Publishers controlling merchandise rights to their brands and characters are starting to experiment with print-on-demand licensed products through partners such as CafePress, Zazzle, MashOn, and Ty’s Toy Box. In some cases, they are allowing fans to create new designs featuring favorite characters or phrases.

“When it comes to licensed properties, we need to strike a balance between being faithful to the original series and having a fluid framework for fans to flex their creative muscles,” says Daisuke Aoki, v-p of animation licensing at Viz Media, which is launching its Toshin lifestyle brand—encompassing warriors from manga/anime properties Naruto, Shippuden, Bleach, and DeathNote—through CafePress.

“The customization is really empowering for our fans,” explains Lori Burke, director of licensing for Penguin Young Readers Group. Penguin works with CafePress for POD products for a variety of its properties, from Llama Llama to Betty Bunny, as well as with MashOn for branded retail shops tied to Vampire Academy and High School Bites. On MashOn, fans can create designs by combining Penguin-approved art, symbols, and phrases.

CafePress signed its first major license, with Summit Entertainment, for the initial Twilight movie in 2007. Now it works with more than 150 licensed properties. “Three years ago, licensors were very leery, but that’s changed a lot,” says Ty Simpson, v-p of business development. “User-generated content is becoming a new category within the industry.”

In Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter shop, fans can create personalized Hogwarts acceptance letters, for example. “It’s a fun, creative, and yet controlled way to leverage the personalization and brand engagement,” Simpson says.

The highest level of customization gives fans a blank slate to create merchandise, within the licensor’s published parameters. Summit has taken this route with both the Twilight and Hunger Games properties. The fan-created merchandise can then be sold to other customers, with the designer receiving a commission and the licensor a royalty.

In some cases, print-on-demand offerings are supplemented with existing products, including books. Ty’s Toy Box, which features POD merchandise for properties including Caillou, Thomas & Friends, Angelina Ballerina, Pinkalicious, and Curious George, is one online retailer that carries books among its assortment. CafePress works with Ingram to drop-ship customer orders when books are part of its mix.

“Both CafePress and MashOn give us the opportunity to sell books, which is really important,” Burke says. She adds that the online environment allows seamless cross-merchandising and the ability to offer special discounts and bundles, as well as driving consumers from merchandise to books and from one property to another.

No matter what the level of customization, online shops enable licensors to gauge fan interest. “With the Toshin brand, we’re able to get direct feedback on what products fans want to see more of, what designs and characters do best, and more,” says Aoki.

“We’ve been interested in the functionality of print-on-demand as a way to test the space of outbound licensing and see what might work in bricks and mortar,” Burke says. “But there are a lot of unknowns. We’re not 100% sure how this will play out long-term.”