Over the past five years, licensed books and supplemental educational materials have increasingly made their way into school libraries and classrooms. Educators have come to accept that licensed titles are a way to bring in reluctant readers and sustain interest in subjects like math and science. Meanwhile, licensors value the exposure their properties can generate in schools, something that can be difficult to replicate through traditional entertainment or retail channels these days.
“[Licensing] has been a controversial topic in the past, but now I think everyone realizes that a fundamental requirement for developing literacy skills is for the kids to spend time with the material,” says Ashley Andersen Zantop, group publisher and general manager at Capstone, one of several school and library specialist houses. “You need content that is intrinsically interesting for kids.”
School and Library Editions
Each license lends itself to unique applications in the school and library market. At Capstone, DC Comics (for which the company sells original novels and library editions of existing comic books) spurs interest among reluctant readers; skateboarding pro Tony Hawk (sci-fi novels with graphic novel inserts) encourages sustained reading among slightly older kids; Sports Illustrated Kids attracts students to fiction and especially nonfiction topics; and the Smithsonian brand serves as a seal of approval for teachers and librarians.
Of course, not all licensed properties are right for schools. “For the three that we’ve done, we’ve turned away many,” says Adam Lerner, president and publisher, Lerner Publishing Group. LPG, which signed its first license, A&E Biography, close to 15 years ago, has added three newer properties over the last four years and has another pending. “As in the trade market, brand recognition is important, but beyond that [a license] has to have an intrinsic educational value for the school market,” Lerner says.
Lerner Publishing offers five different nonfiction series tied to USA Today, on topics ranging from the immigrant experience to teen life skills, while its NASCAR license, recently renewed, is for a series on scientific principles such as momentum. The company’s newest license, just signed with the Saint-Exupéry estate and the French publisher Glénat, is for a series of literary graphic novels tied to The Little Prince.
Abdo Publishers launched its Spotlight division, offering library editions of licensed titles, in 2006. The company began with a Spider Man title and currently publishes hundreds of comics in the Marvel Age line, as well as titles from Dark Horse, IDW, and other publishers. It also offers an extensive line of comics, graphic novels, chapter books, and picture books tied to properties from licensors such as Disney, Warner Bros., and Nickelodeon.
While there is virtually no resistance to licensing from librarians these days, says Dan Verdick, Abdo’s v-p of marketing and communications, teachers, parents, and administrators sometimes need convincing. “We often have to defend SpongeBob,” he reports. The company has done research to offer pedagogical proof to skeptics, and has found that a single Iron Man comic, with its sci-fi themes, contains 89 vocabulary terms at a sixth grade level or higher. “That’s astonishing, and it opens eyes,” Verdick says. “You can put together a creative writing, art, or STEM program based on these popular characters that are in movie multiplexes around the world.”
Book Clubs and Fairs
School book fairs and clubs use licensed properties to draw interest from students making their own purchase decisions. “We’re always astounded by the number of units they can move,” says John Paul Stoops, director of licensing for Discovery Communications. He says Discovery-licensed titles regularly sell hundreds of thousands of units through book fairs, with the top titles exceeding half a million. He adds that Scholastic Book Fairs alone hosts more than 120,000 events per year attended by 35 million students. “That for us is just tremendously valuable,” he says. “These are great impressions for our brand.”
Citing Animal Planet’s River Monsters and Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, both licensed to Scholastic, as examples, Stoops continues, “The best shows for this market are edgy and mysterious, have personalities kids love, and take a new spin on science and make it cool. They also have to be visually stunning. Kids love imagery, and if they’re spending their own allowance money, it has to stand out.”
Discovery addresses the needs of book fairs in its product development process, and sometimes offers one-year exclusives to the fairs before expanding distribution to trade outlets. “Because this has become such an important distribution channel, it does warrant that type of thinking from a licensing perspective,” Stoops says. “A lot of what we do is driven by interest from this distribution channel.”
Scholastic works closely with the clubs and fairs across all areas of its business, according to Debra Dorfman, v-p and publisher, paperbacks, licensing, and nonfiction at Scholastic’s trade division. “They weigh in pretty heavily when it comes to licensing,” she says. “They help dictate what some of the formats are.” The trade division can vet a new license with the clubs and fairs before acquiring, and a commitment from clubs and fairs can raise print runs enough to give a green light to certain formats that might not be feasible with retail-only distribution.
The clubs and fairs sometimes do well with a license before it’s viable for trade distribution. “They’re not waiting for complementary products to be on the market,” Dorfman says. Conversely, they also can extend the life of “older, tried-and-true properties there is no longer room for at trade bookstores,” she adds, mentioning Hello Kitty as an example. Titles popular with boys, such as Pokémon and Lego Ninjago handbooks, Scooby-Doo comic readers, and Power Rangers novels, also tend to perform well.
Some vendors of workbooks, flash cards, and classroom decor, which are sold through educational supply stores and general retail to teachers and parents, have also been adding licensed properties to their mix.
“We’ve had a rising volume of brands contacting us recently,” says Kerry Walters, Carson-Dellosa’s director of product management. “It’s because of the distribution value that we’re able to provide.” The company recently signed a license with Penguin for its stable of book properties and holds rights for Guinness World Records (for workbooks and flash cards), Eric Carle, and Olivia (classroom decor), and others.
“For us, it really comes down to student engagement,” Walters says. “We look at not only what is popular, but at which properties have strong educational value and can cross from school to home. We want something that educators hold in high regard, but that also appeals to the students. It’s really easy to jump into what’s popular, but the most important thing for us is making sure that when we do enter the world of licensed products we’re focused 100% on our end consumer.”
Licensing in the school market, whether through supplemental materials, library editions, or book fairs, can be challenging. “Licensors don’t know the niche school market as well as they know the consumer market,” Lerner says. “They’re not always sensitive to what you can’t do. The approval process can really slow down a project. And there are more costs associated with the licensing fee. The brand has to justify the expense.”
That said, there is a growing awareness of the positive role licensing can play. “Originally I think educational publishers saw the traditional kinds of licenses used in this market as a way of engaging early readers and reluctant readers, especially reluctant boy readers,” Andersen Zantop says. “But now a licensed property platform is also seen as a great opportunity for encouraging sustained reading and engaging girl readers as well.”