From Mickey Mouse Goes Christmas Shopping in 1953 to Strawberry Shortcake’s Christmas Coloring Fun in 1983, holiday books featuring licensed characters have been published for decades. In the last few years, the phenomenon has expanded to encompass more properties, formats, and holidays.
“We know folks are driven into retail at holiday moments,” says Rachel Barry, v-p of marketing and publicity at DK, which launched Star Wars: Vile Villains and Lego: Winter Wonderland Ultimate Sticker Books this year, the company’s first foray into licensed holiday publishing.
“Any giftable occasion is a chance to offer a book as an option,” says Amy Jarashow, Parragon’s North American licensing director. “A book is a way to extend the experience with a favorite character and teach about the holiday.”
Sarah Fabiny, editorial director at Penguin Young Readers Group, notes: “A holiday title is a hook for promotion. We want to be on a holiday table or pulled out in a holiday section. We’re not lost in that licensed aisle in the bookstore that has become so crowded. And retailers want to make sure they have licensed titles on their holiday tables.”
Kristin Kiser, publisher of Running Press, also likes the opportunity that licensed books provide. “More likely than not, the licensed [holiday book] outperforms the nonlicensed,” she says. “We can take full advantage of more retail options, and the numbers for sell-in are usually stronger.”
Random House has long been publishing licensed holiday titles. “It’s pretty much a given with all of our licenses,” says Chris Angelilli, v-p and editor-in-chief, licensed publishing, Random House/Golden Books Young Readers Group. “It’s a small window, but the strong sales make up for that.”
More Than Christmas
With its long selling season, large consumer market, and gift potential, Christmas remains the top holiday for licensed titles, with Halloween most often ranking second. “You can have so much fun with Halloween,” says Debra Dorfman, Scholastic’s v-p and publisher. Easter is also on the rise for relevant properties. “I wonder if some parents are looking for books as alternatives to candy at holidays like Easter and Halloween,” says Valerie Garfield, v-p and publisher, novelty and licensed publishing, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing.
Meanwhile, properties that depict parental love or friendship can shine at Valentine’s Day. “Valentine’s Day can be tricky,” admits Kara Sargent, editor-in-chief for brand and licensed publishing at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. “At its core, it’s a romantic holiday. But it can work if you’re making a board book about love in general for younger children.”
Holidays beyond the “big four” are also growing in importance. Simon & Schuster published what are thought to be the first licensed Hanukkah and Passover books back in the late 1990s, tied to Nickelodeon’s Rugrats. More recently, Jewish publisher Kar-Ben’s Shalom Sesame program includes titles for Hanukkah, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah. “We were very interested in working with Sesame Street, and we wanted to stack the deck by doing at least a couple of titles on Jewish holidays, since they are bestsellers for us,” says publisher Joni Sussman.
Random House is coming out with its second Sesame Street Hanukkah title in 2017. “The print runs are smaller for Hanukkah than Christmas, but there’s a lot less competition,” Angelilli says.
Random House offers Elmo’s Mommy and Elmo’s Daddy, which are meant for year-round sales but in which the text specifically refers to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, making the books promotable at those times. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published It’s Ramadan, Curious George earlier this year, based on its own IP. Penguin has released New Year’s titles for Spot and Strawberry Shortcake as well as St. Patrick’s Day books for Strawberry Shortcake and Mr. Men/Little Miss.
Such niche holidays can present challenges for publishers. Several houses have offered Thanksgiving books, for example, with mixed results. Sales are limited to a short window, the holiday is not historically a gift occasion, and it falls between two busy selling seasons in Halloween and Christmas/Hanukkah. But the market is changing. “You do find some dedicated space for Mother’s Day, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, and other holidays with shorter windows to work with,” Jarashow says. “So if you can offer a book as an option for a gift, it’s a good thing.”
Jennifer Perry, v-p of North American media products and publishing at Sesame Workshop, says that her organization self-published an e-book for Thanksgiving this year in lieu of working with a licensee, and is developing e-book titles for Muslim holidays as well. “We need to have buy-in from the publishers [for a print book], and the market for these holidays is so small,” Perry says. “But we definitely see demand, and we can publish them ourselves into the e-book market directly.”
