Film and television properties such as Universal Studios’ Minions, Warner Bros.’ Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles continue to generate buzz on the show floor at Licensing Expo, held last month in Las Vegas. But a popular entertainment property, on its own, is often no longer enough to drive licensed publishing success.

As a result, publishers are looking for ways to stand out, either by seeking unique publishing opportunities within a TV or film-based licensing program – such as integrating fan art or bringing on-screen elements alive in the real world – or by tying in with niche properties outside the realm of TV and movies.

No Rules

Rather than releasing a standard selection of formats for each film or TV tie-in program, publishers are increasingly developing formats that spring organically from the properties’ content. “There’s nothing formulaic about it,” says Lori Burke, Penguin Young Readers’ executive director of licensing acquisitions and media. “It’s about finding the connection that makes that property great.”

For instance, Penguin is working with Cartoon Network – for which it serves as master licensee for the Cartoon Network Books children’s imprint – on a handbook for Card Wars, a card game created by Cartoon Network licensee Cryptozoic as a real-world version of a game depicted in an episode of Adventure Time. “That’s an example of publishing something that’s not necessarily media-driven, but is real world-driven,” Burke says. In addition to the fall 2016 handbook, other Card Wars activities include Boom! Studios integrating Card Wars content into its Adventure Time comics and other licensed products such as t-shirts being sold. The game will be the subject of another episode in 2016.

Meanwhile, Boom! launched an Adventure Time mini-series in 2012 called Marceline and the Scream Queens, revolving around a breakout character from the TV program. That content is now being added to the show itself, and Penguin is developing book tie-ins. “[Cartoon Network] is allowing its characters to become little mini IPs that can have their own program without conflicting with the core property,” Burke explains.

The ever-more symbiotic relationship between the core property, publishing, and licensed merchandise is also reflected in some of Hasbro’s recent publishing initiatives. Abrams’ fall 2015 release, My Little Pony: The Art of Equestria, includes fan art collected through contests overseen by t-shirt licensee Mighty Fine; Little, Brown’s Daring Do Adventure Collection brings to life a book depicted in the TV series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic; and Matthew Reinhart’s new Castles of Equestria pop-up (Little, Brown) not only includes paper ponies that kids can move through the pop-up landscapes, but is sized to accommodate Hasbro’s core toy figures as well.

In the future, some of the content from Hasbro’s publishing program could drive the development of toys and licensed products, according to Michael Kelly, Hasbro’s senior director of global publishing. “We’re asking, ‘Is it possible that a brand could come from publishing?’ ”

Although innovation is a key trend in licensed publishing, some core formats continue to perform well. A case in point is YA and middle grade original fiction. Burke notes that the core Adventure Time fiction line, Adventure Time Epic Tales, is one of Penguin’s strongest formats overall for that property.

Similarly, Warner Bros. has had success in the same category, recently announcing a DC Super Hero Girls middle-grade fiction series with Random House, which also has launched original licensed fiction tied to Disney’s Frozen and Mattel’s Barbie, among others. Meanwhile, in May, Capstone’s Switch Press imprint debuted Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond, the first title in a young adult series starring Lane, a character from the Superman franchise.

Dave Rupert, senior v-p, licensing for Asia Pacific, Latin America, Canada, and global publishing at Warner Bros. Consumer Products, says the studio’s ultimate goal is to appeal to a broad range of consumers. For DC Comics, for example, tie-ins to the feature film Batman vs. Superman, the live-action TV shows Flash and Arrow, and brands such as Justice League, DC Super Hero Girls, and DC Super Friends – not to mention the core comics – appeal to different audiences. “We’ve never had this much content across this many formats,” Rupert says. “Having all these formats appealing to all these different demographic groups is really strong for the [DC Comics] brand.”

The Evolution of E-books and Apps

Licensors and publishers have found that e-books, both flat versions released by their print publishers and enhanced versions licensed to developers, have not cannibalized their print programs. “E-books didn’t have the print-killing effect that we thought they would have,” Chambers says. Instead, the two businesses complement each other well.

“Our strategy now is that everything is concurrent and all files can go into print, e-books, enhanced e-books, or even apps if possible,” Rupert says. “We’re trying to be as prolific as we can be in digital, and we don’t think about [print and digital] separately any more. People can consume the content in the way they like it best.”

