The phrase “in the right place at the right time” seems tailor-made for Jieli. Its Usborne China imprint, launched in January 2017, came at an opportune moment when the Chinese market was ready for higher-priced toy- and game-based board books and novelty titles.
“Discerning parents, higher disposable income, early childhood reading—all these factors have come into play,” Bai Bing, editor-in-chief of Jieli, says. “Parents want the best books to help their children learn and read, and they are willing to pay for them. For us, Usborne’s wide-ranging titles are perfect for the market, and we are deploying our resources in editorial, marketing, and distribution to ensure that these books are easily accessible through various sales channels and platforms.”
The publication of two titles by Norman Messenger—Imagine and The Land of Neverbelieve—is equally well timed. “These books open up a whimsical and fantastical world. They emphasize the fact that imagination knows no bounds—it has no right or wrong—and a child’s imagination is something that we should encourage and cultivate,” Bai says, adding that “with everybody searching for original works and nurturing homegrown talents, what better way to build the next generation of authors and illustrators than to start cultivating imagination and sparking creativity in our children?” The total print run for Imagine has exceeded 75,000 copies.
Bear Grylls’s Mission Survival series, launched in 2014, is another timely publication. Responding to a conspicuous market gap in safety education as well as a need for titles promoting courage and survival instincts, the 12-volume series has gone on to net sales exceeding 6.8 million copies. (For more on this and Jieli’s concerted marketing efforts, see “Survival in China,” p. 28).
For Bai, thinking outside the box and avoiding me-too publications have led him to some old titles. “We translated Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie last year at the same time that we did Norman Messenger’s books. These are not new titles, but they are classics for obvious reasons,” Bai says. “My focus is solely on presenting the best books to Chinese children, and so the original publication dates of these titles do not factor into the editorial decision-making.”
Reconfiguring the backlist is another item on Bai’s agenda. The Smurfs series, which Jieli published in 2008, is one example. This series, surprisingly, did not perform as well as expected upon its original publication. “The competition in the animation field is intense in China, with a penchant for manga-styled illustration that features more violence than is typical of the action and dangers in the Smurfs’ wholesome and close-knit community. The evil wizard Gargamel is so tame in comparison,” says Bai, who is reworking the series into a bilingual edition that promotes leisure reading as well as English language learning. “Restrategizing our marketing approach for this series will be the key.”
In the meantime, the 18-volume Monster Master series remains firm on the Top 10 bestseller list with sales exceeding 16 million copies. “With this original series, we selected three young readers from those attending last November’s Shanghai Children’s Book Fair to analyze the titles and tell us what works for them—plot, characters, for instance—and what supplementary materials or activities they would like to have. We wanted honest appraisals and unvarnished truth, and we got them,” Bai says, pointing out that “fluidity” is crucial in meeting demands from Chinese readers. “The panel audience provided further feedback to help with our editorial program. Such an activity is one that I would like to repeat in the future for other titles.”
The consumer mindset has shifted significantly, Bai says, “and so has the focus in the Chinese education system, which is encouraging more reading for pleasure as opposed to reading in order to pass exams. So holding on to yesteryear’s approaches is impractical. We must innovate to keep up with marketplace shifts, and we have to correctly anticipate what the children, parents, teachers, and institutions need from us.”
For the above reasons, Bai and his team aim to be open and engaged with online chat groups, parenting portals, and fan clubs. “These are sources of immediate intelligence crucial in strategizing our plans,” Bai says. “Taking our cues from the market is the only way to survive, move forward, and prosper.”