The Brand Radar: From The Repair Shop: The Christmas Doll to The BBC Puzzle Book, a look at the creativity of licensed publishing

Inspired by the Booksellers Association’s Christmas Books catalogue, Start Licensing’s Ian Downes puts licensed publishing in the spotlight.

Publishing and licensing have long been intertwined, and rights flow in both directions.

Think of how many successful licensing programmes have been built on publishing properties. Paddington and Peter Rabbit are two good contemporary examples, while publishers regularly dip into the licensing pool to create books in a range of formats, genres and markets. The UK children’s comic market is a great example of this, with the vast majority of titles currently on sale being produced under license. There are a number of book publishers who are entirely focused on licensing or have dedicated imprints for their licensed output.

Against this background it’s always interesting to see what is going on in the publishing sector licensing-wise. A useful way of doing this is of course to visit book retailers and check out what’s going on. I have been able to slightly short circuit this by picking up a copy of the Christmas Books catalogue produced by the Booksellers Association in support of independent bookshops. The catalogues are distributed in the shops but also placed in other locations to encourage consumer pick up. I picked my copy up at a local tourist office.

It forms part of a concerted effort by the Booksellers Association to support the independent retail sector and to encourage book buying. It is linked to a campaign ­– Books Are My Bag #ChooseBookshops. The campaign helps the independent shops focus their marketing efforts and build their profile locally. Indeed, many local bookshops have become experts at social media, regional marketing and running events. Many host author events and work hard to engage the local community.

The Christmas Books catalogue comes with an introduction from Sir Lenny Henry. Lenny has of course got a book to sell – Rising to the Surface – but his introduction is a heartfelt one and very supportive of independent bookshops.

He writes: “We should shop at independent bookshops because of that extra something you get when you’re there – the handwritten recommendations, the gentle hand on your shoulder steering you towards the cooler books… The personal touch of the independent bookshop cannot be praised highly enough.”

Lenny’s recommendation for independent retailers could apply across retail categories. Retail-wise, it’s tough to be an independent at the moment, but there is a sense that for certain consumers independent retail is scoring highly. Not least as independents are able to offer a personal shopping experience and can curate their shops to reflect local needs. Consumers seem to be wanting more tailored experiences these days and there is no reason to doubt that isn’t true at retail as well. This should give the independent retail sector some encouragement.

In terms of books featured in the catalogue that connect with licensing, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that many authors are now brands and publishers market them as brands. Examples of this include authors like Robert Harris, Bernard Cornwell and Ann Cleeves. Often authors of this calibre see their books turned into television series or films, giving the titles a second or third life. Certain authors in the adult category have ‘moved’ into brand licensing. Agatha Christie is a good example, but it’s an area that maybe holds more potential for ‘author brands’, especially when thinking about product categories like board games or live experiences.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, Start Licensing

Another interesting dynamic in publishing is how publishers – and often author’s estates – revive classic backlist series. For example, I noticed that Biggles in the Baltic features in the catalogue. Written by Captain W.E. Johns, Biggles is a book series that was first published in the 1930s. It’s also interesting to see how publishers are re-packaging some classic books and series into new formats to appeal to collectors and drive new purchases.

A good example of this is an edition of Pride and Prejudice published by Union Square & Co. Billed as a deluxe collector’s edition, this version features artwork by Bil Donovan – the artist-in-residence at Christian Dior.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, Start Licensing

It is now quite common to see special editions of classic books in bespoke bindings, in slipcases or gifting formats. Publishers are working harder at creating unique product formats and positioning books into the gift and collectors’ marketplaces.

Food and drink is a publishing category that relies heavily on well-known chefs, restaurants and food brands. Often there is a link to television shows. Good examples of this include Tom Kerridge, whose book Real Life Recipes is featured. Tom Kerridge has a TV and media profile coupled with a distinct style. London’s River Café is highly regarded and well respected.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, Start Licensing

Given their longevity in the market, it’s surprising to learn that The River Café Look Book is their first cookbook. It reinforces the value of restaurant brands in this category. Of course, some restaurant brands and cooks are driving broader licensing programmes.

A strong evergreen brand in this category is the Dairy Diary – a title and format that has had long term success in the market and is very recognisable. It is probably a consistent performer for independent bookshops and is, for many consumers, an annual purchase. It’s arguably a brand that could potentially inspire a focused licensing programme in other carefully selected categories.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, Start Licensing

Humour is also a solid performer in book terms, particularly in the Christmas gifting season. Again, TV is a key driver here, with one of the featured books being the World According to Kaleb. Kaleb Cooper features in Clarkson’s Farm and has become a star in his own right. Interestingly in the humour category there is also an example of a classic author being ‘revived’ with a collector’s edition – in this case a re-issue of PG.Wodehouse’s first novel The Pothunters, originally published 120 years ago.

