Licensed publishing is in a challenging phase as both retailing and entertainment distribution undergo significant transformations. For the most part, publishers can no longer rely on big movies or highly rated TV series to drive sales of licensed books.
As a trip through Licensing Expo—held in Las Vegas May 22–24—made clear, most properties available for licensing are either multimedia entertainment franchises that already have an established roster of publishers on board (think Star Wars), some of which have seen soft sales of late, or are smaller, riskier niche properties.
Scholastic is one publisher that is looking to nontraditional sources for licensed IP. Its newest acquisitions include RWBY, an online series from Rooster Teeth; Bendy and the Ink Machine, a horror video game; KleptoCats, an app; and Free Rein, a Netflix TV series for tween girls.
Netflix was a big topic of conversation at the expo, with publishers assessing the growing number of streaming-only TV series for publishing potential. “You have to [consider streaming services]. Things have changed,” said Chris Angelilli, v-p, editor-in-chief, and executive director of licensed publishing at Random House Children’s Books.
The question is whether streaming services can sustain publishing programs. “No one knows yet if Netflix can drive sales,” said Scott Chambers, Sesame Workshop’s senior v-p and general manager, North America media and licensing.
Many publishers at the expo said streaming has not yet had much of a positive impact on book sales, and that it is too early to say, and that it is hard to separate streaming from other simultaneous means of support, such as promotions and other media exposure.
Others have seen modest sales bumps once streaming series drop. Scholastic’s tie-ins to the new Magic School Bus TV series on Netflix have seen steady sales, especially in schools, according to Debra Dorfman. “It’s been a really nice start for the new titles,” she said.
Albert Whitman & Co.’s The Boxcar Children movie—which launched on DVD, then VOD, then streaming, and was accompanied by 75th-anniversary marketing efforts—saw an increase in sales of all formats of the underlying books when the film started streaming, president and co-owner John Quattrocchi reported.
Simon & Schuster is publishing chapter book tie-ins to the Netflix series Voltron and Troll Hunters, both licensed from Universal. Valerie Garfield, v-p and publisher of novelty and licensed publishing, said tie-in performance seems to vary depending on licensor support. “The impetus is on the licensor to market it,” she explained.
Another licensing trend that emerged through conversations with publishers at the expo was a desire to find new tie-in formats beyond core 8 x 8s, board books, leveled readers, handbooks, and coloring and activity titles. Random House is publishing a jacketed picture book for Barbie and a young adult novel for Jurassic World, following the success of its DC Icons and DC Super Hero Girls original YA fiction. “We’re talking to all our licensors about branching out and trying different formats,” Angelilli said.
Scholastic is releasing its first-ever Lego picture book, which pairs a story with Lego’s proprietary minifigures for the first time, and launched Brick Adventures, a Lego chapter book series for younger and reluctant readers containing three stories per title. The company is also ramping up the schedule for two of its licensed middle grade novel series—Star Wars Jedi Academy and DC Hero Society—from one to two new titles per year. “These are among our bestselling middle grade readers, aside from anything by Dav Pilkey,” Dorfman said.
S&S has started acquiring licenses to meet specific objectives. It is publishing three Harlem Globetrotters ready-to-read titles, for example, to appeal to reluctant readers, mainly boys. “We’re willing to take on a license to fit a need,” Garfield said. “Not everything has to be a 27-book program.”