Similarly, publishers may pair one of their own IPs with a more niche holiday before adding it to a licensed program. Simon & Schuster is meeting retailer demand for St. Patrick’s Day by adding the holiday to its Itsy Bitsy series, while Penguin has a Hanukkah title in its the Night Before... series. “We might do a license if there’s a [TV] episode based on a [narrower-interest] holiday, but we probably wouldn’t do anything original,” Fabiny says. “With our own IP we can put additional holidays on the calendar.”
Holiday publishing throughout the year is especially important for ongoing programs that need new content monthly. “We try to keep our stories topical and work in themes for whatever holiday or time of year,” says S.A. Check, who writes for American Mythology’s Three Stooges and Pink Panther licensed comic series. “We need to stay true to the characters’ essence but keep putting them in new situations. We’re using the holidays as an opportunity to celebrate the characters and the history.”
Seasonal vs. Specific
Some publishers prefer seasonal over specific holiday books. DK’s Star Wars Vile Villains and Lego Winter Wonderland clearly feature the imagery and colors of Halloween and Christmas but are not pegged directly to them. “That gave us a longer window, but also an opportunity to live in the holiday space,” Barry explains.
Karen Shapiro, publishing manager at Sourcebooks, which offers Sesame Street holiday tie-ins, adds, “You hope to see a spike for a book about love at Valentine’s Day or a spooky book at Halloween, but these are also books that people could want to read year round.”
The seasonal route is especially viable for holidays with very short windows. Angelilli reports that Random House has tried licensed Thanksgiving titles, but they often underperformed. “We do have a lot of fall-harvest titles with apple-picking themes that do very well,” he says, adding that seasonal books also are more inclusive of readers both in the U.S. and abroad. “We have to be mindful of the cultures of each territory. They don’t all celebrate Christmas or Halloween.”
While retail windows can be tight, they are expanding. “It used to be you’d buy a Halloween book and read it once, but now the retail buildup in-store is longer, and you can buy a book in August and read it until Halloween,” Garfield says. “Having a book in-store a few months instead of a few weeks makes a big difference.”
Most publishers opt for a balance between seasonal and holiday specific. “It’s definitely a mix,” Jarashow says. Parragon offers holiday titles such as Disney Pixar Christmas Happy Holidays alongside seasonal titles such as Disney Princess Winter Wonderland.
As Seen on TV
While the trend in licensing has been toward original stories, holiday books tend to tie in to TV or film content. If no holiday TV episode exists, or a good original idea comes up, new storytelling is always a possibility. Little, Brown created the 8 x 8 Minions Paradise: Phil Saves the Holidays!, a new story loosely based on a plot point in an interactive game. “But the lion’s share of our titles are tying into existing entertainment,” Sargent says.
The benefits of using existing material are many. From a business viewpoint, assets are already available and the approval process is quicker, both of which are cost advantages for a book with a potentially short sales window. And from the consumer perspective, kids love to experience favorite holiday TV episodes repeatedly, both on-demand and through tie-in books.
Entertainment properties that appeal to all ages are particularly appropriate for tie-ins. “There are 50 years of A Charlie Brown Christmas in the zeitgeist,” says Craig Herman, executive director for publishing at Peanuts Worldwide. “We can tell a story that resonates across generations.”
Retail buyers often request holiday titles for current licenses, however. “The Peanuts specials are landmark holiday viewing, and we’ve seen nice sales,” Garfield says. “But Daniel Tiger is doing very well too. For some families, Daniel Tiger might be their holiday classic.”
Key formats tend to be lower-priced 8 x 8s, board books, and coloring/activity books. “When parents don’t have much disposable income, they still want to buy a gift for their child at the holidays,” Perry points out. “These kinds of books have always found a market in the low-priced value channels. But over the past two years, we’ve been expanding into new formats and higher-end formats.”
“Lower-priced 8 x 8s probably work the best,” Herman says. “But a cloth collectible edition can also do well. We can be in mass and we can be in high-end categories with collectible books.”
“Certainly for Christmas a book is a big gift item, so you can do more of a range of higher-priced titles,” Garfield says. “Easter or St. Patrick’s Day is a bit more price sensitive.”
Some licensors take a cautious view about creating holiday titles, or even avoid them entirely. They may be leery of excluding fans who do not celebrate a particular holiday, for instance, or Christmas and Halloween may not exist in their fictional universes.
That said, licensed properties are likely to remain a presence during holidays for the foreseeable future. “Anything with a favorite character seems to sell really well,” Dorfman says. “Everything is so brand driven and character driven these days.”