The oft-quoted numbers remain as compelling as ever: 370 million people under the age of 18, an additional 17.5 million babies born annually, and at least 600 active publishers in the children’s book industry. Plus, 60% of China’s 1.4 billion people now live in urban areas, up dramatically from barely 20% four decades ago. And at least 76% of this burgeoning urban population (or 500 million people) will be middle class by 2020.

Much of the growth of China’s children’s book market rests on this rising middle class, says Bai Bing, editor-in-chief of Jieli Publishing House. “These parents tend to have a better understanding of the importance of early childhood education and reading, are more willing to spend their discretionary income on books, and choose to be more actively involved in their children’s education and development,” Bai says. “Their heightened awareness of the complex social and emotional development in children and young adults is also creating a new market for publications that address these very issues.”

Parents in this demographic—young, demanding, discerning, globally minded, and sophisticated—are also used to trawling the internet and parenting platforms for tips. They also don’t hesitate to click the “Add to cart” button of online stores and are willing to pay a premium for quality products.

As such, the present Chinese children’s book market has diversified beyond its traditional fare of multivolume nonfiction series and educational titles. Higher-priced toy- and game-based board books, novelty titles, activity kits, and large-format picture books, previously unpopular and deemed unsalable, are now hot items. In fact, publications with a preschool-education slant are totally trendy. Books with AR/VR elements are steadily gaining favor, as is middle grade fiction, a sector that owes a lot of its growth to China’s education reform.

While the reform won’t take effect until 2020, educators, parents, and schools have already been pushing children to read more and to read for leisure in order to increase their reading comprehension and acquire general knowledge—two focal points of the reform. The resultant interest in middle grade fiction has many industry players anticipating that YA titles will soon follow suit. Young urban-dwelling parents also want their children to gain a global outlook and an awareness of the environment, prompting a significant increase in titles depicting different cultures as well as animals, plants, and nature. (See “The Blooming Interest in Books About Plants,” p. 24.)

As a result, the entire Chinese children’s book market is expanding in terms of both sales and output diversity. According to Beijing-based OpenBook, a clearinghouse for publishing statistics, the children’s segment saw double-digit expansion in the past four years—19.7%, 28.84%, 21.18%, and 13.74% in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018, respectively—and now accounts for 25.19% of the country’s total retail book market.

Another report, from China’s Books and Periodicals Distribution Association, states that there are now at least 225,000 bookstores and outlets across the country, up 4.3% from the previous year. The total sales revenue hit CNY 370.4 billion (or $55.2 billion), an increase of 5.9% over 2017.

Reaching Out to Children in Rural Areas

In China, metropolitan areas continue to offer better access to books, bookstores, libraries, and reading programs than do rural areas. “The bewildering range of publications on the shelves means that urban parents and educators now face the problem of having too many choices when it comes to selecting titles for their children,” says Zhang Mingzhou, president of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). “But for the smaller towns and countryside, a vastly different challenge emerges. Getting books to these areas—and addressing the inequality in access to, and distribution of, books—is the biggest issue for a country that has a booming children’s book segment.”

Recent years have seen an increase in book donation drives to bring books to rural areas and in the number of volunteers teaching locals about the importance of reading, storytelling, and having access to books. “With the government building more than 600,000 rural libraries, big and small, in the past decade, we are seeing progress in addressing the disparity between the rural and urban areas in terms of book distribution and access,” Zhang says.

But these efforts need to be stepped-up, Zhang says. “Many in the rural areas are farmers, who are usually not reading at all or may be illiterate. They may not be as concerned about getting books to their children or reading to them. In this instance, IBBY’s role in promoting reading comes to the forefront. We are collaborating with various organizations to give children access to quality books—in China and around the globe.” (See “The Role of IBBY in the Chinese Children’s Book Market,” p. 8.)

