Onward and upward: that has been the momentum of Chinese children’s publishing since 2002, the start of what industry insiders refer to as the golden era of children’s books in China. Whether this growth trajectory is due to the sheer number of people under 18 (about 370 million and counting) and newborns (14.65 million in 2019) or its rising middle class (around 400 million people) with higher disposable income to spend on education and reading, it is seemingly unstoppable.

The children’s book segment now accounts for 26.53% of China’s total book retail market, which is valued at CNY 102.27 billion ($14.71 billion). This is up from 25.19% in 2018, according to the Beijing-based OpenBook, a clearinghouse for publishing statistics. The segment expanded 18.5% last year, continuing a growth streak of 19.7%, 28.8%, 21.2%, and 13.7% for 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018, respectively.

“A more clearly defined target market that is also less affected by trends or societal issues is one reason for the segment’s continued expansion,” says Sun Zhu, president of China Children’s Press & Publication Group (CCPPG), the country’s largest children’s book publisher in terms of output, adding that “the segment’s profitability level has always been much higher than the overall market average, and this has propelled its growth at a faster clip compared to other book segments.”

Children’s literature, pop science/science encyclopedias, comic books, and picture books dominate the Chinese children’s book market, as do translated titles. “Channel-wise, children’s literature sells the most through bricks-and-mortar bookstores, while cartoon/comics and picture books do very well at online stores,” Sun adds, pointing out that “pop science, another fast-growing segment, is a focus area for many publishers.”

Current bestsellers are mostly older titles, Sun says, “which means that it is difficult for new publications to break through. Cross-disciplinary titles that combine literature with history and science, or picture books that offer both elements of science and art, are a future trend. Given the impact of, and media consciousness of, advancing technology, contents related to science and technology in children’s books are set to increase further.”

The demand for higher-quality education coming from parents and educators will also widen the range of reading materials for children, Sun says. “The types of children’s books will increase, which means that there will be less chance for a specific genre or category to dominate the market.”

Last year, 26,368 new children’s titles entered the Chinese book market, down from 30,940 in the previous year, according to OpenBook. This drop is partly due to the government’s intervention in trying to cool down the booming segment by prolonging the application process for Cataloging in Publication (CIP) numbers, which allows titles to be published in China.

The longer process has a positive impact on the industry, says Li Xin, vice president and general editor at Thinkingdom Children’s Books. “It forces every publisher to carefully weigh the potential of each new title or rights deal and see how it fits the current market. It effectively clamps down on the tendency to just grab any title that comes into our view. With fewer but more carefully chosen titles, we can then better organize our resources and plan more focused marketing campaigns for each one that is published.”

Exploring niche areas and emerging topics

The current Chinese children’s book market is a red ocean, says Yuan Hai, president of BPG Bright Technology & Culture. “The focus and competition in popular and bestselling topics are immense, and this is unsustainable. We need to differentiate our offerings in order to be competitive. With the creation of our new company—which blends Beijing Bright Culture Development Company’s entrepreneurial spirit with Beijing Publishing Group’s stable operational base—we are on a mission to create a strong brand, find unique and high-quality content, and create our own community of readers.”

Big strides made in historical and cultural conservation and restoration across China, Yuan adds, “present a potential publishing area. Books on this topic provide an understanding of, and pride in, our long history. Without the past, there is no future—as the saying goes—and children need to know their history and heritage first in order to build their coming years.” Such books, Yuan says, are tailor-made for museums and libraries, with immense potential for repackaging, special editions, and merchandising.

Retooling popular backlist titles to keep pace with market trends is another consideration, Yuan says. “A case in point: we have the Little Science Guys: Let’s Play Science Together series, published in 2014, which can be updated and reworked to include new experiments that require parental guidance or help. We will then have a new edition that will foster stronger child-parent bonding at the same time. Furthermore, repurposing and customizing content makes perfect sense in these times of fast-evolving market demands and sales channels.”

