Though describing the massive Chinese children’s book market is as easy as A, B, C (amazing, booming, crowded), explaining the forces behind its growth may take more than 1, 2, 3—but that is still a very good way to start.

One: China’s rapidly expanding middle class. The latest McKinsey survey estimates that a total of 550 million people—or 76% of the country’s urban population—will be middle class by 2020. In comparison, in 2000 there were barely five million middle class people in China. The present Chinese middle class is also younger, better educated, more globally minded, and, most importantly, has more discretionary income than the Chinese middle class at the turn of the century. That means younger middle-class parents, better informed about their children’s educational needs, with more money to spend—and they are spending it on learning materials and books.

Two: China’s latest education reform, which will take effect in 2020. The pressure is on for increased reading, learning, and teaching materials in schools to meet the Chinese government’s reform objectives, which are to reduce homework and standardized examinations and move toward an employment-oriented education system. There is now an impetus driving Chinese parents, teachers, and policy makers to get children to read more and to read for pleasure as opposed to reading in order to pass exams. These changes have ramped up the growth of certain children’s publishing segments such as picture books, fiction for primary schoolers, and heavily illustrated general-knowledge series (all of which make many publishers very happy).

Three: a new preschool-education focus. Across China and specifically in urban areas, a heightened awareness of the importance of preschool education has seen young parents getting more actively involved in the education of their toddlers. Authors, editors, preschool teachers, and kindergartens are coming together to educate parents on how best to motivate their toddlers to learn and think and to recommend the appropriate educational tools and materials. Cultivating a child’s love of reading from an early age is widely seen as a major step toward reducing that child’s future use of electronics and social media consumption (and risk of addiction). Activity kits and novelty titles—replete with pop-ups, touch and feels, pull tabs, lift flaps, sound modules, interactive add-ons, oh my!—for toddlers are getting a big boost from this preschool-education focus.

Four: social media marketing. In China, where there are 913 million smartphone subscribers—more than the U.S., Brazil, and Indonesia combined—mobile communication is king, social media rules, and super apps such as WeChat and Weibo are changing purchasing habits and book-distribution models. Children’s book publishers have been quick to leverage social media and online communities to influence, promote, and sell their titles, and this new channel has proven to be a boon for publishers’ bottom lines. Engagement with online chat groups, parenting portals, and fan clubs is now seen as an effective way of building loyalty, branding titles and authors, and reaching previously inaccessible pockets of the market, especially those consumers not living within the vicinity of bricks-and-mortar bookstores. (More on social media marketing in China.)

Growing the Market

The above factors combined have created a booming book market for the estimated 370 million children under the age of 18 in China. According to the latest report from Beijing-based OpenBook, a clearinghouse for publishing statistics in China, in 2016, sales of children’s books accounted for 23.5% of China’s total retail book market, which stands at CNY 70.1 billion ($10.2 billion).

With the two-child policy implemented in 2015 predicted to add at least three million babies annually to China’s population over the next five years, jumping onto the children’s book bandwagon is a no-brainer for publishing companies. Though there were barely 20 dedicated children’s book publishers in the country back in 2003, now more than 580 publishing companies are plying the market. In the past three years, an average of 45,000 children’s titles have been added to China’s book market annually.

Industry players hail the 2002–2011 period as the “golden decade of children’s books in China.” This “golden decade” was as much about the segment’s growth as it was about the emergence of outstanding and bestselling local authors such as Cao Wenxuan (the picture books The Straw House and Bronze and Sunflower), Yang Hongying (the series Mo’s Mischief and the Diary of the Smiling Cat), and Shen Shixi (animal-themed novels).

In 2000, Harry Potter rode his Nimbus broom into China, and his magic spell threw open the doors to the Chinese book market for translations, direct imports, and licensed characters from the West. Educational and reference series were made for a market long known for its focus on academic achievement. Single-volume picture books on the other hand had only limited success, with much of the rights-buying and translation efforts lavished on titles boasting award-winning authors and illustrators.

But recent years have seen new segments entering the market, including higher-priced novelty titles such as augmented-reality (AR) series and pop-up board books. The same goes for activity kits for children below the age of six and big-format picture books. Science titles—series, picture books, and magazines—are getting a lot of demand as well, with parents and teachers wanting to see children developing their scientific reasoning at a very early age.

However parents, teachers, and children in rural and urban areas are seeking out different types of books, ranging from the most basic educational materials to sophisticated picture books for leisure reading and everything in between. There is now demand for every genre in children’s books, including YA fiction (which had previously been marketed as adult reading) and middle grade series (because more children are starting to read for pleasure).

By all measures, the Chinese children’s book market is very young. The history of picture books in China is less than 12 years old, making it a baby compared to the American and European markets. The potential for growth is immense—with industry players looking forward to another two or even three golden decades—but there are challenges. (But then again, what market is without problems?)

