Voted Best Children’s Publisher in Asia at the 2015 Bologna Children’s Book Fair, 21st Century Publishing Group has come a long way in its 32 years. “We started with 10 editors and CNY 100,000 [$14,560] in seed money, and we were determined to build a catalogue of great titles for children,” recalls Zhang Qiulin, who has been the company president for the past 30 years. “We remain as determined—and patient—today as we were then to continue cultivating new works and bringing overseas bestsellers into China.”
Patience is something Zhang has in abundance. Take YA series My Son Pika: It took author Cao Wenxuan, the first Chinese to receive the Hans Christian Andersen Award, more than 10 years to develop and deliver the manuscript to the editorial team. “Good things are worth waiting for, and this series is definitely one of them,” says Zhang, who commends the author “for relating and addressing—in total honesty—a 10-year-old boy’s physical, psychological, and spiritual growth and relationship with his father.”
My Son Pika, now a 10-volume series, has sold more than two million copies since its 2009 launch. “The YA segment was nonexistent in China two years ago, with imported YA titles typically promoted as adult readings,” Zhang notes. “But for teenagers and youth struggling with complex issues in their growth and development in modern China today, we really need more local-centric YA offerings.”
Another emerging segment that Zhang has waited out patiently over the years is the higher-priced novelty market. “We started publishing such titles in 2000, with series such as Animals: Touch and Feel,” he says. ”And it took us nearly 10 years to convince parents and teachers that such titles work—and are very valuable—for their children’s development. Now, of course, the competition has heated up with the entry of many translated or copublished novelty products.”
Chinese children and parents know about 21st Century Publishing Group through its big brands, including A Different Carmela (or Les P’tites Poules), Geronimo Stilton (7.6 million copies sold), My First Comic Book on Science (from South Korea), and manga characters such as Doraemon and Pokémon.
“Carmela kicked off in 2006 with six titles, and one new volume added per year,” Zhang says. “To date, we have sold upwards of 50 million copies. With the animated movie coming soon to China, the book sales will certainly go up significantly.” 21st Century also has translated Natalie Babbit’s Tuck Everlasting and recently bought Catherine Rayner’s Smelly Louie, Philip C. Stead’s Lenny & Lucy, and Michael Ende’s The Night of Wishes.
Macmillan titles dominate the company’s catalogue, owing to the Macmillan Century joint venture launched in 2012. “Since then, over 400 titles have been published, and we have access to the best titles,” Zhang notes. “This arrangement works very well in the intensely competitive rights market in China, since we have first refusal on any Macmillan title on offer.” This month, buoyed by successes from Macmillan Century’s YA series, Zhang established the 21st Century YA Literature Award to cultivate more original works in the segment.
21st Century also has stepped up its rights selling business. Picture book Express Delivery from Dinosaur World by Dong Yanan is now available in a bilingual edition from Candied Plums in the U.S., and Half Door by Peng Xuejun and A Panda’s Story by Tang Yaming, illustrated by Susumu Kinoshita, have been sold to countries including France and Japan. Rights to Cao Wenxuan’s picture books Smoke and The Summer have gone to publishers in France, New Zealand, South Korea, and Sweden.
For Zhang, increased rights sales aside, closer and direct collaboration with major book markets is crucial. A German office has been established to better understand the European book industry and to ensure 21st Century Publishing Group’s access to the best publishers, authors, and titles from the region.
Going forward, Zhang’s mission is to create a balanced publishing program. “Ideally, I would like to see bestsellers and long-running sellers account for 50% of our sales, and that 50% of our titles are originals,” Zhang says. “At the same time, a 50-50 split between classical titles and contemporary works would be great. I’m patiently working on that.”