Once again, the upcoming Beijing International Book Fair (BIBF), scheduled to take place this year from August 25 to 29, will be a hybrid event.

During the 28th edition’s five-day run, the physical show will be limited to local companies. For international publishers wanting to be a part of the fair, BIBF has launched Smart Assistant, a new service that provides on-site assistants to help international publishers present their titles physically at the fair and then forward those contacts and/or queries to the respective publishers for follow-up. Alternatively, publishers can display their titles through Smart Books, a dedicated collective space designed to showcase the latest international adult and children’s titles; the registration deadline for this collective space is June 30.

The year-long Smart BIBF programming, which was launched at the previous fair, will be back for publishers to upload titles for rights negotiations, register for business match-making round-tables, and view live-streamed events and seminars. Last year, Smart BIBF attracted 1,400 publishers in total, including more than 580 Chinese publishers and companies, to conduct their business online. About 38,000 titles were presented for rights negotiations on the platform, which had more than one billion views since August 26, 2020, according to BIBF

The Book Market is Coming Back

The Chinese book market has shown signs of improvement in the first quarter of 2021. Data from OpenBook, a clearinghouse for publishing statistics in China, indicates that the book retail market expanded 18.6% compared to the same period in 2020. Online book sales and bricks-and-mortar channel sales have jumped 10.7% and 55.4%, respectively, during this period. (But the fact remains that China’s total book sales in 2020 fell 5.1%, to 97.08 billion yuan or $15.25 billion, due to the pandemic; in contrast, 2019 saw a jump of 14.4%). 2020 was the first time the market had a drop after two decades of growth and double-digit expansion since 2015.

Only two categories -- children’s books and educational titles for elementary and middle schools -- had sales gains in 2020. In general, classics and past bestselling titles were favored, while sales of new titles floundered due to the lack of in-store promotions, according to the OpenBook report.

With pandemic-era restrictions still in place due to the emergence of new clusters in different parts of China, publishers are now focused on using new technologies and marketing tactics to attract readers. At the China Bookstore Conference held on March 30, for instance, the theme was about offering innovative reading services and building a reading community and consumer base online instead of relying solely on in-store promotional activities and book sales. Between automated/cash-less bookstores and online (and peer) recommendations via messaging and social media platforms such as WeChat, readers in China are used to mobile payment and online book purchase. TikTok, or Douyin as it is known in China, has emerged as the preferred tool for presenting new titles, especially children’s books.

Despite the pandemic, the number of bricks-and-mortar bookstores increased last year. A total of 4,061 new bookstores were opened in 2020 even as 1,573 bookstores had shuttered during the same period, according to Books and Periodicals Distribution Association of China. Most of these new bookstores -- now functioning as cultural centers and recreational spaces -- offer amenities ranging from cafes and supermarkets to photo galleries and art exhibitions. Some have even started working with local libraries to offer more titles and even borrowing services.

The current market for bookstores is not limited to just local players. Japan’s largest bookstore chain, Tsutaya, for instance, has already opened three outlets (in Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Xi’an) with a fourth in the pipeline. This physical bookstore renaissance has much to do with the slowing growth of book sales at major retailers such as Amazon, Dangdang, and JD. Gone are those hyper-growth years – roughly from 2000 to 2017 – when annual sales growth of up to 50% was the norm. And so these retailers are now parlaying (and monetizing) their logistical and marketing expertise to help bricks-and-mortar bookstores to put out live-streaming videos on selected titles, enhance their online presence, and boost traffic during this pandemic era.