The Licensing International Expo offers a microcosm of the trends being tracked by publishers who acquire licensed properties. This year’s show, held last week in Las Vegas, not only spotlighted key trends but seemed to confirm that the licensing business is gaining strength after several tough years.

Digital properties were particularly significant on the exhibition floor, with some of the largest booths devoted to properties originating as mobile apps (Angry Birds), video games (Skylanders), and virtual worlds (Moshi Monsters).

In many cases, these properties sign publishers among their first and core licensees. Houses such as Random House, Dark Horse, IDW, and Tor, for example, are key partners for adult-themed books and comics based on video-game properties including Mass Effect (licensed by EA), Metal Gear (Konami), and Call of Duty (Activision).

During the show, Beanstalk Group announced its first publishing deal for the virtual world MovieStarPlanet, with Egmont, which will release books and magazines throughout Europe. Meanwhile, the Joester-Loria Group signed PaperCutz as its first publisher for Annoying Orange, now on the Cartoon Network and originally on YouTube.

Penguin recently secured the rights to extend its Moshi Monsters publishing program, which has been successful in the U.K., into the U.S. market. “Publishing is something we’ve desperately been missing in the U.S.,” said Darran Garnham, chief business development officer at licensor Mind Candy. “Sales of publishing [from Penguin U.K.] into the U.S. market have been phenomenal.” A fan pack being sent this fall to 50,000 of the site’s most engaged U.S. users will include information about the books, among a variety of premiums and gift items.

Knockout Licensing was offering Boo—the World’s Cutest Dog, which earned its popularity as a Facebook sensation before attracting its first two licensees. Gund markets plush figures and Chronicle Books will release its second Boo title this summer. “Everybody knows Boo, and it’s totally through social media,” said Carol Postal, cofounder of Knockout.

In addition to properties originating in digital, apps were a topic of conversation, as expected, with licensors promoting new app releases and talking to publishers and developers about new app opportunities. At last year’s show, how to deal with apps within a licensing program was a bit confusing, with print publishers, developers, gaming companies, and the licensors themselves vying for similar rights. Now, licensors say, things have calmed down and shaken out, for the most part, into accepted formats, although there are still some gray areas.

“The digital conversation has dialed down significantly,” said Patty Sullivan, founder of P.S. Ink, which represents Jim Henson Productions and Crayola for the publishing category. Last year about one-third of her meetings at the show were with digital companies, many of them startups that are not active today. The number is smaller this year, the partners are known, and the conversations serious.

Scott Chambers, Sesame Workshop’s senior v-p of worldwide media distribution, noted that while digital revenues are growing fast, there hasn’t been much of a negative impact on print publishing. “Print is holding its own, if not growing a bit,” he said. “We hope we can ultimately leverage all the digital and print together at retail. That is sort of the end game.”

Traditional Entertainment

Many of the Hollywood studios focused mainly on film franchises and sequels, along with properties from their film and television libraries. Sony highlighted its upcoming Robocop remake and Smurfs 2; Universal offered Despicable Me 2; and Warner Bros. was pitching Man of Steel, based on Superman.

Several licensors of entertainment properties noted that publishing is a critical facet of building and maintaining key franchises between film releases, through original publishing based on the films as well as tie-ins to entertainment that bridges the gap between films, such as interactive games. Carol Roeder, director of publishing for Star Wars licensor Lucasfilm, noted that Random House, Dark Horse, and DK have published books tied to the Star Wars multiplayer online game, the Old Republic, and that there will be a publishing program tied to the next game, 1313, as well.

Similarly, 20th Century Fox Consumer Products plans novels tied to Sega’s video game Aliens: Colonial Marines, based on Fox’s Alien film franchise. “We have great IP and are using publishing to extend that IP,” said Jeffrey Godsick, president of Fox Consumer Products, adding that books have been instrumental in turning Alvin & the Chipmunks and Ice Age from film-based to year-round brands.

Even as digital properties and initiatives were at the forefront, there was a distinct retro feel on much of the show floor, with a variety of vintage designs on offer as well as announcements about property relaunches. From the 1960s, Warner Bros. is debuting a licensing program for the Batman TV series and ITV Studios is promoting Thunderbirds, with Haynes among that property’s recent publishing licensees. From the 1980s, Hasbro is rereleasing the Furby doll, while Saban is relaunching two brands, Popples and My Pet Monster.

More than the usual number of properties were highlighting anniversaries in 2012 through 2014. For example, VeggieTales is celebrating its 20th in 2013, with recently signed publishing partners including Bendon, Ruckus, ScrollMotion, and Ideals Publications.

Masters of the Universe is celebrating its 30th, with DC Comics among the new licensees for that property. CBS marked the 25th year of Star Trek: The Next Generation with new books from existing licensees, including a TNG edition of Abrams’s 365 series. Discovery’s Shark Week also celebrated 25 years and recently signed with Time Home Entertainment for the property’s first newsstand bookazine, The Big Book of Sharks.

Several of the properties touting anniversaries were based on books, including Babar (80th), Berenstain Bears (50th), Clifford (50th), Goosebumps (20th), and Where’s Waldo? (25th).

Eye on International

The global nature of the licensing business was evident at the show, with many of the largest and most crowded booths belonging to licensors from outside the U.S. These included a lot of the digital property owners. Several of the leading video companies hail from Japan, for example, while virtual worlds and mobile properties, from Moshi Monsters and Stardoll to Angry Birds, hail from the U.K. or Nordic countries.

Meanwhile, licensors and agents reported significant interest from global manufacturers. Cynthia Cleveland, CEO of Broadlit, attended the show to pitch the company’s TRULove brand, based on a romance-themed Web site and e-book imprint, along with vintage cover images from True Romance magazine, for which Broadlit recently signed its first licensing deal, with “It’s been interesting to see how high the attention is internationally,” Cleveland said.

Suzy Spafford, creator of Suzy’s Zoo and Little Suzy’s Zoo (which have sold three million books with Dalmatian Press in the U.S. since March 2011) has developed books specifically for Japan, where retail sales of her properties exceed $110 million annually. The books were done at the request of the Japanese publisher, BL Publishing, and master licensee, Plaza Style, to introduce new characters into the market. Spafford’s agent, Lawless Entertainment—which also debuted licensing programs tied to the Little Prince and the Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel—was showing a new Little Suzy’s Zoo e-book developed with zuuka, the German children’s app publisher, among other initiatives.

Although attendees noted that traffic seemed light at the show, publishers and agents reported productive meetings. “There’s exciting stuff happening, with the show as the impetus,” said Michael Gombos, director of Asian licensing at Dark Horse, which exhibited in its dual role as a licensor (of Sin City, Hellboy, and the Goon) and a key licensee.

More publishers were attending. “The state of retail bookselling has given publishers who typically have not been interested in licensing more of an appetite for licenses,” explained Sullivan. “They realize that the opportunities to expand beyond bookstores into specialty and mass channels is greater with licensing.”

Pamela Westman, executive v-p, Americas, at HIT Entertainment, which was highlighting its newest property, Mike the Knight (for which Simon & Schuster was one of the first U.S. licensees), echoed other exhibitors when she said, “I feel an energy coming back to the licensing community.”