Looking Beyond the Numbers

The biggest and most important question the Chinese children’s book industry faces at present, according to Ao Ran, general manager of Children’s Fun Publishing Company, “is not how many children we can sell to, or the sales potential now that the two-child policy is in place, but how to promote and instill lifetime reading habits in the young.” If it does not instill children with lifetime reading habits, he adds, the children’s book market will not grow and prosper.

“We also have to ask another question,” Ao says. “Who are we really publishing for: the parents, teachers, or children? In most cases, the children read based on recommended lists from schools, and parents buy based on bestseller lists or peer reviews. The children have little to no say in the reading or purchasing decision. So there is very little to indicate the real reading interest beyond what sells, which does not exactly offer an accurate read on the actual audience. I’m sure this is a problem facing other children’s publishers, not just in China but worldwide.” For Ao and his team, the solution is to publish a wide variety of appealing, character-based content to capture children’s reading interest, and then to develop children’s trust in his company’s brand by continuously delivering fun and quality titles.

Another issue is the trend of market participants purchasing (and producing) titles merely to ride the bestseller wave. “It can be disheartening,” says Sally Yan, founder and editor-in-chief of Beijing Dandelion, whose bestselling translation of Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski’s Maps spawned imitations, especially from much smaller presses.

“While I do understand that everybody wants to make money in this competitive industry, such copycatting action disrespects the original authors and degrades the value of their work,” Yan says. “Such activity, while profitable, is shortsighted. In the longer term, the survival and development of a publishing house depends on originality and creativity, not imitation.”

A diverse range of topics, including such subjects as war and hardship, is good for children, according to Yan, inspiring them to learn and understand what is happening around the world. “The younger generation today have little worries about their day-to-day survival, unlike children in some parts of Africa who have to walk for miles to find water and risk being killed by wildlife along the way, or who live in war zones,” she says.

Yan has published a few titles dealing with such difficult subjects, including Michael Morpurgo’s The Kites Are Flying and Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water. “The goal is to provide children with a global outlook—including the bad—and refrain from just producing feel-good stories, which most of us are guilty of doing,” Yan explains. “And to do this, one needs to look at buying rights from different countries—not just the big markets—and to look beyond the sales figures.”

According to Wang Zhong, president of Zhejiang Juvenile & Children’s Publishing House, the current rights selling process needs tweaking. “Many overseas publishers, due to their unfamiliarity with the domestic Chinese market and players, tend to rely exclusively on literary agencies to handle their titles. And the usual criterion, of course, is to go for the highest bid, and not [factor in] the publisher’s capabilities or expertise. That is perhaps a big mistake. A title’s potential success depends on many factors—including translation quality, continuous promotion, and marketing activities—that rest on the publisher’s shoulder. And in China, the strength and reach of the promotional and marketing campaigns, or lack thereof, can make or break a title.”

But with more overseas players entering, and having success in, the Chinese children’s book market, Wang hopes to see more direct collaborations and rights negotiations. “Exchanges of ideas and information will generate more goodwill, moving a purely quantitative relationship—based on sales and royalties—into a qualitative approach that places more value on enriching the collaboration and its potential outcomes.”

Developing Reading Habits and Quality Content

China’s upcoming education reform offers not just a reset for its current educational system but also for the children’s publishing industry. “There will be increased emphasis on students’ language capabilities, reading comprehension, information analysis, and logical thinking—and these will change the way school and education are being conducted, with much greater demand for reading,” explains Li Xueqian, president of China Children’s Press & Publication Group (as well as president of the Chinese section of the International Board of Books for Young People). “That means the publishing industry has to gear up to meet the demand for relevant reading materials and reading-oriented services.”

However, pushing more titles into the market is unsustainable in the longer term. Ten years ago, Li recalls, the children’s segment was very small, accounting for less than 9% of the overall book market. “Last year, there were nearly 61,000 children’s titles in the market, even as prices of children’s books have gone up, print runs have decreased, and inventory levels have grown. These are strong indicators that the market does not require that many titles, nor is able to sustain such massive publishing output.”

So what should publishers do? The path forward “is to be more selective and discerning in providing children with quality reading materials,” Li says. “We should not simply continue pushing out more titles or blindly translating a huge quantity of books to meet short-term goals. Otherwise, as an industry, we will only have production capacity and not publishing capability, which is crucial for developing and cumulating our own IPs. So, improving the quality of our original content—which is aimed at meeting the needs of our children and educational system—is the big goal. And motivating children to cultivate a lifelong reading habit must be front and center.”

All 10 publishers profiled in this special report—including Li—will be exhibiting and showcasing their best titles at the China Pavilion at the Bologna Book Fair next month. Their presence is a preview of what is coming in 2018, when China is the fair’s Guest of Honor. So make sure you pay them a visit!


PW would like to thank Beijing-based Bookdao for its help in making this report possible. All articles in this supplement were written by PW correspondent Teri Tan.