By Roger Tagholm
LONDON: It’s not about digital or physical anymore, believes Erich Huang, New Business and IP Acquisitions Director at Penguin Children’s UK: it’s about brand. “I think a year ago if we were having this conversation it would have just been digital, digital, digital. ‘When does it make sense to be digital or physical?’ ‘Is it digital instead of physical? Or vice versa?’” says the 41-year-old who is coming up to eight months in his current role, having previously been Publishing Director of Penguin Children’s Media and Entertainment group. “But now the question isn’t about digital or physical, it’s about brand — and when you think about the way to launch a brand, physical or digital are simply two ways. It’s not about either/or now — it’s actually about ‘all’.”
Among properties Huang has signed up recently for this all-encompassing approach is Whale Trail, a surreal flying game starring Willow the Whale developed by agency ustwo — one of many new companies located around east London’s so-called “silicon” roundabout in Shoreditch (California gets the valleys — London just has, well, traffic). “We’re launching an enhanced ebook first off, but our ambition is to think about TV, about toys, about apparel and collectibles, and we’ve already met potential licensees at Brand Licensing Europe.”
Physical books will be in the mix for Whale Trail too, and interestingly, in some ways digital seems to create a market for physical. Huang notes that many of the game creators, writers and developers with whom he has worked on brands like Moshi Monsters (Mind Candy) and Skylanders (Activision) “feel that their digital property has only made it once there’s a physical book. And the way they talk to us about it, or to the toy partners, all they want is a physical book or a toy — it’s as if having the physical object gives authenticity, makes it real for them.
“It’s an emotional connection they have with the physical because I do think that, even the younger generation of people in the gaming industry see that their brand is somehow ephemeral unless it’s physical. I suppose it’s the same in TV and film, too, because that’s digital as well — it’s not real, it’s just light.”
Similarly, Huang has been working with MGL, another licensing and design company, to create stories behind a brand called Marsh Mellow. “This is set in a really bright, almost ‘Hanna-Barbera-esque,’ 1960s cartoon world with animals in a natural setting with mountains and oceans and although we’re creating a suite of apps to begin with it’s very much the intention to have picture books and sticker books.”
Nontraditional Creators and Pop Culture Junkies
The creators of these new worlds are not coming from the traditional channels, Huang says. “They’re not at Bologna, they’re not at Frankfurt.” He laughs: “Actually, most of these people I’ve met in bars. There’s a ‘silicon drinkabout,’ a Friday afternoon drinking thing organized by Michael Smith from Mind Candy, and I’ve met a few people through that. A lot of it is friends of friends, or clients who become friends and who say ‘I know someone who is doing something cool…’”
Huang describes himself as a “fanboy at heart,” a “pop culture glutton” and if you ask him how he stays in touch with what his young audience might like, he’ll answer, “by always being immature?” and then laugh again. He laughs a lot and has an open, friendly demeanor.
Born in New Jersey, he moved to Los Angeles when he was eight, after his father, a civil engineer “who did a lot of earthquake work for the government” was transferred out west. “I grew up in LA, so my accent is very Californian — allegedly. I studied Palaeontology at Berkeley because I thought I wanted to dig for dinosaurs. But it didn’t work out. I wasn’t meant for field work.” He laughs again: “I’m from LA. I need a shower, I want my MTV.”
Odd jobs followed back in California, including a spell as a reader at a film agency where he admits to turning down two scripts that went on to be big successes — Face Off [John Travolta] and Armageddon, the Jerry Bruckheimer picture with Ben Affleck.
“Then I became a tour guide at Universal Studios. They were making Jurassic Park at the time, so you see I did become a Palaentologist after all!” Temp work at Disney followed which led to a permanent position as PA to the Creative Director at Disney Publishing, which is how he got into publishing. Eventually he became Managing Editor, the go-between between any publisher around the world who published Disney books, and the producers of the films, like John Lasseter at Pixar or Tim Burton (The Nightmare Before Christmas).
He used the contacts he made to move to Penguin Australia to look after their licensed publishing business and spent a total of six years in the country, moving to the toy company Funtastic before returning to the UK to work first for the very successful promotional book publishers Paragon, and moving to Penguin five years ago.
Publishing and Globalization
He’s interested in the possible clash between the federal nature of publishing — with two different houses publishing the same author on either side of the Atlantic — and the globalizing affect of the internet which encourages a single approach. “I always use Disney as an example. Disney will say these are the four things we’re going to do globally this year, and this gets rolled out through all the offices. Everyone takes it on. No one says “Tuh. The Americans are making us do this.” Or “Head office is forcing this down our throats.” They all embrace it. They drink the Kool Aid, they believe. There’s probably 20 to 10% that is localized, the rest is part of the global strategy.”
It will be interesting to see the affect of the Penguin/Random House merger here, which will surely only increase the global reach of the combined entity.
He lives in Stoke Newington in north London, travels widely and admits to a geeky interest in unusual museums. “I went to the Ronald Reagan Library recently which is close to where my parents live. They volunteer there. It was amazing because it was all about what it’s like to be President. They have Regan’s Air Force One so it was very Eighties, very Dynasty with all these shiny curtains. But they show you where the press sat, where the weapons were hidden…”
Meanwhile, if you ask him what is top of his pop culture list, he has no doubt. “The first thing that comes to mind is Star Wars. Star Wars will always be one of the big things because so many other things wouldn’t have happened without Star Wars. Star Wars is the crux.”
Which kind of brings us back to Disney — except that he is adamant that publishing has primacy over what he calls its “sister industries.”
“It’s the most exciting time to be in publishing, and I think it’s more exciting being in publishing than any other media industry because we’re at such a crossroads. And I always think we were first, we were the first story telling industry and I feel that I am not going to let our sister industries be the ones that survive because I think we are the master storytellers.”