The Brand Radar: LEGO, Booktime and how brands can bolster indie bookstores

Inspired by a recent issue of Booktime, Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at how brands like LEGO are bringing innovation to publishing and providing a safe-bet for indie stores.

I recently picked up a copy of Booktime from the Blue Bear bookshop in Farnham, a wonderful example of an independent bookshop. It is really well presented, has a fabulous selection of books and is well run.

Of course, independent bookshops are facing the considerable challenges of the retail world post-Lockdown. All retailers face lockdown challenges but in addition, they also face challenges from the online world, with Amazon in particular looming large over them.

Booktime is a free magazine produced by the Booksellers Association as part of a series of initiatives to try to help and support independent bookshops. The magazine features new book releases, has author interviews and highlights new developments from publishers. It’s aimed at bookshop customers and encourages them to support their local bookshop. It is also provides a useful insight into licensing related developments in the publishing space.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Of course, the books they are focusing on and selecting are ones that they feel fit the independent booktrade best and as such, the selections may be a little light on licensing. I imagine they try to avoid books that might feature heavily in supermarkets for example, as it is hard for an independent to compete on price with supermarkets.

Publishing has long been a cornerstone of the licensing industry, with rights flowing from it while publishers often use licensing to bolster their lists. Properties and authors like the Mr Men, Jacqueline Wilson, Harry Potter and David Walliams have found success in the licensing market and beyond that, into the wider media with TV and film adaptations of their books.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

It should also be remembered that in publishing, authors – and particularly celebrity authors – are often treated like brands and deals are akin to licensing deals, with publishers looking to find the next big thing genre by genre.

In this context, certain book releases become publishing events. A good example of this highlighted in Booktime is the release of comedian Bob Mortimer’s autobiography, And Away… This seems to have got off to a great start and has generated some great publicity.

Headline-making books like this are good for publishing in general and of course encourage consumers into bookshops. This can lead onto other sales and, in the case of the independent bookshops, might create a long-lasting relationship with a consumer.

Celebrities like Bob engage well with the media and books get talked about across media outlets that don’t always talk books. For example, I saw Bob talking about his book on Good Morning Britain this week.

Cooking and recipe books are a core part of a bookshop offer and authors like Jamie Oliver are well established book brands. Their new books are very much publishing events and important contributors to bookshop revenues.

However, it’s interesting to see new trends emerging in this category fired up by new cooking and dietary trends. A good example of this in Booktime was a feature on a new book The Complete Vegetable Book by James Strawbridge. The book focuses on sustainability and seasonality in cooking and the design of recipes.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Equally important to most bookshops are children’s books and this is reflected in Booktime. There was a feature on Sophie Dahl’s new book The Worst Sleepover in the World. Illustrated by Luciano Lozano this is a follow up to the best-selling Madame Badobedah.

The Sophie Dahl books are very good examples of how an author can become a recognised brand quite quickly in the category but also the importance of the illustrator in children’s book. The illustration style helps define the character and brand of a book series.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Another trend that was reinforced in Booktime’s previews is the growing importance of ‘celebrity’ authors. Authors who have had success in other fields who have turned to children’s books as a new avenue for them. The advantages of working with authors like David Baddiel and Lenny Henry is, rather like Bob Mortimer, they are strong players in the PR game and garner a lot of publicity. They also create interest at retail. That is not to say they aren’t skilled authors. David Baddiel has enjoyed considerable success in the children’s book space – selling over one million books.

It was also interesting to see a page in the magazine dedicated to Sweet Cherry Publishing. Sweet Cherry are an independent publisher who are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. Sweet Cherry have used licensing to add to their list with ranges including a Shaun the Sheep range based around the Farmageddon film.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

The Booktime feature mentions that they publish Numberblocks, Alphablocks and Geronimo Stilton books. In this case, a licence gives Sweet Cherry access to content, a ready-made identity and a point of difference.

A further feature in the magazine focussed on Buster Books’ LEGO publishing range. The range features standalone LEGO titles such as the LEGO 2022 Annual as well as some very clever co-presented books such as the LEGO Harry Potter Official Yearbook and LEGO Harry Potter: Wizard vs Wizard.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

One feature of the LEGO publishing programme is the frequent inclusion of LEGO Minifigures with the books. This really helps build the relationship between the brand and the book, giving them a cutting edge in the market. The books also feature other neat design devices to add value to the book proposition and in keeping with LEGO’s mission, they fire up children’s imaginations.

For example, the LEGO Build & Stick: Custom Cars book includes LEGO bricks, a 48 page book of creative ideas and 260 re-useable stickers, while the Wizard vs Wizard book features a double sided pop-up play scene.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

LEGO has become a very strong force in publishing and in many stores they have a very prominent position. This also opens up distribution opportunities for the core LEGO product and other licensed lines. It seems LEGO have recognised that publishing can play a really positive role in their brand building.

For independent bookstores, LEGO is a brand that fits the bill for them. It’s a positive IP with proven play value, but also one that is trusted and respected by consumers. It has longevity to it and is a safe bet stock-wise.

The work that the Booksellers association are doing to support independent book shops with initiatives like Booktime is very impressive and is a good case study for other trade organisations. It’s also a great platform for authors, illustrators and publishers; there is a sense that the publishing community has recognised that working together is effective and that they are pursuing a common goal.

It’s worth visiting your local independent bookshop. They are generally run by people who have a passion for the product they sell and a real enthusiasm for their subject. Judging by this issue of Bookwise there are some fantastic new books coming through and lots of talent producing them. I am sure many of them will go on to become book ‘brands’ and who knows leap off the page into the world of licensing.

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