Properties target consumers from birth through adulthood

Readers of all ages are benefiting from the character licensing that is currently the rage in children's publishing. Licensed books are available for children of many age levels, starting with Scholastic's Teletubbies titles, based on the first licensed property specifically aimed at children aged 1-3. Licenses such as Barney and Sesame Street appeal to post-Teletubbies preschoolers, Arthur and Rugrats to early readers, and Pokemon and Scooby Doo to middle-graders. Sabrina the Teenage Witch targets preteens, Dawson's Creek teenagers, and South Park adults. Some, such as Star Wars, attract a wide audience and are published for various age groups.

Most publishers try to maintain a varied licensing roster in terms of age-appeal, limiting the number of similar properties within any single age

Tuning In
TUNING IN: Toddlers and preschoolers have their pick of a wide range of titles based on popular TV characters.

bracket and filling in holes with high-profile licenses. "We have turned down things because we'd be competing directly with ourselves," said Craig Walker, editorial director of Scholastic Paperbacks. At the same time, the fact that Scholastic lacked a strong preschool license was a key factor in its acquisition of Teletubbies.

"We certainly wouldn't want to compete against ourselves," agreed Robin Corey, publisher of novelty and media tie-ins at Simon &Schuster Children's Publishing. "But if something's really hot, we'd rather have it than let someone else have it."

"We try to have a diversified portfolio," said Rick Busby, v-p, marketing and licensing at Landoll Inc. The company's licenses include Blue's Clues, Baby Looney Tunes, Land Before Time, and Muppet Babies for younger children, Prince of Egypt and Small Soldiers for older readers, and Arthur and Rugrats for several age levels.

Targeting the Program

Once a publisher acquires a license, it must decide which reader segment is the core audience. The target may be exactly the same as the target for the property overall, as is the case with Dutton's Easy Bake Oven books. They are labeled for ages eight and up, according to Karen Lotz, president and publisher of Dutton Children's Books, because the toy line is marked that way due to safety concerns.

When a property attracts a wide audience, publishers often go after just a narrow slice of it at first. For example, Mr. Potato Head appeals to all ages, but Dutton's tie-ins focus on 8 x 8s, sticker books, mix-and-match books and board books, each aimed at a targeted reading level. By listening to producers, watching videos of a TV program or film, reading scripts and examining marketing data, publishers can get a sense of which formats will appeal most to a specific audience. Film properties are a different story. "We try to maximize [movie properties] across age groups if it's appropriate," said Nancy Pines, publisher of Pocket Books imprints Archway, Minstrel and the new Pocket Pulse. She noted that films with "all-ages appeal," such as The Mask of Zorro, are spun off into book products ranging from digest-size for middle-graders through adult titles.

Some films do not lend themselves to formats for every age, however. Walker said that while Scholastic published a variety of formats, including 8 x 8s and rack-size novelizations, for both Godzilla and Lost in Space, the storyline of the latter was probably too complicated for 8 x 8s. Godzilla was better suited to that format, he explained, since the focus was on the character rather than on the plot. Due to competition in the book industry and the poor track record of recent film licenses, many publishers are limiting the number of titles for movie tie-ins.

Like film tie-ins, other licensed lines can target a wide range of age levels right from the beginning. Dutton will aim half its first eight titles under the Discovery brand, licensed from the cable TV channel, at ages four to eight and the other half at ages eight to 12.

Finding an Audience

Some properties are difficult to target. Pocket's Minstrel imprint released the first two titles based on Nickelodeon's Kenan &Kel in fall 1998, but the next two will be published under the Archway imprint, skewed toward older readers. "There comes a time in every kid's life where they would rather die than be seen with a digest-sized book," Pines said. "Kenan &Kel straddle that line."

Similarly, two teen properties, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson's Creek, fell somewhere between Archway and Pocket's adult imprint. Initially, they were published with a Pocket logo, but with Archway and Minstrel handling editorial duties and promoting the books to YA buyers. These two licenses helped the company recognize the need for a separate imprint for ages 14 and up, said Pines. The result, Pocket Pulse, debuting this fall, is the label under which Pocket will release future Buffy and Dawson titles, as well those based on the television series Charmed.

Despite the best efforts of the publisher and licensor, consumers are the final arbiters of which formats work. S&S's Rugrats line initially focused on board books and 8 x 8s, but the program is now centered on 8 x 8s and up. "Really young kids were watching the show," Corey said, "but the books were being bought for [older] kids who asked for them. We felt we would have more success [with older-skewing titles], and we have." The company continues to release occasional titles for younger readers.

Licensing programs can be equally tricky to position. Leslye Schaefer, senior

Buffy and Sabrina
BUFFY AND SABRINA: Two licenses in Pocket's new Pulse imprint.

v-p of marketing and consumer products at Scholastic Entertainment, pointed out that the initial licensing effort for The Magic School Bus series five years ago was aimed at the six-to-10-year-old readers of the original books. The television series attracted younger viewers, so Scholastic has relaunched the licensing effort to focus on preschoolers.

