Eleven years ago, in 2007, China Children’s Press & Publication Group (CCPPG) participated in the Bologna Book Fair for the first time. Their booth in Hall 29 was small, shabby, and minimally decorated and very few visitors dropped by.

That was what Li Xueqian, president of CCPPG and of the Chinese section of the International Board on Books for Young People, recalled about his experience. He decided there and then not to participate in Bologna again until a more formal presence could be organized to highlight Chinese children’s publishing houses and their titles.

“Six years later, in 2013, we were back with a delegation of Chinese publishers in Hall 26, effectively occupying the same exhibition hall as major European and American publishers,” Li says. “On that outing, our delegation sold 57 titles. Since then, our rights sales have increased and our Bologna presence has become much bigger. The Chinese children’s publishing industry effectively went global from that moment onward.”

This year, China is the fair’s guest of honor, marking a monumental shift from that small and shabby booth of 11 years ago. For the country, this honor is a landmark event and heralds the importance of China’s children’s book industry on the world stage. Li, in charge of the activities and cultural programs for the China Pavilion, is busy organizing the 600-sq.-meter exhibition area for publishers and another 300-sq.-meter to display works by selected Chinese illustrators. “We also have an extensive roster of forums and events,” Li says, “as well as cultural exchange activities, for which we are now collaborating with various Bologna municipal authorities, the Bologna Library, the University of Bologna, the Confucius Institute, and other institutions.” (See p. 7 for a list of major events and programs.)

Realities on the Ground

Back in China, the children’s book market is thundering along. The latest report from Beijing-based OpenBook, a clearinghouse for publishing statistics, states that the Chinese retail book market grew 14.55% in 2017, with the children’s book segment contributing about a third of that growth. According to Li, the children’s segment expanded 19.7%, 28.84%, and 21.18% in 2015, 2016, and 2017, respectively.

So, while the Chinese children’s book market started much later than other markets around the world, in the past decade it has matured in terms of production planning, marketing, and promotion. Yet, as Ma Yuxiu, editor-in-chief of New Buds Publishing House, says, “This brings us to one challenge: a mature industry means a tried—and therefore, tired—and staid business model. How to innovate, rejuvenate, and push the children’s book industry into a new decade of growth and continued prosperity is now at the top of everybody’s mind.”

Distribution strategies, in particular, must be overhauled. “Given the current market-focused economy, book distributors and marketers can no longer be just salespersons,” Ma says. “They must know the books published by different houses. Additionally, success in distribution will require them to be familiar with how each book is used and who the target audience is. In other words, they must have very strong market awareness, coupled with a keen understanding of publishing trends and consumer demands. Such attributes, combined, are missing from the distribution chain.”

At the same time, the practice of heavy discounting, if continued, will be the industry’s downfall, cautions Bai Bing, editor-in-chief of Jieli Publishing House. “Consumers will demand lower prices—that is universal—and here you have Chinese consumers, who are always looking out for bargains. But cutting prices in exchange for higher sales volume is suicidal in the long run, and this is something that Jieli is determined not to do or be a part of.” (Even national chain Xinhua Bookstore must accept Bai’s no-discounting terms for Jieli titles.)

For sure, China’s book consumption patterns have evolved since the 1980s and ’90s, observes Hu Jian, president of Hunan Juvenile & Children’s Publishing House. “Novelty and higher-priced titles are getting popular, and online channels—e-tailing and social media platforms, in particular—have opened up new sales and distribution opportunities. These evolving channels and patterns of consumption have created more discerning buyers, causing low-end me-too books to lose ground by the day.” Fierce market competition aside, Hu believes that “premium content such as original works will always have their space in the market.”

Understanding What Works (and What Doesn’t)

Diversified reading needs coupled with stronger individual choice has opened the Chinese children’s book market. “You can no longer say for sure that a particular type of book would not work here,” says Hou Mingliang, president of Kids Media and founder of IlluSalon (see “IlluSalon for Nurtures and Promotes Illustrators,” p. 44). “That was perhaps true 15 or 20 years ago, but it’s definitely not in present-day China. Some stories may simply resonate with the reader or express the mainstream aesthetics of the Chinese community—these are the two guiding principles behind most rights-buying and translations.”

