Authors and publishers are increasingly looking to the major streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, as potential platforms to promote their content. Like television, streaming services can help generate revenue and, ultimately, sell more books. The services may also provide additional benefits, such as the ability to link entertainment consumption with book sales and to use consumer viewing data to guide the creation of future book titles.
“With more and more adults and their kids choosing streaming sources, and specifically Netflix, as their top pick for entertainment, it’s an exciting new frontier where our book content and characters can reach a whole new viewing audience,” said Mara Lander, director of brand and licensed marketing for Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. LBYR publishes two series, Ever After High and DinoTrux, that have been picked up by Netflix. Programming for adults abounds as well, including Bosch on Amazon, based on Michael Connolly’s books.
Consumers have only started to turn to streaming services rather than television for their entertainment viewing over the past two years, and the major streaming networks have only started investing heavily in original programming over the past year. “It’s an exciting new way for creatives to get their content looked at and made,” said Halle Stanford, executive v-p of children’s entertainment at the Jim Henson Company.
Stanford serves as the executive producer of three Henson shows that are distributed on streaming services. They include the preschool program Word Party, for which 13 episodes will debut on Netflix starting in 2016; Doozers, which has had 52 episodes streaming on Hulu since April 2014; and Lily the Unicorn, which was featured in Amazon’s pilot season earlier this summer and is awaiting word of whether it will receive a full-season pick-up. Lily, for ages six to 11, is based on a book by Dallas Clayton and published by HarperCollins.
“The TV landscape has certainly changed, and streaming video is growing as an alternative,” said Stacey Reiner, founder of licensing agency Remarkable Brands, which represents author Todd H. Doodler (aka Todd Goldman). Goldman’s Bear in Underwear, based on a 12-title series published by Blue Apple Books, was also one of the shows piloted by Amazon this summer.
A Love of Books
Like traditional television networks and feature film producers, streaming services often look to books to find concepts that have built-in awareness, as well as strong characterization and story lines.
Netflix alone has announced that it has invested in original series based on Scholastic’s Magic School Bus and The Day My Butt Went Psycho (the latter produced by Nelvana), Random House’s Green Eggs and Ham (with Warner Bros. and Ellen DeGeneres), and HarperCollins’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (with Paramount Television). It also plans to offer a series based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and Jane books.
Meanwhile, in addition to Lily the Unicorn and Bear in Underwear, Amazon is considering postpilot pick-ups of The Kicks, based on the books by Alex Morgan (with novelist James Frey among the executive producers), as well as Lost in Oz, based on the L. Frank Baum books. Previously, the service invested in the live-action series Just Add Magic, based on the books by Cindy Callaghan (published by Aladdin), after testing it during its January pilot season.
In many cases, it is the authors who develop and pitch the shows based on their books, although publishers can be involved as well. As with television, creators may sell an idea first to a major or independent studio such as Warner Bros., Paramount, DreamWorks, Nelvana, or Henson. Or they may pitch it to the service independently.
The model for submitting an idea for an original show to one of the streaming services is similar to selling to a TV network. If the service selects the series, it will pay for a predetermined number of episodes, which can be of varying lengths. For example, Netflix commissioned a made-for-streaming movie, Ever After High: Spring Unsprung, along with 12 episodes of an original series, Ever After High: Way Too Wonderland. They became available in all Netflix territories this year. Both are based on Ever After High, the Mattel brand that began as a book series; Mattel is marketing four new dolls in conjunction with the Netflix Original content.
Amazon’s selection process is unique in that it capitalizes on one of the benefits of streaming media compared to television: the ability to accurately track usage and generate feedback. It commissions a number of pilots, choosing six for this June’s pilot season, for example, and puts them up for review for about a month. During that time, it encourages its customers to sample the shows and comment on them. At the end of the season, Amazon evaluates the qualitative and quantitative data to make its final decision about which shows are worthy of full-season orders.
Connecting Viewing, Sales
Publishers, authors, and their production and licensing partners are interested in the possibilities streaming content has for creating a direct link between entertainment viewing and sales of books and licensed products (within regulatory constraints), on top of the revenue potential associated with streaming.
DreamWorks’ animated series DinoTrux, based on the Chris Gall picture books, launched on Netflix on August 14. DinoTrux toys from Mattel will be available exclusively at Toys R Us starting October 1, but they were made available for presale on the company’s e-commerce site the same day that the show premiered on Netflix. This allows consumers to easily reserve products online from the same device on which they’re watching the series.
“Where our content is broadcast digitally, we’re asking, will this allow us to sell through e-commerce at a higher level?” explained DreamWorks’ global head of licensing Tim Erickson. “And should we be doing more digital marketing than we would if the content wasn’t available through digital channels?”
The opportunities are particularly intriguing with Amazon, since it is both a retailer and a streaming platform. “The opportunities for licensing and publishing are exciting with streaming,” Stanford says. “If Amazon picks up Lily, it will be interesting for us to see how they link the entertainment with the books.”
“Amazon is one of the top retailers in the world,” Reiner added. “That gives you a built-in consumer products base.” She noted that there are plans for a full line of consumer products for Bear in Underwear, including plush, apparel, and additional publishing. “We’re seeding the market now, and people love the brand,” Reiner said. “But if we get good news from Amazon, that will probably be a game changer.”
Streaming also has benefits from a product-development standpoint that do not exist in the television world. Stanford pointed out that having Doozers on Hulu enables Henson to track which story lines and characters are most popular. Such data could eventually have an impact on which characters or story arcs would best translate to books, she said. “It’s an opportunity to build a more compelling publishing program.” (Simon & Schuster has published three Doozers titles.)
Erickson concurred. “We’ll work with our TV production team to understand what consumers are leaning into and what’s resonating for kids,” he said. “We can then work with our licensees to marry that up with trends in toy sales and T-shirt sales, and leverage that in our merchandising plans.”
Exposure on a streaming service also may cause demand for licensed goods to ramp up faster than for a television series, according to Erickson. “Since the platform delivers more shows at once, it allows the child to build familiarity with a property quickly,” he said. “They understand the characters and the premise, and that immersion allows them to turn to consumer products.”
That potential for immediate demand—along with the combination of two well-proven play patterns, dinosaurs and construction vehicles—helped convince Toys R Us to launch Mattel’s DinoTrux toys only six weeks after the show’s premiere, and retailer Gymboree to introduce apparel just three weeks after the premiere. Compare that to the usual six to 12 months it takes for licensed merchandise to hit the market after a TV show debuts.
Despite the positive trends, a streaming show alone may not be enough to sustain a full merchandising program yet. “Retail buyers understand streaming more than they ever have,” Erickson said. “It’s not a huge leap of faith any more. But while a TV show on Netflix is very important, it’s just one element of a wider ecosystem.” PR, licensees’ marketing activities, publishing, and other components are just as important, he said.
Of course, the launch of any book-based entertainment, whether television or film, historically has spurred sales of the underlying publishing program, and early results seem to suggest this holds true for streaming shows as well. “Chris Gall’s original books have already seen a lift at retail, with accounts including the backlist in promotion with licensed product,” Lander reported.
From the looks of things, more and more publishers going forward will be able to capitalize on the power of streaming content to sell books.
*This article has been corrected. An earlier version of this article listed an incorrect last name for Halle Stanford, and referred to the Jim Henson Company as Jim Henson Productions.