The first two days of the 2014 China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair (CCBF) featured many booths packed with exhibitors.

For rights sales manager Regina Irwin of Capstone, 30 meetings in 1.5 day of her first CCBF speak volumes. “This being a focused children’s event makes it easy for me even though the timing between the Frankfurt and Guadalajara book fairs is quite awkward. I have certainly obtained a lot of new contacts here while at the same time, getting reconnected with those that I had lost touch with over the years.” For Irwin, illustrated science titles and there is a huge demand for activity books and those that promote creative thinking.” And if previously Chinese publishers were only interested in buying rights and translating titles, there are now many beautiful Chinese originals with international appeal, adds Irwin. "Rights trading is set to be more of a two-way street with overseas publishers looking to buy from their Chinese counterparts."

With children, parents and educators becoming more interested in books from the West, it is the right time to be in the Chinese market, says director Rick Wilks of Annick Press. “The market is really opening up in a new way, and given the positive signs, it is crucial to build our presence fast and be among the first-movers from Canada.” After numerous visits to China in the past nine years and now working through rights agency Bardon-Chinese Media, Wilks has sold around 33 titles. As to what works, he says that publishers are very receptive to edutainment titles and dramatic true stories like Mariatu Kamara’s The Bite of the Mango. Exhibiting in China for the first time, Wilks has scheduled longer meetings with potential partners “but even the one-hour allocation per meeting is insufficient to learn about this exciting market, its players, their publishing programmes and get the conversation going.”

A catalogue brimming with reference titles works in North Parade Publishing’s favor at CCBF. Its 50-volume Wonders of Learning series is a big attraction. “Publishers here love series that they can repackage, reformat and reprice to fit the market. They also like sound books such as Old MacDonald and Other Play-Along Songs,” says production manager Michelle O’Doherty, who gets inquiries about English editions, and attributes that to more parents wanting their kids to learn and read in English. Director Peter Hicks, on the other hand, is intrigued by the unique distribution system for children’s titles in China. “Here, agents are sent to kindergartens—and there are over 100,000 of them—to select titles, collect orders, estimate print runs and carry the stock. Trainers are then dispatched to make sure teachers know how to use the books properly. When it comes to selling English edition, distribution is the biggest hurdle, and this method seems to work very well.” The team, first-time exhibitor in China, has adopted an explore-and-learn attitude with no preset plans.

A brief chat with Wang Yue, head of children’s division at online bookstore Dangdang reaffirms the observations offered by overseas exhibitors. “Illustrated science titles for aged 3 to 14 are hot. The Magic School Bus, for instance, has been on our bestseller list since 2010, selling upwards of four million copies per year.” Prices of children’s books, she adds, “have increased slightly over the years due to rising household income. At the same time, parents have become more selective with titles for their kids while publishers and experts are focused on recommending the best.” “Many translated titles become Dangdang bestsellers while imports of original editions, especially in English, are rising even though it accounts for just 2% of our total sales. For us, the goal is to make more titles available throughout China.”

In short, children’s books remain the fastest growing segment in China’s book market. “But we do not have sufficient titles", says Li Xueqian, president of China Section of International Board of Books for Young People (IBBY) as well as president of China Children’s Press and Publication Group (CCPPG), the biggest publishing group in the country. "We have 370 million children aged 18 and below but only 400 million copies of new titles in circulation. That translates into one copy per child. So the demand is there, and yet it is not being met. We need more titles and publishing partners. While we have been translating a lot from European publishers, we are not seeing the same numbers from their American counterparts. That is disappointing and a lost opportunity.”

Li adds: “American publishers have great lists, and their mature market boasts the best research in learning with vast experience in guided reading and digital publishing. We want to learn from them, improve on the collaboration, ensure mutually beneficial cooperation, and get more American titles—and publishers—into China and to participate in the next CCBF and other book events.”