Tie-in books based on beloved classic properties represent a relatively low-risk form of licensing. But publishers need to continually ensure that these well-established programs do not become stale. On the retail shelf, after all, they sit next to newer and more high-profile books inspired by current movies, TV shows, and toys.
“There is a shorter lifespan for licenses now than a decade ago, so we’re always grateful to have rights for properties that are not a flash in the pan,” says Valerie Garfield, v-p and publisher of novelty and licensed publishing at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. “The challenge is finding new formats that span and appeal to all members of that multigenerational audience. There’s a difference between tried-and-true and tired. The onus is on us to find new formats and ways to present the material so it doesn’t seem tired to buyers.”
Daniel Moreton, v-p and associate publisher at Penguin Workshop, says, “We constantly evaluate how consumers are interacting with our licenses and when it’s time to make a change. When we look at our success stories, it’s when we give the reader a way to engage with familiar characters, but in a completely different way, that the books seem to resonate.” Moreton cites Penguin’s series of 5 x 5 books featuring mash-ups of Doctor Who characters in the style of Mr. Men as an example. There are 12 books to date in the Dr. Men series, published under license from Sanrio (owner of Mr. Men) and the BBC (Doctor Who), written and illustrated by Adam Hargreaves.
An eye-catching cover on a new edition of a classic book can also have impact. Simon Beecroft, publishing director of licensing at DK, says this is true for his company’s encyclopedias, published under Marvel, DC Comics, Lego, Star Wars, and other classic licenses. “When we create a new edition, we commission new artwork for the covers, which the fans love,” he notes.
A New Look at Old Friends
New formats can recharge classic licensed publishing programs. “We want to zero in on what works, and at the core you have to do 8 x 8s and activity books,” Moreton says. “But you also need to try to break the mold.”
“We have the advantage of having so many decades of publishing that we can look at trends and what has worked and build on that,” says Mary Wilcox, v-p and associate publisher at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which publishes classic and TV tie-in books featuring Curious George. For example, its success with Curious George Pat-a-Cake, a book-and-puppet set for very young readers, led it to expand into more interactive titles for that audience. It’s Party Time, Curious George, which includes a party hat, is one of two such titles coming out in 2019.
Innovation may involve adding bells and whistles like gatefolds, sticker sheets, or glow-in-the-dark lenticular covers to core formats; creating bind-ups and collections of backlist titles; rereleasing older and out-of-print titles with new covers; or pairing classic brands with formats that have proven themselves with newer licenses. “We look at some of the formats we have that are working well with other licenses and ask, ‘Would it work for this property?’ ” Garfield says. She explains that S&S has brought the Peanuts characters into beginning readers, a format where they have never been before, and 5-Minute Stories, a format that performs for brands such as PJ Masks and Daniel Tiger.
Many publishers marry licensed properties with formats that have historically not been associated with licensed books, such as middle grade and YA readers, cookbooks, adult wit-and-wisdom titles, and educational formats. Random House is introducing a series of middle grade novels for Nickelodeon’s latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, for example, while DK has released educational titles such as Star Wars Maker Lab and Disney Ideas Book.
Publishers with proprietary franchises typically assess whether there is a fit between these series and their classic licenses, providing a boost for both. Penguin takes many of its licenses into its Mad Libs brand as a way to help keep the latter fresh, as well as offer a new spin on evergreens such as the Muppets, Scooby-Doo, and even the Golden Girls. Random House often combines classic licenses with its Little Golden Books format, with Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and Star Trek being examples. “We’re looking at things that can feel fresh and nostalgic at the same time,” says Mallory Loehr, senior v-p at Random House Books for Young Readers.
Publishers and licensors also seek formats unique to each brand. “We used to be looking for formats that would work for everything, but now we’re trying to customize a little bit more,” Loehr says. “We pay attention to the license and see what fits, and we ask if there’s a way we can make the license special.”
Scholastic just published The Marauder’s Map: Guide to Hogwarts, an in-world title packaged with a wand pen that lights up to reveal secrets, under license from Warner Bros. and the Blair Partnership. “For Harry Potter we’ve gone into key licensed formats like our Battle Box, but we also have the wand books, which are unique to that property,” says Debra Dorfman, Scholastic’s v-p and publisher of global licensing, media, and brands.
