Getting exhibitors to share their experiences and talk about the offers they received at the just-concluded Shanghai Children’s Book Fair (CCBF) was the easy part. The difficulty was in catching them during those 10- or 15-minute windows between meetings when they were free to chat. Doing so on the first day of CCBF was impossible as booths and schedules were jam-packed. By the second day, however, some stories were unfolding and ready to be told.
For Belgian publisher Philippe Werck of Clavis, the success of Pimm van Hest’s A Tummy Full of Secrets in China went beyond his wildest expectations. “The Simplified Chinese edition was launched in 2017 with a 5,000-copy printing. Within three months, it went back to the printer for another 5,000, then for 10,000 more, and the reprint quantity kept growing with the most recent one hitting 50,000 copies. Sales has now reached 750,000,” said Werck, adding that “the book’s theme on social developmental issues among children has hit the sweet spot.” For Werck, who has exhibited at CCBF since its 2013 inaugural outing, “being on the ground every year is about appreciating the people and our readers, making the efforts to forge long-term relationships and connections, and building the confidence in our titles and support. There is no shortcut to that.”
Visitor feedback at the previous CCBF led to cofounders Jan Ziff and Allan Davidson of U.K.-based Heckerty Company returning this year with new products specially developed for the Chinese market. “Since parents and educators wanted their children to speak English like native speakers with the proper inflection and intonation, we have created Heckerty Spoken English courses using Sherlock Holmes and Peter Rabbit stories and classic tales,” said Ziff, pointing out that the courses will be streaming on the popular Xiaomi platform soon. “Our main product line—featuring Heckerty the Witch and Zanzibar the Cat, currently available in apps, books, and videos—will expand along the same line to offer English-speaking courses.” Practice and activity guides have been created to supplement the courses, and the team “is now seeking a local publishing partner to produce the guides at an affordable price,” added Davidson, who is evaluating potential partnerships with language schools and subscription channels.
Back at the fair after a two-year hiatus, managing director Steve Bicknell of U.K.-based Maverick Publishing is gearing up for an auction involving 10 Chinese publishers for his flagship product, the 100-title Maverick Guided Reading series, and is set to close the deal over the next couple of months. Negotiations for the series’ Traditional Chinese edition (which will be published by Taipei-based Listen Culture International) and Korean edition (through the Eric Yang Agency), which started at the recent Frankfurt Fair, wrapped up on the first day of CCBF. “Our partners have floated the idea of creating a Talking Pen edition now that the manufacturing cost has come down significantly,” said Bicknell, who had nearly 20 meetings at the fair and was impressed by the professionalism of his visitors.
For Manuel Miller, founder and CEO of Australian company Ditty Bird, his first CCBF was not so much about making deals as it was about understanding the market and its players. “The interest in our musical book series is overwhelming—we ran out of catalogs on the first day, and we brought 1,000 copies,” said Miller, whose products are already available in 400 stores across the U.S., have sold in 16 countries, and are available through eight major online retailers in just 18 months after its launch. The series has already won four awards—including the National Parenting Product and Brain Child Tillywig awards—which impressed booth visitors and potential publishing partners. “Relationship-building is going to take a while and that in itself is beneficial because we hope to see the retail price of our kind of products go higher by the time we decide on our partner for this market.”
“Wonderful” was the summation from Nancy Traversy, cofounder and CEO of Massachusetts-based Barefoot Books, on her second CCBF. Her 30-title Singalong series and Nick Crane’s World Atlas are doing very well in China. In fact, talks during the previous fair led Traversy to create a new spin-off, World Atlas Sticker Book. “On this visit, I met several EdTech companies that are interested in taking illustrations from our titles—such as Carolyn Curtis and Alison Jay’s I Took the Moon for a Walk, which is available in China—to create games, puzzles, and other edutainment products. I also found many new talents through CCBF’s Golden Pinwheel Young Illustrators Competition.” The Chinese children’s book market, she said, “is amazing and has enormous potential. And all you need is a few good meetings—and a few days out of your life—and you will have paid for this trip. So why not come here and find out for yourself?”
First-time CCBF exhibitors Ruth Owen and Shan White of Kent, U.K.-based Ruby Tuesday Books did not have many fixed meetings and were, in their words, “free-wheeling and having great conversations with booth visitors.” White was delighted by the offer for the 10-title Dinosaur Club reader series and strong interest in many of her science titles, including FUNdamental Science and Science Essentials, and picture books on conservation such as Mr. Green Grows a Garden and Let’s Investigate Plastic Pollution. “Given that two-thirds of our list are science and science-related titles, we are where we should be right now.” Chinese publishers, Owen added, “still look for big series, and unlike their European counterparts who tend to pick and choose titles from a series, Chinese publishers will take the whole lot and ask if there is any more of the same series. They will also buy the whole reading package of varying subjects instead of focusing on and choosing specific themes.”
Coming all the way from Gdansk is foreign rights manager Magda Szpyrko-Ankiewicz of Adamada, an imprint of GWO, which is Poland’s biggest independent educational publishing house. Last year, after attending the Beijing Book Fair as a part of the Polish Collective Stand, Szpyrko-Ankiewicz sold two series to Chinese publishers and that prompted her to look into exhibiting at CCBF. “Several publishers are vying for the rights for Katarzyna Ryrych’s The Burdock Field, which was IBBY Poland’s Book of the Year 2017 and is now available in 13 language editions, including Arabic, Korean, and Russian, and the five-title A Backpack Full of Adventures series.” Delighted as she was to receive offers for her titles, she said, “this trip is more about initiating face-to-face conversations, building relationships, and learning more about the market.”