Reading services, despite the big push toward the 2020 education reform, are still in their infancy, says Sally Yan, founder and editor-in-chief of Beijing Dandelion Children’s Book House. “This industry—with nearly 600 children’s book publishers and 227,000 titles in circulation—is nevertheless facing limited access to books in the rural areas,” Yan says. “It is both strange and sad. But the truth is, bookstore operators tend to stay away from areas where there is low household income and little money for books. Rural libraries are often short of funds, and even if they are not, few picture books and children’s titles are in stock, since their focus is overwhelmingly on educational titles.”

Last April, Yan hit on a unique idea to get stories to rural children. “We reached out via our WeChat account to solicit mothers living in rural areas who are interested in becoming story moms, and we selected 100 of those respondents,” Yan says. “Each of them was given, with our compliments, a banner and one book selected from the 70-plus titles curated from our catalogue. The rule was simple: each mom had to hold 10 storytelling sessions in her respective community using the banner and the book and send us photos of the sessions as proof.”

Yan says she simply wants children from all parts of China to have access to stories. “In the longer term, the goal is to create a lifelong reader out of every child who we can reach—and this is good for the publishing industry as a whole in view of declining reading habits,” Yan says. “I also look at donating books and soliciting story moms as one of the ways we can give back to the community. After all, it is the community that has sustained Beijing Dandelion and enabled us to survive and prosper throughout the years.”

Monitoring the Bricks and Clicks of Distribution

Social media continues to be an indispensable promotional and sales channel in the Chinese children’s book industry. The all-in-one messaging app WeChat—an amalgamation of Apple News, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and WhatsApp—and its millions of third-party apps (not to mention its 1.08 billion monthly active users) is one of the most popular sites for publishers.

Sina Weibo, used mostly for live streaming and microblogging, is another way for publishers to reach online communities and influencers. Then there are specialized sites offering opportunities to create buzz for authors, books, and events, such as Baidu Tieba (most popular for its discussion forums), Douban (featuring lifestyle discussion), Douyin (a site for short-video entertainment), Tencent QQ (an instant messaging platform), Youku Tudou (a video-sharing site), and Zhihu (a question-and-answer platform). Parenting platforms have sprung up and thrived on these sites, including Babytree, Nicomama (previously known as Niangao-Mama), and QinBaobao (which translates as “Kiss Baby”).

Social media used to be an attractive selling method for children’s book publishers, but sales from this channel dropped significantly in 2018, says Huang Xiaoyan, founder and publisher of Everafter Books. “The overall sales of children’s books have increased slightly between 2017 and 2018, but heavy discounting at online outlets—such as Alibaba, Dangdang, and JD—and at brick-and-mortar channels is cutting into publishers’ profit margins, which are already hitting all-time lows owing to rising production costs,” Huang says. “The slimmer margin has forced many publishers to either increase their list price or lower production quality in order to increase profit.”

Industry watchers have attributed this drop in sales through social media to the expected adjustment period that attends any new marketing channel. Some, however, call it “platform-fatigue,” brought on by the hundreds of sites clamoring for attention and sales. Still, for many children’s publishers, revenues through social media have remained higher than revenues through traditional channels.

Xu Fengmei, president of Anhui Children’s Publishing House, says micro-video apps such as Douyin and its key opinion leaders have given rise to new marketing models and distribution strategies. “At the same time, at brick-and-mortar bookstores, there is an increasing demand for personalized services, as book buyers become more discerning and sophisticated,” says Xu, whose company deploys a multimarketing approach that covers airport and train station stores and social media platforms for mothers and children. “Communicating with all channels throughout the whole publishing process is crucial to building a robust, successful, and reliable distribution ecosystem.”

Declining sales from brick-and-mortar stores is a reality in the Chinese children’s book industry, says Bai, of Jieli Publishing House. “In most parts, book sales through online stores and channels continue to climb, with some publishing entities having as much as 60% of their sales coming from online channels,” says Bai, who has split his sales department into three specialized divisions to deal with different channels: brick-and-mortar, online stores and social media, and Tmall (focusing on the B2C online retail operated by Alibaba Group).

