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Publishing Up 1% in the U.S./Canada; Steady Growth Worldwide

Retail sales of publishing-based licensed merchandise grew 1.0% to reach $4.51 billion in retail sales in the U.S./Canada—the highest since the category peaked in 2008 at $4.53 billion. Although 2015 growth is less than the previous year’s (1.6%), the category is steadily recovering from the dip observed from 2008–2010 and laconic growth in subsequent years (under 1.0%). The trend carries over internationally as well, with worldwide sales of retail merchandise based on licensed publishing properties fairly flat over the past three years.

Like last year, books declined and newspapers/magazines grew in the U.S./Canada, albeit at a slower clip of 1.8% vs. 3.5% in 2014. The category’s flat rates can be attributed to greater competition from entertainment/character brands and technological challenges—either as competition to traditional physical products or due to changing distribution, or both.

See the complete breakdown, from 2008–2015, in the Licensing Data Bank.

Retail Sales of Licensed Merchandise, Based on Publishing Properties, U.S & Canada, 2014–2015
Note: Numbers may not add up exactly due to rounding.
(Figures in Millions)
Property Type Retail Sales, 2015 Retail Sales, 2014 Change 2014-2015 Share of Market, 2015
Newspapers/Magazines $2,763 $2,714 1.8% 61.3%
Comic Books/Strips $1,255 $1,247 0.7% 27.9%
Books $487 $500 -2.5% 10.8%
Total Publishing $4,505 $4,460 1.0% 100.0%

All segments of the publishing sector face mounting competition from higher-profile entertainment and digital properties. Publishing flourished in recessionary times when children’s properties were deemed less risky. But when the entertainment/character sector began its recovery in 2013, publishing, especially for low-profile, niche brands, began to struggle. The growing success of digital properties has also contributed to the depressed fortunes of the publishing sector.


The growth in publishing was fueled by newspaper/magazines, which grew 1.8% to $2,763 in 2015 following four straight years of growth in the U.S./Canada. The segment is exemplified by lifestyle licensing programs built around magazine properties—more specifically, the efforts of publishers to use licensing to diversify and extend their brand into non-publishing product categories. Examples worldwide include:

  • Playboy expanded its licensing presence in China under a new 10-year deal with Handong United providing for the manufacture and distribution of apparel, footwear, accessories, and luggage.
  • Hearst’s Cosmopolitan partnered with Ecell Global for a line of phone and tablet cases to be distributed in the U.K. in a deal announced weeks before the world’s first magazine-branded perfume, Cosmopolitan The Fragrance, hit shelves.
  • Marie Claire, the Time Inc. publication that has been licensing its brand for ready-to-wear, fashion accessories, cosmetics, and home décor around the world since 1982, announced its newest venture this year: beauty shops in the U.K.
  • National Geographic has actively expanded the scope of its worldwide licensing program in terms of both geography and products range in the past two years.

Meanwhile, the number of magazines getting into licensing continues to grow. Notable newcomers include Maxim and the U.K. magazine Men’s Health, which launched a line of vitamin products in 2015.

While inn most cases, a magazine remains in publication and licensing is regarded as a source of supplemental revenues, there are companies that have taken the opposite approach. A leading example is the merger between Sequential Brands Group and Martha Stewart Living Omnipedia to create a new entity dedicated exclusively on consumer licensing.

Comic Books/Strips

Retail sales of comic books/strip-based merchandise grew 0.7% in 2015 to reach $1,255 million in the U.S./Canada, marking the first year of growth since 2011. Although sales have not yet recovered to 2011 levels, the category has been steadily reviving with flat growth in 2014 (-0.5%) following a steeper dip in 2013 (-5.4%). Comics remain a steady source of revenue in the U.K., France, Belgium and other parts of Europe, and in much of Asia thanks in large part to Japan’s dynamic manga publishing industry.