With any of these ventures, publishers need to strive for a balance between retaining the core attributes of the classic while introducing a more modern sensibility. Simon & Schuster is working to bring more interactive titles into its publishing program for the World of Eric Carle. “We want to make sure these new formats that engage kids hearken back to the classic brand, but also look fresh and new,” Garfield says. “We’re lucky that Eric Carle’s work looks just as contemporary now as the day it was first published. There’s a reason some brands continue to exist and maintain that connection to the customer.”
Appealing to New Audiences
The longer a publishing program is on the market, the more it can expand beyond its core audience, especially to adults who were fans of a property in their youth. Sesame Workshop and Macmillan are targeting older readers with The Pursuit of Grouchiness: Oscar the Grouch’s Guide to Life, set to release next year, while DK has started experimenting with humorous advice books tied to Star Wars. This fall, DK is releasing Be More Yoda, which centers on mindfulness, and Be More Vader, a business guide. Scholastic just debuted Honeydukes: A Scratch and Sniff Adventure, which takes readers through the Wizarding World candy store. “It has crossover appeal,” Dorfman says. “We think lots of adults will buy it.”
Publishers are moving in the other direction as well, creating titles to appeal to the youngest readers. For Thomas the Tank Engine, Random House recently released My First Thomas, a new series for very young preschoolers. It is also introducing two Dr. Seuss board books—I Am Max and I Am Cindy-Lou Who—in time for this year’s Grinch movie (for which RH also holds tie-in rights). “The Grinch has not been in a board book, and the full story wouldn’t work,” Loehr says. “But this brings the property into an appropriate format for babies and toddlers.”
Several publishers are appealing to girls and women by highlighting female characters. DK is publishing Marvel: Fearless and Fantastic! Female Super Heroes Save the World later this year, while Scholastic is releasing Witches Rule! A Guide to Girl Power in the Wizarding World in 2019, to name just two titles.
DK, meanwhile, is reaching out to a diverse customer base with some of its Marvel titles. For example, the cover of Marvel Black Panther: The Ultimate Guide “strongly tapped into the feeling of resistance in the U.S. that the movie captured,” Beecroft says, noting that the book was featured on Black History Month tables at retail as well as in movie-centric displays.
Publishers also look to their brand owners to keep a property fresh through new media and entertainment vehicles, content themes and storylines, characters, artwork, and product and marketing initiatives. When Peanuts Worldwide forged an exclusive merchandise promotion with Pottery Barn Kids, for example, “that sparked a different kind of interest and exposure,” Garfield says.
HMH created Curious George: A Halloween Boo Fest when Universal Studios suggested a tie-in book, after its movie of that name had seen strong success on DVD and streaming channels. The cover illustration features a raised element to capture a scene from the film in which George jumps out from behind a pumpkin.
The coexistence of classic characters and new entertainment creates two parallel avenues for publishing programs, Beecroft points out. “One is the evergreen, and the second is whatever is current,” he says. “The lucky thing with the classics is that you always have those characters to draw on. Even if individual moments like movies or themes are a struggle, we can draw readers back in with evergreen, fun basics.”
Though licensors often drive new ideas for the property, publishers say IP owners are becoming more open about hearing new ideas from their licensees. “It’s a two-way street,” Beecroft says. “The first thing we always ask is what they’ve got that’s new. But at the same time, we’re presenting ideas to them that we’ve had that tap in to their properties.”
“Across the board, from the mammoth ones to new ones with their first success, licensors have become aware that publishing is an ever-evolving landscape,” Moreton says. “I think our licensors celebrate the new and different whenever we take something that’s known and try to see it through a different lens.”
Random House recently initiated a new middle grade series called Disney Daring Dreamers, about contemporary girls who are inspired by the Disney Princess characters. Disney did not drive the spin-off but is supportive of it. “Licensors are a little more willing to stretch the rules,” Loehr says. “The challenge is to make sure everyone is moving in the same direction.”
Whether new ideas come from the publisher or the licensor, everyone agrees that even the most evergreen brand needs to be refreshed if it is to remain successful. “There’s a need to continue to deliver on what people expect or know about the property,” Moreton says. “But you also need to look at it a different way, because new competition is always coming up.”