After a last-minute postponement in late August aimed at keeping the delta variant at bay, the five-day Beijing International Book Fair (BIBF) finally kicked off on September 14.

The hybrid fair, set to run through September 18, attracted 2,200 exhibitors from 105 countries/regions, including eight new countries. About 600 overseas publishing companies participated via the Smart BIBF digital platform, which offers a compendium of services such as Smart Assistant (where on-site assistants presented titles on behalf of the exhibitors), Smart Live (with virtual booths on computers), Smart Books (for a collective showcase of physical titles), and Smart Rights Link (to upload titles for rights negotiations and register for online business-matchmaking sessions). Approximately 300,000 titles are being presented at the fair.

There are several special exhibits combining 5G and VR technologies at the fair, including one commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party and another showcasing publications on the winter olympics and winter sports/games (ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics). Satellite events, mostly reading and cultural activities, are taking place at 20 bookstores across Beijing and are being live-streamed. There is also a immersive exhibition at the Beijing Shijingshan Amusement Park featuring scenes of the wandering universe based on stories by sci-fi writer Liu Cixin. (Liu’s trilogy The Three-Body Problem was the first Asian work to win the Hugo Award back in 2015 and is currently being adapted as a Netflix TV series.)

The Beijing International Publishing Forum was held two days prior to the start of BIBF with a focus on publishing to build a better future and a look at new technologies. Hosted by Zhang Jichen, the v-p of China Publishing Group and president of China National Publications Import & Export Group (CNPIEC), keynote speakers included Wu Shulin (vice chairman of the Publishers Association of China) and Liu Bogen, v-p of China Publishing Group (CPG). The importance of social media and e-commerce platforms as a sales and marketing channel for publishers was highlighted during one of the sessions when ByteDance (the owner of Tiktok, or Douyin as it is known in China) revealed that the number of short videos with “reading” tags on its platform increased by 138% in the first half of 2021.

Policy Changes Affecting the Chinese Book Market

Live-streaming short videos on e-commerce platforms has been an effective way to drive book sales. In fact, this technique generated 58.5% of the total sales of children’s books between January and June 2021, according to OpenBook, a clearinghouse for publishing statistics in China. Children’s books remain the brightest spot in the Chinese publishing industry with a 27.7% share of the overall book retail market despite falling 3.2% in the first half of 2021 compared to a year ago. Total industry sales grew 11.4% to 36.14 billion yuan (or $5.6 billion) in the first six months of 2021. The decline in children's sales was largely due to school reopenings and the ensuing drop in lockdown reading and parent-teaching activities. (Nearly 200 million Chinese students went back to school in September 2020.)

The first half of 2021 also saw translations such as Nele Mosst’s Little Raven the Rascal, Sven Nordqvist’s The Adventures of Pettson and Findus, Yoyo Books’s What’s That Sound, and Christian Jolibois’s Les P’tites Poules on the bestseller lists. But in recent weeks, school’s summer reading lists, which tend to favor classics, are driving sales of backlist sellers such as Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower and The Straw Hut, Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window, and E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.

Textbooks and study guides was the second biggest segment with 27.2% of the market during the January-June period. But the recent crackdown on private tutoring industry (valued at 120 billion yuan, or $18.62 billion), which is aimed at reducing workloads for children while giving them more leisure time (as well as reining in a booming industry with massive foreign investment), is set to affect this publishing segment. Since online/private tutoring lessons are focused on English language learning, this subject also forms the bulk of teaching materials and study guides in the market. For major online tutoring and edtech companies such as GoGoKid (a division of ByteDance), New Oriental, and VIPKid, the economic repercussions from this crackdown hit not just their bottom lines but also the incomes of the tens of thousands of tutors – mostly from the U.S. and Canada – that they employ to teach English to Chinese children.

New restrictions are also being imposed on online gaming for children—no play time on weekdays and a one-hour limit per day on weekend and public holiday—to curb growing public concerns of gaming addiction and its impact on health, social, and academic performances. The gaming industry, valued at 278.7 billion yuan, or approximately $44.65 billion, has 720 million gamers, of which nearly 110 million are under the age of 18, according to the China Gamers Report by Niko Partners.

In Beijing, primary and junior high schools are now prohibited from using foreign textbooks that have not been approved/selected by the city’s education bureau. In Shanghai, the cancellation of primary school English exams aimed at lightening children’s workloads, the crackdown on private tutoring, and the ban on foreign textbooks have sent parents – mostly worried about their children’s English proficiency and ability to communicate with the outside world – on panic-buying sprees for English textbooks and teaching materials.

All these policies are being tweaked as the Chinese government continues its education sector reforms, especially for those under-18, to reduce homework and standardized exams, increase reading for pleasure and general knowledge (as opposed to passing exams), add more sporting and artistic activities, and improve classroom teaching and after-class services. For publishers domestic and foreign, these reforms in recent years have ramped up the growth of segments such as picture books, middle-grade fiction (including bilingual Chinese-English editions), heavily illustrated STEM series, social-emotional learning books, and YA titles.