Saar Shai: Novelty Books as Playthings

by Saar Shai | 30 Nov 2021

Biographies and Interviews


What exactly do you do in the industry?

I think I have a rather interesting role, definitely an unusual one. I’m the inventor-in-residence for the book publishers Igloo and Autumn (part of Bonnier). My mission is to come up and develop new and innovative formats for novelty books. 📚

These days, novelty books span much wider than pop-ups, pull-tabs and lift-the-flap. You have sound books, you have ‘scanimation’, you have books that come with punch-out characters and little toy vehicles that ride on the pages. You even have escape-room books. You often see a lot of the trends that come up in the toy industry also appear in the form of novelty books. Even the unboxing craze is making an appearance in the form of individually wrapped mini-books.

There’s definitely a strong force pushing the industry to ‘toy-ify’ picture books and I think that’s a very positive trend. I’m a big fan of the appeal of good writing and eye-catching illustrations, but anything else that can draw kids to literature should be applauded.  


I am working closely with the CEO and department heads on designing titles that sell millions of units in sales all over the world. We handle high profile licenses such as Disney, Marvel and Star Wars and find ways to make reading these books a fun experience that correspond to their brand.

As part of my job, I'm in charge of finding solutions for manufacturing costs, which is often tricky and challenging consider the low price point of some of these books. They are typically cheaper than toys.


Another tricky challenge, which is quite familiar to toy industry professionals, is grabbing attention on the shelf (or online) by demonstrating the novelty and value for each of these titles. A lot of these novelties are quite ingenious, even if I do say so myself, but need to be communicated at a glance, on a book that already needs to communicate a theme or story.


But I like a good challenge. 🏅

I guess that’s why I’m in this industry in the first place.


What are you working on now?

On the days I don’t invent novelty books I design games and toys as an independent inventor. I only recently joined the community of toy inventors and game designers and everyone’s been so welcoming, and I’m so grateful for the work that People of Play is doing to support inventors. And coming from other industries it’s inspiring to see how everyone in this industry is so generous with offering help, and simply loves what they do. There’s an infectious enthusiasm that I rarely saw anywhere else.


I mostly enjoy working other inventors who have complementary skills. It’s not just the most fun, it also produces the most innovative results. Anyone who has physical prototyping and engineering skills should absolutely get in touch with me.


What has been your biggest achievement? What was your biggest failure?

I would say they are one and the same. Years ago I was waiting for completion of a deal with AT&T to distribute my invention – Ringbow, a ring device that enhances interactions with touch screens and can serve as a gaming controller – in their stores across the US, and the closing of a sale of another of my inventions to Samsung, to do with novel ways of interacting with flexible displays, so I had some time on my hand.



I came up with a new type of cards which have two ‘edges’, each providing a different benefit. When a player plays a card, they also choose which benefit they would like to have, and which other benefit to direct towards another player. That way, other players also get something on your turn.


I called these Double-edged Cards and I designed a whole card game around it called The Agents, with a theme of spies, secrets and subterfuge. I also partnered with a brilliant illustrator – Dan Morison – and we took it to Kickstarter, not expecting much, hoping to be able to print a couple of hundred copies. We asked for $6,000 which we raised in the first couple of hours, and ended up with $300,000 from 10,000 backers. At the time it was one of the most engaged campaigns on the platform.



I decided to publish the game myself, so now I had an indie games company on my hand, shipping copies to more than 80 countries from a makeshift warehouse we built in my dad’s backyard. I went on to publish more games and partner with other creators, like with Boogie Dice – the world’s first sound-activated self-rolling dice, and City of Mist – a role playing game with an interesting twist of dual identity.



While I’ve done rather well, I found out I’m not cut out to handle the administration and logistics of running a company. I excel at the design and development aspects, so my focus was taken from what I’m best at.



Which is why I now focus on designing games, in addition to my work on novelty books. I’m also busy inventing toys as an independent inventor. I very much looking forward to making an impact in the industry and grateful for the warm welcome from some amazing people developing amazing toys.


What advice do you have for people starting in the industry?

Grow thick skin! Rejection is part of the game and you mustn’t take it personally, but you should take it on board. If certain companies pass – keep going and pitch to others. If you get feedback – learn from it and adjust. It’s a great opportunity to follow up and show that you’ve implemented the comments. Often the wow factor comes from such reflections and improvement.


Be prolific! Don’t stop. Finished with an invention or design – plan your outreach to pitch it and start the next one as soon as you can.

But also don’t move on too soon – think about different iterations and implementations of the original idea. Most often than not, your first idea will not be the one you license. With Samsung, I thought I had such a brilliant idea but it was only after working on the patent and adding more and more to it that I came up with the innovation they actually wanted. The same happened with Igloo and Autumn.

So expand your invention and design to include more features (but be careful not to overdo it), think about other categories (and even other industries), age ranges or themes it might fit into if you tweak it or even change it significantly. The best ideas come from other good ideas, so keep ideating.


What trends do you see in toys or games that excite or worry you?

I have to say that waste is a big issue for me. I feel very uncomfortable seeing all these individually wrapped pieces which is part of the unboxing trend. Though I do understand the fun that comes with multiple layers of discovery. I love opening boxes and unwrapping little surprises, I just wish it could be done without so much extra plastic and paper.


I’m trying to do my part in incorporating sustainable materials and lean design in my own inventions.


Excited by the potential for physical toys and digital apps. These are very different experiences, especially in how players approach them. I think AR is going to bring a boon to these innovations, but there's still so much to do still with low-tech which is still largely unexplored. I'm working on some fun new stuff myself so hopefully I'll be able to express my excitement with some real products in the market. 🤞


What was your favorite toy or game as a child? 🧸

When I was a child, love customizing my toys and make them intermingle with each other, so one of my favorite things to do was to use my Domino Rally set and add to it other toys that can become part of the toppling display. I remember one Saturday when my brother and I took over the entire first floor of our house and had a track running all around and including anything from our RC cars to toilet paper tubes, kitchen cutlery to grapes rolling on the floor. It was so much fun to see a whole army of G.I. Joes crashing down into a puff of my mom’s eye shadow kit.

Interview inventor #innovation innovation game inventor #creativity creativity and inspiration

Tait & Lily, Inventors of Betcha Can't!