Random House Releases StoryBots, Coco

Random House is publishing a range of formats for StoryBots, an educational property for ages three to eight, produced by JibJab Bros. Studios. “It’s about these adorable, singing robots,” said Chris Angelilli, v-p, editor-in-chief, and executive director of licensed publishing at Random House/Golden Books Young Readers Group. “The animation style looks like it was created just for books.”

The content, which is available in a classroom version as well as through YouTube, Netflix, and a series of apps, has won a number of accolades, from Parents’ Choice to Appy awards, over its five-year lifespan. “Anyone with young children knows it,” said Angelilli. “Even if you don’t know it, when you see it it’s so appealing.”

The book publishing program launched this summer with two board books, Cars Are Cool! and Trucks Are Terrific!, followed by two Step into Reading titles, The Amazing Planet Earth and Tyrannosaurus Rex. StoryBots ABC Jamboree is set for January, with additional formats forthcoming in 2018.

Random House’s signing of StoryBots follows its release of Toca Boca, based on another digital property. “It’s a brave new world for licensed publishing,” Angelilli said. “It’s not just TV and movies, but YouTube and YouTubers, apps, everything. The landscape has really changed.”

More traditionally, Random House just introduced its tie-ins to the latest Disney/Pixar film, Coco, about a Mexican boy, Miguel, who is transported to the Land of the Dead and, on his journey back, unlocks the secret to a family mystery. “It’s Pixar’s most gorgeous movie ever,” Angelilli believes. “The design of the Land of the Dead is absolutely stunning. And, like all of Pixar’s films, it’s a really great story. The heart of the film is family.”

The eight-book launch list, which debuted October 10, includes a Little Golden Book and Big Golden Book; two editions of a junior novelization, including a paperback and a deluxe paper-over-board version; two Step into Reading titles, and an 8x8 called Miguel and the Amazing Alebrijes, with pullouts and stickers to allow the reader to make three-dimensional imaginary creatures. The final title is an in-world book called I Love My Family! A Book of Memories, written from Miguel’s point of view, for his little sister.

The publishing program is similar to those Random House has published for other Pixar films, although it skews slightly older due to the sophisticated storyline, according to Angelilli.

Egmont Brings Roblox Offline

London-based Egmont Publishing has secured global rights to publish books tied to Roblox. Roblox is the world’s largest user-generated social gaming platform, boasting more than 64 million monthly active players, with as many as 1.4 million playing on the site at any given time. Egmont expects to launch books, primarily for ages 10–14, worldwide in September 2018; a U.S. sub rights announcement is expected shortly.

“Part of my job in looking for new licenses to acquire is to talk to kids, and one of the things they were all talking about was Roblox,” said Emma Cairns-Smith, Egmont’s head of global acquisitions. The exponential growth of users on the platform was also attractive. “It seemed like it was doubling every time you looked,” she said. The platform has seen 134% year-over-year growth in active users as of November 2017.

“Because this is based on user-generated content, it’s constantly evolving. It will never go out of fashion because it’s constantly changing to match the environment,” Cairns-Smith added. “And Roblox has really passionate fans. When people are passionate about a property, whether it’s Star Wars or Minecraft, they want to know more.”

Scott Rubin, v-p of business development at Roblox, pointed out that publishing is a way to foster more engagement on the site. “If you read about the top characters and universes in Roblox and that engages you, you go back to experience the games,” he said.

For Egmont, another positive of tying in with an interactive game is the user data available. “Once you have the inside skinny from Roblox, that’s gold,” Cairns-Smith said. The game’s global appeal is also a benefit. “TV can be very localized. A show may do very well in three territories but nowhere else. Gaming is the complete opposite of that.”

The development process is a team effort, with Egmont taking ideas of formats and editorial approaches to the Roblox team, which suggests characters and games to fit each idea. Appropriate characters and universes are determined by sifting through data such as most-played and top-earning titles, according to Rubin, as well as more subjective gauges such as popular themes and which games have earned fan-voted Bloxie Awards.

Rubin reported that the Roblox team spent a lot of time finding the right publishing partner. “Egmont really gets us,” he said.

Sterling Enrolls in Cool School

Sterling Children’s Books has signed an agreement with Driver Digital and its licensing agent, The Licensing Group, giving it the rights to publish books tied to the Cool School YouTube channel. Cool School is the umbrella for a range of educational video series, including The Stupendous Drew Pendous and His Mighty Pen Ultimate!, Crafty Carol, and Story Time with Ms. Booksy.

“What struck me when I was introduced to the property about a year ago was how they engaged the kids,” said Hanna Otero Bird, editorial director of Sterling Children’s Books. The site receives hundreds of comments from children, who describe their favorite characters and suggest ideas for stories, some of which the producers use to inspire future episodes.

Driver Digital said Cool School, which boasts more than half a billion views and 500,000-plus subscribers, ranks among the most active kids’ properties on YouTube when it comes to comments, shares, and interaction between the channel and fans. “We wanted to take that information about what was working with the kids and incorporate that into the books,” Bird said, adding, “I like the immediacy of it. They put out an episode and immediately get feedback.”