“If the channel used previously was B2B with brick-and-mortar stores, we are now developing promotional campaigns and marketing plans to turn it into a B2C platform,” Bai says. “As for social media platforms, our goal is to go where the transaction takes place and provide a much better and more involved virtual retail experience to attract even more buyers and influencers. We simply have to be nimble and flexible to meet fast-changing market demands and industry trends, and fortunately, for an established company like Jieli, our brand has been a very useful tool in our consumer outreach programs.”

China Children’s Press & Publication Group (CCPPG), on the other hand, employs what the company calls an “e-commerce plus community” approach, in which the team works on mobilizing social media platforms and leveraging online sales channels to reach its audience; this approach is carried out in tandem with its brick-and-mortar sales and promotional activities. “Since the younger generation has an inherent understanding of, and dependence on, the internet, it is imperative for us to understand how they read, what they look for, and where they go to find books,” says Sun Zhu, president of CCPPG, which has been selling and marketing titles such as the My First Set of Parent-Child English Book series on social media platforms Nicomama and Ten O’Clock Reads. “Only then can we create publications that are interesting and attractive, and of great value, to them.”

CCPPG also runs its own branded stores on Dangdang and JD, the two biggest online book retailers in China. For each promotional run, Sun and his team select products that are matched to the retailer’s target audience and favorite categories. For instance, last November, the team promoted its customized Illustrated Chinese Traditional Holiday Stories set on Dangdang and placed the 16-volume Plants vs. Zombies: My First Dinosaurs Comics on JD. The latter sold 6,000 sets, or more than CNY 200,000, on Singles Day, which is the equivalent of Black Friday in the U.S.

With the prodigious amount of children’s titles produced by the industry, competition for shelf space is a major issue for Li Xin, vice president and general editor of the children’s book division at Thinkingdom Children’s Books. “The shelves at brick-and-mortar stores and online bookstores are crowded, inundating parents and educators with such a huge selection that they are lost or confused,” Li says. Her solution to the problem is to increase her company’s visibility, and by default, its titles.

“We need to go direct to the target audience and be present at bookstores and online retailers,” Li says. “So our team does a lot of face-to-face promotional activities, which require us to create promotional campaigns tailored to a specific series or collection of titles. This strategy has been working well for us thus far.”

For Lucy Letherland’s Atlas of Adventures series, for instance, Li and her team created a thematic display and promotions at about 200 chain bookstores and organized interactive games for online sales channels. “We always have reading activities at bookstores, kindergartens, and schools so that we can get immediate feedback directly from our target audience. The photos taken at these events are later used in the second promotional round to create more excitement and buzz.”

At the same time, Li is well aware that sales representatives of brick-and-mortar outlets and online stores are the bridge linking publishers and readers. “We take the time to introduce our key titles not only to these sales reps but also to the media and influential reading promotion groups in the hopes that they will then recommend those titles to the appropriate target markets,” Li says.

Still, a lot of credit should go to online channels “in terms of boosting the sales of children’s books and helping to increase the segment’s share in the overall Chinese book market in recent years,” says Yu Lan, president of China Welfare Institute Publishing House. “But online channels are not without their issues. Heavy discounting, piracy, and counterfeiting, for instance, remain major roadblocks in the expansion, and credibility, of these channels.”

The intense industry competition to achieve higher sales volume has given Yu food for thought. “Perhaps a better way,” Yu says, “would be to adopt a much more comprehensive distribution strategy that does not focus solely on sales figures but prioritizes consumer preferences, offers reading services, presents the best titles and authors that a company has to offer, and deploys a multipronged marketing approach. This will eventually lead us to increased professionalism in the publishing industry.”

More and more, these book publishers are looking at social media as a way to engage with chat groups, fan clubs, and opinion leaders and to conduct consumer research, launch products, promote events, create book and author buzz, and change brand perception. Declining sales or not, they are definitely not going to abandon the platform, given that the country’s young people reportedly have more friends online than offline and spend at least two and a half hours per day online.

