The approximately 30 publishers exhibiting at the 2012 New York International Toy Fair, held at the Javits Center, February 11–15, saw full aisles and strong orders for the first time in several years. The Toy Industry Association’s preliminary figures estimated attendance was up 4%, to 34,000. “We’ve been very impressed with the traffic,” said Shannon Roof, director of national accounts, Carson-Dellosa, which was highlighting its expanded Guinness World Records and Crayola licenses and its Summer Bridge workbooks. Meanwhile, attendees’ mood was positive, exhibitors said, despite a 2% decline in retail sales of toys and games in the U.S. last year, to $21.18 billion, according to the NPD Group. “It’s a very good show, very upbeat,” reported John Donofrio, owner of Briarpatch, which makes board games tied to book properties including I Spy. “I think it’s going to be a good year.” The optimism follows a number of tough years for the toy industry, and for Toy Fair. “This is more like the Toy Fair of old,” said Sharon Winningham, v-p sales, School Zone.

While the number of publishers has stayed steady over the past few years, there were some changes to the mix this February. Dover Publications, which had exhibited its range of art and activity books, was absent, while new exhibitors included Beaver Books, a Canadian publisher of educational activity and workbooks; Standard Publishing, an inspirational house; and Insight Editions, an illustrated book specialist. The supplemental educational publisher Creative Teaching Press returned after a long hiatus.

The buzzword at this year’s Toy Fair was “augmented reality.” Many of the 1,000 exhibitors introduced toy cars, puzzles, blasters, board games, and other playthings that work hand-in-hand with iPads or other handheld devices. The idea is that, rather than replacing the physical toy (or book), the apps enhance play and drive purchases of the toy at retail. Several toy companies launched entire product lines based on this concept, including Mattel’s Apptivity, Spin-Master’s Appfinity, Hasbro’s zAPPed, and WowWee’s AppGear brands, while others launched one or more individual augmented-reality (AR) items.

Some toy exhibitors noted that AR would work for books, citing the example of using a mobile phone to scan or photograph a word to trigger a definition, background information, or game, through an app specific to that book. However, none of the 30 or so publishers exhibiting at the show—including coloring and activity publishers, educational workbook specialists, book-plus and novelty houses, and a few trade publishers—were utilizing AR this year.

In some cases, they view their products as an antidote to digital dependence. Michael Levins, CEO of InnovativeKids, which sells books and products under Green Start and other brands, noted that research has shown screen time to be detrimental to very young children. “Books are a necessity [for childhood development], and so are other products, but it doesn’t have to be an iPad,” he said. Other publishers noted that margins in the mass market portion of the industry don’t leave room for app development. “With our price points, it would be impossible,” said Ben Ferguson, CEO of Bendon Publishing. “Our products are value-driven impulse items.”

On the other hand, some sort of augmented reality could help maintain sales of physical books. School Zone, which sells a number of stand-alone apps and e-books, offers free downloads with its physical books and flash cards. The intent is to add value and help differentiate School Zone from its competitors, rather than work in an integral way with the product. “Technology is becoming more important for us,” said School Zone’s Winningham. “The question now is, how do we leverage that in a better way? And what happens to the retailer in all this?”