Body safety, emotional health, and anti-bullying are emerging topics in the Chinese children’s book market, says Wen Ting, vice president of PHEI (Children’s Book Division). “We have published several titles in these areas, including Cornelia Maude Spelman’s Your Body Belongs to You and Nancy Carlson’s Loudmouth George. Parents and educators are also looking for titles that offer science principles and applications in everyday life. They want their children to get excited about reading and learning science, and immediately applying what they have learned.”

For Ji Tong, president of Aurora Publishing House, the industry’s future is one of variety and enriched formats. “Intelligent and interactive reading experiences, which we were unable to provide through paper and ink or produce at reasonable costs in the past, is now available and viable. In 2018, we published two picture books—The Chinese Children and The Chinese New Year—with augmented reality technology to create interest and enhance the reading experience. Such a combination of new technology with captivating content is changing the children’s-publishing industry.”

Over at Thinkingdom Children’s Books, Li’s focus is on publishing original titles on current trends and issues surrounding Chinese children. “One such topic revolves around busy parents who are always on their mobile phones—for work or personal reasons—and not paying enough attention to their children,” she says. “This is a universal concern in these times of constant connectivity and digital distractions. We will launch one picture book that addresses these issues for ages three to six by Li Qiaoqiao this October.”

Developing originals and bringing in translations

With fierce competition coming from so many children’s book publishers in the marketplace—nearly 600 at the last count—profit margins are getting slimmer than ever. Add heavy discounting at bookstores and online retailers, and the situation gets tougher.

“Picture books such as our recently launched It Might Be an Apple by Shinsuke Yoshitake would have achieved much higher sales if they were published five years ago,” Li says. “But that does not mean that we are slowing down our publishing program, investment in rights-buying, or development of originals. We believe that there are many great titles out there that must be translated and introduced to our children, and outstanding talents that need to be nurtured with inspiring ideas.”

The latter has prompted Li and her team to organize a seminar titled “How to Create a Picture Book” in November. “We invited several speakers, including picture book author and award-winning illustrator Li Qiaoqiao and upcoming picture book author Sylvia Liang, and the event was attended by more than 50 people,” Li says, pointing out that “since it was definitely not the first such event organized by a publishing house, it goes to show that there are many people out there—authors and illustrators, budding or otherwise—that are interested in creating original works and wanting to know how to do it better.”

Sally Yan, founder and editor-in-chief at Beijing Dandelion Children’s Book House, for one, has held several talks on children’s books in the past four years. “China has an abundance of talented illustrators. But they are focused on doing great illustrations as an assignment,” she says. “They can draw given the content, but they don’t do the story or organize the plot. The same goes for animators. So, if the illustrators and animators do not get a good editor, the end result is not going to be nice.” The events her publishing house held, she notes, “are meant to cultivate an understanding among the creative community—authors, illustrators, animators, editors, and publishers—so that the industry can elevate itself and ensure that each player does his or her part well together. This way, we will have great original publications and a cohesive and mature industry.”

Over at CCPPG, “the focus is on developing original titles and nurturing new talents, and not fixated on sales figures—but, of course, having both would be nice,” says Sun, whose company is the Chinese home of Cipollino, Le Petit Nicolas, Pippi Longstocking, and Tintin. CCPPG published 753 new titles in 2019, over 85% of which are originals.

One peculiarity in the Chinese publishing world is that authors tend to publish their works with several houses at the same time. And this, says Ji, of Aurora Publishing House, is a good thing. “At our company, we do not restrict our authors—even those that we nurtured and who later become well-known—or insist that they publish all their titles with us. In fact, we encourage them to go out, spread their wings, try out new genres, and broaden their experiences working with other publishers. We treat this like the development of a child: venture out of the comfort zone, leave the nest, learn new things, and grow.” And an author’s continuous growth, she adds, “is crucial for the future of the industry. New ideas must be given the ground to germinate and not be confined to a specific space or entity.”

Reaching the target audience

According to the China Internet Network Information Center, there are currently 847 million mobile phone users in the country, and the average download speed of mobile broadband has increased by about six times compared to five years ago, while mobile internet fees have dropped by over 90% during the same period. The faster service at lower costs has boosted usage growth, with the average monthly mobile data usage per user reaching 7.2 GB, or 1.2 times the global average. There are also at least 673.5 million social media users in China right now. (See “Deploying Tech Tools During the Covid-19 Outbreak,” p. 12.)

