Licenses R Us

Personally, I hate kids’ books. In my three-kid experience, most books I’ve read to my children are so bland I feel trapped back in school again. This is not surprising, because kids’ books have traditionally needed the imprimatur of teachers and librarians (gatekeepers, they are called, chillingly, in the children’s-book business). So what you get is Milquetoast or worse. The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners is a motive for infanticide. I’m no Good Night Moon fan either. (All right, Roald Dahl, E. B. White, and more recently the Harry Potter craze – but this is a short list.) Children’s books, if you ask me, are why kids don’t want to read. But I’m a lonely voice.

Most people love children’s books. In fact, most parents with young children think they can write a children’s book. Celebrities especially. The latest trend is celebrity spouses who think they ought to be writing children’s books.

But the hard truth is that no matter how misty-eyed you get, you probably can’t write a children’s book – not anymore – not unless you also have the soul of an entertainment lawyer (intellectual-property training and branding experience would help as well).

Todd Parr, for instance, is a bearish, cuddly prototype of a children’s-book writer – complete with a San Francisco holistic it’s-a-small-world-after-all philosophy. He is distinguished from the run-of-the-mill children’s author not only by his highly styled design work but by the kind of legal wrangles he’s involved in. Such disputes – who committed to do what under which set of eventualities – may just be part of modern storytelling, or of the hundreds of deals that are part of the licensing, merchandising, branding art of modern storytelling. Litigation, you might even say, is a sign of success (who sues a failure?).

Parr, whose oeuvre consists of graffiti-style primary-color illustrations for the learning-to-read crowd, recently pulled off a kind of trifecta of children’s-book promotions – he’s the first kids’-book author to claim all of the windows of FAO Schwarz (in the retail version of the trifecta, you pay the store, rather than the store paying you). His four books alone could not have filled all those windows (neither physically nor profitably). But the books are just one part of his product output, which now includes greeting cards, gift wrap, hats, children’s apparel, rugs, backpacks, duffels, totes, travel bags, luggage, diaper bags, wallets, card games, memory games, floor puzzles, press-and-peel play sets, flat wood puzzles, magnetic fun boards, beach sets, frames, children’s photo albums, scrapbooks, stickers, stamp sets, back-to-school products, children’s watches, magnets, clocks, buttons, plastic and ceramic bath accessories, plush and soft toys and dolls, bedding, posters, infant/toddler/ children’s feeding items, adult coffee products and ceramics, and beach towels.

Parr, who for fifteen years was a United Airlines steward (“I applied to art school and to be a fireman and to be an airline steward and took the first thing that I got”), may in fact be one of the few people who never had a desire to write children’s books. “I have a high-school education, and I did horrible in English and spelling,” he says, with slight apology. He started with T-shirts and went to coffee mugs, then worked his way up the licensing chain. Indeed, he did not come to his publisher’s attention through a manuscript or literary agent or children’s-author workshop. Three years ago, Little, Brown discovered him at the annual licensing show at the Javits center. Little, Brown got in line behind the backpack manufacturer and the diaper-bag people to make a deal with what Li©ense Magazine, starstruck, calls one of the most influential people in licensing under 40.

Certainly, his books are a lot more like T-shirts than like kids’ books. But there’s a plausible literary point to argue here: T-shirts are more expressive and intelligent than most kids’ books.

The licensing show is a concourse of booths representing hundreds of purveyors of exceedingly unintellectual intellectual property, from Disney and Nickelodeon at the high end to a host of would-be brands, unknown characters, and do-with-me-what-you-will images at the other. As you walk the floor, it’s hard not to find yourself swept up in the euphoria of licensing – to sell something without giving it up, to exploit without exhausting, to trade without exchanging (finally, to have your cake and eat it too).

On the center fairway of the show floor, Tolon Brown mans his father’s $150,000 booth, built in the form of Arthur’s club house, recognizable to children under 7 and their parents everywhere. Tolon’s father, Marc Brown, the creator of Arthur the aardvark, is arguably the most successful author of children’s books today. He is quite possibly the most successful author of anything today. “A gazillionaire,” says one of Brown’s publishers. Arthur books have sold 30 million copies so far, at an upward-trending rate of 10 million a year. And that’s only books. Arthur also has the world’s second-best-selling Band-Aid (Winnie the Pooh, that zenith of children’s characters, is the first). Plus he has most of the licenses Todd Parr has and many more (toothbrushes, shampoo and bubble bath, and antibacterial soap, for instance). Even a balloon in the Macy’s Parade.

The Arthur beast comes to be a shadow presence – in bed, in the bathroom, in the air (I can hear Arthur talking now). Only the quiet neuroses of Arthur’s friends and family keep you from major revulsion at the global marketing strategy.

Brown himself seems to have the traditional unassuming virtues of a children’s author (the phone is busy when I call Arthur corporate headquarters in Hingham, Massachusetts). Brown is one of the few people whom I’ve ever interviewed to willingly answer every question I ask – even the questions about money (which no one ever answers).

