China’s children’s book market is on a roll, and there is no stopping the momentum any time soon. That was the consensus of those visiting the recent China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair (CCBF).
Staggering numbers and unusual circumstances are converging to create a bubbling segment: 370 million children under the age of 18, a two-child policy predicted to add at least three million babies annually, and around 580 publishing companies jumping onto the children’s book bandwagon. Additionally, China’s fast-growing middle class—covering 70% of its urban population or roughly 200 million people based on a McKinsey survey—is exerting its market influence by becoming more demanding, discerning, sophisticated, and vocal.
Less statistical but nonetheless critical is the growing awareness—and impetus—among Chinese parents, teachers and policymakers to get children to read more, and to read for leisure as opposed to reading in order to pass their examinations. In fact, China’s 2020 education reform policy is pressurizing schools, teachers and parents to seek more reading, learning, and teaching materials to meet reform objectives, which are to reduce homework and standardized exams and move towards an employment-oriented education system. This has created new opportunities for direct imports, co-publishing deals, bilingual editions, and translations.
For those dealing with rights, China’s children’s book market is certainly growing hotter, increasingly diverse, and more mature in recent months.
Andrew Nurnberg of his eponymous literary agency, who visited the recent CCBF for the first time earlier this month, said: “Chinese parents want to provide their children with the very best, and this includes buying the best books they can possibly get. Increasingly, they want to offer to their kids a global perspective with works by overseas authors and from different cultures. Diversity is the key word.”
The Chinese government, Nurnberg pointed out, has been supportive in making available high-quality children’s literature from the West. “Naturally, the government would like to see a balance between local works and imports—but quality- and quantity-wise, there is a big gap, and this will remain very much so in the foreseeable future. It is down to market forces—determined by what people want and what sells—and not something that can be decided by politicians or governments.”
Nurnberg, fresh from signing a contract with Random House U.S. for Ghost Candle, an original series from Shanghai Xuanting Entertainment Information Technology Company, was exhilarated by the deal and what it represents. “We are very proud to discover this YA series, and to sell it to a major publisher. Such a deal is rare since rights traffic in China remains very much a one-way street flowing into the country. This is a milestone in our company.”
Meanwhile, across China and especially in urban areas, young parents are becoming more actively involved in their children’s education, and very much aware of the importance of preschool education. Editors and teachers are coming together to educate parents on how best to teach and support their kids. Cultivating a love of reading from an early age is largely seen as a major step towards reducing potential electronic and social media consumption (and addiction) in later years. These combined factors have given rise to the current “golden era” in China’s children’s book publishing industry, where previously unpopular (and unsaleable) products—high-priced novelty titles and big-format picture books, for instance—are selling extraordinarily well.
With the two-child policy in place, investment in the children’s book segment has hit all-time high with almost all Chinese publishers jumping onto the children’s book bandwagon. Intense competition in obtaining rights to prize-winning titles (especially Caldecott, Hans Christian Andersen, and Bologna Ragazzi awards) or works by internationally known authors and illustrators is becoming part and parcel of the industry.
“Be cautious in choosing potential collaborators. Get to know the company’s history, check on its reputation, and make sure that they are reliable when it comes to payment. Above all, make sure your title is suitable for the company,” advised Beijing-based chief representative Jackie Huang of Andrew Nurnberg Associates.
Huang’s team recently handled the rights for Scholastic’s Horrible Science, Oxford University Press’s Winnie the Witch series, Lauren A. Mills’s Minna’s Patchwork Coat, and the Bear Grylls: Mission Survival middle-grade series. Grylls’s titles, propelled by the popularity in China of his reality television series, are currently among the bestsellers in the market. “I hope to see Chinese editors paying more attention to high-quality children’s literature, bestselling middle-grade series, and YA novels,” said Huang, who is seeing an increased interest in higher-priced novelty titles—a new segment in China—where sales are usually done through nontraditional channels. In the past two years, nearly 30% of ANA’s deals in China were for children’s books.
Different types of children’s books are entering the Chinese market and finding an audience, including novelty books and the higher-priced augmented reality [AR] titles, said executive v-p Vincent Lin of Shanghai-based Big Apple Agency. His team has sold the Chinese-language rights for Nina Laden’s series (Peek-a Who and Grow Up), Carlton Book’s AR titles (iDinosaur, iStorm, iScience), and The Wonderful World of Simon Abbott series.
“These three series targeting different age groups are selling very well here, and this is not just about the uniqueness of the titles. Vast improvements in the promotional and sales strategies of local Chinese publishers have helped in penetrating the market and pulling in the audience,” Lin added.
For now, there is no significant impact of the two-child policy on the current book market. Lin said: “The number of second children born in the first year of the policy has not been as high as predicted. I think we will only see the impact after another four or five years. But the demand for children’s books will definitely increase as more parents decide to have another kid. In the meantime, publishers in this segment should start ramping up their editorial resources and expertise while putting in place appropriate sales and distribution strategies in order to cope with the impending market growth.”
The market continues to favor nonfiction picture books, especially multivolume series, observed Sue Yang, president of Seoul-based Eric Yang Literary Agency. “Nowadays, Chinese publishers will look at single-title picture books provided there are educational elements and values in the content. But they are becoming very selective when it comes to picture books,” added Yang, whose team has started to sell more activity books and pop-ups, specifically for kids below the age of three.
Science picture books, she said, “are in demand since parents want their children to start understanding science principles in everyday life, and develop scientific reasoning at a very early stage. Our team has been pitching math titles—two subjects which Korean publishers are known for—to publishers in this segment. Art titles and how-to books for the young children are also becoming popular. One thing is for certain: edu-comics are passe.”
Working the Chinese book market requires extra effort and resources. Yang said. “Translation matters here. It makes a major difference between a title getting noticed or totally discarded at first impressions. Our team prepares synopses of relevant titles in Chinese for this market. It is a lot of work but it needs to be done, and we have two staff in our Beijing office to help with that.”
Presently, nearly 15% of Yang’s business comes from China, she said, “and CCBF is great as it is focused solely on the children’s segment and market needs. It keeps us focused on that one segment, and enables us to meet more editors specializing in this huge and fast-developing market.”