With rising mobile usage and speedy mobile payment, more online platforms are available to offer publishers different and effective ways to move their books off the inventory. For savvy publishers, the best marketing and promotional strategy would be selecting the most appropriate online platforms from the lot and picking some of the 70,000-plus bricks-and-mortar bookstores across China to work with.

The marketing channels and platforms are diversified and decentralized, says Bai Bing, editor-in-chief of Jieli Publishing House. “And if used well, they complement each other. We must study the characteristics of each channel and platform, and customize our product planning and marketing strategies to leverage them for maximum returns.” Bai and his team are experimenting with various marketing tools on Douyin (or TikTok, as it is known outside of China) while tweaking their traditional online strategies. “We need to meet the habits and demands of the post-’90s consumers, which also means paying more attention to retail experience than ever before.”

Making use of new platforms to reach the target audience is a no-brainer. “Douyin is tailor-made for titles that benefit from show and tell,” says Wen, of PHEI (Children’s Books Division). “For our complex pop-up title Open Up: China, we are able to showcase the pop-ups of different architectural gems through the short video presentation. It is great for generating buzz and directing traffic to our WeChat platform.” Wen’s editorial team also created an exclusive Dangdang edition for sales through the online retailer.

Current sales at PHEI (Children’s Books Division) are mostly through online platforms. “For Jon Woodcock’s Coding series from DK, for instance, our translator is a Chinese-born Silicon Valley engineer who has an established WeChat account,” explains Wen, whose team went on to devise a multipronged prelaunch marketing campaign. “He is able to share American educational concepts and study resources as well as tips on learning English, math, and science with fans. We worked with him to provide a series of online video courses based on the books to give children a different learning approach.”

Success came fast: on the launch day in June, more than 6,000 sets of the four-title series were sold (raking in more than CNY 600,000) through the translator’s WeChat account, which also received 54,000-plus text messages from fans. At the end of the first month, online sales had exceeded 20,000 sets.

Sun, of CCPPG, and his team also had great success working with online platforms. They collaborated with Mom Dan’s Children Book Library and promoted The Nine-Colored Deer series through the platform’s official WeChat account last September; sales hit 80,000 copies within two weeks.

But Wen cautions that while some of the new platforms entering the fray are capable of penetrating hard-to-reach communities and fourth- and fifth-tier cities, they can be unstable and unsustainable over time. “So it makes sense to spread the message across multiple channels and focus on building an even stronger Little Mammoth brand for our children’s list.”

Different channels work for different purposes, says Yuan, of BPG Bright Technology & Culture. “While social media platforms can bring in big sales numbers, the profit margin is low, and the effective promotional period tends to be very short. On the other hand, the bricks-and-mortar channel has the physical aspects of showing a book while allowing face-to-face interaction with the target audience. Right now, the latest method to sell and promote titles is through news programs, especially for event-specific publications. So the most important thing is to tailor our marketing strategy to fit each product.”

Aurora Publishing House’s distribution department uses both online and offline methods for marketing and promotion. “Additionally, we organize numerous author visits to schools each year for direct author-reader interactions, and these have proven helpful in encouraging and improving children’s interest and passion in reading and writing,” Ji says. Last November, the Aurora team and author Xu Ling held several reading activities in three primary schools in Qujing City, Yunnan Province, to promote the newly published series Come On, Xiaobugu.

Eva Song, cofounder of the private library and education center Acre Junior Library, says this year will see her team investing more effort in both online and offline marketing and branding. “We are focused on developing partnerships and alliances with teacher-training centers, kindergarten operators, and KOLs [key opinion leaders] who are interested in helping their students or members achieve independent reading and good reading habits. We will utilize WeChat, Douyin, and parenting platforms to get the word out about our series.” Even though her sales and marketing team has barely started, word has already gotten out: about 1,000 sets of levels 1 and 2 were already sold, mostly through online retailers.

