The 96th annual American International Toy Fair, held in mid-February in New York City, offered clear evidence of the increasingly close ties between the toy and children's book industries. Special sales executives from more than 40 juvenile publishers were on hand, either at their by-appointment-only Toy Center showrooms in the Flatiron district or at booths at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. Meanwhile, literary properties were among the highest profile licenses at the show.

Toy Fair has long played a role in the children's book industry, but the list of publishers taking booths is growing. First-timers this year included William Morrow Children's Books and Chronicle Books; Candlewick Press returned after a five-year hiatus. "With Maisy we couldn't not come to Toy Fair," said Tammy Flaherty, Candlewick's v-p of sales and marketing and associate publisher, referring to the Lucy Cousins books published by Candlewick. Maisy debuted as a Nickelodeon TV series last month, and was a ratings success from the outset.

Among the publishers with many licensed properties that do not exhibit at the fair are Simon &Schuster Children's Books and Disney Children's Publishing, although they are present through subrights holders and/or in conjunction with their licensers or co-licensees.

One of the major attractions of Toy Fair for publishers is the diversity of customers. Toy and gift stores (both chains and independents) are still a relatively small channel for many children's book companies, but they are growing in importance -- as are other nontraditional channels, such as drug, arts and crafts, grocery, mass market and variety stores, all of which send buyers and senior management. Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children's Books, noted that her company assigns account specialists to chains such as Toys R Us and discusses them at weekly sales meetings. "Toys R Us is definitely part of our thinking," she said.

For publishers with significant mass market distribution, Toy Fair is as important as traditional book fairs. "For our business, this is the Holy Grail of all shows," said Rick Busby, v-p of marketing and licensing at Landoll's. Estimating that bookstores account for about 15% of Landoll's sales, Busby emphasized that BEA remains important for promoting Landoll's lines to booksellers, but he pointed out that buyers for nontraditional channels rarely attend book fairs.

In many cases, Toy Fair customers need to be sold on the benefits of carrying books. Lynn Waggoner, director of special markets at DK Publishing, explained, "We tell them, `We have things that can incorporate and complement what you already carry.'" She added that buyers at Toy Fair usually take fewer SKUs but in higher quantities than those at BEA.

Some bookstore buyers, usually from the chains, attend Toy Fair primarily to look for sidelines. "We have certainly expanded our nonbook business and it's more successful [than it used to be]," said Steve Geck, director of children's books at Barnes &Noble. Geck looks for literary characters, such as Madeline and Dr. Seuss, for which sidelines are available, especially from companies whose products the chain d s not already carry. (Some toy companies call on B&N regularly.)

Selection Skews Younger

At Toy Fair, publishers usually showcase franchises and licensed titles, books for younger readers (especially board books, which are carried successfully by many toy retailers) and book-plus items and products such as plush or card games. They also focus on bestsellers that have had success in mass channels, interactive titles, novelty books, lower-priced items (often under $10) and point-of-purchase displays.

Toy Fair offers publishers an additional opportunity to generate excitement for forthcoming book programs. Random House, Scholastic and DK were promoting their Star Wars Episode 1 tie-ins, as were other Star Wars licensees, although licenser Lucasfilm allowed the new products to be exhibited only to some retailers and licensees behind closed doors.

While some selling d s occur at Toy Fair -- especially to mom-and-pop toy stores and international buyers -- deals with major retailers are usually concluded before the show. Therefore, the PR value of exhibiting is an equally important consideration. "It's a terrific opportunity to reach a wide variety of customers and show them the breadth of our line," said Rich Maryyanek, senior v-p of marketing at Golden Children's Publishing.

Since promotional activity often involves not only books but videos, TV, films, CD-ROMs and licensed products, many exhibitors use Toy Fair to update retail buyers on promotional plans. Scholastic's Dear America line is one example of possible synergies between entertainment, consumer products and books. Leslye Schaefer, senior v-p of marketing and consumer products at Scholastic Entertainment, reported that a Dear America press tour involving some of the series' authors was delayed until March in order to support both the books and the HBO TV series, which debuts this month. Dear America diaries, created for distribution through Scholastic's book clubs and book fairs, are also being packaged with licensed dolls introduced at Toy Fair by Madame Alexander. Similarly, Mattel will advertise Golden Books' Generation Girl titles (a licensed extension of the Barbie brand) in a five-second spot at the end of its TV commercials this spring.

Networking, Trend-Spotting

Many children's publishers (even if not exhibiting) attend Toy Fair to network and discuss comarketing ventures with licensees from other industries who are in town for the show. They also use the fair to stay informed on what licensers, toy companies and other licensees are doing to promote properties in which the publishers have a stake. "To a certain extent, our business follows their business," said Karen Lotz, president and publisher of Dutton Children's Books, which will market Mr. Potato Head and Easy Bake Oven titles in its Playskool Books imprint under license from Hasbro.

Publishers also attend the show to look for trends, hot licenses and new toy properties. Although most of the major licensers have already signed their publishing partners before Toy Fair begins, smaller companies may offer opportunities.

"We look for cool new toy technologies that might apply to books," said Lotz, noting that innovations that appear first in the toy industry, ranging from glow-in-the-dark stickers to electronic and interactive features, can often work in books as well.

"For anyone in publishing, you've got to go over and spend some time there," said Katz of HarperCollins. "They are serving the same age group as we are, and there are many parallels."