With seasoned BolognaFiere signing on as the co-organizer of the China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair (CCBF) starting this year, the sixth edition naturally came with several changes. The biggest one involved moving the entire exhibition—including newly established lounges such as the BOP-Bologna Prize Lounge, the Strega Prize Lounge, and the Literary Agents Center—one floor up for its run from November 9 to 11.

But for exhibitors, the best BolognaFiere touch was the frequent shuttle bus service—which also ran on set-up day—between the official hotel and the fairground. With the wi-fi working (most of the time) and visitor traffic well-managed, people were mostly happy with the fair. (The unsightly electrical wiring covers found protruding throughout the floor fueled many grumbles and near-mishaps, but that had more to do with the building’s design than anything else.)

Overall, exhibitors are buoyed by the fact that China’s children’s book segment has expanded 14.2% within the first nine months of this year, and it currently accounts for a quarter of the country’s total retail book market (valued at around $10.2 billion). OpenBook, a clearinghouse for publishing statistics in China, which hosted the first of the conference programs, also shared other market statistics for the January–September period: there are currently 15,000 children’s titles in circulation; the number of new titles has dropped 2.8%; online sales represent 27.8% of the segment’s total sales, and are growing; and sales through brick-and-mortar outlets have declined 12.5%, and are trending down.

What draws exhibitors such as David Meggs, international sales manager of Award Publications in the U.K., to CCBF is the double-digit growth of China’s children’s book segment in the past few years: 19.7%, 28.84%, and 21.18% in 2015, 2016, and 2017, respectively. With more than 60% of his catalogue already sold to Chinese publishers (and the rest of the list deemed not workable for the market), Meggs was “chuffed to bits” at the way CCBF, which offers a dedicated platform for children’s titles in the region, has grown over the years.

The Chinese market remains mostly uninterested in single titles, short series, or gift books. “ ‘The bigger the series, the better’ is a general truism of this market,” said Meggs, who is set to finalize a deal for the 12-title Mega Books series—a big hit with fair visitors—within the next few weeks. Prior to the fair, he was in Beijing to ink a deal with Beijing Time Publishing for the 10-title How It Works nonfiction series. “There is considerable interest in bilingual editions and, surprisingly, in nursery rhymes this year.”

Elsewhere in the U.K. pavilion, North Parade Publishing’s new STEM series (Wonders of Learning) and wide-ranging reference titles attracted swarms of visitors on the first two days of the fair, prompting director Peter Hicks to seriously consider taking a larger booth next year. “At previous CCBFs, it was all about science titles,” said rights sales manager Michelle O’Doherty, who added that “this year, the attention is on our preschool titles such as the Mix-and-Match and Touch-and-Feel series.” Several local publishers had also expressed their interest in converting and repurposing North Parade’s existing titles for use with Talking Pen, which has massive adoption in China. For Hicks, the proposal has “the potential to open up a totally new market for us, and is definitely worth considering.”

Across the aisle, Sweet Cherry Publishing’s foreign rights and sales manager Lara Clift fielded far more inquiries about potential distribution of original editions within China (for online-based sales platforms) than those for rights. “The big parental push to have children learn English at a young age has also driven up the demand for bilingual editions,” said Clift, whose 20 Shakespeare Children’s Stories: The Complete Collection was recently published by Beijing Baby Cube. “At this CCBF, my visitors are mostly looking for picture books and activity titles for the 0–to–8 age group, and they particularly like our 10-title the Diaries of Robin’s Toys series, which offers moral stories and life lessons.” To date, Clift has sold more than 60 titles to Chinese publishers.

For CCBF first-timer Adam Lerner, CEO and publisher of Lerner Publishing, the well-run event was truly the Asian equivalent of Bologna. “I have not been to China since my last visit to the Beijing International Book Fair a dozen years ago,” Lerner said. “So it has been both gratifying and surprising to see up close the development and growth of this market. The editors that I met at this fair are young, sophisticated, and very engaged in their goal to expand the breadth of their offerings, and this speaks eloquently of the maturity of the Chinese children’s book market.” For Lerner, having a good agent in CA-Link International is important in making sure his titles are well-represented; at least 500 Lerner titles have been sold in China since 2008. “But the publishing industry as we know remains very much a face-to-face business, and that is why I am here.”

As for Lerner’s rights, special sales, and international distribution director Maria Kjoller, who was visiting China for the first time, this CCBF gave her the opportunity to promote several humor-based titles, including Brian P. Cleary’s Coding Is CATegorical series, Sara C. Levine’s Flower Talk, and David Zeltser’s The Universe Ate My Homework. Asked about the challenge in selling and translating humor, she said, “The humor is basic enough that I do not see any problem in making it work in China.”

