At the just-concluded Beijing Book Fair, which ran from August 24 to 28, overseas exhibitors were happy to see that the huge Chinese book market remains positive and open with business opportunities for everybody from different segments of the industry.
China, which now has a two-child policy, naturally has a booming children’s book market given its 370 million children below the age of 18. The Magic School Bus still leads the bestseller list with easily half a million copies sold in an average year. But income inequality and diverse educational needs throughout the vast country have created a diverse children’s segment that is not just about picture books and children’s fiction.
China, observed president William Reycraft of New York-based Benchmark Education, “is really passionate about teaching children to read, and getting professional development for educators and teachers. Early childhood programs, and those on social and emotional learning are currently in demand. Gaming companies are also getting into the children’s book segment, and we are working with some of these companies to turn our content into games to attract a wider readership.”
While rights negotiations are robust between overseas and Chinese publishers, the fact remains that only a handful of the big Chinese publishing houses—out of the official 580—have the wherewithal to go overseas to visit international fairs and their publishing counterparts. So the only way to meet the remaining Chinese publishers is be in the country itself. That was made clear to agent Jane Knuth Patukas (of the Knuth Agency), whom represented Fox Chapel Publishing at the Beijing Book Fair. “I arrived here with 25 fixed appointments, many with publishers who do not attend Frankfurt or London,” said Patukas, adding that “if I didn’t make this trip, I would have missed these publishers, and missed the opportunities of working with them to uncover new markets and products that would work here.”
It was also obvious to many overseas exhibitors at the fair that Chinese publishers are searching for unique titles to diversify their publishing programs: from practical music and sheet music titles (from Flame Tree Publishing) to those on interior decorating (Sterling Publishing), the National Trust series on landscapes and gardens (Pavilion Books), leather crafts and crochet titles (Button Books), and drawing, tattoo and dyeing (Fox Chapel). It is no longer just about educational titles and children’s books.
Rising disposable incomes and the fast-growing Chinese middle class have in fact created pockets of market opportunities for many segments, including higher-priced illustrated and coffee table books. Such was the experience for John Saunders-Griffiths, head of foreign rights at Thames & Hudson. “Chinese publishers who used to do text-only books would now consider doing illustrated titles. The biggest draw for us is that the difference between the retail price in the U.K. and in China for illustrated titles has narrowed significantly. If such titles previously retailed at 50% or more off the U.K. price, now we’re looking at 25% or less.”
So higher retail prices and wider publishing programs are good news for both Chinese publishers and their overseas partners. After all, this is a market where two out of every 10 books sold in China are either translated or imported, with more than half of those coming from the U.S. and U.K.
For many U.K. publishers, including owner and publisher Polly Powell of Pavilion Books, the fallout from the Brexit referendum, especially a devalued British pound, has made the Chinese market more strategic than before. “Chinese publishers deal in U.S. dollars, and with the volume and value of the deals increasing every year, this is becoming an important market for our bottom line.”
Next year’s Beijing Book Fair will be held from August 23 to 27.