Executives overseeing licensed publishing programs are, like publishers in general, monitoring the impact of digital technologies on their businesses and dealing with a challenging and competitive retail landscape. They are also thinking about how to integrate the on-screen and on-page experience to maximize fan engagement with their properties and products. Publishers of licensed children’s books and licensors themselves report that, for the most part, sales of “flat” licensed e-books—those with minimal special effects, such as a voice-over or simple animation—have leveled off after a period of growth, while more interactive e-book apps continue to show strength. Meanwhile, neither format seems to be having an adverse effect on sales of licensed children’s print titles, publishers say. “The economic variables of e-books, apps, and printed books are still shifting all the time,” says Debra Joester, president and CEO of the Joester Loria Group, the licensing agent for the World of Eric Carle. “In the picture book category, we are not seeing e-books and apps cannibalizing the sales,” she adds. “In our experience, apps have effectively brought children into publishing franchises and promoted the books.”

Hasbro comic book licensee IDW Publishing releases digital comics day-and-date with print books. “Either the digital comics are attracting new readers, or the fans are buying both. The digital footprint is increasing exponentially, but the print business hasn’t shrunk at all,” reports Michael Kelly, Hasbro’s director of global publishing. “Navigating the constantly shifting digital market is a bit of a struggle for everyone, I believe, but we have found successful ways to capitalize on it,” he said. “We’ve learned that consumers have been conditioned to pay small amounts of money for products that sometimes have enormous production costs, and that has shaped our strategy to an extent.”

For Sesame Workshop, which has a direct publishing program for e-books as well as supporting the digital efforts of licensee Random House, focus is key. “There is no need to have hundreds of titles,” says Jennifer A. Perry, v-p of worldwide publishing at the Workshop. “Our bestselling e-book, The Monster at the End of This Book, is also our bestselling print book.”

Perry notes that she receives at least six to 12 emails per week about adding Sesame Street content to new digital platforms. “We’re always open to new partners, but we have had to slow down a bit on the many, many, channels that are out there, and focus on those destinations chosen by parents of preschoolers,” she says. For a preschool reader, linear storytelling—with a few effects such as animation or voice-overs—works well. “We’ve found that you don’t need to invent a lot of bells and whistles to add to the story. In fact, too much is distracting.”

Speeding to Market

More publishers are securing rights to properties that are rooted in digital distribution rather than traditional media such as television or film. Among them, Simon & Schuster recently licensed the Hulu series Doozers for Ready to Read titles, while Candlewick is launching a series of books tied to Fizzy’s Lunch Lab, which airs on PBS Kids Online. In addition, DreamWorks Animation and DreamWorks Press recently founded Awesomeness Ink, an imprint for books tied to original content airing on the studio’s Awesomeness TV online channel.

The increased role of online entertainment creates some challenges for publishers. “The thing about the online and YouTube world is that things happen so fast,” says Emma Whittard, head of DreamWorks Press and Awesomeness Ink. “In publishing, it doesn’t happen so fast.” She notes that it can be difficult to select digital-origin properties and be certain they will still be popular when the books are released, so there has to be a strong story line. Runaways, one of the first AwesomenessTV properties to make its way to print, is a nonlinear murder mystery being developed into a YA novel. “These are great stories on their own,” Whittard says of the Runaways episodes.

The speed associated with the online world has extended into realms of traditional entertainment and consumer products as well. “People want things instantly,” says Paula Allen, senior v-p of global publishing at Nickelodeon. As a result, licensed publishing programs are launching sooner after a show’s premiere than in the past.

Nickelodeon and its licensee Random House introduced the first books tied to Dora and Friends, a new TV series starring an older Dora, in August, the same month the show debuted. And in August 2015, Random House will introduce books tied to Nick Jr.’s Blaze and the Monster Machines, an educational show for preschoolers. Traditionally, licensors have waited until at least a year after a TV show’s first airing before launching books.

