The presence of EdTech companies, especially those merging technology with English-language learning, was noticeable at the recently concluded China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair (CCBF), held November 9–11. These companies often seek to offer products optimized for digital platforms alongside print or print-bundled products. PW spoke with two such players—one British, the other Chinese—to find out what works or does not work, and their major challenges.
For U.K.-based Heckerty Company, this trip to Shanghai was about introducing a 409-year-old green-faced witch with a great sense of humor, a heart of gold, and a loyal companion in the shape of a white-faced black cat to Chinese parents, teachers, and children. But Heckerty the Witch and Zanzibar the Cat do not represent characters that are deemed acceptable to the Chinese society. Chinese folktales and oral traditions invariably typecast the witch as bad, scary, and not the least funny or lovable, and so Chinese children tend to equate the witch with a monster or demon. Black cats, of course, are often regarded as bad luck (and Chinese people are quite superstitious by nature).
So how to explain the packed Heckerty booth at the fair? It was as if the witch and the cat had cast their magic all the way from the land of Spellbound to create crowds that were constantly three-deep, waiting to chat with company cofounders Jan Ziff and Allan Davidson. The attraction perhaps lies in the product itself, which has been selected as an Editor’s Choice by Children’s Technology Review and rated “#1 in Education” by Amazon. The Chinese market, after all, is one that is known to judge a product by its reviews, awards, and bestseller status.
“The fact that our characters and storytelling approaches are so different is working well for us,” explained Davidson, adding that his booth visitors “are looking for positive values such as caring, loyalty, inclusiveness, and integrity—and these are found in abundance in the Heckerty apps, books, and videos.” There are altogether seven apps to go with seven books, and 40-odd videos for children three to eight years old.
The company’s first visit to CCBF, Ziff said, “was mostly to be visible to the market, check out the opportunities, and build relationships. We want our stories to help Chinese children to learn English, increase their vocabulary, and improve their diction, and this fair offered a great opportunity to chat with teachers and parents to find out what they are looking for in terms of content. We are interested in this market for the longer term, and so we are being very deliberate in choosing the right deal and partner.”
Over at Chinese e-reading company Ellabook, which was established in 2013, the mission is to provide an interactive digital reading platform for kids ages three to 10. Its platform hosts 1,000-plus licensed children’s books from companies such as Bayard, Highlights for Children, Lexile Framework for Reading, Little Bee Books, Oxford University Press, and Scholastic. It has more than three million registered users while the app is being used by about 6,000 kindergartens throughout China.
“We enhanced the content with animation, audio, games, videos, and other interactivities to make it attractive to children. We are still the only player in this particular segment,” said rights consultant Solene Xie. In China, she explained, “most parents only use mobile devices and screen time to keep their children entertained and occupied while eating out in restaurants or commuting. For parents, the Ellabook app works well because it allows children to read the content page by page—as they would a print book—play with the interactivities, and listen to the audio to learn words and improve their diction. For Chinese parents, what we are offering is an educational tool, not an online game. That distinction is very important.” Ellabook is now preparing to launch its own software that will help publishing clients to create interactive pages on their own.
For Ellabook CEO and cofounder Ren Hui, the biggest threat to the fast-rising digital reading market for children is digital piracy. High profitability has caused rampant plagiarism while legal fights are becoming expensive and tedious. So, during the Beijing International Book Fair this past August, Ren together with 24 Chinese children’s book publishers launched a digital anti-piracy alliance. Among the major industry players that have the alliance are 21st Century Publishing, Beijing Dandelion, Beijing Yutian Hanfeng, Everafter Books, Tomorrow Publishing House, Xinjiang Juvenile Publishing House, and Zhejiang Juvenile Publishing House.
Aside from protecting original works and promoting a healthy e-reading space for children, the alliance is also about regulating the digital content industry, organizing legal assistance, and implementing an information-sharing mechanism within the industry. Ren, who is now the v-p of the new alliance, added: “Copyright protection in China is now taking on a new importance and urgency, and this is proven by the many publishers joining the alliance.”