Lucrative, Licensed Book Lines Are Looking Better All the Time
As book publishers search in an ever-widening gyre for “consumer equity,” “points of differentiation,” and authors pre-packaged with their own “platforms,” it may be no shock that the concept of franchise publishing — partnering to publish licensed, branded, or co-branded titles, or even signing up mega-authors who are multimedia franchises in their own right — is being revisited with a vengeance. Branded books, not so long ago dismissed by some in the book business as downmarket fodder for the mass merch accounts, are getting increasingly talked about as strategic, long-term, profitable enterprises that can capitalize on some of the hottest trends of the day (South Beach Diet, anyone?) and forge close relationships with consumers while cracking open new nontraditional retail channels — big-box outlets, Disney stores, Petco shops, even Hustler emporia — that may be more profitable. And as publishers aggressively seek out licensed or branded content, they’re being ardently courted by licensors in turn. “Consumer brands are realizing how important it is to have a cornerstone for their brand in print,” says Susan Maruyama of Round Mountain Media, which works with brands to strategically develop publishing programs. “In today’s multimedia society, a lot of what we see comes and goes pretty quickly. Without a book in print, there’s no place for that customer or loyal audience to go to revisit that brand experience.”
At the same time, however, brand-building publishers “are just coming to the party,” says Chris Lederer, co-founder of Helios Consulting Group, which has worked on growth strategies for publishing companies and other firms. “Trade publishers in particular haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about brand combinations as a way to build their business,” he says. “It’s an incredibly fertile area that publishers need to think about in a strategic way, and not just as a one-off revenue play.”
NOT YOUR MOTHER’S MEREDITH
At some of the major players in the branded book biz, fresh strategic turf is squarely in the sights. “We’re looking to expand our licensing effort into any arena that makes sense,” says Todd Davis, Executive Director for New Business Development at Meredith Books. “As long as a property has equity with the consumer, then you can have a strong publishing program. You need that hook with the consumer, because that’s what the retailer is looking for.” Meredith, which has long worked with partners such as Ortho, Scotts, and Home Depot, is now pushing its hardworking house-and-home brands in a splashier direction by partnering with The Learning Channel’s Trading Spaces show to publish Trading Spaces: Behind the Scenes (over 750,000 copies shipped), plus two decorating titles (both with more than 300,000 copies in print). Then there’s Paige By Paige, a year in the life of Trading Spaces diva Paige Davis which has shipped at least 250,000 copies and hit #3 on the NYT bestseller list for paperbacks. All development work on the titles is done in-house, in close cooperation with the licensor. The line has been sold in nontraditional outlets such as Bed Bath & Beyond and Linens ’n Things, while also giving the publisher reach into markets it had never tapped before, such as college book stores. In a similar vein, Meredith is publishing new titles with home-and-garden channel HGTV, and just rolled out the Food Network Kitchens Cookbook. “The Food Network has been on the air for 10 years and reaches 78 million households,” Davis says. “We did focus groups and research to make sure we understood their brand before we even started the book.” On the other hand, Monster Garage (over 300,000 units shipped), based on the Discovery Channel show, is breaking out of the service journalism mold and “giving us an opportunity to go after automotive channels that we’ve never gotten to before.”
“It’s not your mother’s Better Homes and Gardens,” adds Linda Cunningham, Meredith Books Editor-in-Chief, who points out that Meredith’s history as a magazine publisher has given the house an edge when pitching ideas for licensed projects. “The whole company is oriented toward clients or advertisers,” she says. That gives Meredith the chops to work with demanding licensors, and also a natural grasp of how to extend brands such as Trading Spaces (originally a one-book deal) into a full-on publishing business. “What we acquired with Monster Garage and Trading Spaces was the logo. There was no proposal, no visual idea of what these would look like,” she says. “We created these from scratch.” The labor-intensive process pays off not only as an ongoing line for Meredith, but for its licensor as well. “I certainly feel we’ve helped bring credibility to Trading Spaces as a viable license,” says Cunningham, noting that other deals for the show have followed. “The book does anchor the brand.”
