The sense of trepidation among overseas exhibitors was palpable as they headed to their respective booths on the opening day of the China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair, which ran November 17–20. Most of them had not been back since the 2019 event, and the slump in the Chinese children’s book market due to the pandemic fueled their anxiety.

But by the end of the day, many had expressed hope for a quick revival of the children’s book segment in China amid high potentials for signed deals in the weeks ahead. For some exhibitors, significant changes in the marketplace had them shifting gears and reassessing offerings to Chinese publishers and rights agents.

Sales manager David Meggs of Award Publications, for instance, abandoned his initial plan to look for partners to renew contracts that had expired after the first few meetings. “The Chinese market has moved on during my five-year hiatus from this fair. I’m seeing an overwhelming interest in nonfiction—such as our 12-title Mega series and 10-title How It Works series—which is surprising given that the information is readily available over the internet. Basically, local publishers are looking for nicely packaged nonfiction books, specifically on science and nature, that are illustrated in a contemporary style.”

Picture books dealing with social and emotional learning were also gaining popularity, said Meggs, who enjoyed reading aloud fromHannah Peckham titles such as Bronty’s Battle Cry, the Conker the Chameleon series, and the upcoming Get Well Spell, as well as Kat Merewether’s Kiwicorn. “In summation, titles that I didn’t think I could sell previously in China are taking off, while those that I successfully sold before no longer work.”

A first-time CCBF exhibitor, Russian publisher KompasGuide has been selling rights to China since 2013. Marina Aromshtam’s When the Angels Are Resting and Nina Dashevskaya’s Willy, from its White Ravens International Youth Library series are now available in traditional Chinese editions, among other titles. “We recently sold the rights to Victoria Lederman’s The May(a) Calendar to China, which was adapted for the big screen back in Russia,” said publisher Vitali Ziusko, whose catalog of around 700 titles is targeted at ages six to 20. “This has generated many inquiries on her new works at the fair, so we have been busy introducing her YA titles such as Theory of Improbability, The First-Year Student, and Vasilkin Will Go to the Board!

KompasGuide mostly offers titles for teenagers and young adults, with a much smaller selection of picture books, said editor-in-chief Marina Kadetova, who found CCBF to be “a good experience for us to meet with many publishers not just from China but also from other countries, establish new contacts, and have a better sense of the marketplace. The book market here is so interesting—and such a success for us—that we are already planning our next visit.”

For managing director Betty Tan of Singapore-based English Corner Publishing, which focuses on children’s magazines, this year’s CCBF served two purposes. “The first is to check out the fair and touch base with clients, some of whom I haven’t seen since my last CCBF in 2018. The second is a personal mission to purchase Chinese books, particularly children’s titles, for my family library, and this has been a rather disappointing quest as I have had difficulties finding new original works amid the proliferation of translations and bilingual titles.”

Business-wise, Tan started selling rights in China in 2015, with the first volume of the company’s homegrown Science Adventure comic series going to Jilin Audio and Video Publishing House. “It didn’t sell that well then but now that manga-style nonfiction and pop-science titles are trending in China, the publisher has renewed the contract and reprinting all 30 titles,” said Tan, who has just published the 11th volume of the Science Adventure series and launched a STEAM-based newsletter, News Bite. “We have a lot of titles that fit the current Chinese market demands.”

A coincidence led Belgium-based Clavis to a new way of marketing and selling its English language titles in China. “When the pandemic hit and bookstores were closed, we had just had a big shipment sent here,” recalled publisher Philippe Werck. “But shortly after, several influencers contacted us and successfully sold our titles through their online platforms. After I realized that this method works for us, we had arranged more shipments to China and set up a warehouse in Kunshan, near Shanghai, at the start of 2020. Now we have a four-person vlogging team promoting our English titles on Douyin, Xiaohongshu, and other short-video e-commerce channels.” Last June, Werck and the team created a video featuring a short interview with illustrator Mack van Gageldonk, had him sign 800 copies of Eating, Playing, Sleeping in the Forest, bundled it with another title of his, and sold all 800 sets within 10 minutes.

“Visitors gravitate towards our science/nature-based titles such as Mack’s Wonders of the Forest series and SEL titles such as Pauline Oud’s How’s Your Day Today,” said Werck. He also sold the 15-title Super Animals series by Reina Ollivier’s Super Animals series to China Children’s Press & Publication Group recently. “We are getting more selective in rights selling. Our goal is to give our books a better chance of success by pairing them with the right partners who will market them well and thoroughly to maximize their potential.”