Schaefer noted that licensors plan their licensing and promotional strategies a year and a half before a TV show premieres. "In spite of the best-laid plans," she admitted, "you're going to have to be flexible and spontaneous."

"Properties seem to find a level that's best for them," Walker said, citing the Scholastic's classic Star Wars books as an example. Star Wars attracts two groups of young fans: those who "like to collect cool stuff" and those who like to read more about the characters. "Older kids really get the depth of the epic itself," Walker explained, noting that reading-level titles are always more popular than really simple books.

To further complicate the targeting process, some properties appeal to a demographic range that is actually composed of several subsegments, each with its own needs in terms of publishing. This is particularly true of the preschool market. "There are big differences from [age] two to five," cautioned Steve Youngwood, director of software and publishing at Nickelodeon, licensor of the preschool property Blue's Clues.

Licensors are beginning to look at the preschool sector as more than a single target audience as well. "We really try to segment within the preschool market," said Kenn Viselman, president, chairman and CEO of the itsy bitsy Entertainment Co., which licenses properties for ages six and under, including Teletubbies and Noddy.

He noted that Scholastic's Teletubbies titles reflect the simplicity of the TV show, while HarperCollins's Noddy story and concept books, for children aged three to seven, are faster-paced. "Noddy is for children who are ready to learn," said Viselman. "Teletubbies is for children who are ready to be ready to learn."

Expanding the Audience

Once a licensed book line takes off with its core readers, it is often expanded into other age brackets. Generally it extends downward to younger kids (especially if a television series is involved), but it can reach upward as well. Rugrats, The Magic School Bus and Arthur are all examples of properties that have spread into both younger and older formats. Pocket Books is even launching a few Rugrats titles for adults.

Arthur, originally for readers aged four to eight, started moving into board and flap books after the PBS television series premiered. "I was dumbfounded that the demographics of the show were picking up kids who were also watching Barney," said Marc Brown, creator of the Arthur books. According to the latest Nielsen figures, Arthur was the number-one ranked show for children aged two to five in the last quarter of 1998.

Studies reporting that 82% of the show's viewers wanted to read more about the characters led Brown to authorize chapter books, adapted from the show's scripts and published by Arthur's original publisher, Little, Brown. "The chapter books took off at an accelerated rate that we weren't expecting," Brown said. More than 20 million Arthur books in all formats have sold since the TV series premiered.

Signs that the market is ripe for expansion can come from a number of sources. Sabrina the Teenage Witch, a television series licensed by Viacom Consumer Products, was initially aimed at girls eight to 10 and the tie-in books were published under Pocket's Archway imprint. Pam Newton, v-p of marketing at Viacom, pointed out that the show's winning two Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards and receiving favorable Q Ratings (a measurement of brand awareness) among under-seven viewers led Viacom and Pocket to consider extending the line. "These things gave us clues that a younger audience was there," Newton said. A year after the release of the first mass-market size Archway books, the franchise joined the digest-size Minstrel imprint, too, with a spin-off series called Sabrina the Teenage Witch: Salem's Tails.

Requests from bookstore customers also can lead to line extensions. "We're hearing our accounts scream for older digest novelizations [for Rugrats]," said Corey, noting that S&S will release the first two titles in this format in spring 2000.

Not all expansion efforts are successful, of course. Viacom and S&S tried to extend their lucrative adult Star Trek publishing franchise into the children's sector, for example, but "it didn't find its home there," according to Newton. "Star Trek is much more for teens and adults."

One of the key risks associated with taking a property into younger age brackets -- especially if it initially appealed to teens, preteens or middle-graders -- is that the core readers tend to move away once their younger siblings latch on to it. Scholastic's Walker noted that Pokemon, based on a Nintendo game, is ideal for fourth graders, but he is aware that the Pokemon television series will ultimately bring the age down. "I just hope it d sn't get dem d down too quickly," he said, "because that just kills it for the lucrative middle grade."

The same phenomenon occurs even within the preschool market. Viselman notes that itsy bitsy will introduce a Teletubbies baby line of merchandise next year, but will not do the same for Noddy. Seeing their infant siblings with a Noddy bottle would drive away the older preschool audience. "They don't want to be babies," Viselman said.

Whether another property for the very young will follow in the Teletubbies' footsteps is unknown. One thing is certain, though. With 13 of the top 16 children's frontlist hardcovers for 1998 in PW's latest edition of "The Red &the Black," an annual listing of the year's bestselling titles, being licensed properties -- each selling more than 300,000 units last year -- licensed books will remain an important force in children's book publishing, no matter which age group is being targeted.