Once upon a time the publishing industry—a realm populated with writers, illustrators and editors—opened its gates to producers and broadcasters alike. They collaborated to create entertainment for children in kingdoms around the world, and they all lived happily ever after.
Publishing has been an integral partner for film and television for decades, licensing in and out. But as streaming platforms multiply and the demand for children’s content explodes, the alliance isn’t a simple fairy tale anymore.
More books are being adapted for screens both big and small—recent efforts include Awesome Media & Entertainment’s deal to develop The Last Wish of Sasha Cade for television; Thunderbird Entertainment’s upcoming limited series based on The Marrow Thief; and a long list of projects from Netflix, like the live-action series inspired by The Baby-Sitters Club books and an animated film based on Thelma the Unicorn. But publishers feel content creators are becoming less in tune with the needs of the book industry.
One such need? According to Chris Angelilli, VP, editor-in-chief and executive director of licensed publishing for Random House Children’s Books, producers need to stop using publishing as a testing ground for consumer products programs.
Due to the increased call for children’s entertainment, and because the traditional timelines surrounding consumer products launches have been disrupted by SVODs, publishing is viewed as an inexpensive and quick way to start building a CP program (and gauge consumer demand), at least when compared to the high costs and years-long process associated with many toy categories.
“It’s difficult to be in that guinea pig situation,” Angelilli says. “I hate it when people say, ‘We’re letting you in on the ground floor.'”
Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books, believes that trying to shave off a few dollars and a few days by targeting publishing before other categories is also a short-sighted strategy.
“We can clearly go to market quicker,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean we can do it well if there aren’t other partners. If a retailer has a limited amount of dollars to buy books, why would they take something that looks like a licensed property but doesn’t have the other elements it should have, like toys? It’s difficult for us to place those properties [in store]. It’s not enough to have a publisher buy it; they need to know the retailer is going to support it. Otherwise, we’re just talking to ourselves.”
That’s not to say Angelilli is completely opposed to being an early addition to a partner’s consumer products program.
“I’d rather a licensor take a more honest approach to the conversation,” he says. “If you don’t have other licensing partners, is this still a property we want to have in our portfolio? I would prefer potential licensors be honest about what they think they’re going to achieve. We can always wait to see if it really will get big and then make a decision. But if they’re upfront about it, we would be more comfortable in discussing exactly how to proceed.”
The key to securing an early yes is a clear vision for the long-term future of the property that includes a detailed strategy for achieving those goals, Angelilli says. One of the reasons Random House signed DreamWorks’ Trolls property, for example, is because the DreamWorks team presented a step-by-step plan, including promotional efforts, a development proposal for a television show and an idea for a second film.
“It’s great for us to see as much as we can, whether it’s animation or a style guide,” he says. “But the most important thing for us is to understand the vision for the property. We also try to look for properties that are going to last beyond a single film, which is a very short window to work within.”
And while Random House is tired of being a testing ground for new properties, comic book publisher Boom! Studios wishes producers would take notice of new audiences.
According to comic book sales repository Comichron and industry source ICv2, the North American comics and graphic novel market generated US$1.09 billion in sales in 2018. Data from Maryland-based Diamond Comics Distributors and NPD BookScan shows that unit sales for the graphic novel market grew 11.7% in the US last year (compared to a 1.3% increase across all print publishing). The surge for graphic novels was driven primarily by strength in juvenile sales, which increased 56.2% during the same period.
“It’s exciting for someone like me, who’s been in the comic book and graphic novel space for a long time, to see that there is a younger generation of readers coming in who are just voracious and reading everything,” says Stephen Christy, president of development at Boom! Studios. “We’re focused as a company on getting new readers in young.”
Yet Christy says many in the industry still imagine graphic novel readers are middle-aged men in comic book shops, when the truth is that in 2018 Boom! Studios’ traditional book store sales exceeded its comic book shop sales. Young girls, in particular, were the driving force behind the company’s recent growth, thanks to the success of titles including Heavy Vinyl (pictured below) (about a group of girls working at a local record store by day and fighting as vigilantes by night) and Goldie Vance (a series starring a young detective-in-training).
By ignoring graphic novels’ young audience, producers are losing out on sales of graphic novels inspired by their properties and also on stories (often with huge built-in audiences) that are ripe for adaptation.
