The Hachette Book Group’s acquisition earlier this month of 1,100 titles published by Disney Book Group will bring changes to both companies’ approaches to the children’s book market. For Disney, the deal will allow it to focus on books and authors who can benefit from taking advantage of the media giant’s many platforms. The addition of the Disney titles will nearly double Little, Brown Books for Young Readers’ backlist and give it the opportunity to grow in new areas and to seek out more ways to extend the publishing program beyond books.
Disney Publishing Worldwide executives made it clear that the long acquisition spree by parent company Walt Disney Company was a major force behind the deal. “We’ve had a really transformative year at Disney. We took a closer look at how we approach content and acquisitions differently,” said Tonya Agurto, senior v-p at Disney Publishing Worldwide, a publisher with access to new IP from 20th Century Studios (formerly 20th Century Fox), National Geographic, and other Disney acquisitions. “We decided to focus on acquiring and developing global content that could be leveraged across multiple platforms and media,” she said.
The publisher now concentrates on finding the right format for the right region. For instance, audiobooks and interactive audio storytelling for smart speakers like Google Assistant and Alexa are important format trends in the U.S. market for Disney. At the same time, the multinational publisher puts more resources into multimedia storytelling and web-fiction formats for Asian markets.
“While we’re going to expand content-wise, I don’t anticipate that there will be any changes,” Agurto said when asked about potential staffing adjustments with the new strategy. Even though 1,100 titles have left Disney’s stable, the publisher is retaining such imprints as Disney Hyperion, Disney Press, Disney Editions, Marvel Press, and Lucasfilm Press.
“We have a robust portfolio moving forward,” she said when asked about the general size of the publisher’s new list. The publisher will continue to collaborate with a large number of writers, including (but not limited to) Rick Riordan, Eoin Colfer, Mo Willems, Ryan Higgins, Dhonielle Clayton, Alexandra Bracken, and Gretchen McNeil. “We gave a lot of thought to our entire portfolio,” Agurto said, adding that the company is looking for books and authors with global appeal.
The new strategy focuses on stories and authors who align with four key content pillars. First, the company aims to retell stories from its rich history. “National Geographic and 20th Century Studios expand the stories we are able to retell,” Agurto said. “Many of the films from 20th Century Studios come from the vault. National Geographic brings us a whole way to start talking about nonfiction storytelling and broadens our audience base. So we’ll see more nonfiction.”
Next, the company aims to extend stories beyond the original formats. “When people have a true affinity for a character, they don’t want to stop with the story they saw in the film, they want to know more. We like to extend those stories, and extensions are a big part of our strategy around the world,” Agurto said. Disney will soon launch Project Luminous, the working title for a Star Wars expansion that involves multiple publishers and authors.
The publisher will also reimagine stories from the company’s different IPs. “We take the tales that you know and turn them upside down. Think about what-if tales that are told in a fresh, contemporary way,” Agurto said. “It’s meant to bring in new audiences and also re-engage fans in ways that they haven’t been engaged in a while. We are working with a lot of the authors on our Hyperion list to continue to rethink our classic tales.”
Finally, Disney will build with the so-called create content pillar. “That’s where we are working with our authors on creating fabulous new stories that have worldbuilding potential,” Agurto said.
“We want to tell great stories no matter what the form,” Agurto concluded. “So it could be an audiobook, it could be an app, or it can be a straightforward jacketed, hardcover book, which we will always love.”
HBG’s Disney purchase is the latest in a string of deals the company has made in the last seven years: 1,000 adult titles acquired from Hyperion (2013); plus the purchases of Black Dog & Leventhal (2015), the Perseus Books Group (2016), and Worthy Publishing (2018). The Disney acquisition brings LBYR’s backlist to about 2,400 titles. Even as LBYR works to integrate the Disney titles, HBG CEO Michael Pietsch said the publisher will continue to look for additional acquisitions for the division. Though the Disney purchase gives the children’s group a larger percentage of HBG’s sales, Pietsch said he would like LBYR’s share of HBG’s revenue “to be larger still.”
Megan Tingley, executive v-p and publisher of LBYR, said the initial phase of integrating the list has gone smoothly. Since Disney and LBYR publish in many of the same areas and formats, the acquisition has led to a few authors reuniting with editors they have worked with in the past, while other editors are getting to work on books they lost to Disney, Tingley said. For some other authors, their Disney backlist will be joining their LBYR backlist. Another factor that is making the transition easier is that since HBG has been Disney’s distributor for years, Tingley said, “our indie, special-market, and international sales teams have been selling these authors and titles already, so they will hit the ground running.”
In a tangible early example of the benefits of the acquisition, Tingley noted that the first business day after the deal was closed, the former Disney title Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (2012) was HBG’s #1 bestselling book at Barnes & Noble, and it has been in the top 10 every day since.
LBYR has assigned editors to all the books and already identified some initial opportunities for potential repackages and repromotions for fall 2020 and 2021. Tingley has already made her first new hire: a senior editor who will manage many of the upcoming new titles as well as some backlist.
Tingley said that when she first joined LBYR, the company had just acquired the children’s list from Atlantic Monthly Press, and one of her first jobs was to help out with the acquisition. While upgrades in technology have changed the integration process, one thing remains the same: “It’s all about caring for the authors and nurturing the wonderful books they have brought us,” Tingley said.