Licensed characters typically enter the publishing business through story-driven formats such as board books and novels, as well as coloring and activity books. When publishers refer to nonfiction in association with licensing, they typically mean formats such as encyclopedias, or handbooks that offer “facts” about fictional characters and vehicles. Lately, however, a number of licensing deals and renewals pair licensed characters with true nonfiction, helping children and families learn facts about science and history through the eyes of their favorite characters.
The strategy of using popular characters to explain nonfiction topics is not entirely new. Scholastic, which is launching nonfiction titles under its Lego and Assassin’s Creed licenses this year, has had past success with nonfiction series featuring characters from its own Magic School Bus and Fly Guy franchises, for instance.
Nonfiction books tied to licensed entertainment properties have popped up over the years as well. In fact, Hasbro senior director of global publishing Michael Kelly’s own childhood experience with the genre was a driving force behind Hasbro’s adding nonfiction to its Transformers program with licensee Little, Brown. “One of the reasons I was most motivated to do it was that, as a kid, I learned a lot from branded nonfiction,” Kelly says. “I read the Star Wars Big Book of Questions and Answers About Space cover to cover until it fell apart. That experience really resonated with me.”
Though licensed nonfiction has been around for some time, the number of deals is proliferating of late. “Nonfiction has always been of interest to parents and teachers, but children are being introduced to nonfiction at an earlier age,” says Debra Dorfman, Scholastic’s v-p and publisher. “We’ve long believed that a license can get a reluctant reader to pick up a book, and when it makes sense organically, it can make kids embrace a lot of topics that maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
“You’re putting a familiar character into the role of teacher,” Kelly explains. “We have an opportunity to really engage children at a young age to make these subjects more accessible and entertaining.”
In addition to academic trends, a driving force behind the interest in licensed nonfiction is the sales growth of the category overall, with juvenile nonfiction up 12% in 2015 over 2014, according to Nielsen Bookscan, compared to a decline of 3% for juvenile fiction over the same period. And nonfiction is not saturated with licenses, as some fiction categories are.
“Nonfiction has just been going from strength to strength lately, both in the trade and the school and library market,” says Sarah Fabiny, editor-in-chief of licenses and series at Penguin Young Readers. Penguin has integrated the occasional nonfiction title into its Cartoon Network Books program and is looking at the possibility of including nonfiction in its upcoming Powerpuff Girls range.
Science in the Spotlight
Licensed nonfiction often fits into the realm of science and technology, since there is a logical fit between science fiction and real science. “With science fiction, without a strong basis in real science, there’s no way to suspend disbelief,” Kelly says. “You start with the nonfiction aspect of science and take it to the next level, and that’s how you get science fiction.”
In the case of Transformers, he explains, aliens come to Earth and need to learn about the culture in order to fit in. Little, Brown’s leveled readers in the Transformers Rescue Bots: Training Academy series help kids learn, along with their favorite characters, about topics such as vehicles and dinosaurs.
Penguin, which has published licensed nonfiction under the Smithsonian brand, paired Cartoon Network’s The Amazing World of Gumball—which is a comedy series rather than science fiction—with the world of science. “The book is a mash-up of strange facts from the show, interspersed with real facts,” Fabiny explains. The Amazing World of Gumball: Gumball’s Guide to Science features Gumball, a cat who attends middle school, giving his off-the-mark take on scientific topics, while his adoptive brother, Darwin, a goldfish, sets him and the readers straight with the correct information. The book is set for October 2016.
History is another topic where licensing can make sense. Scholastic’s Assassin’s Creed nonfiction offering, to be released this fall along with the first title in the Assassin’s Creed YA novel series, is a book about the different eras in which the game takes place, from the Italian Renaissance to the American Revolution.
Similarly, National Geographic Kids’ Temple Run: Race Through Time to Unlock Secrets of Ancient Worlds, also based on an interactive game, visits time periods featured in the game play and provides background information on history and myths, construction, geography and maps, and the like. National Geographic also offers licensed titles on science and nature, including Star Trek: Official Guide to Our Universe: The True Science Behind the Starship Voyages and Animal Jam Official Insider’s Guide, which combines tips for playing the Animal Jam interactive game with facts about animals.