Despite the need for speed, the digital environment offers benefits for both licensees and licensors. “Things are faster, but that can be a good thing,” says Perry. She notes that the built-in analytics of e-books, apps, and video streaming help as well. “It’s a real plus to us as we respond to what our customer wants.”

Fostering Fan Engagement

A theme in licensed publishing, and throughout licensing, is fan engagement. That is, licensors and licensees are looking at how they can maximize fans’ connection with the books and use the books to further fans’ loyalty to the properties on which they are based.

Formats that spur fan engagement tend to sell well within the world of licensed publishing programs. Pete Yoder, v-p of consumer products North America, notes that formats such as journals and Mad Libs tend to work well for its properties, which range from Adventure Time to Uncle Grandpa. “Kids want to interact with our characters and want formats that enable them to create their own stories and adventures,” he says.

Yoder notes that monitoring social media has shown Cartoon Network that fans are actively creating their own art, decor, and clothing based on its properties. “So much is posted and shared of new interpretations of our art,” he says. In fact, this proliferation of user-generated content led the network to sign PotterCraft for a Cartoon Network line of DIY craft books. PotterCraft joins a roster of publishing licensees that includes Penguin, which oversees the Cartoon Network Books children’s imprint; Boom! Studios for comic books; and Abrams for adult titles.

Other techniques to spur fan engagement range from adding value to a book through the inclusion of a toy or other product to recreating “in-world” books that play a key role in the TV show, movie, or interactive game on which the book is based.

Hasbro has published in-world titles including Little Brown’s The Journal of the Two Sisters, a book that features prominently in Season 4 of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Collectible Poster Book, which includes posters and artwork seen in the background of the TV series. DreamWorks’ in-world titles include The Ghost Hunting Handbook from DreamWorks Press, a book that is used by characters in the upcoming film B.O.O.: Bureau of Otherworldly Operations.

On the value-added side, Hasbro’s titles include Little Brown’s My Little Pony: The Daring Do Adventure Collection boxed set, tied to Friendship Is Magic, which features three in-world books from the character Twilight Sparkle’s library and an exclusive gold-colored My Little Pony figure. Similarly, comic books from IDW Publishing’s Dark Cybertron arc within the Transformers franchise are available in packs of the Transformers Generations deluxe toy line. Kelly from Hasbro points out that buyers of both toys and books want the added value that comes from packaging the two together. “For several of our accounts, it’s become almost an expectation,” he says.

Penguin has sold more than 2.5 million copies of titles tied to Activision’s Skylanders interactive games. “Some of the most successful titles on the Skylanders list are the original fiction,” says Lori Burke, Penguin’s director of licensing and consumer products for North America. “They allow the fans to engage with it in a completely different way.”

Reaching a Broad Audience

Licensors stress that their publishing programs are intended to reach fans in all formats at a wide price range and in as many distribution channels as possible.

“In recent years, we’ve been looking at lower-priced channels, like dollar stores and Target dollar sections for incremental opportunities,” says Scott Chambers, senior v-p of worldwide media distribution at Sesame Workshop. At the same time, Sesame Workshop has the higher end of the market covered through licensees such as Studio Fun for “novelty book experiences” and Sourcebooks for $10.99 jacketed hardcover storybooks. The first three titles from Sourcebooks debuted this fall.

Kelly says IDW’s Transformers books are illustrative of the breadth of Hasbro’s publishing program. “IDW has a collector title that is $500, but we have $2.99 Micro Comic Fun Packs as well,” he says. “The publishing program provides engagement for every level of consumer and fan.”

Publishers of licensed children’s books are dealing with the same challenges that book publishers in general face, from fewer brick-and-mortar outlets to changing distribution models. At the same time, they are keeping an eye on equally disruptive changes in Hollywood, including new entertainment consumption patterns and viewer fragmentation. Despite the difficulties, however, licensed children’s books continue to offer advantages to both licensors and publishers, while remaining popular with consumers.