The bulk of licensing activity is in gifts and novelties (figures, key chains, collectibles) followed by accessories, apparel (t-shirts) and publishing (product extensions, posters). Despite the growing number of deals, the poor performance of these product categories has had a dampening effect on retail sales.

Comic strip properties that have transcended the world of newspapers, such as Peanuts and Garfield, are categorized under entertainment/character. In the same vein, although superhero properties have been on the rise, most licensing activity is focused on the film or TV adaptation rather than the print source. While increased interest in a print property adapted to the screen generally leads to amplified activity with the source material, publishers often struggle to capitalize on the trend. This trend shifting in recent years as superhero franchises take off—instead of a one-off merchandising push necessarily centered around one film, for example, licensors can plan waves of product lines timed to multiple releases and tie-ins with supplementary classic material.

There is also overlap in this category with traditional book authors, such as Margaret Atwood, Chuck Palahniuk, and William Gibson who have written or plan to write original comics projects.


Like comic books/strips, sales of book-based licensed merchandise have been steadily declining—but the property type showed no similar sign of recovering in 2015. Following a -3.1% drop in 2014, book-based licensed merchandise fell another -2.5% to reach $487 million in retail sales in 2015. This year marks the lowest total in six years, with books making up the smallest slice of the publishing property type (10.8% in 2015).

Licensing of books is dominated by children’s titles and focuses on children’s book characters. These properties have traditionally performed well in children’s and infant product categories such as apparel, accessories and toys. However, there is stiff competition from entertainment/character, sports, high-end fashion and other brands that have expanded their licensing programs to appeal to fans who are entering a new life stage as young parents as well as private label brands that are distinguished by manufacture (such as made with organic/green materials) rather than design.

Properties with particularly aggressive programs include the World of Eric Carle, Roald Dahl, Guess How Much I Love You, Rainbow Fish, and Geronimo Stilton. And although they constitute a small percentage of the book market, licensing of adult book titles and authors continues to expand. Ken Follet (Pillars of the Earth), Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Clancy, Harlequin Romance, and Fifty Shades of Gray were among the adult book properties that launched new licensing ventures in 2015.

In some cases, licensing activity based on a publishing property may fall under entertainment/character since much of the licensing is based on the film properties. Examples include The Hunger Games, Twilight and Harry Potter (part of the Wizarding World franchise alongside Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts).

Product Category

Worldwide sales of licensed publishing merchandise grew 2.1% in 2015 to reach $8,597 million in licensed retail sales. U.S./Canada made up the bulk of sales (42.4% with $3,648 in sales for 2015) followed by Europe (26.1%) and Asia (27.7%). Publishing is

Comic books and graphic novels as a product category have enjoyed greater growth because of the increasingly interdependent and complementary relationship between comics and movies and TV, especially for top entertainment/character properties including Star Wars. Retail sales of comics and graphic novels in the U.S. and Canada grew 10% in 2015, passing $1 billion for the first time in decades, according to comic book data specialist Comichron and online retail trade magazine ICv2.

Bookstores & Other Retailers

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, total bookstore sales totaled $5.44 billion in the Jan.-Jun. 2016 span, up 6.1% from $5.13 billion a year ago. The bookstore sector performed better than the entire retail segment, with sales for all of retail rising 3.3% in June over the comparable month in 2015 and up 3.1% for the first half of 2016. This year marks the first time bookstore sales posted an annual gain since 2007. As well as their namesake, bookstores bulk up their profits with collectibles, gifts/novelties calendars and greeting cards as well as food/beverages and consumer electronics.

Bookstores aren’t the only winners. As reported by Publishers Weekly, Nielsen BookScan showed the mass merchandiser channel as the biggest winner for sales following the week of the release for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts 1 & 2. While book clubs and retailers enjoyed a solid jump, mass merchants such as Walmart, accounted for 33% of sales. That share of is much higher than typical, with 17% cited as an example. But the channel is still struggling with book sales; even with the 40% increase in sales courtesy of Cursed Child, unit sales were down 4% through Aug. 7 compared to the same period in 2015.


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