Developing Homegrown Talent and Original Titles

In China, translated series such as a Different Carmela, Geronimo Stilton, the Magic School Bus, Mission Survival, and Peppa Pig sell far better than original works. E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window, for example, are perennial favorites with Chinese children.

But things are changing. Originals by established authors such as Cao Wenxuan (the first Chinese person to win the Hans Christian Andersen Award), Shen Shixi (who is renowned for his animal-themed stories), and Yang Hongying (who has been described as the J.K. Rowling of China for her middle grade and picture books) are selling very well. Two of Cao’s titles, Straw House and Bronze and Sunflower, have gone back to the press hundreds of times, selling nine million and 4.5 million copies, respectively.

Big strides have been made in the publication of original works, says Sun, of CCPPG. “Collaboration between homegrown and overseas talent has increased significantly. CCPPG itself has published many of these efforts, including Cao Wenxuan and Roger Mello’s picture books A Feather and Lemon Butterfly, and Fang Suchen’s Grandma Lives in a Perfume Village with Sonja Danowski. More such works are coming, especially with the increased frequency of forums and discussions between Chinese and overseas picture book experts.” Sun’s company has also taken the lead in getting local institutions involved in the publishing process. Beijing Normal University’s Picture Book Creation and Research Center and the National Library’s children’s division, for example, jointly worked on classifying and determining the reading levels of the many original works in CCPPG’s Sunshine Library series, which has more than 100 picture books.

Yan, of Beijing Dandelion, is also working diligently to get the children’s book publishing community together to talk, discuss, and analyze picture books and translation quality. At the 2018 China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair, for instance, Yan and her team held seven forums, two of which were on children’s books. These forums featured speakers such as author Cao Wenxuan and his fellow Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Eiko Kadono; translators Ma Ainong (of the Harry Potter series) and Wu Gang (the Lord of the Rings); and illustrators Jiu Er and Ma Penghao. “Through these exchanges, we hope to elevate the quality of picture books and translations in China,” Yan says, “and also to encourage the public to read more and better and to appreciate the efforts that go into creating, publishing, and translating picture books.”

As for original children’s literature, Sun, of CCPPG, points out that the segment contributed a third of the overall children’s book market last year. “This has been the case in the past few years, and the booming segment—as well as our well-known Children’s Literature magazine—has been instrumental in attracting and developing much new talent,” Sun says. But, wary of product homogenization, Sun is now busy encouraging emerging authors to get more creative and daring in plotting their stories.

“Chinese writers, illustrators, editors, and designers have been quick to learn from their overseas counterparts, who have benefited from a far more mature children’s book publishing industry with richer portfolios and experiences,” says Zhang, of IBBY, citing Xiong Liang (shortlisted for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration) and Cai Gao and Yu Rong (winners of the Golden Apple award at the Biennial of Illustration Bratislava) as examples. “The various awards for writing and illustration, both local and international, have been advantageous in encouraging and producing a new crop of homegrown writers and illustrators.”

China’s national awards and recommended booklists have thrown the spotlight on outstanding works in writing and illustration, Zhang says. “Educators, parents, and philanthropic organizations are paying closer attention to these awards and lists. There is now a collective drive, and ambition, to elevate the quality of originals and ensure that Chinese children get the best titles, whether originals or translations.”

Original works in picture books, comics, and sci-fi as well as AR/VR titles have given the market new reading experiences, says Xu, of Anhui Children’s Publishing House. “These, in turn, provide publishers with new areas for future development and creativity.”

But the rush among publishers to create and publish original titles has Huang, of Everafter Books, looking on with concern. “Quality books need time to get written, illustrated, and edited,” Huang says. “It is an elaborate, involved, and often time-consuming process. And when you fast-track it, chances are that the resulting title is not going to be as good. So while the call, especially by the government, to create originals instead of focusing on translations is good for the overall industry, we need to ensure that the creation process takes as long as is needed to produce top-quality works. Taking the slower route will benefit the readers, content creators, and, ultimately, the publishers themselves in the long run.”

