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Partworks profit potential is greater than the sum of its pieces

Although it may not be as global as some other publishing categories, the partworks business is definitely worth a look for kids property owners planning significant brand activity in Europe. In its stronghold territory, the UK, licensed titles were responsible for three-quarters of all kids partwork sales last year. And across Europe, the category posted an estimated US$281 million in sales.
April 1, 2008

Although it may not be as global as some other publishing categories, the partworks business is definitely worth a look for kids property owners planning significant brand activity in Europe. In its stronghold territory, the UK, licensed titles were responsible for three-quarters of all kids partwork sales last year. And across Europe, the category posted an estimated US$281 million in sales.

So what are partworks, anyways? In a nutshell, they’re collectible magazines containing quizzes, games and fun facts, usually published weekly or bi-weekly. Each part can range from 16 to 32 pages, and they often include a toyetic cover-mount like a figurine or mini-pack of trading cards. Much emphasis is placed on the first issue as a starting point from which kids can build a whole collection of exclusive products. When the first issue of Nickelodeon’s Dora Dress Up & Go launched in January, it came with a Dora doll, and subsequent parts featured doll clothes that tied into a different theme each time. So the ‘Ice-Skating Fiesta’ issue sported a lycra figure skating costume, and ‘Cowgirl Adventure’ offered a tasseled vest and denim skirt.

Although partworks have been around since the 1950s, they really made their biggest gains in popularity in the ’70s, most prominently in the UK and France, but also in Australia, Japan, South America and Latin America. They experienced a resurgence in the market in the ’90s, thanks to new technologies that allowed publishers to package them with higher-value cover-mounts such as DVDs and CD-ROMs, driving the retail price up to a top end of about US$15.

A typical series lasts anywhere from 30 to 60 fortnightly issues or between 70 and 100 weekly releases, so they tend to be on shelves for around two years – and sometimes even longer. Eaglemoss Publishing Group’s Lord of the Rings partwork, for example, has been in distribution since the first movie’s release in 2001 and was recently extended to 140 issues.

But not all properties are good candidates for the partworks format. Brands that do well in this category tend to already have a solid and widespread fan base, as well as a wealth of characters and environments that can be translated into the vast amounts of content needed for an extended print run. Gregoire Halbout, VP of home video and publishing for Nickelodeon & Viacom Consumer Products International, which derives 25% of its total publishing revenue from partworks, stresses that they should really only be considered for the second or third phase of a property’s licensing program. ‘The partwork is not a trendsetter that can be used to establish a franchise,’ he says. ‘You would always wait to have established your main product categories, especially where publishing is concerned. The (brand) awareness has to be sufficient enough to sustain such a heavy investment-based project.’

To this point, the creation and approval process on partworks can take quite a bit of time, not to mention the intensive market testing that’s typically involved. Susan Bolsover, a category director at Brit agency CPLG, says the company’s latest Shrek partwork with DreamWorks and publisher GE Fabbri was in development for two years, going through many rounds of editorial tweaking, testing each new version vigorously, and then waiting for licensor approval.

Although tedious, the testing phase is vital to the process because it determines whether the partwork is marketable and what distribution levels it will support. Hachette Partworks starts off the process by testing concepts, magazines and cover mounts with focus groups. Then if the feedback is favorable, the company will release a handful of issues in a specific geographic region. MD Celeste Surugue says he waits for statistics from the first four issues to come back before making a final call about whether or not the title is viable. A good test not only yields decent sales on the first issue, but maintains or exceeds that level of buy-in on the next two or three to indicate that consumers will keep coming back for more over the duration of the program.

If a partwork comes out of testing successfully, then the publisher embarks on an expensive, high-profile media launch. It’s not uncommon to spend upwards of US$1.5 million on the television campaign alone, says Hachette’s Surugue, delivering the same number of ads in 10 days as a Fast Moving Consumer Goods company does in a month. Because the program will hit retail with so much marketing behind it, Surugue adds that retailers are generally quite eager to display the product to its best advantage. He says an average partwork running in the UK will be distributed in as many as 25,000 to 30,000 newsstands, kiosks and supermarket magazine aisles across the country.

Subscriptions have also become an integral part of the sales strategy in this category, and most programs kick off with subscription inserts in the first few issues. Eaglemoss’s editorial director Maggie Calmels says that this distribution method is experiencing increasing success and observes that ‘some people subscribe based on seeing the URL on the TV ad, without buying anything at all in the shop.’ CPLG’s Bolsover says that in some cases, subscriptions can account for more than 50% of a program’s total lifetime sales.

Royalty rates in this category are based on cover price and can range between 2.55% and 6%. CPLG’s Bolsover expands that companies don’t start recouping on their investment until about 15 or so issues into the run, which can make for a stressful first year. But despite the inherent risk, a successful partworks program can do wonders for a brand and trigger a high revenue flow. Nickelodeon sold 19 million units of its Rugrats, Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants partworks in four years. And though he wouldn’t divulge specific numbers, Halbout says it’s a multi-million-dollar business, and NVCP is currently working on developing partworks for other territories. For its part, Eaglemoss’s Lord of the Rings program experienced a US$27.6-million turnover.

With such solid potential, you may be wondering why this publishing model hasn’t hit North American shores. It’s certainly not from lack of trying. But almost without fail, partworks sales for test programs in the US and Canada have tended to drop instead of increase as time goes on. Hachette’s Surugue believes that one factor working against the category is that North America doesn’t have the same penetration of newsstands and smaller kiosks as Europe, which gives customers better and easier access to product.

Nickelodeon’s Halbout theorizes that the economic model of partworks doesn’t jibe with consumption habits in North America, where shoppers have become accustomed to and almost reliant on a heavy and constant barrage of marketing to remind them to keep buying an ongoing product range. Instead, the ‘declining curve’ of the average partworks planogram funnels all the investment into the beginning stages of the program to maximize brand exposure, and then consumers are left to their own collecting pleasures with no further promotions beyond the initial push.

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