Some licenses lend themselves to a variety of topics and age groups. Disney’s educational brand, Disney Imagicademy, for example, pairs the company’s array of characters with subjects including STEM, literacy, and the arts, for preschool- and elementary school–aged audiences. Studio Fun, distributed by Simon & Schuster, produces nonfiction Disney Imagicademy books, including Frozen: Make It Grow; The Magical Science of Plants, among others. Meanwhile, Wonder Forge, best known for its licensed educational board games, is marketing Disney Imagicademy activity books on subjects including animals and science, packaged with added-value items such as colored pencils and magnifying glasses.
Lego, with its range of mini-figures of scuba divers, knights, astronauts, and the like, similarly lends itself to a variety of topics and audiences. Scholastic is publishing leveled readers that range from Deep Dive for early learners to Knights and Castles for kids in elementary grades. It also has a fall 2016 paper-over-board title for the whole family called Lego Factastic, covering multiple subjects.
National Geographic’s Angry Birds license has resulted in 14 books to date across its adult and children’s lists. They encompass several brands, including Angry Birds Space, Angry Birds Star Wars, and the educational Angry Birds Playground, with topics ranging from physics to birds. An upcoming tie-in to The Angry Birds Movie focuses on island ecosystems.
New Dimensions in Editorial Development
Nonfiction adds more layers to the editorial development process, compared to traditional licensed formats. “It’s different for us, and it’s definitely more challenging, but it’s a good challenge,” Dorfman says. “We want to make sure we stay on brand and follow the Lego DNA, but with factual information. It’s not like picking up the script of a TV show. There’s less direction. You’re starting from ground zero.”
“You need to make sure your facts are unassailable,” Kelly adds. “If you’re going to associate your brand with nonfiction, you can’t have any mistakes. You still need to have an imaginative story, but you have the added burden of making the information accurate, timely, digestible, and understandable.”
Rex Ogle, senior editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, who oversees the Rescue Bots training manuals, agrees. “With fiction, you have an idea and you just have to figure out the best way to convey it,” he says. “The facts make it a little more complicated. We go over each sentence again and again. Is this the best way to say it? We don’t want to mislead the reader, especially at this young age. And we also want to have some humor in it and to make it fun and engaging.”
Humor is one attribute many licensed nonfiction books tend to incorporate. Another common characteristic is a graphic style that combines photographs and character art. Many titles also have some sort of interactive component, such as value-added items, activities, or experiments.
Naturally, licensing brings many of the same marketing benefits to a nonfiction program as it does to more typical story-driven formats. “Licensing and movie tie-ins are such an integral part of our culture these days,” says Erica Green, v-p and editorial director at National Geographic Kids. “There’s a big marketing lift. We can promote it to our traditional channels, and we can speak to new audiences.”
All of National Geographic’s titles are simultaneously published in trade editions and with library bindings. “We see greater interest [in the mass merchandise accounts] for some of the licensed books, but we’re also selling into all of our retail channels,” Green says, adding, “Libraries are happy to see a fabulous book full of educational content but seen through the lens of the Angry Birds.”
Publishers and licensors say they are keeping their eyes open for additional licensed nonfiction opportunities, but within reason. “We’re on the lookout, but we don’t want to force it,” Ogle says. “We don’t want to oversaturate the market, but we would definitely consider a girls’ brand or a license for another age group.”
National Geographic expects licensing to continue to account for a relatively small portion of its list, but it is willing to consider additional properties. “We’re always looking to see if we can find one that makes sense,” Green says. “The content has to be authentic, and the brands have to align with our brand and lend themselves organically to nonfiction.”
Kelly says Hasbro is thinking about whether any of its other brands have potential for nonfiction, citing Littlest Pet Shop as a possibility for a book on pets and pet care. But the combination has to be logical, he stresses. “It doesn’t work if you just slap a brand on it for the sake of slapping a brand on it.”