As consumers spend more time on digital devices, publishers are mining the e-world for licenses that might translate into book formats. Some digital licenses—from video games to virtual worlds—can attract as many fans as film or TV properties. In addition, users tend to spend more time interacting with digital entertainment than with traditional media.

Mobile gaming apps are among the properties attracting the most buzz within the licensing community, and many casual smartphone games have spurred associated merchandise. The leading mobile property, Angry Birds, generated more than $31 million in royalties from licensed merchandise in 2011 (30% of total revenues), according to licensor Rovio, translating to more than $600 million in retail sales from 200 licensees worldwide. Rovio has not released a 2012 figure, but revenues are believed to be higher this year than last.

Publishers have been later to join the app trend than licensees in other categories. But they are starting to tie in with properties such as Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, attracted by their broad appeal and intense fan loyalty and engagement.

Starting from Scratch

Mobile apps present unusual challenges to publishers. One is that, unlike most entertainment properties, most offer very little content to adapt for book publishing, aside from the graphic look, basic character traits, and a premise.

“In most cases you have a great game, but the backstory is not fully fleshed out like a traditional licensed property,” says Bob Traub, president of Established Brands Licensing. He represents Cut the Rope, which has 35 licensees and is about to sign a coloring and activity publisher.

“A lot of times these are people who haven’t done [publishing] before,” adds David Hedgecock, CEO of Ape Entertainment, which publishes digital and print comics tied to Pocket God, Temple Run, Squids, and Cut the Rope, and will debut Fruit Ninja in April. “These are indie studios that created characters that took off. They’re either not set up for licensing or are working out the kinks. But their enthusiasm more than makes up for that. These are creative people who are intimately invested with the process.”

John Leonhardt, president of Dimensional Branding Group, Temple Run’s licensing agent, says app developers can be surprised by the complexity of the book publishing process, even as publishers can be challenged by how little there is to work with.

The game-focused outlook of mobile IP owners contrasts with other licensors’ transmedia approach. One of Dimensional Branding’s multiplatform gaming properties, Meteor Entertainment’s Hawken—which launched on December 12 and has licensed Archaia for digital comics and Design Studio Press for an art book—is an example.

“Transmedia is telling a story across multiple media concurrently,” says Meteor CEO Mark Long. “Each medium is separate but makes a unique contribution to the story.” This vision can be difficult for casual mobile games to achieve: “only worlds that are encyclopedic in nature are appropriate,” Long says.

Mobile game licensors are starting to think about media extensions. Properties such as Angry Birds and Cut the Rope have been featured in animated shorts on YouTube, and Rovio just announced plans for a 2016 feature film.

Publishing can play a role in this process. “We may not directly inform any of their animation or television or toys, but we could indirectly inform them,” says Hedgecock. “They realize the comics could act as a launching point.”

Wide Appeal

In May 2012, Angry Birds passed one billion downloads, according to Rovio. Other games have not reached those heights, but they still can generate impressive numbers. Temple Run, for example, has been downloaded more than 130 million times. And many mobile apps appeal to males and females alike, ages 4 to 40 and beyond. “It’s interesting to be able to reach such a broad demographic group,” says Traub. “These games are for everyone.”

But no matter how high the numbers, there is a risk of a short lifespan. “It’s very important to take advantage of app properties while they are at their peak,” says Russ Elgart, v-p of sales for Kappa Books and Modern Publishing, which introduced its first Angry Birds books last spring. He also notes that Rovio is continually refreshing Angry Birds with new editions. “There are no signs of it letting up any time soon.”

Determining the target market for publishing—generally narrower than for the games—can be tough. “One of the challenges is pinning down who that target market really is,” says Sarah Bates, publishing director, Egmont U.K., which released its first Angry Birds books in October.

The company started with a joke book for ages six and up, followed by a search-and-find for ages eight and up. In the fall, a gift book will allow families to make their own models and bring the game to life.