Over at Thinkingdom Children’s Books, the sales channels that work best are bricks-and-mortar outlets and online retailers, since its catalogue is predominantly single titles. “For us, the ability to introduce a title, invite the author or illustrator to give a talk, curate specific activities based on the book, and directly interact with the target readers and buyers is very important,” says Li, whose team holds at least 30 events every year.

Standing out in the crowded marketplace requires much more than great books and dedicated marketing and promotional activities at Beijing Dandelion Children’s Book House. “Previously, we set up an online sales department to strengthen our distribution and marketing efforts, especially since many of our titles are listed at the Dandang online bookstore,” Yan says. “Now we are revamping our branding strategy to make it stronger and more effective, and looking into creating spin-offs, limited editions, and promotional products such as pins and badges for selected titles. Last November, we had special fridge magnets made to celebrate the sale of the 10 millionth copy of a Richard Scarry title.”

Now that mega-malls are major attractions for children and parents, Yan and her team are also doing more special (and bigger) events at such venues. “We did five major events last year, including one on Richard Scarry,” she says. “We are also increasing our direct interactions with readers to promote original publications. While we are known as the Chinese home of The Magic School Bus, Maurice Sendak, and Mauri Kunnas, among many others, our original picture books are less publicized and branded properly. Such events offer the opportunity to build that essential relationship for feedback and future promotional activities.”

Gearing up for 5G

Currently, three of the country’s major telecommunications companies—China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom—are pushing forward with the task of setting up new 5G base stations across the country. By 2025, China is expected to have 600 million 5G users. (During the coronavirus outbreak, 5G-powered cameras and tools were already used to detect body temperature and deploy rapid medical interventions.)

One immediate impact of superfast 5G technology is on livestreaming, which often involves a celebrity or host demonstrating a product and answering questions from a digital audience. Livestreaming is becoming a very powerful tool in China’s e-commerce market, which is valued at CNY 440 billion ($63.4 billion), according to a report by Everbright Securities/Coresight. With 5G technologies that have faster connectivity and wider bandwidth, the livestreaming experience will offer improved visual effects and smoother host-audience interactions.

“5G will also bring about new tools that enable unmanned sales models and enhanced book-vending machines. And since consumption of such services will increase over time, the question now is how bricks-and-mortar stores are going to adapt to these changes,” says Bai, of Jieli Publishing House, pointing out that instantaneous 5G transmission will change the way the publishing industry disseminates information to target audiences. “These will expand the creative space for audio- and video-based content and media-rich multiformat publications, and present publishers with new opportunities.”

Immersive reading experience that requires fast and massive data transmission will be made possible through 5G networks, “and this will open up certain segments such as pop science, where virtual reality can be introduced,” Bai adds, cautioning that the book industry will be disrupted by 5G, which will bring about changes to lifestyles, consumer behaviors, and reading habits. “How will the children’s-publishing industry adapt to these shifts? For now, the macro perspectives need to be explored and thought through so that we can understand the impact on more specific issues, and plan our publishing programs accordingly.”

Sun, of CCPPG, adds that 5G networks will inject new energy into digital reading. “With faster transmission speed, lower latency, and broader bandwidth, the reading experience can be enhanced by better interactivity, more virtual reality applications, and highly personalized multiformat content. Changes in purchasing behaviors and consumption due to 5G technologies will lead to shifts in promotional and marketing activities and strategies. Publishers will also have to enhance their reading platforms to provide more intelligent and personalized services while new directions in marketing, promotional, and distribution strategies will focus on multidirectional, multichannel, and even cross-border collaborations to achieve traffic aggregation and monetization. It will be an exciting time for the publishing industry.”

Fulfilling social responsibility and promoting reading

Getting books to children in rural and remote areas of China remains a challenge. But with increased mobile networks enabling book sales via online channels, the situation is not as drastic as it was before.

“Rural areas now have the capabilities to purchase books online, which further reduces the disparity of access to books between rural and urban areas,” says Bai, of Jieli Publishing House. “Furthermore, many farming and rural communities have set up their own bookstores, and the government is funneling more books into these stores. Book consumption levels in rural areas are increasing.” Bai and his team continue to distribute titles to rural bookstores even though there is little profit to be made. “We want to support the reading habits of rural communities and ensure that they have quality content for themselves and their children.”

