The pace of licensed publishing has picked up, with tie-in books launching much closer to the debuts of television shows, toys, video games, or streamed content than in the past. As little as two or three years ago, TV tie-ins were generally released 12–18 months after TV shows’ debuts, giving each property time to gain an audience and the publisher time to develop and produce the books. Today, a book tie-in is often released less than a year after the property’s launch, sometimes coming out simultaneously.
“What’s really changed things a lot is on-demand viewing,” says Dennis Shealy, editorial director of licensed publishing at Random House/Golden Books. Viewers can now stream a whole TV season at once or go online to revisit episodes first seen on air. “It allows them to build an immediate affinity for a show,” he explains.
Meanwhile, licensors are promoting their new TV shows and other properties well in advance of the premiere. “Both the children and their parents are aware of a show in more ways and earlier than ever before,” Shealy says. He notes it has become the norm for Random House, which works with licensors such as Disney, Nickelodeon, and Mattel, to have some titles available at or shortly after the launch of new properties. “Awareness breeds demand, and it behooves us to be ready for it.”
Retail buyers are also driving the trend. “We hear from our retailers that they have X amount of space devoted to the toys, and they want books,” Shealy reports. “We have to make sure we’re able to meet that demand.”
Competition from an abundance of pop-culture properties means consumers have many options from which to choose and may move from property to property quickly, potentially giving publishers a small window for success. “The nature of the entertainment industry for kids means that so many brands are coming on the market,” says Ben Ferguson, president and CEO of Bendon Publishing. “There’s so much competition, between theatrical releases and television shows, and things change so quickly. Everyone wants the latest and greatest, and things don’t stay on the market for long.”
Meanwhile, more publishers are involved with each property, adding to the competitive pressures. “There are more people participating in licensed books than ever before, and licensors have chosen to slice up the grant of rights, by size, by price point, by play pattern, and by education content,” Ferguson says. “There are so many different publishers with different grants of rights that are doing a few items rather than a whole range of items. That helps them get to market faster. But with so many people with similar product, it also means that, to compete, you have to get product to market quickly.”
A Compressed Time Frame
Though the average time from contract to consumer is shorter than in the past, the specific release date of a licensed publishing program is dependent on the characteristics of the property, publisher, and format. A sped-up schedule may apply when a publishing program plays a key role in brand development, for instance. “It’s especially true if we want to be thought of not as a consumer product but as part of a canon of storytelling,” says Mara Lander, executive director of licensing for Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. She cites LB’s long-running Monster High and Ever After High programs as examples.
“It’s on a case-by-case basis,” Lander notes. “Sometimes we work with a truncated schedule in order to marry up with unique toy lines or account promotions.” LB’s The Wonderbolts Academy Handbook, under Hasbro’s My Little Pony license, was an instance in which a shorter production time frame was needed to take advantage of a toy release.
At Scholastic, most books come out six to 12 months after a TV show is launched. Its Lego Nexo Knights program was one example in which the process was accelerated. “There was so much marketing support, and the great toys and gaming apps, so we launched the books at the same time as the TV show,” says Debra Dorfman, Scholastic’s v-p and publisher for nonfiction and licensing. The associated Lego toys and the Cartoon Network animated series debuted in January 2016; the accompanying books were released between January and March 2016. (DK also publishes Lego Nexo Knights titles.)
Parragon produces a range of licensed books, many of them value-added or book-plus formats. “Nine to 12 months is a comfortable goal for us now,” says Amy Jarashow, licensing director for North America at Parragon. That compares to 18 months or so from concept to book in the past.
Meeting Unanticipated Demand
A positive but challenging situation occurs when consumer interest is unexpectedly strong upon a property’s launch. “You have to gauge what your follow-up plan will be,” Shealy says. “You have to be prepared for a show to be a bigger hit than expected.” He mentions Spin Master’s Paw Patrol, a preschool TV series on Nick Jr. The plan was to launch day-and-date with the show, but a few more titles were added just before the launch, as expectations of early demand grew. Random House was positioned to release more titles quickly, and that turned out to be beneficial, as the show was bigger than had been previously anticipated right out of the box.
