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Start Licensing’s Ian Downes talks brands, publishing and World Book Day with Zoe Masters – Publisher for Brands and Licensing at Farshore, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Zoe, it’s great to connect! Can you tell us about your role at HarperCollins?
I am a publisher in our wonderful brands and licensing team here at Farshore – formerly Egmont Books until we became part of the HarperCollins group in 2020 and rebranded in 2021. I feel very privileged to work with such a talented, commercially minded, and creative team!
I come from a publishing sales background which enables me to apply my experience and understanding of our retailers – and commercial knowledge of the book market – into our publishing strategy and plans.
What are some of the current licences in your portfolio?
In my role, I currently publish an array of fantastic brands including Beano, Cocoa Girl, CoComelon, Fireman Sam, PAW Patrol, Rupert, Something Special and Thomas & Friends. In addition to this, in the wider team we publish Disney, Dungeons & Dragons, Minecraft, Mr. Men Little Miss, My Little Pony, Pokémon, Tintin, Winnie-the-Pooh to name but a few!
We are the number one gaming publisher, and the number one annuals publisher. New annuals to our portfolio this year include Match Attax and PAW Patrol.
What makes a good licence for HarperCollins?
A good licence needs to be commercial first and foremost; a brand that both our retailers and consumers are keen to support. We are always looking for evergreen brands and long-term partnerships with a licensor. It could also be a brand with potential for growth, that has perhaps not been realised or isn’t currently recognised. Or a hot new emerging brand!
“We are passionate about creating books that make every child a proud reader, and licensed books are a hugely important part of this.”
At HarperCollins we also have the ability to acquire licenses across imprints; we have seen great sales success with PAW Patrol, which we acquired in 2021. It benefits from the publishing expertise of both Farshore and the Collins Learning educational imprint.
Many of our licensors have acknowledged and embraced the importance of representing the diversity of society in their brands, including but not limited to ethnicity, disability, and neurodiversity. We actively look for inclusivity and diversity in the licences we acquire; it is important and empowering for children to see themselves represented in the brands and characters they love.
When a rights owner is pitching to you, what tips do you have with regards to making the pitch relevant to you and your business?
We are keen to see a clear vision for the brand, stats, future hooks and plans, as well as an understanding of what they are looking for and need from us. The rights owner does not need to already know what the books will look like or what the publishing programme will be; that’s what we’re here for!
What licensing trends are currently influencing your publishing decisions?
Trends are important and we spend a lot of time trendspotting. At Farshore, we pride ourselves on our consumer insights and research, finding out how children are spending their spare time, what they are interested in and what motivates them.
It is not new news, but it’s been interesting to see the surge in streaming, with YouTube and so on, and just how tech savvy even the youngest children can be! CoComelon is a prime example of how a brand with origins on YouTube can translate into commercial sales success.
From a design perspective, has there been any recent shifts in the look and styling of books?
The look and styling is often driven by trends. We keep a close eye on what is performing well through the Nielsen BookScan charts and listen to feedback from our retailers on what is working for them. We also need to consider our target market for a title; it may be that a more heritage or ‘classic look’ is more suitable. We are always very mindful of not only how a book looks on the shelf, but also how impactful it is as a thumbnail image for online shopping.
“A good licence needs to be commercial first and foremost; a brand that both our retailers and consumers are keen to support.”
Environmental considerations also feed into our cover design. In recent times we have removed glitter from our cover designs due to the micro-plastics, and we are continuously looking at ways to make our formats and cover designs more eco-friendly.
Do you think there is more crossover between publishing and other industries these days, thinking about sectors like toys?
We keep a close eye on what is happening in toys and the NPD toy charts, however sometimes what works well in books does not always work well in toys – and vice versa. Performance of toys and other merchandise for our brands is something our book buyers are always keen to hear about.
For pre-school novelty formats, we are experiencing many of the same challenges as the toy industry currently: rocketing freight and material costs, supply chain issues and so on. We often face the same challenges and opportunities as our fellow licensees.
We are always keen to look at ways to work together to cross-promote our books with other licensed product.
World Book Day has become a hugely successful and high-profile event. How do you think it has benefitted the licensing industry?
In the past few years more brands have been included in the World Book Day selections, which is fantastic.
Brands are often a gateway into reading for many children. It’s an extension of the toy they love, the TV series they watch, the game they enjoy playing… As a result, licensed books often feel much more accessible to many families and children who are potentially reluctant readers or have not previously read books for pleasure outside of school or nursery. In a former life I was a Key Stage 1 primary school teacher. I think it’s very easy when you exist in the publishing world to think that all families have books in their homes, but often this is not the case.
World Book Day is a brilliant opportunity for children to own a book and experience the joy that reading can bring. We are passionate about creating books that make every child a proud reader, and licensed books are a hugely important part of this.
Are there other events, campaigns, and initiatives in the publishing sector that IP owners should be aware of?
Seasonal moments are a significant sales driver for licensed publishing. Our retailers and consumers love a seasonal hook! We publish titles for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter, Eid, Father’s Day, Back to School, Diwali, Halloween, Christmas… Our books provide a narrative for these key events and enable children to understand and extend their enjoyment of these moments throughout the year.
“We actively look for inclusivity and diversity in the licences we acquire; it’s important for children to see themselves represented in the brands they love.”
Our licensors will often forge partnerships with products or non-book outlets such as restaurants, and books are a perfect promotional giveaway opportunity to introduce children and families to their brand. We work with the licensors to support these initiatives and create content to suit their specific requirements. Such partnerships support child literacy and also encourage a love of reading.
Zoe, this has been great. I have one last question! As a child what were your favourite books and characters?
Oh my goodness, where do I start! There are just so many books that I loved as a child… Mr. Men, Paddington, The Owl Who Was Afraid of The Dark, Dr. Seuss, Funny Bones, Burglar Bill, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Mog, Milly Molly Mandy, The Shrinking Of Treehorn, Flat Stanley, The Worst Witch, Famous Five, Malory Towers…
I was also an avid reader of the Beano comic, and was a member of the fan club, so I am very proud to be publishing our fantastic new Beano list!
Did you retain that passion for reading throughout school?
Sadly, when I reached my teens, I stopped reading for pleasure. I just don’t think there were as many teen and young adult fiction titles available back then. These days there is such an incredible choice and quality of writing for this age group – and my colleagues in Farshore’s Young Adult imprint, Electric Monkey, are having great success in this market.
Thankfully, as an adult I rediscovered my love of reading and my life is all the richer for it – now I am never without a book! In the wise words of Dr. Seuss: ‘You can find magic wherever you look. Sit back and relax, all you need is a book’.
A great line to wrap things up on! Thanks Zoe.
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