Partworks may be looked down on as the ugly sister of European publishing, but there's money to be made in this niche industry.
January is the month when holiday decorations are packed away; New Year's resolutions are made; and, in Europe, a curious publishing phenomenon known as the partwork is unleashed on consumers. As soon as the New Year is seen in, TV ads for partworks appear, on subjects from planes to paintings and TV shows to major films. They are available in most European countries, yet in the U.S., they are conspicuously absent.
Sometimes looked down on as the ugly sister of publishing, partworks is a niche industry that relies on specific distribution channels, impeccable timing, and the right choice of subject matter. But get it right and there's money to be made. Partworks are worth about £200 million (U.S. $390 million) in the UK alone.
A partwork is a magazine-like publication—typically appearing on a weekly or monthly basis—that is designed to form a reference work on a given topic. Often, each edition will have a relevant giveaway attached. Traditionally, partworks covered course-based and reference topics (think DIY, bird-watching, arts & crafts, etc.). But there's only so many times such titles can be recreated, so the industry is adopting entertainment properties as a means of staying relevant and on-trend. It's a competitive market, and licenses are offering a helping hand to publishers clamoring to strike the right chord with consumers. "The partwork market is very well established but obviously has to change to fit with market conditions and requirements," explains Huw Thomas, partwork consultant at Comag, a marketing and distribution company specializing in publishing. "In recent years, partworks and the licensing industry have discovered each other. Partworks companies are investing in a license to get the advantages of an established brand, while the licensing industry has discovered that a partwork is a mutually exclusive part of the publishing industry."
In the UK, the first licensed partwork was Eaglemoss' Farthingwood Friends series in 1993. "Many others followed their lead with more than 60 subsequent TV, film, and publishing brands proving a successful partnership for the licensors and the partwork licensees," explains James Franks, marketing director of partwork publisher De Agostini, which holds 50 percent of the global market and publishes in 39 countries. In February, De Agostini will launch Harry Potter Chess: The Step-by-Step Course, a magazine and collectible chess set, developed under license from Warner Bros. The series builds into a replica of the climactic chess match featured in the film, complete with 32 special-effects chess pieces and a chessboard featuring the four illuminated Hogwarts House badges in each corner.
"Harry Potter Chess is a prime example of the potential for innovative, new publishing opportunities for licensed properties. The magazine provides an important function in teaching children the rules of the game in a fun and appealing way," says Franks, adding that De Agostini "will continue to explore opportunities for future licensed brand partwork launches."
Other examples currently on the market include Marvel Comics (with collectible figurines), Dora the Explorer (with collectible books), and Totally Tracey Beaker (with DVDs).
For Richard Hollis, head of UK licensing, BBC Worldwide, Doctor Who (currently published by GE Fabrri) is an ideal choice for a partwork subject. "The property has a strong, enthusiastic, and loyal fan base; many of its fans have supported the show for years and want to delve deeper into the series," says Hollis. The partwork is one of three Doctor Who magazines, proof that, for the right property, there is little risk of cannibalizing more traditional magazines.
Preschool properties generally are more difficult to achieve success with. Young children tend to change their favorite character regularly, and parents are less likely to buy into a property in the long term. For older children, it's important to get the balance right between engaging the child without overtly educating them, and choosing a subject they can get passionate about over a sustained period. Like Doctor Who, a property that will sell the best is one that appeals to adults and children alike. Eaglemoss' Lord of the Rings series is an example.
So why have partworks not taken off in the U.S.? Comag's Thomas explains, "Partwork companies have tried on numerous occasions to get into the States, but it has never really worked. There are more than 200 TV markets with 2,000-plus stations, so reaching people is difficult and expensive. The UK at present has an excellent retail market for distributing magazines. Even though TV is getting more fragmented, you can still reach 80 percent of your target in 10 days, and, while not exactly the same setup, the rest of Europe has similar dynamics."
The biggest partwork markets are in Europe, with Italy and Spain combined worth about twice the UK market. In these countries, partworks often take the place of specialist/hobbyist magazines. In this instance, there tends to be fewer volumes per launch but more launches. There were 210 launches in Spain last year, compared to 26 in the UK. France also is an important market, and Germany relatively so, while Eastern Europe, including Russia and the Ukraine, is emerging.
More than 60 partwork titles have been published in the last three years in the UK alone. The intensity of competition for magazine shelf space is so great that to sell a whole series of partworks at high-street retailers would take up a lot of space, and herein lies an important retail strategy and another reason partworks are successful in Europe but haven't taken off in North America: In Europe, publishers have endeavored to launch partworks at high-street retailers—news agents and the like—to tempt first-time buyers and then rely on subscriptions to sustain sales in the long term. In the U.S., approximately 80 percent of magazine sales are on a subscription basis, so the opportunity to tempt potential subscribers at newsstands is reduced.
With 12 partwork launches in the UK last month, January clearly is a popular time to debut new series. According to the PPA, besides reduced TV advertising rates, "January is a time when consumers are easier to target, with people generally more open to the idea of taking up a new hobby or starting a new project in the post-Christmas slump." Tempted by discounted first issues and quirky advertising campaigns, a consumer initially ensnared by the marketers invariably will buy into the whole partwork series, sometimes spending hundreds of pounds over a period of time. According to a recent survey by De Agostini, 73 percent of respondents intended to go on collecting the series until it is complete.
Thus, the importance of a successful launch cannot be overestimated. Although publishers increasingly are offering a back-issue service, a customer is unlikely to start a collection partway through a series. Grabbing consumers from the outset is so incumbent on the success of a partwork series that it is no surprise the average cost of advertising the launch of a new series is upward of £1 million (U.S. $1.94 million). Italian publisher De Agostini spends closer to £1.5 million (U.S. $2.9 million) for its launches. Get it right, and a publisher expects to sell somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 copies at launch.
For now, the future's bright for partworks, thanks to the combination of an audience that wants to collect and build over time, and an industry looking to reinvent itself and embrace the latest trends.