(Edward the horse, from Adventures in Cartooning. So adorable! Unfortunately not for sale.)
Sometimes, once they’ve turned their book in, authors will come to us and say, ‘Okay, what happens with the stuff? Like t-shirts and posters and prints and possibly squishy animals that are all based on the book?’
All of that stuff — if it’s not being produced specifically to promote the book and exclusively being given away instead of sold, which happens sometimes but only rarely — is called merchandise.
Typically a book publisher will have very little to do with it.
There’s an easy way to tell if your book publisher is responsible for dealing with that kind of stuff, and it involves looking at your publishing contract. If a book publisher is going to create themselves or license out the rights to other people for stuff, they’ll have something called ‘merchandizing rights.’ If that’s not in your contract (and it usually won’t be there), creating stuff is on you as the author. That can be a bit intimidating.
Why don’t book publishers get more involved with stuff?
Frequently, it comes down to being a matter of logistics. Creating books is complicated enough; all the printers and warehouses and facilities that publishers use or work with are optimized for editing and proofing and printing and shipping books, not art prints or cell phone cases or fluffy toys. This can be a problem if a coffee mug: none of the boxes are the right size, and we definitely don’t carry the right sort of padding! How does one print a toy on the proofing printer? Etc.
These issues can even be a problem with something that seems like it would be no problem at all for a printing company — like a high quality print. The proofing process for books and prints is different enough that sometimes, a book editor or production manager will miss problems that would be obvious to someone who spends all their time making proofs. And for a warehouse that typically spends their time mailing durable relatively-small things (ie, books), the idea of large, extremely bendable fragile things is enough to cause a mailing tizzy.
The other end of this is distribution. A large book publisher has a sales force set up to work with bookstores all around the US, and is therefore optimized to sell things to bookstores. There aren’t a lot of bookstores that carry a selection of prints and squishy animals and coffee mugs. Or if they do, a store’s selection of magnets and buttons and drawing pads will be generic (‘I love books!’ ‘READ’ etc.) or aimed at classic characters like the Cat in the Hat.
Here at First Second, when we or an author are exploring merchandizing opportunities, we find that the best way to go about things is with a partnership: working with a company who does have the process and the distribution to create a cool thing of your choosing that gets out to the right people. This is a great thing both because you don’t have to do the work of figuring out how magnets work from square one, and on top of that, you’re getting another whole company excited about your work — two helpful benefits!
Merchandizing is not something that we think is essential to a book’s success. But it can be fun to have stuff for sale that’s ancillary to the book itself. If this is something that you want to explore as an author, we recommend starting early and leaving lots of time for figuring things out!