The app business has proven to be more of a challenge than e-books. “In the last four years, the app market has changed dramatically,” Chambers reports. “Some of our early apps were bestsellers and they still are our bestsellers, because we were first in the market. But apps are so competitive now. It’s harder to introduce new apps, and to get the attention and keep the attention. It’s still a profitable business for us, but it’s not the best business model.”

To maintain its successful track record, Sesame Workshop’s app strategy is evolving. “We’re thinking more holistically, with fewer apps but a deeper experience,” Chambers says. “We’re also relying more on partners, especially those who have a unique approach that we can apply to Sesame Street.”

Several licensors and developers mentioned that subscriptions seem to be on the rise as a monetization model for apps, e-books, video, and other digital content. Chambers reports, for example, that the Workshop’s subscription site for games, episodes, and video clips, Sesame Street Go, is even more successful in terms of traffic than the free site, and could expand into e-books and other media assets.

Cupcake Digital, a leading developer of enhanced e-books, many tied to licensed properties, recently launched a subscription app for videos and e-books called NetKids. “With the preponderance of free apps in the market and the unlimited digital shelf space, it seemed like the right time for an all-inclusive subscription product,” says Amory Millard, executive v-p at Cupcake. “The excitement over subscriptions has to do with aligning the product to how the parents and caregivers use it. The peace of mind that comes with a ‘walled garden’ is a really big thing for parents. This is the Wild West, still.”

Corporate Upheaval

Notable at the Expo were the number of changes that have occurred this year to licensors’ consumer products organizations, often touching their publishing operations.

DreamWorks’ former head of publishing Emma Whittard left that studio as part of its corporate restructure earlier this year; DreamWorks is currently in the midst of an internal reorganization of its consumer product practices, according to spokesperson Matthew Lifson. And Nickelodeon’s publishing operations are now reporting to its consumer products group, according to executives who work with Nickelodeon, now that former senior v-p of global publishing Paula Allen is no longer with the company. (The studio did not respond to a request for comment.)

Sesame Workshop, whose leadership recently changed with the hiring of Jeff Dunn as CEO and Steve Youngwood as COO, has reorganized with a more vertical structure, with Chambers now heading publishing and consumer products in the North American region rather than worldwide media distribution. “[A vertical structure by region] gives us a more direct connection between content and products and leads to faster decision-making,” Chambers says, noting that publishing is less affected by the changes than other consumer product categories. “Publishing has been more connected to the media due to the close relationship with broadcast and content development.”

On the publisher side, Scholastic announced in March that it was shuttering its media division, integrating its audio, video, and licensing activities into the trade book publishing group, to better align its media operations with its core book businesses. The media division’s president, Deborah Forte, and senior v-p marketing Leslye Schaefer, both left the company. (Forte’s new company, Silvertongue Films, is developing Scholastic properties including Clifford the Big Red Dog and 39 Clues for potential movie releases under a first-look deal with Universal Studios.)

Viz Media, a U.S.-based firm jointly owned by Japanese manga/anime licensors Shueisha, Shogakukan, and Shogakukan-Shueisha Productions, recently hired a new chief marketing officer, Brad Woods. “We’re asking, ‘How do we expand our audience?’ ” Woods says, noting that Viz has a very specific fan base consisting of manga and anime aficionados. “How do we regionalize what we have and appeal to new audiences?”

Viz intends to continue to publish and distribute manga and anime, Woods explains, but will also add more Western properties. “We’re not limited just to Japanese-influenced content,” he says. “We’re open to creating new content with partners as well.” He cites gaming properties, which have a parallel audience with manga and anime, as an example of a good fit. Viz also plans to take a more omnichannel approach consisting of web-based content, social media, feature films, and TV series.

While global retail sales of licensed products saw an increase of 2% in 2014, to $158.8 billion, according to the Licensing Letter, these changes in corporate structure and strategic direction illustrate the difficult conditions that licensing and licensed publishing businesses continue to face. The search for innovative new formats and content and the continued experimentation with digital formats and distribution, both reflected at the Expo, are among the steps that studios and publishers alike are taking to meet these challenges.