Cultural differences within a story can make or break an imported title, Hou says. “A title revolving around a campus lifestyle unlike that in China may be tough to sell. Or books with a unique sense of humor may not translate well across borders and languages. Every title needs to be considered from various aspects. But overall, the Chinese book market is very receptive to all sorts of stories, styles, and genres. The readers are getting more sophisticated and discerning and remain hungry for new content.”

The market is also on an experimentation streak, Hou says. “I see a different trend every three to five months. Now, the market has AR/VR fever, and many new titles feature these technologies. Whether this trend is going to stick or fade really depends on the premise of the book. Does the content benefit from, or really need, the AR or VR to relay its message? If this technology is just a nice touch that does not add value to the content, then chances are this trend is going to be short-lived.”

As for new works from debut authors, Xu Jiang, president of Xinjiang Juvenile Publishing House, finds that the main task lies in developing the manuscripts. “We also need to look at the quality of the plot and accuracy of the depictions, especially in books about real locations, historical figures, and cultural icons. While we seek to tell a good story, the reader, who is young and impressionable, must be given the correct information. We will not cut corners to push for a quick launch,” says Xu, who established an office in Cologne, Germany, in July 2016, to explore not only distributing books in Europe but also collaborating with European authors and illustrators on original titles. “The blending of different cultures and histories comes naturally to us at Xinjiang Juvenile. Just look at our multiethnic province as the proof.”

It seems that the location of Xinjiang Province, which borders eight countries, including Afghanistan, India, Kazakhstan, and Russia, has served Xu and his team well. “The geographical, cultural, and historical richness of our province must have provided ample inspiration, because I do not find a shortage of illustrators,” Xu says, adding that he “does, however, find a lack of talent in prose writing—in putting together a plot that appeals to the inner child in each of us and that inspires a child to read a book.” To this end, Xu is open to manuscripts not just from his own province but also from other parts of China.

Making book covers more appealing to children, both local and abroad, is also important to Xu. “Historically, Chinese publishers tend to focus on the content. The presentation—and packaging—is new to us,” Xu says. “But today’s readers, young and old, are drawn by the aesthetics. We have to carefully choose the right illustration and put different elements together to form a visually attractive package. On the crowded shelf, be it online or in a brick-and-mortar store, a knockout cover presells the book.”

Savvy marketing, says David Fu, president of Tomorrow Publishing House, remains all-important in the book business. “Good content does not sell by itself, and by good content, I refer to titles that will net one million-copy sales. So if I have 200–300 such good titles, I absolutely need to make sure that they live on for as long as possible by upping our marketing and distribution efforts to reach the widest audience.” Content is definitely king, Fu says, “and to survive in the long term, that must be the understanding. It will also propel a publisher to consider the potential for crossover into different formats and different markets.”

Asked about different Chinese publishers sharing the same authors, Fu says: “There are only so many local, and proven, talents, which complicates the matter. So, while a publisher can promote an author and the title that they publish, they cannot control where the author goes next with a new manuscript. This is the reality on the ground. What is good is that the author gets to experiment with new ideas and content with different publishing houses, and cumulatively, that makes for a richer Chinese publishing industry.”

Reassessing Social Media Platforms

At Thinkingdom Children’s Books, social media platforms do not feature predominantly in the sales strategy, even though 9,300 sets of the Journey trilogy sold within two weeks in September 2016 through this new channel. “The price discount for such a promotional campaign is usually deep, and we are not a fan of gaining volume sales through low pricing,” says Li Xin, vice president and general editor of the children’s books division.

In any case, Li finds that the impact of selling through social media decreases over time. “And if one does not have highly selective and great products to offer to the online communities,” Li says, “then the influence and value of the brand will erode. These factors will impact long-term growth, and we simply will not sacrifice long-time growth for short-term gains.”