For the five-year-old company Kids Media, the time has come to parlay its experience gained from collaborating with big brands (such as Disney, DreamWorks, and Lego) into creating original products and IPs. “We have learned from them about quality content, production standards, marketing strategies, and everything associated with creating branded product and licensed characters,” says Hou Mingliang, president of Kids Media (as well as the founder of IlluSalon—China’s biggest international illustration platform with 4,000 illustrators hailing from more than 50 countries—and host of the Global Illustration Award). “Now we are set to produce original assets—some of which are based on brands that we work with—for China as well as overseas markets.”

Print “is always the bridge enabling content to cross over into other media,” Hou says, “and this is the way forward in developing our own IPs, original characters, and content for rights sales and merchandizing. Taking this approach future-proofs our content, making it flexible, adaptable, and convertible to fit the needs of upcoming generations of readers, who are definitely consuming not just printed products.”

Hou is also looking into adding realism to Kids Media’s publishing program. “Most of the novelty titles, picture books, and pop-ups for the younger age groups in the Chinese book market are imported, which means that children are growing up reading about the way things are done overseas, not in China,” Hou says. “Furthermore, the lifestyles and environments depicted in many of these titles do not reflect local realities. There is an obvious missing element that needs to be addressed.” Hou is looking into creating more China-specific titles on topics related to rural and urban scenes, civic-mindedness, life in kindergartens, or local festivals. “Not only is this important for our children,” Hou says, “but such topics will also help in informing the rest of the world about China and our lives.”

Adapting to Market Realities

A supply-side restructuring has seen the players in China’s crowded and intensely competitive children’s book publishing industry trying to rein in their production capacity and becoming more selective in terms of which titles and authors to publish, says Sun, of CCPPG. “Quality, not quantity, is now the mantra for many, including our company. Increasingly, the bestseller lists are showing a greater variety of titles and more single-volume publications, which is a positive sign for the children’s book industry,” Sun says. “Classic titles, originals and translations, continue to have a stranglehold on the bestseller lists, but other types of books are coming—slowly but surely.”

Nonfiction titles are trendy “because parents want books with tangible educational value for their children,” says Li, of Thinkingdom Children’s Books. “We can see this preference in the popularity of online courses on history, philosophy, and literature for schoolchildren. It certainly works well for us since we have a wide-ranging selection of nonfiction titles in our catalogue.”

Rising production costs are a major publishing challenge, says Bai, of Jieli Publishing House. “A decade ago, the same cost increments would see us holding on and just absorbing the loss. But now, given the significant increases, we have no choice but to raise the prices of our publications for the very first time.”

Huang, of Everafter Books, is more determined than ever to continue paying the same amount of attention to each book that she publishes, despite rising production costs. “The production quality of our titles is among the best in the market, especially since we ensure that our translated titles—from our joint venture with Bayard Group or rights collaboration with Chronicle Books—have the same standards of quality as their originals,” Huang says. “We may increase the list price a bit to compensate for the cost hikes, but the overall production quality remains the same.”

The diverse and increasingly sophisticated children’s book market “requires publishers to pay close attention to reader preferences, to cater to market trends, and to avoid homogeneity in the choice of their publications,” says Xu, of Anhui Children’s Publishing House. “There is also a pressing need for publishers to be directly involved in communities, schools, and bookstores so as to establish direct exchanges with readers to understand their requirements and guide authors in creating content to meet those requirements and preferences. At the same time, we need to focus on quality and value-added content and on developing original works.”

The next decade will continue to be golden years for the Chinese children’s book industry, says Yu, of China Welfare Institute Publishing House. “Increasingly, the industry is about providing knowledge and service,” Yu says. “And the reality is that the strong and big publishers will become stronger and bigger while the weaker ones will be worse off. Survival and longevity will require publishers to increase their professionalism and strive for better performance. Then, the whole children’s book publishing industry will benefit.”