It ain’t easy being book-plus. According to Jim Becker, president and publisher of the Seattle-based book producing company becker&mayer!, changes on the manufacturing front, high production costs, and safety testing restrictions are some of the numerous hurdles facing book-plus products today. Speaking to book packagers and other industry professionals at an ABPA-sponsored panel on May 1, Becker struck a candid but upbeat tone regarding the uncertain future for book-plus.

Explaining that looking at the last 25 years of book-plus will help determine “what the opportunities are now,” he took the audience on a trip back two decades, to the time when China was the manufacturing epicenter for low tech book-plus products. Due to the plentiful printing resources in the vicinity of Hong Kong and low labor costs, those in the book business could buy their products “stupidly cheap,” thus creating a sizeable profit margin. As the cost of labor in China went up, due to WTO workers’ rights legislation (“which I totally support,” Becker said), book-plus assembly and packaging costs “skyrocketed.” The manufacturing of book-plus products also became less of a priority in China as the country’s industrial focus shifted to electronics. “There is no book-plus without China,” Becker added.

Book-plus products like Silver Dolphin’s Totally series, which include kits with custom plastic pieces for building toy animal figures, are no longer viable in today’s market. In the 1980s and 1990s, Becker explained that “book packaging was built on a slim margin but no risk.” In an era when parts cost so much more to produce, first print runs for book-plus can yield disappointing results, domestic and foreign safety testing standards present confusing roadblocks, and large retailers like Barnes & Noble and Target are highly selective about the products they purchase, risk outweighs reward: “We just can’t get the numbers to work,” Becker said.

Where Does Book-Plus Go From Here?

As with many arenas of the book industry, trying times call for innovation, reinvention, and smart choices. Becker provided several examples of becker&mayer! products that fall into what he calls the “modern book-plus” category, characterized by compact packaging that also meets increasingly progressive green standards required by retail stores, minimalist design, and “gifty” qualities. The humorous handbook series Farts: A Spotter’s Guide (Chronicle) by Crai S. Bower, illustrated by Travis Millard, has fared well in a tough market. The books include three buttons and an audio device that produces you know whats (“It’s huge in Sweden,” said Becker). The publisher’s Obsessed With… series of trivia titles on topics like baseball has also beaten the odds. The books contain electronic modules right on the books themselves, enabling readers to keep score of their answers to the trivia questions.

The difficulties of producing and selling book-plus have also led becker&mayer! to create the Smartlab line of educational toys. Branded as “Where Toys and Books Collide!” the toys feature discovery-based learning kits that include book components. Becker noted that promoting the line to toy stores rather than to booksellers has had the surprising effect of turning the book elements into novelties. At Barnes & Noble stores, Smartlab products have the advantage of straddling both the toy and book sections.

While Becker commented that the market for traditional book-plus has perhaps “run its course,” he added that books containing special features still do gain a strong “initial reaction” from kids, which should not be underestimated. And, due to the scarcity of book-plus currently available, “if you can get the right one, it has the potential to do well.”