Anne Dufour, foreign rights manager at Paris-based Albin Michel, said that Chinese children’s publishers “are still looking at series, which are easier to sell online as a package rather than single titles. They also much prefer award-winning titles, including those that are nominated for big prizes, and titles by famous authors. In short, they want something to build on while keeping a more conservative, less risky approach to publishing and marketing new titles.” China, she said, “is Albin Michel’s biggest overseas market even though we saw fewer contracts in the past four years due to the pandemic. Fortunately, we signed enough big deals prior to that to sustain us through the tough period.”

For Dufour, the best part of attending CCBF for the first time was seeing translated Albin Michel titles such as Ramona Badescu’s Pomelo, Vincent Zabus’s graphic novel Sophie’s World, and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens on display at various Chinese exhibitor booths. “Increasingly, Chinese publishers are asking for digital and audio rights together with print,” Dufour said. “This fair gives me the opportunity to meet with our clients and see the changes in the market up close. Zoom meetings and emails, no matter how efficient, are simply not the same as being here in person.”

With 30 fixed appointments and numerous walk-ins, the U.K.’s Hachette Children’s Group team was kept busy during the fair. “We had two exceptional years in 2021 and 2022, with the latter a bumper year with 100% growth for the China market,” said international business development director Susannah Palfrey, who sold Paul Mason’s Comic Strip Science to Citic Press and Reading Champion leveled readers series to Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press. “A big shout-out to CA-Link rights agency and Alicia Liu of Singing Grass for facilitating our partnerships with many major Chinese publishers,” added Palfrey, whose team is providing online content and supplementary materials to help their Chinese partners with their online sales and marketing activities.

“Our titles on character development and SEL are hot,” said Hachette senior rights manager Michael Hussain, pointing to Kes Gray/Jim Field’s Oi series on friendships as an example. A first-timer to CCBF, Hussain found the event to be “filled with energy, excitement, and positive vibes, and I look forward to come back again next year.”

Capitalizing on Market Shifts

This CCBF saw U.K.-based North Parade Publishing promoting many sound books, including My Big Book of First Words (with more than 350 sounds) and My First Look and Find Sound Book (which was first published about 20 years ago and now newly repackaged for distribution). “Our SEL titles such as Gemma Cary’s Me and My Feelings series are magnets to visitors,” said director Peter Hicks, who is set to launch a virtual reality-based series on science topics. “Such immersive learning titles will suit China, a market very much into technology.”

Office manager Michelle O’Doherty observed that many visitors to the North Parade booth were looking for titles with colorful illustrations and fun topics. “We also meet with a lot of influencers looking for specific titles to promote on their platforms. Meanwhile, we are learning and getting more comfortable using WeChat, which is the most used social media app in China. This is all about adapting to local ways to effectively relay news and updates from our side and making the communication process easier for our clients, since emailing is a bit tricky here.”

The Chinese market is not as robust as previously, said Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, a longtime attendee of the fair, adding that the drop in birthrate despite the end of the one-child policy back in 2016 is rather worrisome. “The shift in distribution channels to online platforms,” she pointed out, makes content discovery and visibility a bit harder compared to having the physical books on shelves at bricks-and-mortar outlets.” Meanwhile, Wilson and senior rights manager Lena Petzke are focused on developing deeper relationships with their Chinese clients. “A 30-minute meeting at CCBF does not make for a quality relationship. I’m looking at visiting our clients at their offices or having them visit our office, and exchanging ideas over lunches or dinners that may lead to us creating specific content for them.”

For Petzke, reconsidering what didn’t work previously makes sense given the shifts in the Chinese children’s book market. “Now that there is increasing interest in fiction, we are busy promoting Kieran Larwood’s Dungeon Runners series and Christopher Edge’s Black Hole Cinema Club series. At the same time, our clients are looking at shorter series and nonfiction titles, especially on science. Our newly published STEAM titles from our partnership with the University of Cambridge seem to fit these emerging demands to a T.”

At MMS Publisher, an agency that represents more than 20 publishers, the Chinese market constitutes half of its sales of rights and physical books. “The rising demand for SEL titles is not surprising to me. The pandemic forced children—in China and elsewhere—out of the classroom and left with little to no interaction with their peers, and this directly affected their confidence and social skills. Here in China, the long-established focus on math and science proficiency has resulted in brilliant students who may not have necessary life skills,” said managing director Tricia Macmillan, who recently partnered with Igloo Books, Marshall Cavendish, and North Parade Publishing.

As for international sales director Andrew Macmillan, he was busy introducing MMS titles with unique concepts to China. “Picture books such as Rosemary Shojaie’s The Snow Fox, Liz Ledden’s Walking Your Human, and Christiane Duchesne’s A Picnic in the Sun offer an interesting spin and delightful storylines. Then we have leveled readers such as Marshall Cavendish’s Read+Play series that uses a fun and entertaining way to teach English. These are in high demand among Chinese parents who want to ensure that their children continue to practice and improve their grasp of the English language.”