At Thinkingdom Children’s Books, publishing a title—be it original or translated—“is like giving birth to a newborn,” says v-p and general editor Li Xin. “It is a labor of love that requires much patience, perseverance, and attention.” And Thinkingdom’s recent publication of Shinsuke Yoshitake’s It Might Be an Apple was one that tested the limits.
The rights negotiation for the title started immediately after its original publication in Japan in 2013. “But the publisher was not keen on rights selling at first,” Li says. “Later on, concerns about the production quality of translated copies, especially on the usage of specific Pantone colors and paper stock, further prolonged the discussion and made the exchanges between our Beijing and Tokyo offices, and with the original publisher, particularly detailed and arduous. But our shared goals and passion to bring the best books to children won the day.” (Despite assurances, two editors from Bronze Publishing flew in from Tokyo for press checks.)
The Chinese edition of It Might Be an Apple was launched last August at the Shanghai Book Fair, and to date, more than 70,000 copies have been sold. Thinkingdom has now published six Yoshitake titles, including The Boring Book, which was a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of 2019.
“Prior to the book launch, we brought together storytellers, book critics, child psychologists, and educators to talk about the book and discuss the best ways parents and teachers can use the titles,” Li says. “In the case of The Boring Book, the positive reviews and accolades made it an easier sell.” She adds that her team also created unique display shelves and mini-exhibitions of the books at bricks-and-mortar bookstores, including PageOne outlets. (The Thinkingdom Group acquired PageOne in October 2017.)
The prelaunch process, Li notes, “is the same for most of the titles that we published, and there is no shortcut.” Promotional activities such as combining educational sessions for parents, teachers, and children are the focus behind Thinkingdom’s marketing strategy. “Activities and promotions aside, good books always stand out and are easily discernible from others in the market,” she says. “Given the reach of social media in this market, positive book reviews travel far and fast, and so our events are less about selling and more about creating and nurturing the network that links us directly to our readers.”
Japanese author and book-design expert Katsumi Komagata, for instance, was invited by Thinkingdom to Beijing in November for a series of talks on his titles for the newborn to three-year-old age groups. “We have published two of his unique titles—Gyu Gyu Gyu and Gov Gov Govo Govo—and both are selling very well, mostly because titles in our children’s book market are mostly story-based and not for the very young,” Li says. “So we are essentially plugging a market gap while presenting outstanding works in this segment to inspire homegrown talents. There is also an urgent need for more information on how to use such books, making these talks and events valuable to parents and educators.” (See “A Unique Challenge in Translating Baby Books,” p. 20.)
Promoting art appreciation has seen Li and her team focusing on adding more titles to its Ancient Chinese Paintings in Stories series, which revolves around major Chinese masterpieces, techniques, and styles; four volumes have been published. “We are taking an inordinate amount of time to do this original series, which we hope will inspire the next generation of illustrators and creatives,” she says. “Making this series—a groundbreaking one at that—is something new to us, since we are known for publishing single titles ever since our company was established in 2002.”
Last year, the team did 75 new titles and 50 reprints, including Eleanor May’s Mouse Math series and Huang Jiajia’s fantasy series the Oracle Bone School. “Our catalogue showcases many Japanese authors, primarily because our publishing program was built on the successes of Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window—which has remained a staple on the top-10 chart since 2003—and Yoshio Nakae’s Little Mouse series,” Li says. “We are a known entity to Japanese publishers.”
Thinkingdom is also known for introducing names such as Aaron Becker (the Journey trilogy), Carson Ellis (Du Iz Tak?), Ruth Krauss (The Carrot Seed), and Shel Silverstein (The Giving Tree) to this market. “Our goal is to publish good content from all over the world, and good content is universal,” Li says. “And so is the desire to enrich one’s book market, instill healthy reading habits, and inspire budding content creators.”