Since 2014, collectible toy brands—including MGA Entertainment’s L.O.L. Surprise, Moose Toys’ Shopkins, Spin Master’s Hatchimals, and WowWee’s Fingerlings—have dominated the bestseller lists in that industry. Not surprisingly, they have also spilled over into the world of publishing.
The very strong sales levels have caught publishers’ eyes. “Collectible toys are a really tricky area to publish into, I think,” says Simon Beecroft, DK’s publishing director of licensing, which, along with its sister imprint Penguin Young Readers, announced the acquisition of the Fingerlings license on May 15. “But these toys are really fun, and they’re everywhere. You couldn’t get hold of these Fingerlings at the holiday. They were going in and selling through immediately, and no one could track them down.”
The brands’ origin as consumer products, as opposed to media properties, is also attractive. “They’re already at retail, and there’s an expectation from the buyers that there will be publishing,” says Debra Dorfman, v-p and publisher, global licensing, media, and brands at Scholastic, which signed on as the primary publisher of Shopkins titles in 2014 and now has five million Shopkins books in print. “Rather than asking the licensor, ‘Are you doing consumer products?’ we’re asking, ‘Who are you selling in to?’ That’s different from working with a broadcaster or studio.” This year, Scholastic is adding to its collectible toy roster with Ty’s Beanie Boos and Moose’s Pikmi Pops.
Challenges of Timing and Longevity
“A lot of these brands are in and out, aren’t they?” Beecroft asks. “You have to be prepared to do something fast and move on.”
“It’s always a risk,” agrees Sonali Fry, publisher of Bonnier’s BuzzPop imprint, which has been releasing Shopkins titles since 2015, with 2.5 million books in print to date. “When you figure out your publishing plan at the beginning, you know by year two or three you might have to reevaluate and pare down, depending on what is happening with the brand.”
“We’re looking for partners that really have a clear long-term vision for their brands,” says Daniel Moreton, associate publisher at Penguin Workshop. Penguin Young Readers holds the licenses for Hatchimals, as well as Fingerlings.
For the most part, the lifespan of a publishing tie-in program mirrors the trajectory of the toys. As soon as toy sales slow, retailers give less shelf space to the toys and the accompanying books. Still, core formats can live on. Dorfman reports that Scholastic recently renewed its Shopkins license, focusing mainly on backlist with occasional frontlist titles added.
“Our books tend to have legs past the hype,” says Jenny Hastings, general manager and executive v-p at Bendon. She notes that Bendon’s Shopkins titles, published since 2015, remain strong, especially in mass retailers’ planograms. The company is adding Hatchimals to its assortment this year and just acquired the license for L.O.L. Surprise, formerly held by Parragon, along with additional proprietary formats.
Another timing issue relates to the fact that collectibles are released in seasons, with a half-dozen or so new characters introduced for a limited time and then replaced. While this strategy enhances collectability, it can be a headache for publishers.
“It’s tricky,” Moreton says, noting that guides can go out of date quickly. “With new titles, we try to tie in to what’s on-shelf and even give a sneak peek at what’s ahead, if the licensor allows it.”
“Publishing is slow, with the production, printing, and shipping times,” Beecroft says. “The toys constantly refresh, and the main thing is the newness all the time. The challenge is keeping up. You also have to provide a lot of vibrancy and make the books as interactive and as fun as they can be.”
Samantha Schutz, publishing director, licensed and media tie-ins for Little, Brown, notes that even less up-to-date books can help feed kids’ enjoyment of the brand. “We’re in the business of kids’ obsessions,” she says. “Kids want to be experts. They want to know what figures they’re missing and which are rare, so the older handbooks are still useful.”
Schutz points out that many toy lines, even without roots in collectibles, integrate some form of collectability as part of the play pattern these days—especially blind bags or boxes containing a surprise collectible figure. “We’re not publishing against a Shopkins, but many of our brands have a collectible element,” she says, citing Marvel, My Little Pony, and Teen Titans Go! as examples. “Even Spirit has a line of blind boxes now.” (Spirit Riding Free is a Netflix TV series about horses.)