Other publishers in the licensing world say they’ve seen a paradigm shift as well. “Licensing has become the siren call,” says Sarah Malarkey, Executive Editor at Chronicle Books, who has been stewarding the category for six years. “When I started, I had to hunt down properties. Now I get proposals every week.” The proportion of licensed titles has remained steady at about 5% of Chronicle’s list, sustained by ongoing programs with companies such as DC Comics and Pixar, the latter spawning coffee-table titles such as The Art of Finding Nemo. Nonetheless, those five or seven titles per year “will often be our lead titles. It’s a select group, but it has a lot of muscle for its size.” It’s a truism in the licensing world that a brand must fit well with a publisher’s list, and Chronicle’s disciplined approach is a good example. “I think about less where it comes from — it could be a TV show, it could be an old toy,” Malarkey says. “I’m not concerned about the medium. But I am concerned about the intuitive fit with our list.” That fit may be getting a stretch with this season’s Playboy: 50 Years, The Photographs, a $50 tome taking the publisher into decidedly new retail territory. “Usually there’s one account that cracks open with any kind of license,” says Malarkey. “We’ve never sold a book to a Hustler Store before.” Next year will see a follow-up of Playboy cartoons.
WHEN BRANDING BACKFIRES
But branding can ambush a title in the wrong circumstances. “For cookbooks, corporate brands aren’t necessarily an advantage,” says Bill LeBlond, Chronicle’s Editorial Director, Cookbooks, who has published two titles with the Weber line of grills and other branded books with Saveur. “The bookstores in general don’t want to be seen as promoting products. Yet some brands transcend that, and Weber is certainly one of them.” Chronicle is also working with TV chefs Martin Yan and Michael Chiarello, whose platforms “can make all the difference in the world.” Still, says LeBlond: “Platforms and brands will not save you if you’re publishing a bad book. Brands can give you exposure, but that’s all they can do.” Other publishers have had to grapple even more delicately with how to finesse a franchise-in-the-making so that it retains its integrity, as in the case of The South Beach Diet, whose author, Dr. Arthur Agatston, has publicly shied away from becoming the next Atkins, despite having 5 million books in print, with two more titles on the way and a website with a reported 100,000 subscribers. (Publisher Rodale said it would be premature to comment on South Beach branding strategies.)
And some caution that while branded titles may unlock the door to distribution nirvana, big-time licensing can be a financial disaster. “Licensing is very important for the sell-in in the mass merchant world,” says one licensing executive, noting that a hot Nickelodeon product, for example, is a must-have for any major retailer. The downside is that those hot licenses (especially in the children’s arena) can cost a bundle, eating into profit margins as retail price points hit the well-defined mass merch ceiling. “At the end of the day a license gives you clout to bring the rest of the books from your list to the customer, and to create an image for your publishing program,” this executive says. “But it all comes at a price. And that’s a price most publishers cannot afford anymore.” Perhaps as a result of some notorious licensing mishaps, it should be noted, licensors are no longer in a position to dictate their terms.
Spending heavily for licenses can be a fool’s game in other respects. “You only have your licensed good or your branded asset until someone else buys it,” says Jeff Stone, founder of Chic Simple and partner in new branding firm mdash. Stone has done consulting work for Unilever, Wells Fargo, and Ford, the latter project involving a 14-month-long analysis of Ford’s trademark “blue oval” in terms of brand value. “If the company isn’t sure what the brand means, then it is very hard for consumers to get a clear message.” Stone argues for much deeper thinking about the value of publishers’ own houses as brands, rather than those of their authors or partners. Wiley’s work building the Dummies brand (see article) is a good case of a clear value chain, he says. “From a consumer’s point of view, the Wiley name speaks to technical expertise. If you happen to notice ‘John Wiley’ on the title page, you think, I can trust this.” And that trust is ever important in an age of mosquito-like product lifespans and dizzying choices confronting customers in Barnes & Noble (where, to make matters worse, they’re getting pitched B&N’s own branded products). “Every time a publisher can help a consumer with their branding program, everybody wins: the consumer wins, the publisher wins, and the author wins.”