For toy makers and publishers alike, the potential impact of the new coronavirus on their respective industries was one of the main topics of conversation at the 117th edition of Toy Fair New York, which ran February 22–25 at the Javits Center in Manhattan. The number of attendees, which is generally about 25,000 (final figures weren’t available at press time), was also expected to be down somewhat, as the U.S. has been denying entry to anyone who has been in China during the previous 14 days.
Despite the lack of Chinese visitors, traffic on the show floor did not seem significantly lighter than in a typical year. When the fair opened, the booth displays of the approximately 30 publishers and authors exhibiting their books and sidelines illustrated how the children’s book industry is testing new strategies and tactics. Many of the initiatives reflect growing synergies between books and toys as a means of succeeding in a changing landscape.
Phoenix International Publications (PI Kids) devoted half of its booth to its new toy division, announced at Toy Fair last year. It has also been expanding beyond its core interactive sound books into traditional children’s formats such as board books, storybooks, and picture books. Among the new programs PI Kids was highlighting with longtime partner Disney was a line of books under the Disney My First Stories banner, a repackaging of a Hachette series from France. “We’re not going after new one-off licenses, but we’re doing more with our big licensors, including Disney,” explained PI Kids marketing director Lynn Sikora. PI Kids also showed three coloring and activity titles, its first ever, with longtime partner Baby Einstein.
Like PI Kids, Carson Dellosa Education added toys to its display this year, with about half of its booth devoted to a new line of musical instruments under Mattel’s Fisher-Price license. “It’s not a flash card or a workbook, but it’s still education,” said William Harris, director of inside sales. The company also introduced a new line of licensed Disney Learning workbooks, flash cards, and other core formats.
Fox Chapel’s Happy Kids imprint, launched in 2018, is making a foray into picture books with artist Jim Shore’s Magic in the Attic, based on a line of gift figurines from another Toy Fair exhibitor, Enesco. “Picture books is a new direction for us,” said Michele Sensenig, v-p sales. Another first for Happy Kids is publishing translated books, and at the fair it showed two titles acquired through foreign rights deals—from the Czech Republic and Italy. Fox Chapel’s initial joke books, done with educational activities specialist Kid Scoop, were also on display.
Chronicle Books and its siblings Mudpuppy and Galison, as well as Quarto and its SmartLab division, featured 50/50 mixes of books and products in their respective joint booths. To achieve that balance, both Chronicle and Quarto significantly increased the booth space devoted to books compared to previous Toy Fairs.
The connection between books and toys carried over into toy company assortments as well, from plush specialist Fiesta to educational toy maker Manhattan Toy, both of which offered board and bath books tied to many of their toys. The books typically have ISBNs but are sold primarily in channels that carry the related toys. Specialty toy company Melissa and Doug highlighted an extensive range of books—it launched a publishing effort in August 2019 after its acquisition of Innovative Kids.
Publishers were also connecting with new customers and exploring new distribution channels. First-time exhibitor Kidsbooks sells its titles mainly in school book fairs but participated in the show to expand into the toy and gift markets, according to Lynn Phillips, specialty sales manager. And Happy Fox’s new deal with YouTube ukulele influencer Emily Arrow, for a book called Kids Guide to Learning the Ukulele, has gotten the publisher into music stores, thanks to Arrow’s relationship with instrument maker Kala, which was at the fair and is helping the publisher secure placement.
“At Toy Fair, return customers come in ready to write orders,” said Barbara Peacock, managing director of School Zone. “But every year we see quite a few brand-new customers as well.”