Frankfurt Masterclass: Brand Licensing for Publishers

In News by Hannah Johnson

Starting small and identifying the values and emotions associated with a brand can help a publisher get started in licensing—with a supportive author.

Marty Brochstein, top left, and Ilkka Lind in a Frankfurt Book Fair 2020 discussion moderated by Raquel Plitt. Image: FBM

By Hannah Johnson | @hannahsjohnson

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Start with Identity
At Frankfurter Buchmesse’s “Masterclass: Brand Licensing for Publishers” session on Thursday (October 15), the key message from both presenters is that a successful licensing strategy starts with defining the subjective elements of your brand: namely emotion and values.

Ilkka Lind, a licensing executive with Rights & Brands in Finland who works with the Moomin franchise, said that “one of the most crucial points” in any licensing venture is to define the brand’s identity and values. “I can’t underline that too much,” he said.

Ilkka Lind presenting at Frankfurter Buchmesse 2020. Image: FBM

For the Moomin brand, he said, the late Swedish-speaking Finnish author-illustrator Tove Jansson is a core part of the identity. “The value is in the books,” said Lind, and in their messages of “tolerance, respect for nature, love, and family.”

Similarly, Marty Brochstein, senior vice president of industry relations and information for Licensing International, said, “All licensing is built on emotion. A brand … really has to generate an emotion. Unless it generates an emotion for its target audience, it’s not worth anything.”

For a cleaning product, Brochstein said, that emotion might be trust. For a character, it might be humor.

Book publishers looking to get started in the licensing business, both speakers said, should start by evaluating the brand or characters for these subjective qualities before moving on to the business elements like legal considerations, contracts, products, and target markets—because the brand identity should inform the rest of the strategy.

How do you know, one audience member asked, if a title has licensing potential? Does it have to be a bestseller?

“Absolutely not,” Lind said emphatically. If your book has values to share, that can be a good angle from which to enter the market, he said.

Of course, the visibility helps, but Brochstein agreed that the core value and emotion of the book are the crucial elements. It’s also worth considering, he said, the scope of the story and elements like the number of characters, which could lead to more licensing opportunities. One character is harder to license than a whole community of characters, he said.

And finally, Lind added, publishers need to make sure the author supports having their work licensed. “There can be obstacles,” he said, when introducing creators to the commercial side of the business.

Legal Side: Rights, Trademarks, Contracts

The second step of equal importance, Lind and Brochstein agreed, is establishing the legal setup, which covers rights and trademarks.

Brochstein advised publishers to “establish that you own the rights you’re trying to license out.” For publishers, this can mean looking at whether licensing rights are part of the house’s contract with an author. It also means making sure you have rights to all visual material, as well as the story and characters themselves.

Another element of this legal setup is registering trademarks in territories and product categories in which you plan to work. This can be time-consuming and expensive, and Brochstein advised publishers to balance the expense of registering trademarks against the expected return and the need to protect yourself.”

And rather than wading into this complexity alone, Brochstein said, “You should get financial and legal advice about this.”

Lind said that intellectual property rights need to be “registered in a proper way in all the markets you want to enter.

“I would strongly recommend legal counsel,” he said. As an example of the complexity that publishers might encounter in this area, he said that registering a trademark at the national level in China doesn’t cover each province, and trademarks need to be registered locally as well.

Brochstein offered a basic overview of the contract terms publishers need to keep in mind. His top advice was to make sure to define the terms and territories as clearly as possible. For example, “dolls” might need to be described as “six-inch fashion dolls.”

From Marty Brochstein’s presentation at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Image: FBM

Licensing royalty rates, Brochstein said, are based on the wholesale cost, not the retail cost. And he said the rate can vary based on the property being licensed and the merchandise category. Merchandise categories with lower retail margins translate into lower royalty rates, he said.

Another licensing contract element is the minimum guarantee, which Brochstein said is there “to ensure that everybody gives their best effort.” The amount is part of the negotiation process and is paid in addition to an advance against royalties.

Identifying Licensing Agencies and Partners

From Marty Brochstein’s presentation at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2020

When looking for a licensing agency, Lind and Brochstein emphasized that the size of the agency and its resources matter.

Unless your own brand is already a global sensation, large agencies might not give you the amount of attention you need to be successful—however they will have more resources and wider reach. On the flip side, a small agency will not have as many resources but might be more aggressive in pursuing licensing deals for you.

Lind also advised that publishers think about the markets in which they want to operate. If the strategy is local, choosing an agency specialized in those regions might be a good idea.

This criterion, Brochstein said, applies as well to manufacturers and licensees, who don’t all have the same experience, geographic reach, or expertise with certain brand categories.

Selecting Products and Supplying Creative Assets

The Moomin product range. Image: Ilkka Lind’s presentation

There are more than 700 licensees worldwide working with Moomin, Lind said, doing everything from skateboards to raincoats, expensive handbags to home decor, and even food including ice cream and chocolate.

Lind said there’s a strategy behind which Moomin characters and which kind of artwork is used for each of these products.

There were eight original Moomin troll novels by Tove Jansson (1914-2001), and while many more books have been created since then, Lind said, the subsequent works are treated differently from the originals.

Some of the art and characters are “reserved for finer products, and some are used in more commercial products.” Again, he said, it’s about making sure that your licensing strategy fits with the values of the brand.

Another consideration, said Brochstein, is your ability to deliver the creative assets necessary to create these products.

Ending the session on a realistic but positive message, Lind advised, “Don’t try to conquer the whole world. Start smaller and build it from there … Start with a product that matches your story.”

From Ilkka Lind’s licensing presentation at Frankfurt Book Fair 2020. Image: FBM

More from Publishing Perspectives on Frankfurter Buchmesse is here, more from us on licensing is here, and more on rights is here. More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

And from international industry trends to curated guides to the many online events during this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, our digital magazine offers you the information you need to make the most of the fair and the rest of 2020. 

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About the Author

Hannah Johnson


Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.