This is the first time Sterling has tied in with a YouTube property. “I was a bit reluctant, because that world is a little foreign to me,” Bird said. “But I have kids and they are watching TV primarily on YouTube. That convinced me that there was some value to it.”

The opportunity for a collaborative process was also attractive. “I have somewhat shied away from licensing due to the constraints,” she said. “But this is being built as we go. It’s two smaller companies looking to invent the property together.” It is possible that some storytelling will originate in the books and then make its way onto the screen, as well as vice versa, she said.

The publishing program launches in fall 2018, starting with four early chapter books infused with graphic novel elements. All feature the breakout character Drew Pendous.

Joe Books Partners with Author-Athlete Bennett

Joe Books has forged a co-publishing and distribution agreement with NFL tight end Martellus Bennett’s children’s multimedia company, The Imagination Agency. Under the deal, Joe Books will distribute Hey A.J., It’s Saturday, a storybook that debuted in June 2016, as well as new titles including a sequel, Hey A.J., It’s Bedtime, and books and comics tied to other properties.

Bennett founded The Imagination Agency after his now three-year-old daughter was born. In the process of sharing his favorite children’s books with her, he noticed a lack of diversity. “There were no characters of color going on great adventures,” he said. That led to the creation of the first Hey A.J. book and an accompanying app.

The deal calls for Joe Books to assist on formats, pricing, distribution, and other business matters, while Bennett retains creative control. “I didn’t want to be one of those guys who puts their names on stuff but it’s really someone else doing it,” said Bennett, who writes, draws, and/or creates the packaging for all of his projects, from poetry to action figures. “Everything touches my hands. I look at it sort of like I’m your travel agent. You’re trusting me to take you on a great adventure, and I want the whole trip to be great. And I can bring an awesome experience to more people now that I have a little more infrastructure. [Joe Books] will let me tell the stories I want to tell and to experiment creatively with the ideas that I have.”

“Marty has a strong publishing vision and we don’t interfere with that vision,” said Steve Osgoode, Joe Books’ president. “We loved his creativity, coupled with this really principled vision.” While most sales will be in traditional book channels, there are also opportunities in gift stores and other special markets. “He does these elaborate hardcover books in boxes that you unbox the way you would a high-end electronics product,” Osgoode explained. “He’s done some gorgeous things and we don’t want to move away from that.”

Osgoode believes Bennett’s high profile, from his football career as well as his social media presence, may open some new channels of distribution. “There were additional hands going up as we presented this to [Joe Books’ distributor] Hachette for the first time,” he said. “There will be some interest from retailers and consumers because Marty’s a great tight end. He won the Super Bowl and had an extraordinary football career. But it’s the quality of the projects that really appeal. We believe that everything stands on its own.”

Bennett, who notes that some publishers had proposed putting his picture on the covers of any books they would release, said, “I don’t want this to be about who I am, I want it to be about the stories I tell. Joe Books understood that.”

In addition to the Hey A.J. series, other projects in the works include the graphic novel Towel Boy and the comic book series Eli Wonders, the Kung-Fu Astronaut. “He has no shortage of properties completed and properties in development,” Osgoode said. Joe Books is launching Hey A.J., It’s Saturday this year, followed by more books in spring and fall 2018. The program is likely to encompass about three to six titles a year once established.

Penguin Publishes ‘The Lazy Egg’

Penguin Workshop is releasing two books tied to Gudetama the Lazy Egg. It secured the rights to the Japanese property from Sanrio, best known as the owner of Hello Kitty. The brand appears on merchandise and in short YouTube videos.

Francesco Sedita, president and publisher of Penguin Workshop, Grosset & Dunlap, Mad Libs, and Frederick Warne, traveled to Japan on a vacation in 2016. “Gudetama was everywhere,” he said. “It was on backpacks, it was on keychains. You couldn’t escape it.” Back in the States, he discovered that the property was just starting to emerge, with some merchandise in Hot Topic for example, and that Sanrio had plans to roll out more products in the U.S. “It’s one of those times when you find something interesting and then you discover the world is right there with you,” he said.

Sedita ultimately signed a deal for two books. The first, Eggsistential Thoughts by Gudetama the Lazy Egg, co-written by Sedita with Max Bisantz, came out in October and is a simple book pairing Gudetama images and simple meme-like phrases. “Gudetama has this sort of special ennui going on,” Sedita said. “Once we got our brains clicked in, it was pretty easy to write.” Gudetama’s Guide to Life, set for April 2018, is by Brian Elling, who frequently authors licensed titles for Penguin. “He went deep into Gudetama,” Sedita said.

The books are positioned for ages 10 and up, but Sedita believes the fan base will fill a wide age range. “It’s such an unusual property,” he said. “It’s equally adorable and heartbreaking in a way. It strikes two very different but relatable chords. And it’s fun. To see our sales force giggling and excited about the book, there’s a pleasure there. That’s what licensing is really about.”