Other interesting examples of licensed titles include The BBC Puzzle Book published by Frances Lincoln. This official BBC Quiz book has been published to coincide with the BBC’s 100th Anniversary.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, Start Licensing

There is also an interesting take on Winnie the Pooh with The Tao of Pooh billed as a 40th Anniversary Gift Edition. Again, an example of a publisher creating a fresh format on the back of an anniversary, but with an eye on gifting. Gift formats can of course often attract a higher price and create new interest in a title.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, Start Licensing

It was also interesting to see the diversity of brands featuring – a good example is that books featuring Chanel and Panini were featured in the catalogue on consecutive pages, reinforcing the variety that exists in publishing – particularly in an independent bookshop.

Returning to the notion of the author as a brand, other featured authors include Ranulph Fiennes, David Attenborough, Alan Titchmarsh and David Dimbleby – all personalities who are very high profile and, in bookshop terms, are brands that sell. For an independent bookseller at this time of the year, they are probably regarded as banker bets.

Publishing can be the cornerstone of a licensing programme for artists and illustrators. Printmaker Angela Harding’s book, The Wild Light, was published in November and this dovetails well with her other products which include calendars, greetings cards and stationery. Angela has a very distinctive style and her work is instantly recognisable. Having a new book in the market helps to refresh and refocus things for her, plus it makes it easier for bookshops to build a range of her products.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, Start Licensing

Children’s books are, of course, a key component of the publishing world and are seemingly an important part of an independent bookshops’ inventory. Buying for children is a key reason for many consumers to visit bookshops, particularly at this time of year. In this regard, the breadth and depth of product on offer in independent bookshops is important as consumers can be confident the books they want will be in stock or they will be inspired by product displays.

Featured titles in the children’s section include classics like The Snowman and Peter Rabbit. There is also a strong commitment to picture books in general. One book that was particularly noteworthy in licensing terms was The Repair Shop: The Christmas Doll, inspired by the successful TV series The Repair Shop.

The book tells the story of an evacuee doll that was featured in the series. It is an interesting move for a series like The Repair Shop to develop a picture storybook, but it’s certainly one to watch – it may well inspire other programme makers to go down this route.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, Start Licensing

It is always good to see that illustrators get equal billing with authors in the children’s book category underpinning the importance of illustration and illustrators in this genre. The illustration style of a book can build and shape its identity.

A special shout out to authors like Alex T. Smith who also illustrate their own books. His latest book – The Grumpus – is a wonderful example of the picture story book format.

It’s also good to see the independent bookshop category supporting the annuals category with The Beano, The Dandy and the Jacqueline Wilson Annual. Annuals are an important part of the product mix at this time of year but they are a book format that can be heavily discounted by non-traditional book retailers, so I would imagine independents have to be careful about their commitment to the category.

Another publishing trend that is confirmed is the move from publishers to use ‘celebrity authors’ to create children’s books. This can divide opinion, but it certainly seems to be a way of driving sales and interest. Featured authors include magician Stephen Mulhern and his book Max Magic. Anniversaries are also a factor in children’s books as well – Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is 40 years old this year and the anniversary is being marked by the publication of an illustrated version of the book.

The Booksellers Association also run other initiatives like Children’s Book of the Month schemes which feature a particular title every month. This kind of scheme shines a light on specific titles but also helps consumers who are looking for recommendations or guidance on what books to buy.

It was also good to see coverage given to encyclopaedias and other specialist book formats like pop up books. Another understandable ambition of book publishers is to establish an ongoing series – a great example of this is Horrible Histories.

Another series that’s a good example of this is Raven Books’ Tales from the Pitch; a series of books that look at star footballers and tell their life story. Another football series – Ultimate Football Heroes from Bonnier Books – has sold over one million copies. Football is clearly a good seller if you can get the format right. These books tap into football in an innovative way combining engaging stories with a strong cover image.

Ultimate Football Heroes is a great example of how a book series can become collectible as well. Arguably the publisher has looked at categories like trading cards and football stickers for clues of how to engage with young readers.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, Start Licensing

There is a lot to admire about how The Booksellers Association and individual bookshops are presenting themselves in a competitive and challenging market. It is also encouraging to see how licensing is playing a part in such a competitive sector. It is also interesting to see trends such as a move to gifting formats and greater commitment to brand building in the publishing sector.

Visit your local bookstore. They are generally really interesting shops to visit, are well run and feature engaging displays. There is a lot to admire in the sector and some good insights to be gained from a visit.

As Sir Lenny Henry concluded in his introduction: “Get involved with independent bookshops…you won’t be sorry!”

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