Licensed products typically are front and center at the annual New York Toy Fair, with toys and games based on movies, TV shows, and classic characters driving a significant portion of sales in that industry. Many of the publishers exhibiting at the show highlight their licensed titles as well.

While licensed toys and books continue to have an impact, the landscape seemed different in 2012, paralleling overall licensing trends. Over the past several years, the business has been dominated by the biggest entertainment licensors—notably Disney, Nickelodeon, Marvel, DC Comics, and Lucasfilm—and their classic properties and films. This year, those companies and their licensees were much less visible at Toy Fair.

That’s not to say they were absent. A variety of exhibitors offered products tied to Disney properties, especially the Disney Princess brand. Scholastic’s Klutz division was showing its first Disney-licensed activity kits, including Disney Princess Make Your Own Princess Tiaras and Toy Story Buzz Lightyear Foam Gliders. These items were part of the company’s expansion into more preschool-friendly products under the Klutz brand, including some rebranded items formerly under the Chicken Socks imprint, according to publicist Lauren Felsenstein.

Other properties with a notable presence—albeit often smaller than in the past—included Lucasfilm’s Star Wars, Sanrio’s Hello Kitty, Marvel films and characters (especially the Avengers), DC Comics (especially Batman), and MGA’s Lalaloopsy. Several publishers at Toy Fair, including Bendon, Kappa/Modern, and Klutz, among others, had lines tied to one or more of these licenses.

Niche Properties Rule

While the leading properties were less dominant, a more diverse roster of niche properties than in recent years was displayed across the Javits Center and company showrooms. These licenses appeal to a more limited audience and lend themselves to fewer products than a typical mass-appeal movie, TV, or character license.

A number of newer licensed properties this year came from mobile games and virtual worlds. Hasbro announced just before Toy Fair that it had acquired the rights to make toys and games based on Zynga brands, including FarmVille, CityVille, and Word with Friends. Companies like Commonwealth Toy and Mattel offered products tied to Zeptolab’s Cut the Rope—Ape Entertainment is licensed for comics—and Jazwares showed toys inspired by Halfbrick Studios’ Fruit Ninja.

Rovio’s Angry Birds had a presence across a variety of licensees, from Mattel for games and toy-and-app products to William Mark for remote-control balloons. Diamond Distribution was highlighting Bad Piggies’ Egg Recipes cookbook and two Angry Birds doodle books, which it distributes for Rovio in the U.S. It displayed a sign saying new titles would be coming in March 2012. Meanwhile, Kappa’s Modern Publishing division was previewing a prototype of an Angry Birds coloring book.

Rovio spokesperson Sini Matikainen told PW the company is planning to release many more titles in English through the coming year, although she did not offer specifics. Rovio also has published Web comics for each Angry Birds update since September 2011.

Video-game properties and cable TV shows targeting teen and adult males were also prominent. The video game Halo was one of the most visible among the first group. HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on the Song of Ice and Fire fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin, published by Random House, and AMC’s The Walking Dead, based on an Image Comics series, were among the latter.

Licenses inspired by books are part of this niche-focused trend as well. It is increasingly common to see licensed products, such as dolls, plush, and board games, based on books for both adults and children, even without a TV series or movie behind them.

Pressman Toy, which holds a number of book-based licenses, was highlighting a new board game tied to HarperCollins’s Big Nate, while Funko was one licensee exhibiting Wimpy Kid products, namely action figures. Thames & Kosmos offered science kits tied to The Dangerous Book for Boys, while CEACO touted its Pinkalicious games and puzzles. Arts and crafts maker Alex offered a Scanimagic coloring kit, and Kids Preferred, another literary-license specialist, relaunched plush based on Marc Brown’s Arthur.

Other book properties represented included Dr. Seuss, for which Colorbök offered arts and crafts and Wonder Forge board games, among others, along with Encyclopaedia Britannica, Gallop! by Rufus Butler Seder, Kim Parker’s Counting in the Garden, Olivia, Eric Carle, Fancy Nancy, and others.

“The characters seem to be selling themselves,” said Clair Frederick, president of Merrymakers, which creates literary-based plush figures. “It’s the strength of the characters and the strength of the related books.” The company is adding more sizes of plush to its line, as well as launching boxed book-and-plush sets for existing and new licenses.

Book-based licenses are not just limited to children’s characters. Angie Dudley, a blogger known as Bakerella and author of Cake Pops, had a new line of baking activity products at the SRM Entertainment booth.

Driving Book Sales

Licensed products offer opportunities to sell the associated books, and vice versa, through cross-promotions and cross-merchandising, and several toy companies highlighted their licensed books along with their toys and other merchandise. These included Pretty Ugly LLC showing its licensed Uglydoll titles from Random House and Lego displaying titles from DK, Scholastic, and other publishers.

Among the celebrities who appeared at Toy Fair this year—the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz at Bleacher Creatures, NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon at Spin-Master, actor Alexander Skarsgård at Hasbro promoting Battleship—were several authors and illustrators. Sophie Blackall, illustrator of the Ivy & Bean series by Annie Barrows for Chronicle, was at the Madame Alexander booth, for example, to publicize the new dolls.

Most of these appearances generated long lines. Peter Yarrow held book and CD signings at Kids Preferred and Madame Alexander, both of which have products marking the 50th anniversary of his song, “Puff the Magic Dragon,” also the basis of a picture book from Sterling. Yarrow spent a portion of his time showing off every page of Sterling’s new pop-up edition, published last November, as well as signing the 2007 hardcover edition.

Sean Covey, author of FranklinCovey’s 7 Habits series for kids and teens, was signing 500 boxes of the 7 Habits of Happy Kids Game, licensed to Learning Resources’ Educational Insights division, at a busy booth. Covey noted that a TV series was in development.

Amy Opheim, Educational Insights’ marketing director, said bookstores planned to carry the games and merchandise them along with the books. Conversely, toy companies and stores were asking whom to contact so they could order the books for their channels as well. Both FranklinCovey and Educational Insights were doing a lot to promote the game and the books, she reported.

Madame Alexander hosted Britt Menzies, author of the StinkyKids series from Raven Tree Press. Selected Barnes & Noble stores currently feature the books —a third title is coming out in August—and the chain is interested in setting up sections devoted to the property, according to Menzies, who said she and her licensing agent M!KE Licensing hope to find manufacturers for additional licensed products to make that possible. A StinkyKids stage musical is set to debut this spring.

Books have become viable licensed properties on their own. But when they become the basis of films and television shows they can drive even more licensing activity. A case in point: The Hobbit. The first of two films, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is set to release in December, and several licensees—Rubies for Halloween costumes, Cryptozoic for trading card games, Film Cells for collectibles, Lego for building kits—were displaying product. Hobbit publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt highlighted several of its Hobbit children’s titles to capitalize on the interest.

Until the next blockbuster movie or TV property—which may be a long time coming thanks to consumers’ fragmented entertainment-viewing habits—smaller, more focused licenses are likely to rule the day. This is good news for publishers and authors who want to license puzzles, games, and toys as a way to generate income, raise awareness, and sell more books.