It was a busy three-day China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair for overseas exhibitors looking to sell to the Chinese children’s book market. The number of Chinese children under the age of 18, estimated to be around 370 million—which is more than the combined population of France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the U.K.—is at a scale that many find hard to comprehend. But while this figure represents immense opportunities, there are definitely some roadblocks in dealing with a market this large. Understanding what is trendy and workable, or what requires tweaking, is par for the course.
Original and Bilingual Editions
The many inquiries about direct imports of original English editions took some exhibitors by surprise. But the fact is, Chinese parents, aware of the importance of the English language as the lingua franca, have been pushing their children to learn English at a very young age. Proper diction and native-speaker proficiency, deemed crucial to mastering the language, have also pushed up the demand for bilingual editions. Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series, for instance, was successful in China—selling more than 10 million copies—despite challenges in translating humor and bridging different classroom cultures, largely because of the highly available and widely promoted bilingual Chinese-English edition.
Talking Pen Adoption
No other market has taken Talking Pen to the level that is currently seen in China. And this is also attributed to the demand for English-language learning materials. Highlights for Children was among the first overseas publishers to start adopting Talking Pen back in 2011. The longevity (and increased) adoption of this simple and easy-to-use technology in the face of rising tablets and mobile phones is somewhat puzzling. But by and large, Chinese parents prefer not to give screen-based devices to their children, especially to prevent potential digital addiction. More Chinese publishers are now customizing Talking Pen so that it works specifically—and only—with their titles and content. At CCBF, several companies approached North Parade Publishing to talk about converting its existing content for use with Talking Pen.
Middle Grade Fiction
China’s education reform, which will take effect in 2020, is already pushing teachers and parents to get children to read more since it emphasizes reading comprehension and general knowledge acquisition. With decreased homework and fewer standardized examinations among the reform objectives, there is now more time for children to read for pleasure. Middle grade fiction is therefore in demand. Hachette Children’s Group (U.K.) has sold several middlegrade series to Chinese publishers. Interestingly enough, earlier this year Andrew Nurnberg Associates bucked the one-street rights traffic heading into China with the sales of Chen Jiatong’s middle grade series White Fox Dilah (originally published by Jieli) to Barry Cunningham of Chicken House. Incidentally, ANA’s biggest children’s titles for the Chinese market in recent months belong to this genre: Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid titles, and Bear Grylls’s Mission Survival series.
For this category, the observations from exhibitors and those operating in China are mixed. But middle graders will reach out for YA titles before long. For Huang of ANA, the Chinese market for YA remains quiet compared to other categories. For rights executive Eshara Wijetunge of Hachette Children’s Group (U.K.), inquiries for YA at CCBF were specifically for stories with strong female leads, which saw Bex Hogan’s Isles of Storm and Sorrow fantasy trilogy receiving plenty of attention from booth visitors.
STEM Programs and Educational Values
Chinese publishers (and parents) have always preferred titles with educational elements and values, and there is no indication that this trend will change anytime soon. In recent months, STEM courses and coding titles have become more popular, as is the case in the U.S and U.K.
SEL and Moral Values
When it comes to social and emotional learning titles and those conveying moral values and life lessons, the Chinese market wants clarity. Subtle and subversive messages and humor do not work there, according to managing director Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow. Chinese publishers, she said, “want very clearly deductive plots with explicit message and learning outcomes,”
Audio and Interactivity
There is a trend now to create interactive preschool reading titles and app-based English learning titles, said Huang of ANA, adding that “audiobooks are being developed at a very fast rate for picture books and middle grade fiction titles.”
Counterfeiters on the Loose
The success of online-based sales platforms and the popularity of original editions in China have proven to be too lucrative for counterfeiters to ignore. Several exhibitors in the U.K. pavilion reported visitors dropping by to show them online sales sites on mobile phones, and ask for confirmation if those titles sold are original editions. What comes out of this is that Chinese consumers are becoming more sophisticated and discerning, and with their higher disposable income, they prefer paying more for the real thing and not fakes.