Publishers, particularly coloring and activity, novelty, and book-plus specialists, are facing ever stronger competition from toy companies, a fact that was evident at this year’s New York Toy Fair that ran February 17-20 in New York. Arts and crafts suppliers such as Crayola, Faber-Castell, and Leap Year, as well as educational toy makers including Preschool Prep and Mindware, are increasingly including coloring and activity books among their product mix alongside toys, while technology companies such as AliveLab and Flycatcher are offering augmented-reality versions of book titles.
Several publishers, including Kappa Books, Parragon, and Silver Dolphin, were missing from this year’s New York Toy Fair. The number of publishers exhibiting at the show has slowly been declining over the years, and now number approximately 25, compared to 40 or more a decade ago.
Licensed books and other products tied to TV and movie properties had a lower profile than is typical at most editions of Toy Fair. One exception was in the preschool area. Shimmer & Shine is a new addition to Quarto’s Walter Foster Jr. imprint, Daniel Tiger is about to enter the sound book format with Cottage Door Press, Sesame Street continues to expand at Sourcebooks, Peppa Pig is joining the Klutz roster, the PJ Masks characters appear in coloring books at Crayola, and Paw Patrol is a staple at Bendon. These book series reflect the current strength of preschool licensing, relative to other types of entertainment-based properties, in the world of toys and licensed products at large.
For publishers, the strength of preschool licenses goes hand-in-hand with the 11% year-over-year growth of board books in 2017, according to the NPD Group. The format is always an area of interest at Toy Fair, and publishers such as Macmillan, with its Priddy Books division, and Cottage Door Press, with its proprietary titles and Baby Einstein and Smithsonian licenses, were seeing interest from attendees in books for the youngest readers.
Even as many toy makers—outside of Hasbro, Mattel, and the other large toy companies—are shying away from movie and TV releases, there were a large number of companies showing licensed products based on other types of properties, from social media influencers, to corporate brands, to digital properties such as apps.
Licensed book properties were particularly high profile this year. They are attractive to toy companies and other manufacturers because they are classic, have an educational bent, and feature themes that lend themselves to specific licensed products. Meanwhile, many publishers are becoming more proactive about retaining consumer products rights and licensing their key properties for toys and other goods.
Harry Potter was particularly noticeable around the show floor, driven by the 20th anniversary of the original book's release in the U.S., the new stage play, and the recent Fantastic Beasts movies. “For us, it’s usually Star Wars, Star Wars, Star Wars,” said Jennifer Metzger, sales manager, toy, gift, and specialty, at Insight Editions, which was showing products from the toy rather than the book side of its business. “But this year there’s been this amazing resurgence of Harry Potter.”
Some of the other book-based properties spotted on merchandise at the show included Wonder, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, Fancy Nancy, and Llama Llama, among others, with many propelled into licensing by films or TV shows based on them. Products ranged from sophisticated 3D puzzles for Harry Potter to insect-based science products for The World of Eric Carle.
Many publishers, meanwhile, were highlighting books on their lists that were being made into films, ranging from Macmillan’s A Wrinkle in Time, set to release later this year, to HMH’s Jumanji, which inspired the successful theatrical sequel Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Mary Poppins, which will benefit from the holiday 2018 theatrical debut of Mary Poppins Returns.
Books promoting social and emotional skills, particularly kindness, were a central focus at several booths. Sourcebooks, for example, offered What Does It Mean to Be Kind? Macmillan was pushing Be Kind, while National Geographic highlighted Some Bunny Loves Me, with its theme of kindness. This trend was starting to emerge at the 2016 edition of the Fair, but was stronger this year.
All told, toy industry sales increased just 1% in 2017 over 2016 to $20.74 billion, according to the NPD Group, representing much slower growth than the 6% seen in 2016. The slowdown was due in large part to Toys ‘R’ Us’s bankruptcy filing and subsequent store closings in the second half of the year.
Many publishers who were exhibiting reported fairly steady traffic, with a few lulls, on the event’s first two days, but very good crowds on Presidents’ Day, the third day of the show. “The first two days, traffic was a little hiccupy, but [Monday] was crazy busy,” said Jeanie Crone, v-p of Educational Development Corp. On balance, most publisher-exhibitors seemed positive about their experience at Toy Fair this year.