Children’s book publishers creating brands and partnerships

Just as consumers flock to mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart and Target searching for value and well-known brands, children's book publishers are increasingly taking a branded approach to their business, from bundling their diverse offerings into branded imprints, to treating their licensed...
May 1, 1998

Just as consumers flock to mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart and Target searching for value and well-known brands, children’s book publishers are increasingly taking a branded approach to their business, from bundling their diverse offerings into branded imprints, to treating their licensed tie-in and literary-based properties as brands unto themselves (see story page 55).

Brands, brands, brands

‘Kids can’t get enough of what they know and love,’ says Hope Innelli, vice president and editorial director of HarperActive, HarperCollins’ year-old children’s publishing imprint. With that in mind, the HarperActive imprint was created to focus on ‘branded publishing,’ meaning books that tie in with kids’ favorite movies or television programming or celebrities.

Simon & Schuster’s new Simon Spotlight imprint has a similar raison d’tre-the imprint, established last summer, houses all of S&S’s media-related properties. According to Alan Smagler, vice president of sales and marketing for Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing division, ‘We’re trying to brand that imprint as the place to come for some of the best and most innovative, leading-edge media properties right now. It gives a home to put all those properties, rather than spreading [them] out among five imprints.’

The trend towards featuring licensed entertainment properties in children’s publishing is nothing new. But two factors are driving an increase in the area: a proliferation of children’s TV and movie properties, and continued demand from mass merchandisers. ‘The mass consumer is relating to brands. Huge numbers of people are shopping at Wal-Mart and Kmart and Toys `R’ Us, where the book sections are loaded with licensed characters and properties,’ says Audrey Cusson, vice president of marketing and associate publisher for Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers’ Mass Merchandise Group. At the same time, mass merchandisers are becoming increasingly interested in the children’s book category, since it ‘fits very well with the profile of customer that they’re trying to attract in the store,’ states Richard Collins, executive vice president of sales, retail marketing and distribution for Golden Books Family Entertainment.

However, while mass merchandisers have typically focused their children’s book offerings around licensed characters, publishers believe they are becoming more selective in their buying in terms of the number of titles and formats related to licensed properties. This is due to the sheer number of children’s entertainment properties, especially animated feature films, being released within shorter and shorter windows, and to recent disappointment with movie properties that did not perform as expected. As a result, ‘[publishers are being] more conservative in which properties we buy into. Also, the number of titles we’re publishing for each property is more controlled and conservative,’ says Cusson.

While ‘movies in some ways are becoming riskier, . . . we’re seeing that television has great upside,’ says Scholastic’s Barbara Marcus, executive vice president of the book division, citing the current TV-based publishing phenoms Rugrats and Blue’s Clues. Simon & Schuster’s Smagler echoes that although the strength of TV-based licensed properties is nothing new, as exemplified by the enduring appeal of Sesame Street, ‘the continuing desire for new, innovative TV shows that can spawn to book products is definitely heightened now.’

Celebrities as brands

Fueled by young readers’ seemingly insatiable desire for the familiar, two more trends emerge: the celebrity-attached book brand and the concept of ‘instant publishing.’ With ‘the market depending more and more on name recognition,’ properties with a celebrity attachment-like the Little Bill series written by Bill Cosby, and The New Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley, based on the fictionalized adventures of TV’s Olsen twins-’allow you a positioning that you don’t do when you’re just publishing [non-celebrity-attached] original content,’ says Marcus.

In addition, Marcus describes what she calls ‘opportunistic publishing’: a trend of publishers reacting to what is happening in the media, with instant hot properties like Titanic, and hot celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Hanson. ‘[This is] publishing that is quick, not long term, but meets the need for children who have become fascinated by something and would like more information,’ she says. Random House’s vice president of marketing for Children’s Publishing, Joan Abramowitz, mentions two Titanic books that were on the publisher’s backlist ‘consistently blowing out of stores for the last eight weeks,’ as a compelling demonstration of the trend.

Licensing equals partnering

With increased activity and competition in licensed properties, an overarching theme emerges: the notion of partnerships. To maximize the impact of each new licensed property, licensors and publishing licensees are working together with a broader strategic outlook. Partnerships are unfolding between licensors and publishing licensees, among licensees of the same property and even among two publishing licensees of a single property.

Looking at licensor/licensee partnerships, Penguin Putnam and DreamWorks have just signed a deal giving Penguin Putnam rights to the studio’s next five animated movies. Random House recently acquired rights to a majority of formats for the future and classic Star Wars titles. A long-term publishing agreement between Simon & Schuster and Nickelodeon has just been extended. Landoll is Nickelodeon’s other publishing partner, for the under US$5 category, and also has a five-year arrangement with DreamWorks for books priced below US$4. Penguin’s Cusson explains: ‘What we’re doing is partnering with our licensors, as opposed to negotiating a contract for a single property. It gives you a longer time to work together with the licensor, to get the best possible exposure for your property.’

Even when they’re not signing long-term deals, licensors are increasingly integrating books into the overall marketing plan for a property. Says Marcus, ‘Before, we [publishers] weren’t really strongly connected to the other licensees and the other events. Now, we are a part of the overall impression that the studio or the licensing agent is trying to create for the property.’

HarperCollins-under the HarperActive imprint-and Golden Books were both licensees for Fox’s feature film Anastasia, splitting their rights essentially at the US$4 price point. In a move that was, if not unprecedented, certainly unusual, the two publishers partnered on their retail marketing initiatives. Innelli explains, ‘Our purpose was to serve the property well. They (Golden) handled price points and formats that didn’t compete with our price points and formats, so it made sense for us, given the magnitude of the program, to work together.’

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