Most publishers and authors used their booth presence at the 113th North American International Toy Fair (February 13–16 in New York City) to sell books—along with sidelines such as craft kits, gifts, and plush—to toy stores and other special markets. But a growing number also used the show to tout some of their proprietary brands to manufacturers walking the aisles, in the hopes of ultimately signing licensing agreements.
Albert Whitman & Company was a first-time exhibitor at Toy Fair and was using the event to reach buyers the publisher doesn’t see in the book channel, according to Mike Spradlin, director of sales and marketing. He said that the company’s entire display was generating interest from attendees, especially the gift and science books—the latter of which are an increasingly good fit in toy stores.
In addition, the company was highlighting its Boxcar Children series as a licensed property. The series celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2017 and is expanding into consumer products on the strength of 60 million books sold across 150 titles. Licensees so far include lithographs for T-shirts and totes, and Lionel Trains for a toy boxcar. “That’s probably the most logical license ever,” Spradlin said of the Lionel Trains deal.
Long-time Toy Fair exhibitor School Zone Publishing, which sells leveled educational books and materials, also has designs on entertainment and licensing. Not only was it showing new book titles across almost all of its established brands and series, but it was introducing attendees to Charlie & Co., a character property it developed as proprietary content for its Little Scholar educational tablets. School Zone has been producing animation based on Charlie & Co. and expects to announce a distribution deal soon, according to managing director Barb Peacock. It also has plans for other consumer products down the road.
Among the newer publishers that were on the show floor selling products and intellectual property was Green Kids Club, which specializes in stories about environmental topics. Its books and plush figures are sold through specialty stores as well as the book trade. President and CEO Sylvia Medina reported that she is developing Green Kids Club animation and was hoping to expand the brand into other consumer products as well.
Authors also were using Toy Fair to parlay their book-world success into other product categories. One example is Caroline Jayne Church, a British author whose books for preschoolers, published with Scholastic in the U.S., have sold six million copies worldwide. She recently launched the LoveMeez brand, based on a new series of four books (I Love My Robot, I Love My Puppy, I Love My Bunny, and I Love My Dinosaur), which Scholastic published in the U.S. last fall.
Church and her licensing agent, U.K.-based Brands with Influence, were at Toy Fair exhibiting the books and a new range of merchandise, including plush, creativity toys, puzzles, and gifts, which Church designed in response to fan demand. They were also promoting LoveMeez for licensing. “We’re looking into classic brand-extension products,” said Dom Wheeler, director of Brands with Influence, citing room decor and apparel as potential areas of interest.
Literary properties from the digital world increasingly are able to transition into physical products, sometimes early in their lifespan. Book distribution platform Made in Me recently signed Pan Macmillan for Made in Me’s e-book series Little Legends, said Eric Huang, Made in Me director and co-owner, who was at the show. The first two physical books just launched in the U.K. simultaneously with the e-books, as well as a gaming app, to be followed by a U.S. launch through Sourcebooks. Huang has plans for animation and consumer products. “It’s really a traditional licensing thing now and not just a digital brand,” he said.
Even the largest toy companies are starting to look outside of traditional TV and film entertainment—toward books and e-books, for instance—for licensable properties. Sometimes they are attracted by large audiences or a high level of fan engagement; in other cases they may want to get in on the ground floor to help build a brand. Mass market toy company Jazwares, for example, introduced a line of toys for girls based on Animal Jam, an online game with more than 50 million registered players across 200 countries that was developed in partnership with National Geographic. National Geographic’s publishing arm sells tie-in books to the game and was exhibiting them at the show.
Content of all kinds has become a driving force in the toy industry. Toy sales in the U.S. grew 6.7% in 2015 over the previous year, according to figures released last month by the NPD Group, a rate of increase more than double the 3% seen in 2014. NPD attributed the industry health in large part to licensing and content, citing films such as Star Wars and Jurassic World, TV shows such as Paw Patrol and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, interactive brands such as Minecraft, and YouTube content–backed toy brands such as Shopkins. All those properties were prominent at Toy Fair.