While authors have always been – and will continue to be — the driving force behind popular children’s characters, more publishers than ever are now also looking in-house for the ideas that will eventually become the next Fancy Nancy or Hunger Games. Original, publisher-generated intellectual property (IP) is nothing new—Alloy has long perfected this model with franchises like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars, behemoths like Disney have developed books that turn into franchises, and franchises that spawn endless books… and then there’s Nick, Sesame Workshop and other longtime content creators.
But original IP is becoming increasingly prominent in children’s publishing. “Especially for kids, there are so many ways to exploit properties right now,” says Devereux Chatillon, a lawyer for Callaway and Zola, “and the margins for print publishers are getting squeezed so much that opportunity and necessity have combined.”
While original IP may not be anything groundbreaking, it does lend itself uniquely to the children’s market. “Children’s entertainment is all about characters and stories,” explains Eric Huang, Publishing Director, Media and Entertainment, at Penguin UK, as a reason why children’s original IP can be particularly compelling. Jonathan Yaged, President of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, agrees, describing the role of stories in kids’ lives: “A fundamental part of being a kid is experimenting and roleplaying, particularly for preschool and early grade-school children… For older kids, the stories and characters become more aspirational. Even in the most fantastical settings, the best stories and characters encourage kids to expand their worlds and try new things.” Of course, Eric Huang also adds, “Owning IP or representing commercial rights for IP is also more important in the kids market because of the potential for merchandise and licensing is around kids brands.”
“Publishers’ business models are changing dramatically because of the rise of digital,” says Devereux Chatillon, “putting pressure on them to find other markets.” But the good news about this is, as Jess Brallier, SVP and Publisher of virtual world Poptropica, puts it, “One can be more reckless, wonderfully so, with one’s own IP.” This idea is exemplified with Macmillan’s new series of preschool apps called “Play and Learn with Wallace.” Not only will each app teach reading and counting skills, problem solving, and hand-eye coordination, but the apps can also be combined with one another through a “Super Shuffle” mode that will join multiple apps in endless combinations, without the worry of author rights.
Within the digital realm, original IP can take many forms and easily adapt to new ones as technology progresses. Edmund and Cecile, for example, is Penguin UK’s first picture book brand that is being launched as an app first. “Technology allows IP to travel incredibly far at incredible speed. The flow of IP is instantaneous, no longer slowed by truckers, loading docks, oceans, and customs agents. All of which makes for powerful publishing,” says Jess Brallier. “For example, when a new story is published on Poptropica (www.poptropica.com), 500,000 kids jump into it within just its first two hours. Those kids come from over 130 countries with their web browsers set to over 100 languages. That’s very far and very fast.” Though Poptropica hosts ads and has created islands based on other publishers’ popular characters, it has been moving towards developing more of its own IP, having released a video game and books based on the site. With such a powerful platform already available to it, Poptropica has shifted focus, moving away from licensing and instead starting to concentrate on their own IP. Owning their own IP allows publishers to react and experiment, moving forward without having to go back to authors to renegotiate contracts.
But before you chuck all tradition out the window, keep in mind that most original IP projects still take a more familiar form as printed books. Morgan Rhodes’s Falling Kingdom series (Razorbill), for example, is an original property that was developed as kind of Game of Thrones for the teen set, and it will be available in 16 countries worldwide. “Original IP is not really breaking new ground here,” said Ben Schrank, President and Publisher at Razorbill and former Editorial Director at Alloy. “It’s just something people are more aware of now.” Corinne Helman, VP of Digital Publishing and Business Development at HarperCollins, echoes this sentiment: “I don’t think the shift is about technology, it is about realizing that content is king and it is more lucrative to be its owner.”
In order to make the most of media partnerships, a certain skill set needs to be developed to be able to work with authors and find opportunities. For Ben Schrank, this came easily, being an author himself. “I’ve always felt that a bit of IP enhances editorial—that it’s a very complimentary skill set,” he explains when it comes to traditional editors vs. editors working with original IP. “Although some people just like to do it and some don’t—but I am very respectful of traditional editors.”
One reason why traditional editors may be a little hesitant to work with original IP can stem from the fact that, as Corinne Helman describes it, “IP is very labor intensive.” She elaborates, “You need to be good at drafting proposals. You need to find authors who are suitable for this kind of work. You need to set up relationships with other media companies to sell your rights. It is much more proactive than waiting for the manuscript to land on your desk.”
Regardless of challenges old and new, original IP is becoming commonplace at many children’s publishers, with all major houses doing in-house IP in one way or another. Being able to own the rights to their properties allows publishers to protect and distribute their content globally, as well as profit from new partnerships. Maybe adult publishing could even learn from children’s publishing’s experimentation. As Corinne Helman says, “Children’s publishers have often led the way – I think IP is just another example of that.”
This article was written for the program book distributed for participants of Publishers Launch: Children’s Publishing Goes Digital
A full-day conference addressing the digital opportunities and challenges for children’s publishers as ereading tablets take off.
McGraw Hill auditorium, New York, NY
January 15, 2013