Building brands from publishing properties

As children's book publishers prepare to showcase their products at BookExpo later this month, increasingly, they are looking to build brands around original publishing properties. The notion of branding is playing a bigger role in the business overall, with publishers developing...
May 1, 1998

As children’s book publishers prepare to showcase their products at BookExpo later this month, increasingly, they are looking to build brands around original publishing properties. The notion of branding is playing a bigger role in the business overall, with publishers developing brands around imprints and celebrity-attached lines as well. Publishers are also finding themselves more often in partnerships with licensors, other licensees, and even other publishers for licensed properties.

Children’s book publishing is a business in transition. In the words of Richard Collins, executive vice president of sales, retail marketing and distribution for Golden Books Family Entertainment, there’s been ‘a paradigm shift in terms of the way people view the business,’ wherein companies that once saw themselves as publishers of individual books now realize that they are also custodians of some of the world’s best-loved brands.

Some might argue that the notion of building original publishing properties into brands has been around for a long time-Lassie and Little House on the Prairie are cases in point. However, the phenomenal success of new literary-based properties like Goosebumps over the last decade has raised the stakes and heightened awareness among publishers of the potential gold mines available to them.


The blueprint on branding

Scholastic is clearly at the head of the class in the area, with established successes like The Baby-Sitters Club, The Magic School Bus and Goosebumps-all of which have extended into significant licensing programs and television properties-as well as up-and-comers like Animorphs and Dear America, targeted at eight- to 12-year-olds.

Barbara Marcus, executive vice president of Scholastic’s book division, attributes Scholastic’s success to the combination of identifying great stories and characters and using innovative packaging and marketing. Another key element in Scholastic’s arsenal is its extensive distribution-the company believes that it is largest operator of book clubs and school book fairs in the U.S., in addition to having wide trade (bookstore) and mass-merchandiser distribution.

Using Animorphs as a case study, Marcus says the property started as a single book, which Scholastic’s editorial director, Jean Feiwel, recognized as a potential hit. The series was launched in June 1996. Building on the secrecy and intrigue of the Animorphs stories, Scholastic’s launch campaign centered on teaser books, which were sent through all of Scholastic’s distribution channels, as well as TV advertising on Nickelodeon and an excerpt in Nickelodeon Magazine. Innovative cover art and packaging rounded out the mix. ‘When we launch a series, we take what we can afford and we market it very heavily as if we were launching a movie,’ says Marcus.

With over 10 million books in print, Animorphs sits at number one on Publishers Weekly’s best-selling children’s paperback series list for March 1998. The property has garnered strong foreign rights sales, and an Animorphs television series will launch on Nickelodeon in the fall.

Scholastic may be a few years ahead of the pack, but other publishers also have their own brand-building success stories, often with properties that had been on their backlist for years.

Golden Books’ perennial early childhood favorites Pat the Bunny and The Poky Little Puppy are exploring the world outside of books. In the last year, both have launched toy and apparel licensing programs, and a video is in the works for The Poky Little Puppy. Golden Books’ Collins says that given Puppy’s almost universal recognition, there was strong interest in the brand among potential licensees.

HarperCollins’ classic bedtime story Goodnight Moon is another example. Working closely with the estates of author Margaret Wise Brown and illustrator Clement Hurd, HarperCollins has created a ‘small, but incredibly successful licensing program’ for the property, says Kate Morgan Jackson, senior vice president, associate publisher and editor in chief of children’s books.

Other notable examples of books that have burst out of their covers into other media include Little, Brown’s Arthur, now a top-rated show on PBS, Ravensburger’s KŠpt’n BlaubŠr in Germany, and Houghton-Mifflin’s Curious George.

A matter of rights

In the previous examples, the publishers owned most, if not all, rights to the properties. In today’s competitive children’s entertainment environment, that is not a situation publishers regularly find themselves in, especially with new properties. HarperCollins’ Morgan Jackson explains: ‘Publishing a book 10 or 20 years ago did not necessarily lead to a raft of merchandising licenses the way that it can today. It can be extremely lucrative if you end up with something on your hands that’s like an Arthur or a Goosebumps. [Authors, illustrators and agents] are as well aware of that as we are.’

Nevertheless, many children’s book publishers are also building and extending brands within the context of the publishing rights they do hold. Random House is building its first- and second-grade child-targeted paperback series The Magic Treehouse through an extensive school program, targeting teachers as influencers. Teachers sign up for US$3.95 and receive a monthly package about the curriculum-driven series.

However much opportunity there may be in building brands around literary-based properties, Morgan Jackson points out, ‘there are properties . . . [with which] you want to be careful. [They're] beloved and part of American culture . . . and you don’t want to do anything to cheapen that.’

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