The 30th edition of the Beijing International Book Fair (BIBF) got off to a busy start this week, returning to its pre-pandemic five-day schedule and running June 19–23 at the China National Convention Center in the Beijing Olympic Park. The fair has dedicated its first three days to professional visitors and the rest for the general public, with Saudi Arabia tapped as this year’s guest of honor.

Last year’s move to the current venue and the shift from August to June dates “is our way of bidding goodbye to the end of the pandemic while signaling the start of a new chapter for the fair,” said Lin Liying, president of China National Publications Import & Export Co., which organizes BIBF. The pandemic, she added, “has brought many challenges to the publishing industry. But with challenges come opportunities. One thing is for certain: change is the status quo, and we need to see both sides and look forward to the possibilities. BIBF is forging ahead with hope and embracing the changes.”

The relocation and new schedule seem to have worked out well thus far. Fifteen countries or regions are exhibiting for the first time this year, including Azerbaijan, Czechia, Nigeria, Norway, Qatar, and Slovakia. There are also 11 additional international pavilions, and Italy, Japan, Malaysia, and the U.K. have expanded their booth space. In total, BIBF has counted around 1,600 exhibitors, of which 1,050 come from overseas and 150 are new to the show.

The fair, Lin said, “is looking into adding more theme-based events—alongside Cookbooks Show, Illustrators Exhibit, and Picture Book Fair, for instance—in order to connect content creators and publishers with the reading public. We hope to inspire new ideas for unique content while motivating the public to learn and read more,” she added, noting that such events as the Cookbooks Show can help facilitate cross-cultural communications and exchanges.

Several major conferences are being held at BIBF this year, namely the PubTech Conference, the World Children’s Book Forum, and the International Publishing Forum. The second edition of PubTech was held on the first day of the fair, and, unsurprisingly, was mostly about AI. The speakers, including those from Elsevier (Greater China), Peking University, and Shanghai Data Exchange, focused on leveraging AI for such activities as editing and proofreading, assisting in content development, and predicting reading or search preferences. The underlying message of the programming was positive, not fearful, insisting that AI is here to assist and not to replace humans and that, managed and trained properly, AI can be an efficient and reliable tool in content editing, generation, and planning for the publishing industry.

As for the state of the overall Chinese book market, it is still suffering from the long-tail effects of the pandemic and the prolonged lockdown. According to OpenBook, in 2019, book sales hit the peak of around ¥102.27 billion, approximately $14 billion. Last year, it only reached ¥91.2 billion ($12.5 billion).

Sales via online platforms continue to prevail in the country over those in bricks-and-mortar outlets, while short video e-commerce—on TikTok, Xiaohongshu, and WeChat, for instance—is quickly becoming the top channel for online book marketing and retail. Online platforms noew account for at least two-third of overall book sales in China, and as such, these platforms hold enormous power in exerting heavy discounting policies to promote sales.

For publishers, discounts of more than 60% are a losing proposition regardless of the potential sales volume such promotional activity may generate. Those concerns led to some publishers boycotting e-commerce platform’s 618 Shopping Festival, which ran June 1–18 (hence the name “618”) and offered discounts of up to 80%. It was the second largest shopping event in China after the Singles Day in November. Online influencers have also been the subject of severe backlash over their extreme discounting practices, ranging from selling titles below ¥10 ($1.38) to giving away books at just ¥1 (14 cents).

Despite the current doldrums, China remains a huge book market for all publishers. BIBF attendees are hopeful sales will soon start to heat up again.