A walk through New York International Toy Fair 2017, held February 18–21, highlighted some of the consolidation that has occurred in the novelty and book-plus sector in the past year.
Readerlink’s Printers Row Publishing Group, which oversees the Silver Dolphin and Thunder Bay imprints, purchased the assets of Studio Fun International (formerly Reader’s Digest Children’s Publishing) in October 2016, and it prominently displayed the Studio Fun list at the show. Meanwhile, Quarto Publishing acquired Becker & Mayer in August, and it showed both Becker & Mayer’s SmartLab kits and Quarto’s Walter Foster products in SmartLab’s traditional booth space.
The mix of publishing companies exhibiting at Toy Fair shifted a bit this year: a few longtime exhibitors, notably Parragon, did not take a booth. They were replaced to some degree by other publishers, such as Sourcebooks, which exhibited for the first time.
During the show, exhibitors highlighted several new licensing deals. It was announced that Quarto’s Walter Foster Jr. imprint has signed on as a licensee for the National Wildlife Federation’s Ranger Rick and plans to produce three outdoor activity books this year. Exhibitor Kappa Books recently acquired rights to the National Spelling Bee. Little, Brown secured the license for the Netflix program Spirit Riding Free from DreamWorks. Little, Brown does not exhibit at Toy Fair, but its books were on display at DreamWorks’ press event and toy licensee Reeves International’s booth.
Adult coloring books continued to have a significant presence at Toy Fair, both in books and other product categories. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was showing a coloring series that features classic illustrations and some content from its Peterson Field Guides line. The series has done well at Costco and is generating interest from buyers at National Park stores. Bendon offered Color Your Own Sudoku, along with licensed books tied to Kathy Ireland and Lisa Frank.
Publishers, however, acknowledge the decline of the category from its peak. Fewer titles are being produced, and many now have some sort of value-added component—such as content, coloring supplies, or a license—to help differentiate them from competitors.
“Sales [of adult coloring books] have slowed, but we don’t think the market will go away,” said Wendy Calta, sales account manager at Fox Chapel, which has more than 150 coloring titles in print and devoted most of its booth to the category. “The key with coloring is variety,” she added, noting that many fans like to use multiple books at the same time. Fox Chapel has added coloring guides with suggested color palettes to some of its titles, is expanding its faith-based line, and has launched a premium series of coloring books and notecards licensed from designer Vera Bradley.
“We’re not adding as many new titles, but we continue to publish into coloring, especially with niche audience subjects and things where we have retailer requests,” said Rachel Geerlings, senior marketing manager at Thunder Bay Press. “There’s still interest.” Thunder Bay highlighted a number of coloring books, including a new series featuring Gil Elvgren pin-up art. Thunder Bay is also one of several publishers that has expanded from coloring into sophisticated dot-to-dot books, adding two more nonlicensed and three Marvel titles this year to its Amazing 1,000 Dot to Dots series, introduced in 2016. Mindware and Bendon are also offering “extreme dot-to-dot” titles.
STEM and STEAM remain buzzwords in the toy industry, and several publishers displayed titles to fit the theme. These included Fox Chapel’s Boom! 50 Fantastic Science Experiments to Try at Home with Your Kids by the Naked Scientists, Klutz’s Circuit Clay, and Sourcebooks’ How to Catch... series, which includes the bestselling How to Catch a Leprechaun, a title that promotes engineering skills. These books fill the bill for buyers seeking STEAM tie-ins, although not all are labeled as such.
As for digital tie-ins, publishers may include some downloadable content for certain titles, but for the most part their offerings at the 2017 show were print only. Experimental formats such as augmented-reality coloring books had much less presence at Toy Fair than they have over the past two years. One leading company, Disney licensee Mercury InPress, went out of business last spring.
Some publishers that are developing digital components continue to tweak their strategies. School Zone has long provided a digital download with each book but now promotes its new educational platform Anywhere Teacher, which has free content as well as a subscription tier, on all of its titles instead. “We can use it as a testing ground for new content and possibly develop that for the retail side,” said Barb Peacock, managing director.
Not surprisingly, books that are “toyetic” tend to sell well at Toy Fair. Thirty-year Toy Fair veteran Educational Development Corp., with its Usborne and Kane Miller imprints, spotlighted Usborne’s Wind-Up and Pull-Back books. Each book in the eight-year-old series, which is ongoing, features a track built into one of the spreads. Each is packaged with a vehicle or other toy—wind-up for older kids and pull-back for younger ones—that can move along the track. “We showcase these at Toy Fair,” said the company’s Lana Semore. “Toy stores love them.”