Artist formerly known for prints: Laurence King Publishing is settling into the children’s games sector

From specialist publisher of art and design books, to a top pick of the independent retailers plugging into the ‘make and do’ market, and a growing name in the children’s games and gifts sector, Laurence King’s reputation is a steadily flourishing one.

For a company that “stumbled into the children’s area” when it published Marion Deuchars’ first activity book Let’s Make Great Art in 2011, the publisher has made short work of establishing itself within a market for games and puzzles with a strong literary aesthetic, and has even managed to find success throughout the world’s standstill at the hands of the coronavirus, despite the temporary closure of many retailers in the toys and books arenas.

In fact, it’s over the last few years alone that gifts and games has become Laurence King’s fastest growing area, and, what started as a slow burn with a handful of gifts published per year some nine years ago, has become a business that is now witnessing the launch of up to 50 new titles a year for the firm.

2020 by all accounts is not a normal year, and while across the toy industry reports are coming in of increased sales during the lockdown, and while Rishi Sunak’s Summer Statement is doing its bit to abate the fears of a looming crisis for the UK, it still stands to reason that many firms are tackling the coming weeks and months with an air of apprehension. This hasn’t, however, forced Laurence King to curtail the launch of its ‘biggest list of games to date,’ this autumn, as the company continues to march on its plans to settle itself deeper into the children’s sector.

Here, ToyNews talks to Marc Valli, deputy publisher at Laurence King Publishing to uncover more about the company’s successes in and ongoing plans for the toys, games, and gift aisles this year and beyond.

Laurence King is really building a reputation in the children’s gift, games, and activities market. How long has the company been active in the sector, and what is it that Laurence King brings to it? 

Our company somehow stumbled into the children’s area when we decided to publish Marion Deuchars first activity book, ‘Let’s Make Great Art’, in 2011. Up to then we were mostly specialist art and design publishers, and the rationale behind publishing Deuchars was simply that we thought her work had exceptional artistic merit. The book was a success and we thought this ‘children’s book business’ was easy… Of course, we soon realised that it was a very competitive market to publish in, and that we needed to always publish books which looked amazing in order to make a mark in that area. So we followed that up with our ‘Pierre the Maze Detective’ series of labyrinth books.

In that same year, we also started a line of gifts and games. Our first success in that area came in 2012 with Bird Bingo, which was then followed by a number of other bingo games, all for the family market (on subjects such as bugs, dogs, cats, monkeys and the ocean) and for the kids’ market with Scary Bingo which was followed by Dinosaur Bingo (then jungle and soon farm).

We also published a number of memory games. Our latest success in that area was Who did this Poo?. I suppose you can’t go wrong with poo…

The idea behind the move from books to gifts and games, was to find new ways of conveying great content, in other words: creating books by other means. For example, if you want to teach your kids about birds you could buy a book and try to teach them about them… And that would be an uphill struggle. Whereas you could play Bird Bingo as a family and then learn while playing.

Apart from bringing high design and illustration standards to the children’s and games’ areas, for us the key thing is to always introduce a twist somewhere. For example, making sure that in Who did this Poo? the selection of animals and their poos is rather colourful (by poo standards…) – as in pink jets of poo for penguins and cubical poo for wombats – and that the text is lively and entertaining, making it a fun experience for both kids and adults.

Likewise, our happy families pack Wonder Women features great women through history and each family is a field such as politics, science, literature, sport, art, and so on. We thought this would be aimed at children of around 10 to 14 years-old who are looking for role models, and therefore decided to portray all of the featured women as they would have looked like at the age of the target market. We thought it would be easier for a 12-year-old budding artist or fashionista to connect with a 12-year-old Louise Bourgeois or Coco Chanel.

How do you set about developing or sourcing a new product for the children’s market? What boxes does it have to tick for you guys?

We have a commissioning team at Laurence King, and we also work with the creative retail company Magma who also come up with lots of new gift ideas. We do a lot of brainstorms and research in a number of areas. We start by thinking of formats, and subject matter. And then of how we could twist those into something that makes you smile, that makes your imagination want to go there. We try to avoid concepts that are ‘too straight’.

We spend a lot of time looking for the right illustrators for each product. Our design process is also generally much longer than in other companies and we discuss every aspect of a product; colours, compositions, every single illustration, etc. We also try to make sure that our production values are as high as possible and that our products will really stand out once they are in a crowded shop environment.

What sort of impact have you seen on sales and demand throughout lockdown? How do you think it has impacted on the consumer mind set – is there, for example, a new found awareness of the importance of play?

The adult book market suffered rather a lot with all the bookshops being closed, and then things became even worse when at the start of the lockdown Amazon suddenly shifted its focus away from selling books, removing buy buttons from lots of titles.

Thankfully for us, games and children’s books have continued to sell (alongside activity books). In fact, sales of games actually went up during lockdown. It is of course still not an ideal environment for our toys and gifts, as all the sales are going through online shops and people have not actually been able to see the products in real life, but it has helped us a lot.

We were really expecting a big drop in turnover and that didn’t happen. In particular, items such as jigsaw puzzles, bingo games, memory games and our ‘I Saw It First’ line continued to sell at a very healthy pace. But it does look like we are heading towards a serious recession and that is making us naturally apprehensive.

This Autumn we are launching our biggest list of games to date with lots of new formats and we hope they will get enough exposure. In particular we are about to launch a game called The Wild Bunch, which we have had great responses to so far and so we are very optimistic about. Other new formats are, for example, the games Who’s Hiding in the Jungle?  and Animal Mah-Jong. We are also launching a new jigsaw concept, 299 Cats… and a Dog, in which each puzzle piece is a cat with a unique shape, and we hope that people will get to see those in the shops this autumn.

As for people’s current state of mind… Well, good question. It is what we all seem to be trying to find out. I think the current crisis will have a profound impact on how people think, and tastes will change. I think tastes may become less mainstream, and people may take more of an interest in previously marginalised subject matter. They may also be more interested in connecting to nature. We are launching a book called 100 Things to Do in a Forest and I hope people will connect with that.

Are people playing more? Well, let’s hope our games help parents get their kids out of their bedrooms and away from their screens.

How does Laurence King – a book publisher – bridge the gap between storytelling and the children’s play market? How is that reflected in the look and feel of the kids’ products and gifts you guys have?

That is a good point. Our games and gifts do always try to tell a story, or they play around that concept of storytelling. A good example of that was our Story Box series, in which kids had a long story jigsaw that allowed them to either construct a particular story or play with it and create their own version. It even gave you options for alternative endings.

Our card sets Once Upon a Time A Fairy-Tale Trump Card Game and Monsters! A Scary Trump Card Game also allow for a story to be created as you are playing a game of trumps.

What sort of trends are you seeing emerge in the children’s space, and how are you working to tap into those in the coming months and years?

Well, jigsaw puzzles have been around for a couple of centuries, but we are definitely seeing a resurgence of interest in those. We also feel that there is still room for improvement in terms of gifts for very young children, from board books to flash cards. Of course, the market is cluttered with cheap gifts for those age groups but there is less in terms of high-quality products with great artwork. We are about to launch a series of board books with Marion Deuchars. We are also looking at launching a couple new kid’s board games in 2021.

Over the last few years, the games and gift list has been our fastest growing area. We started by publishing a handful of gifts and games per year in 2011, and now we are reaching almost 50 new gifts and games per year, from the games I mentioned above all the way to complex board games and new format jigsaws. It has unquestionably been fun.