated shorts, online games, DVDs and the like to extend the brand beyond movies and TV.

Books play a key role in strengthening the impact of these intermediary forms of entertainment, being one of the few categories that can tie in with such content. For example, Disney Publishing Worldwide and its licensees have released a half dozen titles based on the Cars Toons animated shorts, according to Jonathan Symington, DPW’s v-p global sales, marketing and licensing.

At Lucasfilm, two of this year’s key initiatives for Star Wars are the Blu-Ray release of all six theatrical films and the theatrical release of Star Wars: Episode 1 in 3D. Scholastic will publish a book in conjunction with the Blu-Ray called Star Wars: The Complete Saga, as well as an edition of its orignal Episode 1 book packaged with 3D glasses to commemorate the 3D film release, according to Carol Roeder, Lucasfilm’s director of publishing. Meanwhile, Penguin is publishing a guidebook tied to a massively multiplayer online game that debuted last fall, Clone Wars Adventures, in partnership with Lucas and Sony Interactive.

Publishing also can provide a venue for the creation of new content and help launch new licensing programs. A case in point: Mattel’s Monster High. “It’s unique in the history of Mattel as far as being launched not in toys but in books,” said Rosa Zeegers, senior v-p global consumer products. “Books led the way. The success of Monster High, I know, is due in part to the success of the books.”

“Our focus is on making sure our publishing is in synch with what the company as a whole is doing,” said Warner Bros. Consumer Products’ Dave Rupert, senior v-p, global publishing, hardlines, product development, and Canada. That said, when WBCP’s sister company DC Comics developed its non-TV-driven preschool brand, DC Super Friends, Random House became the second and only other partner for the property, after Fisher Price for toys. (DC’s consumer products business, including licensed publishing, was handled internally at that time, but has since moved to WBCP.) The books are doing “phenomenally,” with second and third printings on several titles, Rupert reported. “Now, based on how well the publishing is doing, I’m proud to say the company is looking at doing more with DC Super Friends.”