When it comes to taking a graphic novel off of the page and onto screens, Christy says the team focuses on titles with strong hooks that take just one sentence to explain. Those one-sentence summaries are crucial, not just for pitching the project to partners, but also as a foundation for translating the graphic novel’s themes and characters to the screen, which often involves significant tweaking.
“We’re an interesting case in that we have a first-look deal with Disney/Fox on the feature film side,” he says. “Even though we have a first-look, we’re not exclusive. Then in television, we’re able to be a little nimble. We also have a dedicated film and television team working full time to get some of these adaptations set up. We focus exclusively on our own catalogue, but we’re always open to partnerships with producers.”
When it comes to in-bound licensing, Christy estimates half of Boom! Studios’ publishing output is made up of titles inspired by TV shows and movies. The focus is on finding properties with large fan bases that are currently—or have traditionally been—underrepresented in publishing, like the Power Rangers brand (which has sold millions of copies since Boom! took it on in 2015), he says. Significant love and loyalty from fans is crucial, because it can cost more than US$100,000 to get a new comic off the ground.
Publishers across the board are investing heavily in the graphic novel category, and the market is expected to continue to grow. And until producers and broadcasters recognize the significant buying power of these young (often female) readers, it’s unlikely that upcoming content will reflect their interests or concerns.
“Kids are more empowered than they’ve ever been. They have their own platforms online, they’re finding their own voices and they’re calling for progress on the environment and other important issues. That really fuels the content we create,” says Jennifer Emmett, SVP of kids media content at National Geographic.
A recent Viacom survey of 5,724 kids ages six to 11 in 30 countries found that 74% of children care “a lot” about the environment. Of kids ages nine to 11 surveyed, 47% said they think the current state of the environment is bad, and 32% believe it will get worse in the next year or so. Understanding that kids are more politically and socially involved than ever, National Geographic Kids launched the Kids vs. Plastic initiative. Articles are published in the magazine each month that present readers with ways to reduce plastic use in their everyday lives, while a website provides information on how one-use plastic negatively affects animals and the environment.
Since launching in August 2018, the Kids vs. Plastic initiative has reached four million readers through the magazine, nearly 150,000 people have read about plastic pollution on the website, and more than 20,000 kids have signed a pledge to reduce their plastic use.
“We’re always looking for the trends kids are excited about, and we’re also looking for ways to tackle the tough issues in a way they can appreciate and understand,” Emmett says. “These big issues can be difficult to distill down to an understandable level for some of our younger audience, but we’re trying to find ways to make sure those conservation themes are making it into our content. So maybe we’ll talk about extreme weather instead of climate change as a lead issue. Or when we’re talking about animals, we’re also talking about steps kids can take to save them.”
Beyond climate change, younger readers are also calling for content that touches on social issues like LGBTQ equality, sexism and racism. The Hate U Give, a 2017 YA novel exploring identity, race and community, debuted at the top of The New York Times YA best-seller list and stayed there for more than 80 weeks (selling more than 850,000 copies in a little over a year). Other recent titles addressing race include Alma and How She Got Her Name, Bowwow Powwow and Don’t Touch My Hair!.
UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report 2019, however, found that representation continues to be an issue on screen. In 2017, only 19.8% of leads in theatrical films were minorities (up from 10.5% in 2011). Only 21.5% of leads in scripted broadcast shows were minorities in the 2016-2017 television season (up from 5.1% in the 2011-2012 season), while only 21.3% of leads in scripted cable shows were minorities (up from 14.7% in the 2011-2012 season).
And while television slowly creeps toward progress, the shorter timeline associated with books—the very same timeline tempting producers to use the category as a testing ground—allows publishers to quickly react to social issues and kids’ changing concerns.
But ultimately, producers and broadcasters looking for that happily ever after need to listen to the needs and learnings of publishers, and they’d do well to listen to the kids they’re creating content for. In fact, National Geographic works with a panel of 2,000 children to ensure it knows exactly what kids care about.
“We send them surveys, ask them what they’re thinking about or issues that concern them,” Emmett says. “Those kids are like our bosses. They really help steer us toward what we think our audience is looking for. Sometimes you might disagree, but you’ve got to go with the kids. That’s our most powerful tool.”