Interest in publishing as a core category within licensed consumer products programs remains strong, as was evident from a walk through the aisles of Licensing Expo, which ran May 24–26 in Las Vegas. Licensers of properties from Ultraman and Garbage Pail Kids to Crayola prominently featured their licensed novels, comic books, cookbooks, and other formats in their booths.

Suzy Raia, senior v-p consumer products and business development at BBC Studios, the North American licenser of the Australian animated preschool TV series Bluey, said licensed Bluey books from Penguin Books for Young Readers have sold more than 1.7 million copies in the U.S. since their debut in fall 2020. “The show itself is resonating because of its storytelling,” Raia said. “Publishing is such an important category to the franchise, because it’s carrying on that sensibility off the screen.”

Even as entertainment and other licensers are stressing the importance of licensed publishing to their programs overall, retail sales of licensed products based on intellectual properties rooted in books are also on the rise. Licensing International’s 2022 Global Licensing Study, excerpts of which were released just prior to the expo, estimated that 8.5% of the $315.5 billion in retail sales of licensed products sold globally in 2021 are attributable to book-based properties. Last year marked the fifth straight year that this segment has expanded.

Viz Media has long licensed anime titles, including Naruto, for everything from electronics to fashion collaborations, but has only recently started taking on licensing rights for manga properties themselves before the production of anime based on them, said Laura Takaragawa, v-p of consumer products and promotions at Viz. Rooster Fighter is one example. “Anime is on fire, but people also want to understand the source material now,” Takaragawa said.

Given the strong appeal of books as properties, some licensees are highlighting their products’ ties to the underlying literary source material in their packaging. Funko, a leading marketer of fan-based products, has packaged upcoming Dr. Strange and Thor vinyl Pop! figures in clear packaging through which fans can see each figure standing against the backdrop of the cover of the comic that inspired it.

Social-emotional learning was on the minds of attendees at the expo this year, and publishers were at the forefront of the trend. Fox Chapel’s first time as an exhibitor at the show was focused on its new activity storybook series Ninja Kitties, debuting this June. “We’re really focusing on the social-emotional aspects of this brand,” said Michele Sensenig, v-p of sales at Fox Chapel. “Licensees seem to be craving this; we could barely keep up. It seems like Ninja Kitties is here to fill a need right now.”

Rachel Bader, director of licensing at Random House, said Suzanne Lang’s Grumpy Monkey, which is about dealing with big emotions, was attracting attention. Random House was also exhibiting its biggest licensing property to date, Richard Scarry, whose licensees include BioWorld, Briarpatch, Super 7, and Uniqlo, among other brands.

Licensing agency Moxie & Co. reported enthusiasm for Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, a growing property it represents on behalf of Simon & Schuster that incorporates social-emotional themes. Both Moxie and Random House mentioned inquiries about social-emotional-centric properties from companies that create merchandise for teachers, among others.

The official theme of this year’s expo was location-based entertainment, or the extension of properties into in-person experiences that allow fans to engage with a brand in a new way. This is a big trend in licensing, and publishers are part of it. A mall experience centered on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys is in the works, while Lumistella’s Elf on the Shelf oversees a Christmas experience called Elf on the Shelf’s Magical Holiday Journey, as well as a musical. The World of Eric Carle’s nature trails in the U.K. attracted 160,000 visitors in a week, according to Debra Joester, president of Carle’s licensing agency, the Joester-Loria Group.

This was Licensing Expo’s first time back in person since 2019, and publishers and other exhibitors reported strong foot traffic, especially on the first two days, and productive meetings.