After analyzing sales results from the social media channel over the past few months, Bai, of Jieli Publishing House, concludes that “social media platforms work much better at presenting titles for toddlers and younger children, whereas online retailers such as Dangdang and Amazon are better fits for older children.”

Bai further explains that “parents of young children tend to be social media savvy, and they rely on peer influence and opinion leaders to make their purchasing decisions. They have their hands full with their young kids and, therefore, have little time to trawl through online bookstores to decide on the next books to purchase. The older children, on the other hand, are reading based on recommended lists from their teachers and schools, and these titles on the lists are readily available through online retailers. The decision-making process is therefore easier and faster.” (See “Social Media Marketing,” p. 20.)

For Li and her team at Thinkingdom, the social media marketing route is attractive only when they have a great product that potential buyers are not aware of, cannot easily access in brick-and-mortar bookstores, or would not purchase without input from opinion leaders and extensive peer reviews. Li says, “Our experienced marketing team will move a promotional campaign onto social media or into the physical retail channel depending on the need, value, and effectiveness. We are fluid in that sense.”

Gearing Up for Reading Services

Now that parents, teachers, and the government are focusing on reading (and reading-oriented services), the publisher’s role is being redefined yet again, says Huang Chunqing, chief editor of Guangdong New Century Publishing House. “Publishing remains the core activity, but there is now a need to build a reading ecosystem around it. At our company, we offer reading services, supplementary materials for reading activities, lectures, and platforms to support all these services,” Huang says. “With the publisher’s expanding role, its existence is no longer one-dimensional in print products. We have to go into different channels and platforms to service our audience, particularly children and their parents, who are the actual buyers. At the same time, we need to work with teachers and schools, as they exert considerable influence on the reading list and material selection.”

For now, campus reading and family reading promotions are in full swing, says Hu, of Hunan Juvenile. “Publishing houses are playing very strong roles in both types of reading promotions by providing quality content, giving lectures on public reading, recommending reading lists, and building alliances with libraries and private entities. Everything is being done to help develop good reading habits and provide access to quality content in the most convenient ways. This, too, will ensure the cultivation of future generations of readers and book lovers.”

Fortunately, a publisher’s task in promoting reading is much easier nowadays, says Huang Xiaoyan, founder and publisher of Everafter Books. “Parents born in the 1980s and 1990s are much better educated, are more aware of the importance of reading to their children, and are very keen on getting their children to read more than their schoolbooks. As a publisher, we must build on that foundation and provide reading sessions, expert-led talks, and workshops related to children’s books and education to inspire and encourage even more reading.”

Pondering the Publishing Portfolio

With original publications now in the spotlight, the search is heating up for new content and authors. At Guangdong New Century, the 10-volume My Childhood in China series, for instance, presents childhood stories spanning half a century and ranging in subject from the Mongolian desert to urban living from authors such as Wu Meizhen, Guan Jiaqi, and Hei He. “The series is both historical and cultural and provides children with insights into the past. Another title, Chinese Poetry in Ink-and-Wash Paintings for Children, won the 2017 national award for the most beautiful book, and this six-volume work pairs beautiful illustrations with illuminating stories for contemplation and inspiration,” says Huang, of Guangdong New Century.

But the ultimate publishing goals remain unchanged, Huang says. “The social benefits that we as a publisher can bring to the table are our biggest objective. Profitability comes second. Aligning our publishing program’s objectives and needs with those of the government makes perfect sense. Marketing reading services, for example, is easier to accomplish since the target audience and the stakeholders are already prepared and waiting.”

At Hunan Juvenile, pop-science publishing expanded so significantly in 2017 that a special department was established for the genre. “It is now a CNY 100 million business unit within our publishing house,” says Hu, whose team has published several original pop-science bestsellers, including Naughty Human Beings: The Book of Science History for Children and Science World for Juveniles.

Another original, This Is Science: One Thousand Proofs, is based on a three-year-long Hunan TV program, Exploring the Truth. “There are seven AR interactivities, 34 experiments, and nearly 200 photographs to make the science learning process more intriguing and immersive,” adds Hu, who is set to launch several high-level pop-science titles, including Fabulous Telescopes and Looking for Dark Matter, as well as translations from Britannica and DK this year. (See “The Rise of the Pop-Science Segment in China,” p. 38.)

