On a beautiful sunny morning in Notting Hill, London, I sat down with Miao Hui, deputy editor-in-chief at Xiron, one of the largest private publishers in China.
Miao is in charge of both adult and children’s rights acquisitions. We reflected on our last face-to-face meeting in Beijing in January 2020, just before the word Covid became known to the world. So much has changed since then. After a three-year break, she’s making her first international business trip to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, followed by the London Book Fair. “I have just done a morning run around Hyde Park,” she said, looking refreshed. “I’m ready to talk business.”
The year 2022 was challenging for everyone in China. According to OpenBook, the print book market had an 11.8% year-on-year drop in 2022, the largest decline of the book retail market in China in nearly 10 years.
China’s reopening to recovery might still be quite complicated. The changes in the book industry have been dramatic. Online sales now account for 84% of all book sales and social media bookselling in the form of short videos has revolutionized publishing in China, up 42.86% year-on-year in 2022. Chinese publishers have embraced this change by building direct-to-consumer channels via social commerce platforms.
Beijing Book Fair
The Beijing Book Fair, the largest national sales and distribution platform for Chinese publishers, returned in February 2023, after a two-year break. Livestreaming rooms, set up by online influencers and publishers, were eye-catching additions to the more traditional stands. Online influencer Wang Fang and her team of 35 people broke another record of bookselling in a six-hour live stream from the fair, selling 1,780,000 books in two days.
The physical gathering in Beijing is a good indicator of the revival of the Chinese publishing market in 2023, but it seems the growth of social video bookselling is here to stay. “The pandemic has accelerated our digital integration in publishing, from investing in digital education databases to social media bookselling,” says Song Jishu, vice president of Phoenix Publishing and Media Inc, one of the largest publishing groups in China. “One of our imprints, Yilin Press, known for its classical literature works has also found a new audience on Douyin (Chinese counterpart to TikTok) for its diverse backlist titles, from Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, Ulysses to The Divine Comedy.”
Chinese publishers have increased content featuring short videos, replacing text and images for marketing and sales. The amount of content released by publishers on WeChat Video and Douyin has increased by 43.87% and 28.57% year-on-year in 2022, according to the New Media for Publishing Report, jointly published by Phoenix Publishing in partnership with NewRank.cn, a Chinese new media monitor company. The report surveyed 580 publishers on six major social media platforms, in an exercise that was the first of its kind in the sector.
The children’s book genre was the only sector in publishing in China to grow in 2022. Children’s titles sell increasingly through short-form video channels, with 54.7% of children’s books–the highest ratio of all categories–sold in this way.
Strong demand for STEM content
“Chinese-language sales for our Education imprint Franklin Watts and Wayland achieved significant growth in 2022,” according to Susannah Palfrey, international business development director at Hachette Children’s Group. “This is due in part to the continued strong demand for STEM content, but we also worked closely with our partners to create short video content for Chinese readers, sharing information about the educational value of the various series–and the talented international team of authors, illustrators, and editors who create them–to drive sales.” She was looking forward to reconnecting with Chinese publishers in person at Bologna and London this spring.
With China re-opening, and set to become the world’s fastest growing economy this year, Chinese publishers like Miao Hui are ready to start with a positive mindset. “Walking past Portobello Market reminded me of the Peter Rabbit Wedgwood special collection I bought here many years ago,” she said. “It’s now proudly hanging on my kitchen wall in Beijing to celebrate the Chinese Year of the Rabbit.”
It’s clearly time to “hop” into the Year of the Rabbit and reconnect with the Chinese market to explore new opportunities at this time of growth for the industry.
Alicia Liu is the founder and managing director of Singing Grass, a business consultancy advising on access and development strategies for the Chinese market. www.Singinggrass.com/insights.