The fast-growing interest in middle grade and YA titles caught rights executive Eshara Wijetunge of Hachette Children’s Group (U.K.) by surprise. “The Chinese publishers that I met specifically want YA with strong, female leads. So Bex Hogan’s Isles of Storm and Sorrow fantasy trilogy with its female protagonist is popular with our visitors. I also get many inquiries on Dermot O’Leary's Toto the Ninja Cat, which is a runaway success back home.” In the nonfiction and picture book category, which are handled by rights manager Kavi Meswania, there were more requests for STEM programs (with coding titles remaining hot,) and a surge in demand for those dealing with environmental ecology and zero waste.

Meanwhile, the popularity of titles such as Rachel Bright’s The Worrysaurus, Sandra Dieckmann’s Waiting for Wolf, and Georgia Pritchett’s Wilf the Mighty Worrier series at the fair point to the demand for middle grade titles on positive thinking, and social and emotional learning. Prior to the fair, the team had sold Alex T. Smith’s Claude and Mr. Penguin series to Beijing-based Citic Kids. Wijetunge said, “With the animated Claude series coming to China soon, a boost to book sales is imminent.”

The relocation of the Literary Agents Center to a brighter, more open, and easily accessible area of the exhibition hall was an excellent move by BolognaFiere, said Caroline Hill-Trevor of CHT Rights. Armed with more than 50 books and numerous catalogues, she arrived in Shanghai with 20 meetings prearranged by her sub-agent Andrew Nurnberg Associates. " “Picture books, middle grade fiction, and bilingual editions are hot. There was a lot of interest in Jackie Morris’s The Quiet Music of Gently Falling Snow and Claire Hibbert’s Moments in History That Changed the World.” For Hill-Trevor, who has been selling rights to China for more than 25 years, the interest in (and search for) YA titles is totally new.

At Italian publisher ELI, the push at CCBF is less about its ELT titles (which have been sold to several major Chinese publishers in that category) and more about promoting family- and game-based products for learning and practicing English. “This means looking for a different kind of publisher, mostly independent and smaller outfits interested in trying out unique content,” said international marketing and promotion manager Vittorio D’Aversa, who was back at CCBF for a second time and busy promoting a new product line (Real Lives for Young Readers) about how kids in other countries live. “There is an eagerness on the part of Chinese parents to get their children to learn English and other cultures—and this series accomplishes both goals simultaneously,” he said. ELI, D’Aversa added, has “a very focused product selection to offer, and I am patiently looking for the right collaborators and working on further understanding this massive and complex market.”

Another Italian publisher, White Star, attending its third CCBF, has sold almost all its titles to China. “We were in this market more than 15 years ago, and all this while, the preference for illustrated reference books has been constant,”" said foreign rights manager Claudia Protto, whose company represented National Geographic Kids in Italy, and just recently, in Germany. Two of her bestselling titles, illustrator Francesca Cosanti’s The Big Book of Giant Animals and The Little Book of Tiny Animals (available in 20 other countries) were just released in China. “Our Montessori activity books and board books, for instance, are popular here, as are Lorena Pajalunga’s two picture books, Bedtime Exercises and Daytime Exercises.” With White Star publishing its own titles in English, French, and German, and Italian editions, the translation process and cost (with Chinese publishers using the English edition) is much easier and comparatively cheaper.

Having attended both Beijing International Book Fair in August and now CCBF, Nosy Crow managing director Kate Wilson found that CCBF, which hosted fewer global houses, was much more manageable for her, and helped her get a sense of the direction and shape of the Chinese children’s business. “Major state-owned Chinese players are here, and it has been interesting to see how their stands have changed over the years from boring to being as impressive and colourful as those by independent publishers,” said Wilson, whose 16-title preschool Bizzy Bear series, sold to Citic Kids, has been a huge success in China. She attributed the emerging enthusiasm for preschool titles to the end of the one-child policy, higher disposable income, and the success of social media marketing.

With online-based platforms becoming the main sales channel in China, Wilson found that “Chinese publishers are viewing titles differently—often checking to see if a title is colorful, attractive, or exciting enough for online buyers. It is all about online saleability now.” At this CCBF, Wilson spoke with more wholesalers wanting to bring in her original editions, and to international school teachers looking for new content. “There are meetings with digital players as well, but this is a market that is print-dominant but with an immensely strong and successful online sales and distribution channel.”

Selling to China, Wilson added, is just like selling to any established market nowadays. “If previously you needed to have the finished products to sell, now the editors are more willing to look at dummies and even buy ahead of the Americans. It is a sure sign that Chinese publishers and editors are getting sophisticated, and more used to the international way of book business.”

CCBF will return in November 2019; the exact dates have not yet been announced.