This year's International Book Fair is to feature a new, dedicated children’s publishing strand, to help cater to a "booming" market for kids’ books in China.
The fair will have a 14,100 sq m area devoted to children’s titles and licensing. First-time exhibitors include Walker Books, Book H and Imagine That!, while Insight Editions and DK are among those sponsoring the BIBF children’s picture-book exhibition.
According to the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association (LIMA), China is now the fifth-largest licensed market in the world—and it is still growing rapidly, particularly for children’s content. Publishers have said that the relaxing of China’s one-child policy, coupled with the cultural emphasis on reading and education, gives the market sizeable potential for growth. "We can never underestimate the sheer size of the Chinese population as well as their enthusiasm for children’s education", says Paula Ziedna, foreign-language operations director at Usborne. "Chinese publishers’ buying power has grown significantly in recent years, together with their appetite for [a broader] variety of titles. China is one of the rare markets where there is no limit as to the topics that can sell, as the market is so large."
Ziedna is also optimistic about the country’s numerous and varied sales channels—including online sales platforms Weidian, Tmall and DaVDian, which can shift large volumes—and at speed. Further, she points out that the Chinese government recently announced plans to grow the number of physical bookshops in Beijing, to 1,700.
The size of the Chinese children’s book market means there is growing appetite for an ever-increasing variety of books. Kate Wilson, m.d. of Nosy Crow, says that while historically Chinese publishers have focused on picture books, her company is now finding a wider range of our titles are selling well to China. "It’s exciting to see the breadth of books that Chinese publishers are keen to look at now," says Wilson.
Pinelopi Pourpoutidou, foreign and digital sales director at Michael O’Mara, agrees that the children’s book market in China is growing, but she says the country is focusing investment in domestic authors, with their output having improved "considerably" in variety and quality in recent years. "We are competing with more sophisticated books by Chinese authors, and both the government and the country’s reading public are showing stronger support for them," says Pourpoutidou. "This makes for a pretty crowded market, and much more selective buyers, though we are still very successful with illustrated non-fiction series, especially in popular science."
Head to head
The implementation of Beijing’s children’s strand means it is now in competition with Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair (SIBCF), which takes place annually, in November. Beijing’s entrée into the kids’ market will be of interest to UK publishers. The number in attendance at SIBCF in 2017 fell sharply: just 11 attended, down from 23 the previous year. At the time, The Bookseller reported that there were fears from many children’s publishers that the Chinese government was actively restricting copyright imports in favour of home-grown works.
Nine months on, that censure does not seem to have panned out. And the downturn in the British contingent at SIBCF may have just been down to timing. Many smaller publishers only attend one of the two Chinese fairs annually, and alternate between the two—so it may have just been an "off" year for Shanghai. Small and mid-sized children’s publishers The Bookseller spoke to said they would continue to visit both fairs biannually, but larger concerns said there was space for both fairs in their yearly schedules.
A fairgoer snaps a picture at BIBF's picture book exhibition last year
For Usborne, which launched its Usborne China imprint with Beijing-based Jieli Publishing House last year, going out to China twice a year is not "excessive or troublesome at all", says Ziedna. "In fact, we try to go as often as we can to learn about the market and get to know our customers better. And even without our own imprint there, we think attending two Chinese fairs a year is well worth considering, as China is a fast-changing country where many new things can emerge in just a couple of months."
Michael O’Mara usually opts to attend Beijing or Shanghai, but not both. "As our list includes both children’s and adult titles, Beijing is generally a better fit for us. We have met many children’s publishers there in the past, despite it not having a dedicated children’s book strand," says Pourpoutidou.
Similarly, Nosy Crow’s Wilson says: "Having tried both fairs, I think that we’d plan to alternate attendance, so we’d probably go to Shanghai, not Beijing, next year. However, if we see a surge in business after Beijing, we might have to reassess and attend both fairs."