As of today, Peppa Pig remains a bestseller in China. Winnie the Pooh continues to sell, and so does Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There has been no restriction on these titles or on other foreign publications and translations.
Overseas headlines about restrictions on foreign publications to “prevent ideology inflow” had many Chinese children’s book publishers scratching their heads. “What kind of ideology can a picture book—say, the perennial blockbuster Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You or the Harry Potter series—possibly communicate?” was one succinct response that PW received.
But it is true that some publishers are encountering a longer application process for Cataloging in Publication (CIP) numbers, which allow titles to be published in China. “To understand this, one needs to first look at the statistics in China Publisher’s Yearbook,” says Li Xueqian, president of China Children’s Press & Publication Group and co-organizer of the China Pavilion at Bologna.
According to the Yearbook, between 2002 and 2006, 53,123 children’s titles were acquired from overseas publishers. But the number of new publications, including Chinese originals, during this period was only 25,327. This could very well mean that nearly four out of every 10 acquired titles were not published. The following five-year period (2007–2011) saw 67,347 titles bought, but only 49,229 new titles came out.
In short, during the 2002–2011 period—hailed as China’s golden decade of children’s books, due to a booming market hungry for titles—as much as 35% of the acquired total was not published. So, what happened to those unpublished titles?
“Some companies are buying up—and hoarding—these titles to co-opt their competitors,” Li says. “This is unfair competition, and unfair to the overseas publishers, as they will get a certain amount of advance but no annual royalties—and they won’t get to see their titles published in China anytime soon.”
The longer CIP application process is basically due to a stricter vetting of the importing company, Li says. “At CCPPG, 90% of our list is originals even though we translated numerous Astrid Lindgren titles [including Pippi Longstocking], Cipolino, and Tintin. Will we have problems buying rights for translations? No. Those affected will be the smaller companies that have been focused on rights buying and not on developing originals. Or those that have been buying rights all these years and not publishing them.”
Li adds that “buying and translating foreign titles is understandably the most practical and the easiest way to build sales and brand-name recognition when a publisher is small and lacks the resources to develop original content. But at a certain point, after the publisher has matured and attained a specific profit level, developing original content and intellectual property must be on the table for long-term growth.”
Beijing Dandelion, publisher of the Magic School Bus series and Maurice Sendak titles in China, was also asked by overseas partners about import restrictions. “I have assured everybody that we will continue to buy rights,” said editor-in-chief Sally Yan, whose catalogue is 65% translations. But Yan is discouraged by unhealthy market trends caused by the massive capital investment in the industry. “There is now a push for new titles, for achieving good short-term sales and then allowing the titles to basically ‘die.’”
The stricter CIP application process, says Yan, will get rid of “abusers” and benefit the industry. “Making sure that every acquired title is published as soon as possible is simply good and ethical business practice. If you are buying the rights and not publishing them, then to me that is disrespectful to the author, the work, and the original publisher. You can buy titles left and right since you have the money. But can you sell them? There is only so much a market can absorb, even one as big as China.”
To publishers that have been selling to China and are now brooding over possible import restrictions, both Li and Yan recommend asking two questions: how many titles have been sold to China? And how many of those have been published and continue to sell year after year?
“Often, overseas publishers have no concrete idea about the number of titles that have been translated and published,” Li says, adding that no other country has purchased rights at the volume and speed that China has over the years. “The push to develop homegrown originals is completely natural. A maturing book industry will look into having its own pool of authors, illustrators, and intellectual properties—and this is true for China, as it is true for the West and all other countries.”
More balanced rights trading is always the goal. “It has been very unequal in China for a long time,” Li says. “However, this does not mean that we are not importing. We just need to make sure we are importing great content that will continually sell. But we also need to establish our publishing capabilities by creating our own content and not just translating and expanding production capacity.”
Developing homegrown talents and intellectual properties takes time, Li says. “An overnight ban on imports, per the rumors and hype, is unrealistic and not workable.” However, Chinese publishers, Li adds, should acquire titles in areas where quality content is sorely lacking and where homegrown talent is not yet available and not bring out copycat titles that may be of dubious quality.