Over the past decade, China has imported classic children’s books of all genres from the West at a rate far faster than it would have taken another country or territory to accomplish, observes director Chen Yushiuan of Beijing-based Bardon Chinese Media Agency. “These titles are not just for children and parents, but also for teachers, schools, and preschool-education specialists,” she says. “More publishers are also arranging author/illustrator tours to promote titles, cultivate fan bases, and boost sales, as well as to educate, inspire, and motivate local editors.”
Chen finds that, unlike in previous years, publishers are now looking beyond award-winning titles—those by acclaimed authors/illustrators—or series. “Preferences are changing, with publishers becoming more selective,” she says. “Currently, there is a heightened demand for titles for children up to age three, covering novelty titles, pop-ups, touch and feels, and board books, for instance.” Chen’s team negotiated the sales for David Wiesner’s Fish Girl, Carson Ellis’s Du Iz Tak?, Matthew Olshan’s A Voyage in the Clouds, Anthony Browne’s Hidden, and Roger Hargreaves’s Doctor Who.
“Chinese publishers have become very adept at leveraging both physical and online sales channels—specifically social media marketing and community-based platforms—to maximize their reach,” Chen adds. “It has worked very well for children’s books, which are mostly sold as limited-time offers and virtual-book-club specials.”
Chinese parents, who are now aware of the importance of reading to preschoolers, are buying lots of picture books, says Jackie Huang, Beijing-based chief representative of Andrew Nurnberg Associates. “That has led to a booming picture book publishing segment, which has attracted many new entrants. But this being a fast-changing children’s book market, time will tell if some of these entrants continue to invest or opt out.”
Indeed, there has been a lull in rights buying of picture books in recent months. “Many Chinese editors are turning their focus to original works,” Huang explains. “However, we have more—and better—deals for children’s fiction, covering chapter stories, middle grade fiction, and YA novels.” The titles Huang and her team recently sold include Gemma Fowler’s Moondust, Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Secret Keepers, Sarah Crossan’s The Weight of Water, and Jeremy Chatelain’s May the Stars Drip Down.
And for those publishers who are getting weary of intense rights bids and auctions, Huang points out that “auctions are useful in allowing the licensee and licensor to carefully evaluate a title’s potential in the market prior to licensing it. The process can be challenging but it is useful and valuable to both parties.”
According to executive v-p Vincent Lin of Shanghai-based Big Apple Agency, children’s publishers “are not buying just picture books or board books, they are also bringing in foreign educational systems such as Montessori and Waldorf into China.” Chinese parents “are now heavily involved in their children’s educations—right from preschool level—and are taking the control back from schools and teachers,” he adds. “So the parents are now selecting and buying books and educational materials for the children, and this represents a major shift of responsibilities in a typical three-generation Chinese household, where the role of the grandparents, often the primary caregivers, has been drastically reduced.”
Meanwhile, China’s two-child policy is a big lure to new entrants looking at the children’s book segment, especially since the Chinese government is planning to abandon restrictions on family size within the next couple of years. “So more publishers are expected to jump onto the bandwagon,” Lin says. “At the same time, we are hearing about soft restrictions on the quantity of licensed titles, with content vetting applied to surprisingly regular titles.” Lin adds that “the competitive Chinese market has driven advances much higher and made auctions the new normal.”
The Big Apple team recently handled the rights for Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo activity and audio books, Liz Kessler’s Emily Windsnap series, Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s Nate the Great series, Diane Adam’s Love Is, and Carlton Books’ Ice Age AR.