Children’s books play a leading role in the fragmented and state-controlled publishing industry in China, and titles in translation are an important part of the mix, according to speakers at an intensive half-day China Deep Dive sponsored by Publishers Weekly and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. The event took place in association with the inaugural Global Kids Connect Conference in New York City, and was hosted by Pace University’s M.S. in Publishing Program and its chair, Professor Sherman Raskin.
The Chinese market is hungry for U.S. children’s book content, said speaker Candace Finn, senior manager of subsidiary rights for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s children’s list. She went to China earlier this year to meet with publishers directly, in collaboration with its co-agents, being one of the first U.S. publishers to do so, according to Finn. “Our co-agents on the ground are constantly selling,” she says. “But having the publisher there doing one-on-ones made a dramatic impact.”
In a five-day trip, Finn met with 20 publishers, most of which already had a relationship with HMH, as well as some of the many emerging venture capital-funded publishers in the country and some cross-platform media companies looking for television and tie-in publishing rights. The 20 meetings led to 350 sales requests, with bestselling picture books one of the main areas of interest.
In 2015 to date, HMH’s revenues from Chinese publishers’ advance offers for children’s books are up 328% over the previous year, with 280% of that coming in the months since the July trip. Similarly, the number of offers is up 312% year-to-date, with 270% of that since July, Finn reported.
The Rise of Private Libraries
There is really no school or public library market to speak of in China, especially outside of the major cities. But publishers have an opportunity to sell through a growing network of privately owned picture book libraries. Thousands of membership-based libraries have been established, many launched by mothers with books they bought for their own children, and some now have hundreds of branches across China. Their proprietors are often positioned as “reading promotion experts,” recommending new titles and educating parents on appropriate books, according to Xiaoyan (Renee) Huang, editor-in-chief of Trustbridge Publishing, a Hong Kong-based house.
Meanwhile, the bookstore channel is dominated by the more than 14,200 Xinhua shops owned by the China Publishing Group. Robert Baensch, president of Baensch International Group, said that the stores are huge and busy, with a seven-story location in Shanghai attracting 9,000 visitors a day and a five-story outlet in Beijing seeing 7,000 visitors daily. Xinhua is the only national bookstore chain in China.
Author tours of bookstores and schools are important for spurring word of mouth. Publishers work with local bookstore chains to promote Chinese authors’ school visits (where book sales are not allowed) and are increasingly interested in bringing in foreign authors as well.
E-books Not a Factor
Books are also sold through many of the major e-commerce platforms, the largest of which are Alibaba, JD.com, Wanggou, VIPshop, Paipai, and Yihaodian. But e-books are not a big factor yet, especially in the children’s market.
Baensch described the importance of the mobile Internet in China, noting among other statistics that 79% of metropolitan Chinese adults – a growing population due to urbanization – are online on a smartphone. More than 4% of the significant time they spend on mobile devices, especially on the subway in Beijing, is devoted to reading.
In the adult world, that translates to e-book usage, with sales of digital books on the rise and those of physical books declining, said Xiao Chuan Lian, senior staff associate, adjunct professor, and director of the Sino-American Publishing Research Center at Pace. Consumers read e-books on three main platforms: Kindle, iReader, and WeChat, with digital powerhouses such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent all entering the market.
In total, e-book sales in China reached $726 million in 2015. That includes some e-books from traditional publishers, but this is a relatively small segment. Of the 240,000 new print titles listed on Amazon China in 2014, only 8,013 had an e-book version, Lian said. A more important driver is “online literature,” which consists of very inexpensive, self-published, serialized novels, mostly in the fantasy genre.
Online literature is not directed toward children under age 14, however. And of the top-selling children’s print titles, just 10% are available as e-books for the Kindle, 20% for iReader, and 10% for WeChat. “We’re selling tons of books to China,” Finn said. “But we have not seen even one e-book offer.”
Strong Demand for Children’s Books
The children’s sector accounts for more than 7% of total title output in China and 16.9% of the $15.7 billion in industry revenue, according an overview presented by Lian. Meanwhile, almost 19% of the $12.5 billion in brick-and-mortar sales and nearly 23% of the $3.2 billion in online book sales are attributable to children’s books, as are about 34% of translation revenues and 32% of translation titles. Eight children’s books are among the top 100 titles overall sold through brick-and-mortar stores and 23 are among the top 100 books sold online.
The publishing landscape in China is fragmented, according to Lian, who presented statistics showing there are 583 publishing companies in the country (children’s and adult). The top publisher, China Publishing Group (owner of Xinhua), has a market share of just 6.8% across its 40 imprints. The government regulates the publishing industry by issuing all ISBNs, for which publishers must apply to obtain.
Thirty-three houses specialize in children’s books only, with the top player being Zhejiang, according to Huang. Zhejiang has a 10% share of sales revenue and nearly 3% of titles sold, and publishes the top children’s book series, Charlie IX and DoDoMo, by Leon Image.
Another top house is Changjiang, a fast-growing publisher that owns the Dolphin Media imprint, a licensed book specialist that markets Barbie and Marvel titles in China. Tomorrow Publishing House, the third largest, is known for classic picture books such as Guess How Much I Love You? and The Runaway Bunny. The picture book market was almost non-existent in China until fairly recently, according to Huang, but has since grown to become the third largest children’s book format. Huang called out a smaller publisher, Jieli, which ranks at #7, for being a professional house with a strong list of foreign titles, especially in YA; it publishes the Twilight series.
The top 10 titles are mostly by Chinese authors, although The Little Prince (published by Tianjin) is on the list, according to statistics offered by Huang. In terms of series, in addition to Charlie IX and DoDoMo, the bestsellers are Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, a licensed franchise from Children’s Fun based on a Chinese film and television property; Plants vs. Zombies from China Children’s, written by a well-known local author and tied to PopCap’s mobile game; Diary of a Smiling Cat by Hongying Yang, from Tomorrow Publishing; Changjiang’s Barbie books; Pipilu by Zheng Yuanjie, from 21st Century; and Monster Masters, another series by Leon Image, from Jieli. Some of these series contribute nearly 30% to their publishers’ total annual revenue.
Know Your Publisher
In addition to the major state-controlled publishing houses, there are also private houses, which often serve in the role of a packager, acquiring rights, editing, and producing the books, and collaborating with state-controlled houses for distribution. Some are 100% private, while others count state-controlled publishers as investors. Huang stressed that it is important for foreign publishers to be clear during contract negotiations about who will hold the rights and who will be selling the books.
Huang also noted that many foreign publishers make deals based only on high advances, which does not guarantee success. “Some printers in China know nothing about children’s literature, but they have a lot of money and make big offers,” she said. She also recommends building long-term relationships with Chinese publishers rather than seeking one-off deals. “It gives you a chance to really foster your titles.”