Character licensing is a huge worldwide business. In 1999 retail sales from entertainment and licensing were worth an astonishing £40 billion. The bulk of that was produced by mainstream film and TV tie-ins, with familiar characters such as Winnie the Pooh and Paddington - known as 'classics' - filling out some of the remainder. But that doesn't mean there are no gaps in the market, or that you have to aim for the big time to have a hope of a decent income.
The first question is: what is a character? There are two approaches you can take. The first is to sell characters as custom illustrations, on a bespoke basis. Andy Griffiths of Zen Grenade explains how this works: "People get in touch and send me a brief. Then I give them a quote. I start with a pencil rough and then when that's agreed I do the full version."
So the workflow for these kinds of bespoke projects is very similar to conventional illustration. The issue of rights management (see the 'Terms and conditions' box over the page) is easily handled by either offering a simple limited use licence or occasionally by assignment - effectively giving up rights to your work to a new owner. Griffiths continues: "Nine times out of ten the work won't be something I'll want to use again. But if clients want the full rights, that usually means an increase in cost. Also, I license some artwork I did mainly for myself. In such cases I keep the rights but sell them a licence to use the work for a specific project. Rates vary from around £150 for a one-off to around £1,500 if a client wants enough detail for a 3D animation."
Building a brand
The alternative approach is to concentrate less on the image itself and more on building a recognisable brand. This approach needs more work, and it can also be less reliable, because there are no guarantees that your characters will sell, or that there's a market niche for them. But success can be much more lucrative.
According to Edward Burns at Advocate Art, the secret is to sell a complete market-ready package. "The first thing you need to do is produce a style guide. You need to be able to hand over something that can be cloned with full details of colour formats, logos, and how your character will be applied. The more you do, the more you can ask for. If you go to someone with a style guide and a trademark, and your character has a story already, that's worth a lot more than starting with just a drawing. Trademarks and copyrights are also useful, not just in the sense of protecting you from getting ripped off - which can happen, although it can be minimised if you stick with the bigger agencies and publishers - but also in the sense of protecting the licensee's rights."
Marketing your characters
So how easy is it to turn up on an agency's doorstep and make a sale? Realistically, not very. Ideally you need what's known in the industry as a driver - the marketing force that sells your character. At one extreme, film and TV tie-ins offer instantly recognisable powerful drivers that lead to massive exposure, albeit usually with a short spike of main interest. Video games can offer a similar push, to a slightly lesser extent. Books offer lower initial interest but have a licensing lifetime of years or even decades. But what if you don't have access to this kind of rarefied marketing push? The simple rule is that you have to create your own momentum.
This may not be as hard as it sounds. A driver can be something as simple as getting a few cards into a local bookstore. It's easy to underestimate the power of greeting card sales to create and drive a brand, but success stories such as Purple Ronnie, which started small and moved into the marketing mainstream, show that you don't need to start big to make an impression. Giles Andre, creator of Purple Ronnie, explains how he made the business grow. "I started in 1987 with a friend," he begins. We got a couple of hundred black-and-white postcards printed up in Oxford and sold them to shops from the backs of our bikes. Then we got spotted by the one publisher I hadn't sent them to - Statics - and they published them as greetings cards, which eventually moved across to calendars, T-shirts, mugs and an annual."
The real secret of Purple Ronnie's success, which is mirrored by that of similar brands such as Bang on the Door and Missy, isn't just an instantly recognisable character, but also a persistent marketing effort. Andre explains: "In the late 90s I managed to persuade Grosvenor to produce a range of toiletries - something I'd been trying for years - and in the same year, Vimto took on Purple Ronnie for an advertising campaign via an agency. Fairly soon quite a few licensees were piling in, so I took on a licensing agency, TLC licensing, and eventually we had about 30 UK licensees in all sorts of categories."
But what does it mean for newcomers? "The problem is that as a rule agencies aren't interested in properties unless they know have that at the start. But you can build it slowly by working to grow the brand with a good publisher.
Edward Burns is another fan of the greeting card angle. "Cards are one of the best drivers. The card companies want tens of new designs each year, and they sell 6,000 to 12,000 from hundreds of locations. What better advert for your property? Once you've got the recognition, you can start to move into mugs, stationery, wrapping paper, balloons, clothing, bags, then eventually into toiletries, confectionery and even plush toys. The latter have high set-up costs, so companies don't want to risk new designs unless they're sure they'll sell."
Going it alone
It can be tempting at this point to go out by yourself, and start putting up designs on CafePress and the other DIY publishing sites that can produce T-shirts, mugs and other merchandise to order. This approach can sometimes work, but it misses the point that a good publisher will do all of this for you - not just by arranging for the items to be manufactured, but more importantly by making sure they're available in appropriate stores. You may get lucky on CafePress, but there's a lot of competing merchandise on the site and realistically most of it doesn't sell well.
But how do you find publishers? Card publishers always include details on their cards, and from there it's easy enough to find out who to send samples to. But it's also well worth knowing the industry's own sources, specifically the Licensing Source Book and the Brands Licensing Expo trade fair in London. Both of these offer one-stop points of contact with hundreds of possible leads. The key point is to find the market niche that you want to sell into, and see who the relevant publishers are. Or, for a more adventurous approach, find the publishers or manufacturers who sell into the kind of shops, locations, venues or markets in which you think your target audience is most likely to spend money, and approach them. This is worth doing even if they don't already sell the kinds of items you think your brand will be most appropriate for, because if buyer interest is there, applying characters to new kinds of merchandise is much simpler than creating the interest in the first place.
Do your research
So putting all the details together, what do you get? The key point is that bespoke selling from a website can work, and selling individual card designs can work too. But for a mainstream licensing deal you'll need to find a publisher to give you an initial marketing and brand-building push, and ideally also put together a character package that includes a trademark, style guide and perhaps also a back story, ready for licensing. The more thoroughly you research the trade fairs, listings catalogues, agencies, card and merchandising companies and publishers that make up the licensing scene, the more likely it is that you can turn your designs into a reliable revenue stream.
Find out more
Introduction to licensing terms and concepts.
More about licensing from a greeting cards angle.
Commercial licensing source book - a directory of everyone you need to know in the trade.
Europe's biggest licensing fair, held in London in late October. Not to be missed if you want to make professional licensing contacts.
The US equivalent of the UK Brand Expo. Fancy selling to the US? This is where to go.
License! magazine - the latest industry news, six times a year.