Even evergreen properties can sometimes experience levels of demand that are surprisingly high. That is happening now for Scholastic, thanks to this year’s hit mobile game Pokémon Go. Scholastic has published Pokémon consistently for 15 years, with the property seeing a resurgence over the past three years. When Pokémon Go exploded in July of this year, Scholastic was already in the process of doing an exclusive paper-over-board edition of its core Pokémon handbook for Barnes & Noble and was able to publish quickly. “We’ve reprinted that I don’t know how many times,” Dorfman says.
In addition, the company is reissuing six out-of-print Pokémon chapter books with new covers in the spring, featuring some of the 151 characters that appear in the first round of the game. “Pokémon publishing was robust to begin with, but this elevates it,” Dorfman says.
Other recent TV and toy properties with accelerated licensed publishing programs, thanks to stronger than expected interest, include eOne’s preschool TV series PJ Masks (published by Simon & Schuster and Parragon), the collectible toy brand Num Noms from MGA Entertainment (Parragon), and another collectible toy, Shopkins, from Moose Toys (Scholastic, Bendon, and Sizzle Press).
Meanwhile, movie tie-in publishing has always been time-sensitive, with books releasing as much as six weeks before the film premiere. Movies also come with inherent challenges, such as a lack of assets due to production schedules and secrecy concerns. “Captain America is an example of a movie for which we were working with embargoed material,” Lander says. “We must be conscious of treating the partner’s IP as confidential but also get to market a few weeks prior to the film release.”
Demand for movie tie-ins can also defy predictions, with Disney’s Frozen being a famous case. Released in November 2013, the film was a breakout success, resulting in product shortages throughout the first half of 2014. “We had a robust program to begin with,” says Shealy of Random House, one of several Frozen publishers. “But it blew far beyond anyone’s expectations.”
Speeding Up the Process
Licensed consumer products such as T-shirts or posters can reach retail quickly. “We all recognize that publishing lead time is longer than some other categories,” Jarashow says. “As we’ve become more invested with the studios, it has forced us to look for more efficiencies in our critical path.”
One way to pick up the pace is to pair a license with an established format, at least initially. Nevertheless, success often depends on innovation and a good fit with the property. And each retailer wants its version of a licensed title to have something unique, such as an exclusive tipped-in poster. “We try hard not to template, but to take the essence of the brand and see what makes sense for the list,” Jarashow says. “You look at what you have planned and what’s in the pipeline and see how you can speed it up. But it’s important to get it right.”
In some cases, bringing a title to market early to meet demand may also require changes to the typical manufacturing process, such as printing a book domestically when overseas manufacturing is the norm. “The cost of the product might go up a little,” Jarashow says. “But if we think sales will benefit and if it makes sense and we’re not sacrificing quality, we’ll look at accelerating to take advantage of the momentum.”
Publishers stress that one of the keys to getting to market quickly is a close collaboration with the licensor. Most property owners have style guides ready early or are willing to work with publishers to find a way to create assets quickly when needed, and they are increasingly set up to approve products in a timely manner. “If you have a style guide that is rich in line art and with lots of poses of the characters, it helps,” Ferguson said. “Now that technology has allowed it, licensors are able to provide more assets quickly.”
Even in the case of a movie program, where a complete array of assets may not be available in advance, “there are workarounds,” Lander says. “Our partners really know publishing. They know what story beats make sense and can pull those out for us.”
Though it’s important for licensors to satisfy early demand when it materializes, they also want to prevent consumers from moving on too quickly. For example, they invest in marketing and continually develop new content and themes to turn an early hit into an evergreen franchise. Publishing can play an important role in this strategy as well. “Books expand the story lines,” Shealy says. “We can add detail and greater nuance.” That helps keep consumers coming back, even after the initial craze dies down.