Jieli Publishing House has also organized numerous reading campaigns in rural areas and smaller cities. Youth Reading in Beautiful Guangxi was one such campaign, in which authors and book experts visited remote and poor areas in Guangxi Province to talk about reading and encourage reading habits. “We organize more than 300 talks per year, and local and overseas writers and illustrators often join us,” says Bai, whose company donated more than 5,000 books to rural schools last year.

Ji, of Aurora Publishing House, says that one of her company’s main CSR (corporate social responsibility) programs involves reaching out to border schools and those situated in the remote and mountainous areas of Yunnan Province. “We do not have to look far to donate books: schools along the borders with Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, for instance, are often underfunded in terms of books and teachers. We make it a point to visit during school breaks, bring new books, help children with their reading list, and spend time with them. We also organized activities such as reading competition to get children interested in reading and, hopefully, cultivate a lifelong reading habit. There is much to do for these schools and their children.”

Aurora Publishing House is also actively participating in a state-run nationwide reading campaign. “As the only publishing house involved in this provincial event, we are even more determined than ever to create great books and present them to the public,” adds Ji, who has invited many of her authors to participate in the campaign, meet with readers, and read aloud from their books.

Last June, PHEI (Children’s Books Division) joined the call to get books out to children in rural areas. “We curated over 1,200 titles for a book-donation drive that is focused on districts in Henan and Sichuan provinces that are under state-led poverty-alleviation programs,” Wen says. “Our goal is to continue reaching out to children in these areas and ensure that they have access to books that they need to change and improve their lives. Addressing the disparity between the rural and urban areas in terms of book distribution and access is the social responsibility of every publisher.”

The company’s launch of Agan Wins on the WeChat public platform on February 21 was about fulfilling this responsibility. “We also want to educate children about the coronavirus and cheering on medical professionals and people over in Wuhan, where the outbreak started,” Wen notes. The picture book is about an infected (and personified) bowl of hot noodles, Wuhan’s traditional dish, which remains upbeat despite being infected and is focused on its fight against the virus. “Aside from offering the e-book version free for readers, we also invited the hosts of Xueying Reading Club to record the audio version,” says Wen, whose editorial team took just 13 days to publish the title despite having to work and collaborate remotely from home; the hardcover version was published in March. At least 40,000 people have read the free e-book.

Last year, CCPPG carried out one major public-reading activity and donated nearly CNY 800,000 worth of books and newspapers to elementary schools in two counties in Shanxi Province. More than 30 reading-related lectures were also carried out at the schools.

In the meantime, more spaces for reading should be provided for children, and more time—and money—needs to be focused on reading activities, says Song, of Acre Junior Library, whose team is working to complete a brand-new Chinese-language graded reading series that helps children start reading independently and cultivate good reading habits.

Song is busy building a database of high-quality Chinese books in the hopes of achieving what Lexile frameworks for reading and listening do for English books. “We have tens of thousands of Chinese children’s books in our library, and we are always trying to match a child’s proficiency and interest with the right title. With the proliferation of 5G networks and artificial intelligence, we will be able to recommend a book much faster and more accurately.”

Such database will help parents and educators choose the right book for their children. “The problem of not knowing what to choose and read is not limited to just the big cities. It is a challenge everywhere in this nation given the number of titles in circulation in the marketplace,” Song adds, pointing out that “the Chinese children’s book industry en masse is moving from sheer quantity to higher quality. The development of high-quality original titles for the domestic market is only going to increase by leaps and bounds. And in the near future, we will have titles with standards and plots that are on par with those in the Western world while importing the best from overseas for our children.”

For now, with the worst of the coronavirus outbreak behind them, Chinese children’s book publishers are pondering the magnitude of the economic toll on their hitherto booming segment. But with many marketing and promotional activities quickly shifted online and onto social media while editorial processes and strategies were carried out remotely, much of the damage has been mitigated. In this battle, their resilience and tenacity are the bright spots. As to how the segment holds up at the end of the day, the reading community will have its say.

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