Most app-based publishing to date has been focused on a few formats, including comic books, coloring and activity, and gift and novelty. “You don’t have to have a deeply established story to get into an activity-related category,” Traub says.

Rovio launched its global Angry Birds publishing program with in-house-produced cookbooks and doodle books, distributed by Diamond Comics in the U.S. It has since signed a number of licensees around the world. Modern’s program began with two coloring and activity titles and has since expanded into several formats. “We started slowly to see how it would translate to kids’ publishing,” Elgart says. “Kids like the property, but you don’t know how it will age down.

“Sales have far exceeded what we anticipated,” he continues. “We’ve gotten strong placement across the board, and retailers are thrilled at the dollars these are generating, from a format they wouldn’t have expected.” Some stores have taken other titles in Kappa/Modern’s portfolio, thanks to Angry Birds. “When you add something like Angry Birds to the strong, everyday classic licenses, it helps them all,” says Elgart. “It’s been a door-opener for us at a couple of retailers.”

For app-based comics, digital distribution makes sense. Ape’s standard rollout for its app-based titles is to launch monthly digital comics for the iOS and Android platforms first, then graphic novel collections for the trade later. “All have the ability to translate to the print medium, and [many] do ultimately translate to print,” Hedgecock says. Pocket God, for example, has spurred three trade paper compilations.

In-Game Marketing

“The thing mobile and app developers have that we don’t have as much in the traditional book world is the direct relationship with the consumer,” says Bates. “They have a database of subscribers who are hungry for news about their favorite game.” The companies’ detailed usage data is also a benefit. “It helps us know which customers to go for and how to tailor the publishing to them.”

In-game marketing synergies are also possible. “Pocket God led the way and showed us the power of the app in terms of the game’s ability to drive fans to other things they might like,” Hedgecock says. The Pocket God game contained a Gorilla Island area featuring the Ape logo, allowing the company to provide information about the comic book; Squids integrated an Ape-produced, exclusive in-app digital comic.

Meanwhile, casual mobile games have more immediacy than traditional media. “The free [Cut the Rope] app has banner ads where we can drive links to retailers,” Traub says. “We can talk directly to our alpha user base and tell them what products are available and where they are available, in real time.”

Publishers’ interest in mobile games is part of a greater trend toward digital licenses as a way to attract children to the written word. “We’re looking for new sources of IP that kids are drawn to,” says David Riley, Egmont U.K.’s managing director. “In the last couple of years there’s been tremendous growth and interest in digital IP. Social media, YouTube, gaming—all are sources of IP beyond the traditional sources. In the future, more publishers will be drawing on the mobile world as well.”

A few of the many mobile apps available for licensing—none with publishing tie-ins to date—include Beast Farmer, Talking Friends, Where’s My Water? and Doodle Jump. “The issue with any licensed property is understanding if it will make the leap into licensing from its originating platform,” Riley says. “There are a number of big mobile properties in the market. The question is, are they big enough to make it outside of the mobile world?”

Penguin U.K.: Early Resident of the Realm

Penguin U.K. has acquired the rights to Kings of the Realm, a forthcoming free-to-play, massively multiplayer interactive strategy game that works across devices. An e-novel will be released day-and-date with the game’s debut in spring 2013.

The property attracted the attention of Shannon Cullen, Penguin’s editorial director in London, when she saw a tweet from developer Digit Game Studios, by way of a retweet from Alan Sugar, U.K. host of The Apprentice. Cullen and Michael McLoughlin, managing director, Penguin Ireland, met with Digit’s team and ended up taking on global tie-in rights.

McLoughlin notes that it’s unusual to get involved so early with a property. “In most cases, the book is coming in as a junior partner, but this is completely linked in with the game,” he says. “We’re bringing in a writer at the very early stages to really integrate the book. Digit is coming up with new characters and running them by us to see if they fit. Everything is tied in together.” A print version of the e-novel, an action-adventure fantasy for teenagers and adults, will be released next summer in the U.K. and Ireland.