The strong interest coming from Chinese publishers in model books was the main reason senior rights manager Justyna Pezik of London-based Arcturus Publishing decided to participate in CCBF (after exhibiting in Beijing barely three months earlier). “China is very strong in toy manufacturing and, by default, in creating model books, and so the interest is unusual. Also surprising is the popularity of our pop-up titles such as Kate Slater’s Pop-up Timelines series and Rhys Jeffreys’s Let’s Explore series,” said Pezik, adding that the Beijing fair “is more focused on titles for adults and older children, whereas CCBF is about children of all ages.” Jody Bloggs’s Let’s Play Chess, which was largely ignored by Chinese publishers at the Bologna Book Fair earlier this year, was a hit at CCBF with several publishers eager to publish it. “At this fair, the publishers tend to linger and chat longer, and it is really useful in helping me to further understand their needs and market demands.”
The Rights Solution, while new to the game (having been launched at the Bologna Book Fair this year), had a familiar face at its stand: cofounder Aby Mann from the U.K., who had exhibited at CCBF twice before. This time, Mann represented 20 independent publishers from the U.K., U.S., Brazil, Spain, France, Lebanon, and Israel, offering titles for ages up to 15. “We are three freelance agents coming together to offer a one-stop shop of diverse style, content, and format.” Mann was thrilled to have several Chinese publishers wanting to obtain the rights to Brazilian publisher Lume Livros’s science educational series Curious Kids and British publisher Stuhead Publishing’s Hannah the Spanner picture books (which will be available as an animated feature soon). “Many are asking for science, STEM, picture books, and social/emotional learning books—and we have a lot for them to choose from,” said Mann, who averaged 18 meetings for the first two days of the fair. “You could say that we hit the ground running.”
Two confirmed sales for three science educational box sets (on biology, chemistry, and physics) were not the only good news at U.K. publisher North Parade, which had doubled its booth space this year. “We also sold the 18-title Wonders of Learning reference books,” said Michelle O’Doherty, who is already discussing plans for the next CCBF with director Peter Hicks. “We may tweak and simplify our Wonders of Learning series to cater to a lower age group to fill a market gap, and create a paperback edition to make it more affordable.” Market feedback is prompting the team to put up an online user guide and q&a via the WeChat platform for easier access. “This being our fifth CCBF, the goal remains the same: getting our brand out and being persistent in marketing our products. It is all about tenacity,” said O’Doherty, adding that “over time, selling gets easier because we know what to do and our market understanding has improved.”
Seasoned exhibitor Kate Wilson, managing director of Nosy Crow in the U.K., found that “the exchanges with Chinese editors and publishers are much more meaningful now that they have become more selective and sophisticated. For sure, they now have a better sense of what works in their market, and they are starting to pay closer attention to artwork choices and even text details.” Wilson shared a story about the disinterest shown in Caryl Hart and Rosalind Beardshaw’s When a Dragon Comes to School and the 180-degree turn when the third title, When a Dragon Meets a Baby, came out. “The latter strikes a chord with Chinese publishers because the younger sibling theme is a hot topic in China in the post one-child era,” added Wilson, pointing out that “Chinese publishers want a ‘ready’ series whereas we—and many other overseas publishers—tend to create a series based on market response to the first book and the next title and so on, and it takes time to develop a series.”
For president Sue Yang of Seoul-based Eric Yang Agency, the days of no contract for Korean works are hopefully over and done with. “The last few years were terrible due to the tense diplomatic relations between the Chinese and South Korean governments that also affected trade activities. But this year, we see the situation slowly thawing and we managed to sell several titles at the Beijing International Book Fair. At this CCBF, we have had many great meetings and negotiations, which hopefully will end in signed deals soon.” Titles related to science, art, and math remain popular with Chinese publishers and readers, said Yang, adding that “the focus continues to be on books and picture books with educational values and high quality illustrations.”
With more than 580 publishers plying the Chinese market, the children’s book segment is very crowded and competitive. “The situation is tough and getting dire,” said Jackie Huang, Beijing-based chief representative of Andrew Nurnberg Associates. “Major online retailers and platforms—Dangdang, JD, and Amazon, for instance—are offering deep discounts to achieve higher sales volumes. But this means that publisher margins get slimmer.” As for what sells (and what doesn’t), she said, “Audiobooks are growing, especially on popular platforms like TikTok. In contrast, e-books do not work here.” There is an obvious rise in the demand for picture books and pop-ups because “publishers realize that while they cater to growing children, there are plenty of newborns requiring new content and ideas.” (China adds 17.5 million babies annually to its population, which has hit 1.4 billion people.)
Middle-grade fiction is growing steadily but not quickly. “Translated YA titles have a tough time here due to censorship related to topics such as sex and the paranormal. At the same time, there are many established local YA authors and their works are immensely popular,” said Huang, pointing out that “while local talents for illustration and animation are aplenty and gaining recognition nationally and internationally, great storytelling ability remains lacking. And this translates into opportunities for imports and rights-buying for overseas publishers.”