He spends, I learn with interest, $400,000 a year on legal fees. And yet for all his naïfness, he has taken personal control of every aspect of his complex licensing operation. His relationship with book publishers – he uses various publishers for different markets – is more complex, strategic, and businesslike than any author-publisher relationship in the adult market. What’s more, the fulcrum of his empire is his deal with WGBH, the producing station for the Arthur PBS series (in our house, in the pre-K and K years, all life and scheduling was arranged around the morning Arthur half-hour) and one of the most difficult and controlling producers in television (not-for-profit sharks may be the ultimate sharks). Brown’s deal with the station, which gives him virtually complete control over the show – animators, voices, music, writers – is a marvel of public-TV negotiation.

“The important thing,” he says, “is to control how you come into the market. There is a Kleenex mentality out there when it comes to kids’ brands: Use them and dispose of them. You don’t want to be overlicensed. Add bed and home furnishings one or two years down the line rather than everything in a rush the first year.”

I wonder how you learn this stuff.

From Arthur, my son Steven, soon to be 8, went on to Power Rangers (a serious horror show for the teacher-librarian crowd), then to Pokémon (my advice: Sell short), and then to Star Wars (while none of these “franchises” are books precisely, they are nevertheless a big chunk of the book market). I am watching him now through the glass doors of our family room, decked out in Jedi costume, by his side what he believes to be the largest collection of light sabers in private hands, several Star Wars books, pod-racing video game, as well as Episodes Four, Five, and Six. I assume there will be a new story with toys and costumes and videos and toothbrushes, as well as books, that will capture his imagination by mid-autumn.

The heretical notion here, of course, is that there is nothing sacred about a book – books are just part of the story (and not the story itself). The business and narrative point is that the more outlets you have for the story, the more accoutrements you offer, the more embracing the story is. Unexpectedly, I find myself thinking this is right; why not build your kid his own theme park?

On Bedford Street near Chumley’s, in a mini-campus of townhouses tucked out of view, Callaway Editions, producer of Madonna’s Sex book as well as publisher (with Scholastic Press, which runs the Goosebumps and Animorphs publishing and merchandising empires) of the 3-million-and-counting Miss Spider series, has a plan for a new cross-discipline, cross-platform, horizontal-market, multimedia kids’-story concept.

Five years ago, Nicholas Callaway was wandering in Mythology, the now-defunct West Side tchotchke shop (retro, boomer, kids’ theme store all in one), and came upon a new-old toy by an upstate artisan toymaker named David Kirk. Recasting his toys in oil paint, Callaway and Kirk produced Miss Spider’s Tea Party, an opulent and fantastic Alice-ish world. Its very opulence destined it to a life in mostly book form. We wanted to “liberate ourselves from the tyranny of one person with one hand,” says Callaway – and apparently get free, too, from the bookish world. Nova’s Ark, the story of a robot boy’s search for his robot father, would represent the “paradigm of creating the characters in a story and building it simultaneously in all media.” Kirk’s drawings – which in their original form resemble nineteenth-century albumin prints – are shipped out to a digital processing plant and turned into 3-D CGI computer models. “Once it is made, you don’t have to make it again. The economics are obvious,” Callaway points out. The CGI model is infinitely malleable and reproducible for print, animations, toys, the Web, CD-roms, video games, and the anticipated hundreds of other licenses.

The Callaway-and-Kirk strategy is to use the mass-merchandising market (Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, etc.) to make these figures as familiar as Pooh and Arthur and the Jedi knights virtually overnight. A thousand Target stores are now featuring Nova as the key mascot in all of their toy departments, and six Nova premium toys will be part of Kentucky Fried Chicken promotions in the U.S. and Canada this fall. Three billion eyeballs will be Nova’s initial exposure. The goal is to create a complete world and to recruit enough children, KFC-eating children and otherwise, to live in that world.

The trouble is, most characters and stories die in the mass-merchandising process.

While the mass market offers a sure way around the traditional gatekeepers – the merchandising tsunami lays waste to the biddies – it is a devil’s bargain. Flood the market with a sea of branded stuff, and sales spike right away and, hence, almost immediately begin to trend down. Once you trend down in the mass market, you’re moved off the shelves. R.I.P. So, like Lucas with his sequels and his prequels, you have to trick the mass market – become the ultimate Scheherazade.

Callaway certainly has a marketer’s if not a storyteller’s confidence. “It is all about combining, assembling, transforming,” he says, not only about his plan to tease the mass of Americans wandering through the retail aisles but about how children play. This is the post-publishing, post-narrative, post-gatekeeper world of children’s fantasies.

How horrifying is this deluge of merchandise and brand exploitation? We have substituted the tyranny of the marketplace for the tyranny of the librarian. I am not sure I can argue that licensing represents a new narrative form, but watching through the glass doors, I might be inclined to try. Alternately, my father-in-law just called about my son’s birthday, wondering if he might be interested in taking up stamp collecting.


Licenses R Us