The mood at the three-day China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair (CCBF), which ended on November 20, was upbeat and positive, driven by the vast (and content-hungry) market of 370 million Chinese children below the age of 18. (Too bad the Shanghai weather was to the contrary – gloomy and drizzling most of the time.) Rising middle-class households with higher disposable income and a newly enacted two-child policy are set to boost the book market considerably for many years to come.

From the exhibitors, new and seasoned, the summation of the fourth CCBF, not surprisingly, was littered with words such as “fascinating,” “exciting,” “busy,” and “successful.” Challenges were cited but the consensus was that no market is without problems. Rights-wise, the traffic is very much a one-street flowing into China. But some publishers have started looking for outstanding children’s titles from China that would work back in their own markets. However, the fact remains that over 70% of the top 10 children’s bestsellers on China’s biggest online retailer,, are translated titles. The Magic School Bus is one such bestseller, moving upwards of half a million copies annually.

One of the publishers that has been selling a lot of rights is Hachette Children’s Group (U.K.), which has participated in CCBF since its inaugural 2013 run. “I am looking to close at least 30 deals for the Chinese market by the end of December,” said rights manager Kavi Meswania, who called the fair “simply brilliant,” and hoped to have a much bigger booth next year to accommodate concurrent meetings and drop-in crowds. “We have met with a lot of Chinese publishers at Bologna and Frankfurt, but they still want to see us here, which is a very good thing. Of course, when we are here, we get to meet with many new players who do not necessarily travel to those international fairs.”

Managing director Jonathan Holland of i-Read also had success in selling rights, having closed seven deals for his sticker books at his first CCBF. Chinese publishers, Holland said, “are very decisive about what they want for their publishing program, and we appreciate the fact that they immediately dismiss titles that would not work for them instead of dragging the selection process out of innate politeness. It is such a refreshing change from the usual process. We learned a lot during this trip, and one of the major things we learned is that 3D stickers do not work here, as Chinese publishers prefer simpler printing process to keep prices competitive.”

The process of learning about, and understanding the needs of, Chinese publishers differs from one exhibitor to the next. But everybody agreed that it should be an ongoing process in order to ensure sustained growth and success in the fast-moving Chinese book market.

Sourcebooks publisher and CEO Dominique Raccah, on her first CCBF, already had her methods down pat: “At every meeting, I ask the publisher about their publishing program and bestsellers, and I go through their catalogue to further understand what works for them. For me, this trip is an exploration and learning exercise, one that is very enjoyable, and interesting.” In fact, “interesting” was the word she repeatedly used to sum up the Chinese children’s book market, meetings and overall experience of the fair. The many inquiries about Marianne Richmond’s titles and AR trilogy Dragon Brothers, on the other hand, prompted her to say, “Amen to Marianne Richmond and dragons.”

Theresa Thompson, president of Sterling Publishing, was a CCBF first-timer like Raccah, and said she “had no assumptions about the Chinese market. The key is to be here in person in order to understand what sells, and what the market needs. From what I have heard and seen, distribution is a challenging and complex issue in China, not least because of the size of the country. Again, this goes back to the need for zero assumption, patience, and lots of learning, which is a long-term process. Anything that is worthwhile takes time, and given the vast opportunities in China and potential Chinese content for the U.S. market, this is definitely worth the while.”

Making its fourth appearance at CCBF was U.K.-based World of Books, the largest seller of used English books. For agent Sam Perry, “China represents a huge market of 400 million English-language learners, and we are here to offer economical options to the titles that they need. But there is the usual resistance to buying used books. The distribution networks are also not so open here, which require us to take the time to develop relationships with the right partners. However, compared to four years ago, this market is definitely much more appreciative of the benefits of importing used books, especially when children’s titles are not cheap.”

For Highlights for Children, where sales in China has grown more than three-fold in as many years, “CCBF is a focused way for us to meet potential partners that share our vision and values to reach as many children as possible positively,” said Andy Shafran, v-p for international and digital business. A version of High Five preschool magazine – in English and with a Talking Pen – was launched in partnership with Shenzhen Caldecott, a company known for its success in social media marketing for children’s products. “This launch reflects the high level of interest from parents in teaching English to their kids, and their demand for the same magazines that American kids are using,” said Michael Davis, managing director for Asia, adding that the appetite for English-language learning with authentic reading has surged in recent years.

The way the fair was organized, with demarcated areas for trade and public, was very helpful to first-timer Polly Powell, owner and publisher of U.K.-based Pavilion Books. “Visiting the stalls gives me a better idea of the retail prices and what sells. I also get a sense that the appetite for children’s titles are much more sophisticated in Shanghai compared to Beijing. Parents here want books depicting different cultures to offer their kids a global outlook.” The scale of the Chinese children’s book market fascinates Powell. “The numbers are staggering. The challenge now is to find the right partners that are mindful of copyright protection and transparent in rights reporting, and this invariably involves long-term strategy and vision for this market.”

For publishing director Toby Reynolds of U.K.-based Green Android, this CCBF was his first vist to China after selling three series through his rights agent. “This is such a fantastic fair for me,” he said. “It is so busy with visitors responding very well to our titles. I find the atmosphere much more convivial compared to the rather reserved Bologna and Frankfurt.” His How to Draw series has drawn the interest of nearly a dozen publishers, prompting Reynolds to consider an auction. Adult coloring books, he added, may be cooling down but his hybrid titles – combining coloring with literary quotes, or information about street artist information, for instance – proved a hit with Chinese publishers.

The Chinese market, said rights manager Sean Donelan of U.K.-based Miles Kelly, “is saturated with traditional fact-based titles for children, and publishers are now looking for more innovative, novelty-based, and quirky titles.” Still, he was surprised by the amount of interest shown on soon-to-be-published First Atlas, which offers illustrated maps and facts for young kids. “It seems that Chinese publishers are more keen on illustrated titles than pictorial ones. There is also a shift to early learning titles, which is a global thing. Another aspect that surprises me is that the Chinese children’s book market has not shown any signs of even slowing down.”

Sarah Pakenham, director of rights and international sales at the U.K.’s Andersen Press, shared Donelan’s observation: “China has published and bought so many titles, and yet, the market is not yet saturated. It continues to grow and there seems to be a lot more room for further development. As for hot topics, those on social and emotional learning, sibling-related topics, and moral values are huge.” But not everything is positive, she noted. “Piracy is still around. We sell English titles through Penguin Random House to China, and we are seeing piracy of these originals, especially the special sale sets.”

Next year’s CCBF will be held in mid-November; the exact dates have not yet been announced.