An Hongmin, president of Beijing Yutian Hanfeng Books Company, says that maintaining a balanced import/export portfolio is very important to him. “A professional publisher will aspire to create outstanding original content that will be enjoyed by generations of readers, domestic and international. He will also want to build his editorial team’s expertise beyond handling translations. After all, there is so much to learn about the packaging, presentation, and promotion of a book to suit the market.”

Too many translated works in a catalogue will make a publishing company look like a distributor or rights representative, An says. “While translations are usually great for a company’s bottom line, it is not a long-term publishing strategy. Making an impact on the book industry means creating your own brand, titles, and stable of proven authors,” says An, who is collaborating with Belgian publisher Clavis to uncover new talents through workshops and competitions. “It means continuous improvement on your professionalism as a publisher coupled with an ongoing search for new talent and content.” (See “Key Colours Competition China,” p. 41.)

For Huang, of Everafter Books, being a children’s book publisher certainly goes beyond sales and profit. “We have an obligation to help children to be better people and to help them to better know the world outside their immediate circle. And we can do that by making sure that we present the best books possible—translations and originals—to them.” (Incidentally, this is the company that industry insiders call the “dark horse,” after it achieved CNY 100 million in sales after only two years of operation and with only 120 titles and 23 staff members.)

Rewriting the Playbook (and the Publishing Program)

But producing more children’s books does not necessarily make children read more. “Books, no matter how good the values they contain are, will not fundamentally change children,” says Huang, of Everafter Books.

“Take the love of books and the habit of reading as examples. If the parents themselves do not cherish books or have the habit of reading, then their children are unlikely to have that longing for reading, no matter how many books surround them,” Huang says. “Infants, as we know, learn by mimicking their parents. Thus, parents have to be good role models and know the right values to teach their children. That is why we have produced a line of books that will hopefully teach parents how to achieve that.” Chen He’s Smart Parenting: The Strategies for Raising Children Aged 0 to 6, for instance, sold more than 30,000 copies within four months of its launch.

As for publishers’ present-day race to outbid one another for rights, Fu, of Tomorrow Publishing House, is pragmatic but uninterested. “Partnerships are built on trust and confidence, not on the highest bid for a specific title that may last only a short period. I take the time to study the publishers that I want to work with so that I have a good understanding of their lists and working philosophy. I want to make sure their professionalism and sense of responsibility resonates with mine. This process requires time and patience. And in the current competitive publishing industry, which is saturated with capital investment that brings new entrants every time you look, patience is in short supply.”

Currently, the one immediate issue that is hampering the whole industry, says Li, of CCPPG, is the rising cost of paper, around 30%, within the past 16 months. “With production costs going up, profit is down and less money is left for research and development. This will impede future growth, as new products and strategies are constantly required to meet shifting market demands.” For Li, the signs are clear: “Growth in traditional publishing has slowed down much more significantly in recent months than in previous years. Revenue is mostly flat. To survive, one must think, and look, outside the box.”

And many of the answers, Li says, can be found within China’s latest education reform, which will take effect in 2020 and is set to reduce homework and standardized examinations while moving toward an employment-oriented educational system. “This reform is the biggest boon to the Chinese children’s book industry. Schools are attaching more importance to reading services, and fulfilling the demands from millions of students and teachers will drive—and reshape—the industry,” Li says, adding that “the second-child policy together with a rapidly expanding middle class will create an even bigger market for publishers.”

At the same time, Li believes his counterparts should rethink their editorial programs. “Our industry pays little attention to topics such as children being left behind in rural areas, migrant parents leaving to work in cities, only-child issues, and second-child challenges,” Li says. “The titles currently in the market gravitate toward fantasy and history. Realism is a big missing piece. And given that most Europeans and Americans do not have a clear picture of China and how Chinese people and children live, it is important that we produce content based on present-day realities, to strengthen the information and cultural exchanges between China and the rest of the world.”