Start Licensing’s Ian Downes pays a visit to the first in-person London Book Fair at Olympia since 2019 this week.
It was great to be back at the London Book Fair this week. As The Bookseller show daily headline said this week’s show was the ‘first in-person Olympia fair since 2019’. I arrived relatively early on day one and the show was already busy. It seemed that the book trade couldn’t wait to get back to meeting in person.
The London Book Fair is a trade show that encompasses most facets of the publishing industry. Indeed, you can see books that haven’t launched yet as the show is used to pre-sell titles and to make announcements of new signings. But you can also see books at the other end of their publishing life as there is still a number of exhibitors selling ‘remainders’. These are generally books that are no longer selling well and are sold off at reduced prices by publishers to specialists who clear the books in a variety of ways. It is a salient lesson that today’s publishing star can be tomorrow’s remainder makeweight.
The London Book Fair features books and publishers from most genres. Licensing plays a part in the show and, of course, there is a strong link between publishing and licensing. Many successful licensing brands started life in the book world, while publishers are frequent users of licensed properties.
One trend that I think is noteworthy in publishing these days is how star authors are becoming brands and seem to be treated as such by publishers. In the children’s category David Walliams is a great example of this. His books are publishing events and get heavily promoted in the trade. They also sell well in less traditional book sales channels. In some quarters of publishing so called ‘celebrity authors’ can attract criticism, with some people feeling that there is an over reliance on celebrities to the detriment of new and emerging talent.
This doesn’t seem to stop the trend to sign celebrities to write books. I read about new book deals for Clare Balding, who is working on a book Isle of Dogs which is set to tell the ‘story of Britain through its relationship with dogs’, and musical star Michael Ball who is penning a novel set in a fictional theatre. The Empire will tell the story of two theatrical families from the 1920s through to the Second World War. Authors like Clare Balding and Michael Ball bring a following and also are very marketable in PR terms. I imagine that there is a good chance that both these books will be developed into TV formats.
Both Jamie Oliver and Richard Osman’s new books were prominently displayed on Penguin Random House’s stand – a clear indication of their pulling power.
When reporting from trade shows it is difficult to draw any firm industry conclusions, but I do find them useful in identifying trends and developments. Also, on a personal note, I find shows like the London Book Fair really useful in firing up my imagination and finding new conversations to have. Of course, they are also a great way of catching up with existing contacts.
One thing I noticed that I thought was very commendable by the London Book Fair was that it curated an Illustrators Gallery showcasing a number of illustrators and their work. I know this is something that the Bologna Children’s Book Fair has done before and I am sure the London Book Fair has, but I thought it was a good initiative by the organisers and confirmation of how integral illustrators are to the book industry.
It was also good to see that publishers are continuing to support authors and illustrators from diverse backgrounds. This includes children’s publishers developing books and book series that include characters from diverse backgrounds.
For example Sweet Cherry has a charming book series, Maggie Sparks. Maggie was well promoted on its stand. It was also interesting to see publishers developing more added value books and creating books that have scope to be sold in a range of retailers including toy retailers, gift shops and direct sales operations.
Sweet Cherry is the publisher of Numberblocks and Alphablocks. Within its range for these properties was a box set product that housed a set of four wipe clean books. Formats like these open up sales opportunities, but are also products that appeal to non-traditional book buyers as they represent good value and are also formats that work well as gifts. I think the area of added value publishing is one that is well suited to licensed properties.
Igloo Books is another publisher which has embraced added value books and formats well – its stand included a range of large format Disney Advent Calendar storybooks. These formats will attract attention at retail, but also work well in settings such as office book sales or mail order catalogues.
Flame Tree Publishing is a good example of a company that uses a broad range of licences to create its products such as calendars, diaries and notebooks. It also develops jigsaw puzzles, bookmarks and greeting cards. Its licences include the likes of gallery and museum-based ones such as Ashmolean Museum, LS Lowry and the Tate through to characters such as Rupert Bear and Robin Robin. Flame Tree is a great example of a licensee that develops its licensed products with its retail customers in mind and a company that has recognised that the nature of book retailing has changed.
Bookshops sell a broader range of products these days. Flame Tree has also moved quickly to develop formats like jigsaw puzzles. These days I think licensees have to be more prepared to spread their product wings and rights holders need to be aware that new product opportunities can come from existing partners. It is great to see a licensee like Flame Tree use licensing so well and so frequently. Its calendars can be great showcases for artwork and archives – it makes good use of the material on offer.
It was also interesting to see the type of products that Insight Editions was showcasing. Its website pitches it very well: ‘Insight Editions is a bestselling publisher of books and collectables that push the boundaries of creativity, design, and production. Through its licensed publishing programme, Insight Editions produces unique books and products that provide meaningful ways to engage with characters and stories’.
Insight is a US-based publisher but has a global outlook. Licensing is a core part of its business and it is engaging with fans and fan culture. It has also invested in creating interesting and novel formats taking advantage of advances in paper engineering and production processes. Its products blend publishing with crafting, model making and appeal to collectors. Licensing is a key to its success and its creative approach.
It was also interesting to see licensing play a part in arts and craft publisher Search Press’ portfolio. It develops books for hobbyists in areas such as painting, illustration, knitting, sewing and crocheting. It works with well established authors and writers, some of whom are brands in their category. But it has also made clever use of licensing to develop new books which have a point of difference.
A great example of this is The Kew Book of Embroidered Flowers which has been produced in association with Kew Gardens. This is a great example of how a licensed brand can be used in new and different ways. Likewise, I enjoyed catching up with some old friends at DC Thomson. While it is largely working with its own content, it is interesting to see how it has re-packaged classic comic strips from The Beano and The Dandy into hardback gift book formats for adults effectively creating a new category for itself.
In a similar vein, publishers like Titan and Omnibus Press are great examples of publishers who know their subject well and have built a reputation for their category knowledge. I imagine they are go to publishers for retailers seeking out pop culture books in Titan’s case and music in Omnibus’ case.
Titan’s range included books such as Pac-Man – Birth of an Icon and an Assassin’s Creed cookbook. Omnibus Press had a number of high profile ‘official’ books from the music world. One highlight was a book of Queen memorabilia with a foreword by Brian May and Roger Taylor. Cleverly Omnibus had used some of the memorabilia as a design feature on its stand. In markets such as music where there is a high degree of fan engagement being ‘official’ or ‘endorsed’ by the band has a lot of kudos and helps with sell through.
A key takeaway from the London Book Fair for me was that licensing has a lot to offer the publishing category, but it is important to approach conversations with a creative mindset and thinking about how IP can add value to the publishing process. The publishing formats that featured licensing that caught my eye were ones that had a degree of originality about them and generally ones that the publisher had built upon using their category and format knowledge.
On a personal note I was also pleased to see Stuart Lawrence’s book, Silence Is Not An Option, published in paperback this week by Scholastic. I helped Stuart secure his initial publishing deal with Scholastic. The book was first published a year ago in hardback. It is a great step forward to see the book published in paperback and to know Stuart is working on a second book.
I know that having a book published has helped Stuart connect with more people and has created more opportunities for him to speak with a wider pool of people. I was glad to help him find a new way to amplify his voice. This experience has also shown the ongoing value and potential that publishing offers.
Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His Twitter handle is @startlicensing – he would welcome your suggestions for what to look out for.