You can taste the air in Shanghai, as soon as you touch down in the airport—a little gritty, a little sour. But you’re kind of expecting it, by then, because you can’t see the city through the smog as you are landing.
The trip into the western part of the city from Pudong Airport leaves you in no doubt that this is a city that is thriving economically as you whip past endless high-rise buildings. The taxi driver had a brisk manner and an iPhone, but no English. I had to pass the address of my hotel, written in Chinese, to him, with one of my four words of badly pronounced Mandarin.
China Shanghai International Children's Book Fair
I’d come to Shanghai for the first China Shanghai International Children's Book Fair: two days of business-to-business meetings with a couple of public days tacked on at the end. I’d been invited to speak at the digital conference they were holding as part of the fair.
Gloria Bailey from the Publishers Association was, as ever, the unflappable and impeccable organiser of everything, taking in hand even our last-minute stand design: we were too late to be added to the UK pavilion where publishers as varied as HarperCollins and Sweet Cherry Publishing had sections. But it all worked out well, as it turned out that the Nosy Crow stand was opposite our Chinese-language agent’s stand . . . and I really needed their support: very few of the people I met, particularly the people who were older than, say, 30, spoke enough English to sustain a book fair conversation, so they were invaluable as translators.
The Chinese children’s book industry is thriving, bucking the trend for the rest of the Chinese book business: there was no growth in adult book sales, according to Mrs Zhou from Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House.
Volumes are high, and prices are low: Mrs Zhou estimated that the average retail price for a children’s book was between two and three pounds, but spoke of bestseller sales figures in millions of copies. Children’s picture books and non-fiction were particularly strong areas for growth, and areas in which, I felt, there was particular opportunity for UK publishers to sell rights.
It looked to me as if a lot of the most successful children’s fiction was home-grown, and I there was particular lack of interest in older, edgier fiction. This, like much else that I encountered, may be because of elements of continued state involvement in various aspects of book publishing and bookselling. It was interesting to see the split between older companies, with their origins, at least, in state ownership, and the newer, private companies. You could tell what kind of organisation you were dealing with just from their names: East China Normal University Press on the one hand, and Dandelion Children’s Book House on the othe.
The state/private origin divide was also reflected in the style of the stands. The private houses were more flamboyant, and stuck less to the standard fair booth template: they’d spent more money. Of the newer houses, Dandelion, Dolphin. Anhui and Jeili felt like ones to watch.
I spent the first day and a half in standard, Frankfurt Book Fair-style 30-minute appointments, set up for me by our Chinese language agent. We’d sold Chinese language rights in various picture books already, and our list is small, but there was real interest in many of our picture books (particularly picture books in series) and in younger fiction (again, particularly books in series).
Ironically, there was less interest in those books that we invariably print in China: novelty books like board books with moving parts and pop up books. That’s not to say that children and publishers weren’t gripped by them. A five-year-old, Wang Chuangqi, whose English name was Tina, went through every page of every novelty book we had on the stand, and a little boy gazed on as publishers took photographs of one of our Playbook pop-up titles. But my experience was that Chinese publishers wanted to buy files and pay an advance and royalties, so the co-edition model that is so essential to novelty book publishing didn’t seem workable, at least for now. The prices just don’t work. It seems unlikely to me that our novelty books will sell to the country in which we print them.
The digital conference was interesting. I was one of five speakers, and the audience was a couple of hundred strong. The other four speakers were Chinese men, and it was noticeable that my presentation style was very different from theirs. Asked to speak about trends in children’s digital reading, I spoke about, and demonstrated what I thought were interesting innovations from other publishers and developers including Source Books, Tinybop, MeBooks and No Crusts as well as our own apps.
I emphasised the importance of creativity and experimentation and working collaboratively. I spoke about the advantages of being small and nimble.
By contrast, the other speakers focused exclusively on their own businesses, and spoke of hugely ambitious projects—personalised educational platforms, Manga-inspired transmedia projects with books, trading cards, digital games, TV and movies—with the emphasis on strategy and a vision of the future. It was strange, too, not to have the parallel experience – and instant feedback! – of Twitter.
Our Chinese-language agents said that they were pleasantly surprised by the turn-out at the fair, both Chinese publishers and international publishers. I think we’d go again.
Kate Wilson is m.d. of Nosy Crow