“Storytelling” was the most frequently cited buzzword among the 400 exhibitors at this year’s Licensing International Expo. The show ran from June 17 to 19 in Las Vegas and dealt with the fast-changing world of digital technology and today’s challenging retail landscape.

Licensors of all types, from movie studios and toy companies to corporate brands and fashion labels, are positioning themselves as storytellers, using character development and narrative to engage fans and make their products stand out on the shelf. And print and digital publishing—along with movies, TV, online entertainment, apps, and theme parks—comprise a key part of that mission.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, recounted in the show’s keynote address how, since the release of Shrek in 2001, DreamWorks has been transformed from a movie studio into a producer of movies, TV, online entertainment, publishing, location-based entertainment, and consumer products. “Licensees and retailers are our storytelling partners,” he explained.

Similarly, Rovio Entertainment has expanded from its core Angry Birds gaming franchises into publishing, animation, consumer products, location-based entertainment, and an upcoming feature film. “Publishing is a way to get to know the characters and deepen the experience,” said Laura Nevanlinna, Rovio’s publishing director. “Our fans are so hungry for more information on anything we do.”

“Kids really want to be involved in the backstory,” agreed Ashley Maidy, head of global licensing and partnerships for Activision, licensor of the Skylanders franchise. “There are hundreds of characters in the franchise, and the books let the fans go into more depth on those characters.” She reported that Penguin’s Skylanders Universe publishing program was an immediate hit when launched in April 2012, exceeding expectations with sales of 2.5 million copies to date.

DreamWorks announced the launch of DreamWorks Press earlier this year. Among the six titles on the launch list this fall are two 300-page hardcover entries in its Storytellers Collections series, featuring characters from the Kung Fu Panda, Shrek, Madagascar, and How To Train Your Dragon franchises, none of which have been extensively published between feature films in the past.“We want to develop books that will backlist and keep the stories fresh in people’s minds,” said Emma Whittard, who heads the imprint.

DreamWorks debuted another new imprint, Awesomeness Ink, at the show. It was founded to publish books tied to the original content on AwesomenessTV, DreamWorks’s recently acquired online entertainment hub for teen and adult females. The first books will be YA novels based on two of the network’s series, Runaways and Side Effects.

Hasbro also has made the transition from simply selling toys to producing films, TV shows, digital entertainment, and more. “The story is what drives the appeal of the brands across generations,” said Michael Kelly, director of global publishing. “We’re not selling the toy, we’re selling the story behind the toy.” The company’s licensed publishing programs, especially for key franchises such as My Little Pony and Transformers, run the gamut from all-original chapter books and episode novelizations to high-end collectible titles.

“We think a lot about how we approach the storytelling concept,” Kelly explained. Hasbro licensees, for example, have recently published several “in-world” books, which take books that appear or are mentioned on screen and make them real. Similarly, many of Hasbro’s licensed books are packaged with an exclusive toy that ties into the plot and helps increase the reader’s engagement with the narrative.

Books and book content can also introduce and market the studios’ entertainment ventures in all media. Nickelodeon announced the launch of a new Dora TV series, Dora & Friends: Into the City, which will launch in August. The original Dora the Explorer will remain, both on screen and on shelf with consumer products. “This is a way to extend Dora the Explorer as her fans grow up,” said Paula Allen, senior v-p of global publishing. “Both brands can live side by side,” she added, noting that Dora the Explorer focuses on exploring nature and the world, while Dora & Friends takes place in the city and focuses on teamwork and pro-social messages.

The marketing campaign for the new series includes six free e-books, available through platforms including Nook, Kindle, Kobo, and GooglePlay, that introduce the new characters. Print minibook versions of the e-books are being given out at events across the country this summer. At this May’s BookCon, Nickelodeon sponsored the kids’ area and introduced the new series through events.

Random House will launch six titles tied to Dora & Friends this fall, and will continue to publish books tied to Dora the Explorer as well. All told, Nickelodeon publicized 12 new licensing deals in print and digital publishing and stationery at the expo, across all its properties, involving licensees such as iStorytime, Parragon, Random House, Running Press, Sourcebooks, Kobo, and Google.