The approximately 30 publishers exhibiting at the 2012 New York International Toy Fair, held at the Javits Center from February 11-15, saw full aisles and strong orders for the first time in several years. The Toy Industry Association’s preliminary figures estimate attendance was up 4% to 34,000.

"We’ve been very impressed with the traffic," said Shannon Roof, director of national accounts at Carson-Dellosa, which highlighted its expanded Guinness World Records and Crayola licensed lines as well as its Summer Bridge workbooks. "Our homework books are huge sellers in the toy market."

Many publishers exhibited in an aisle devoted to children’s books, and the crowds in this section improved this year, largely due to the relocation of the area from its longtime position against an outside wall to a more central spot.

And despite a 2% decline in retail sales of toys and games in the U.S. last year, to $21.18 billion, according to the NPD Group, attendees’ mood was positive, exhibitors said.

"It’s a very good show, very upbeat," reported John Donofrio, owner of Briarpatch, which makes board games tied to book properties including I Spy and is moving into more impulse items. It recently acquired the Marvel license for mini-games. "I think it’s going to be a good year," he added.

Echoing the sentiment, Michael Levins, CEO of Innovative Kids, which sells books and products under the Green Start, Play Draw Create, Soft Shapes and other brands, said, "People seem to be much happier."

The optimism follows a number of tough years for both the toy industry and Toy Fair. As Sharon Winningham, v-p sales for School Zone, said, "This is more like the Toy Fair of old."

Changing Landscape

While the number of publishers has stayed steady over the last few years, there were some changes to the mix this year. Dover Publications, which had shown its range of art and activity books at recent Toy Fairs, was absent, but a number of new exhibitors came on board.

One first-timer was Beaver Books, a Canadian publisher of educational activity and workbooks. Founded in 2004, Beaver sells its products through crafting and home décor chains such as Jo-Ann and Garden Ridge, and in grocery and drug stores. This year it hired a former Bendon employee as a full-time U.S. rep to spearhead expansion in the U.S. and plans to attend BEA for the first time to support that effort, according to president George Papp, who noted he had met a number of potential new customers at the show.

Standard Publishing, which sells religious and inspirational books, about 70% of which is directed at children, was another first-time exhibitor. The company, which publishes Vacation Bible School curriculum and Sunday school materials, was featuring its titles for babies, among other items, and looking for custom opportunities. "We’re using our content to create value product,” said John Keller, director of national accounts. “There are a lot of toy stores that want to carry a Christian product and don’t know how to source it from their traditional sources."

Insight Editions, an illustrated book specialist, also was new at the Fair, while supplemental educational publisher Creative Teaching Press returned after a long hiatus, highlighting a new brand, Stick Kids. CTP’s core workbooks are sold largely through educational supply channels, but "this brings us back into specialty retail," says Chris Campeau, international sales manager/new business development.

In addition to publishers, many of the other 1,000 exhibitors at the show, including arts and crafts, doll, and plush makers, were showing books as part of their broader product lines.

One was music marketer Putumayo Kids, which introduced books a year ago with two titles and now has a whole line of oversized coloring and hardcover sticker books that teach about different cultures. “It’s been a good show,” said Putumayo World Music co-founder Michael Kraus. “We’ve seen a real mix of major chains and specialty.”

Continued consolidation on the mass market end of the book market was evident on the show floor this year, with coloring and activity publishers Kappa Books and Modern Publishing sharing a booth for the first time, following Kappa’s purchase of Modern the week before Toy Fair. And Bendon Publishing announced during the show that it had been acquired by the Wicks Group, whose other holdings include Standard Publishing.

Augmented Reality

The buzzword at this year’s Toy Fair was "augmented reality." Many of the 1,000 exhibitors introduced toy cars, puzzles, blasters, board games, and other playthings that work hand-in-hand with iPads or other handheld devices.

The idea is that, rather than replacing the physical toy (or book), the apps enhance play and drive purchases of the toy at retail. Several companies launched entire product lines based on this concept, including Mattel’s Apptivity, Spin-Master’s Appfinity, Hasbro’s zAPPed, and WowWee’s AppGear brands. Others launched one or more individual augmented-reality (AR) items.

The apps work with the playthings in a variety of ways. For example, Mattel offers a download, with the purchase of a special Hot Wheels car, that turns the iPad into a racetrack. (The vehicle has retractable pads for use on the device, so the wheels won’t hurt the screen.) Ravensburger introduced apps with four of its puzzles that offer video—such as a 360-degree view of Paris or documentary footage of African animals—and information relating to the image when the iPad’s camera is pointed at the assembled puzzle.

Wonder Forge, which sells board games based on children’s book licenses including Richard Scarry, Angelina Ballerina, and Curious George, introduced its first AR games in the form of three Dr. Seuss products. In each, a package of physical game pieces comes with a code for a downloadable set of three games that utilize both the iPad screen and the pieces. In one slapjack-like competition, colors and shapes on the tablet’s screen tell children which physical pieces to find and slap down.

Some toy exhibitors noted that AR would work well for books, citing the example of using a mobile phone to scan or photograph a word to trigger a definition, background information, or game, through an app specific to that book.

None of the publishers exhibiting at the show—including coloring and activity publishers, educational workbook specialists, book-plus and novelty houses, and a few trade publishers—was utilizing AR.

In some cases, they view their products as an antidote to digital dependence. Levins of Innovative Kids notes that research has suggested screen time is detrimental to very young children. "Books are a necessity [for childhood development], and so are other products, but it doesn’t have to be an iPad."

Other publishers note that margins in the mass-market portion of the industry don’t leave room for app development. “With our price points it would be impossible,” said Ben Ferguson, CEO of Bendon Publishing. "Our products are value-driven impulse items."

On the other hand, some sort of augmented reality could ultimately help maintain sales of physical books. School Zone, which sells a number of standalone apps and ebooks, also offers free downloads with its physical books and flash cards. The intent is not for the downloads to work in an integral way with the product, but rather to add something extra to help differentiate School Zone from its competitors.

"Technology is becoming more important for us," said Winningham. "The question now is, how do we leverage that in a better way? And what happens to the retailer in all this?"