To mirror the toys’ allure, some publishers offer exclusive figures or other collectible elements such as trading cards with their tie-ins. DK has published Lego guides with an exclusive mini-figure mounted on the front, for example.
Meanwhile, the act of opening a package and discovering what is inside, as captured in popular YouTube unboxing videos, is another key component of toy collecting today. “Unboxing is becoming the big trend,” Beecroft explains. “The YouTube trend has expanded back to the toys.” As a result, toys are often designed for several levels of discovery, from the outer package, to other packages or layers inside, to a final step, such as removing a clay shell or dunking a figure in water to reveal what it is.
The challenge is how to translate this element of surprise to a book format, whether through an interactive feature, such as a scratch-off or acetate decoder, or within the story line. Bendon created a $1.89 play pack format that includes stickers and a play figure. “It’s our spin on the blind bags,” Hastings says.
BuzzPop’s Shopkins Seek-and-Find Supreme has an opaque blister pack affixed to the cover, with one of four figures from the new season contained within each. “We tried to replicate the toy play pattern,” Fry says. “You don’t know what character you have until you open it.” She notes, however, that the expense can be prohibitive, especially for books that are sold through mass channels. “The collectible blister pack has been very popular, but the unit cost is much higher than that of other books.”
Telling a Story
Collectible toys naturally lend themselves to character handbooks, activity books, and novelty formats. But publishers also are looking for opportunities to create fiction.
“We’re not just looking for cuddly characters,” Moreton says. “We want a backstory. We want to be able to extend the narrative.” Penguin’s Fingerlings books will launch with a Mad Libs Jr. title in August, followed this fall by a 10” × 10” paper-over-board picture book. The latter is based on a story originating on WowWee’s Fingerlings YouTube channel, which debuted on May 11.
In some cases, publishers collaborate with property owners to develop stories. “We always ask if there is a backstory, but as long as they’re open to us developing story lines together, we’re fine,” Dorfman says.
“Toy companies create great toys, and they can show up at our door with a great collectible product, but without a lot of story behind it,” Schutz says. “Some are grateful to have help to create the story.”
Of course, a lack of story is not a problem for formats such as coloring and activity. “We focus on the top brands in popularity,” says Ben Ferguson, Bendon’s president and CEO. “As long as the wave is up, we’re interested.”
Many of the top collectible brands are focused on kids (often girls) ages seven to 10, with the sweet spot for books a bit younger. But collectibles often interest adults as well. Little, Brown’s My Little Pony Daring Do Adventure Collection, which comes with an exclusive golden collectible figure, is a case in point. “It attracted not just kids, but Bronies and other adult fans,” says Sandra Cohen, director of licensing and brand management. (Bronies are adult males who are My Little Pony fans.)
This all-ages appeal can help sell properties internally and to retailers as well. “When we gave out Pikmi Pops at a sales conference, everything stopped,” Dorfman says. “We had a room full of adults opening the packages and asking each other which one they got and what their scent was.”
IDW has capitalized on the broad popularity of collectibles by partnering with Funko’s Pop! Vinyl brand, producing a number of variant covers as well as limited-edition original comics under the Funko Comic Book Universe umbrella. The one-shots—tied to Ghostbusters, Judge Dredd, Strawberry Shortcake, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and The X-Files—were also collected into a trade edition.
“We have all these licensed properties that we manage, and when we go into bookstores and comic shops we see the Funko Pop! Vinyls,” says managing editor David Hedgecock. “We noticed that we have a lot of the same brands, and eventually we just put two and two together and approached them. We wanted to do something with a fun mix of disparate properties for a wide range of fans, using the style of Funko storytelling and marrying that to what the brand demands are.”
IDW is looking at working with other collectible brands. “I like to say we’re the publisher of fandom, and the Pop! Vinyl pieces are right there in the zeitgeist,” Hedgecock says. “We’re taking long, hard looks at all of the collectible toy brands.”
Though most publishers of licensed tie-ins report they are keeping an eye out for the next big thing in collectibles, the market is increasingly formidable. “There are so many similar and copycat brands out there,” Fry says. “The market is getting saturated with them, so if we take one on, it has to be the right one.”