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Children's Books the Chinese Way


The fifth annual China Children’s Book Fair was recently held in dynamic, tidy, and architecturally stunning Shanghai. With several of the world’s tallest buildings, an amazing riverfront, and futuristic ambiance, it is truly a must-see city. Unlike Beijing, Shanghai is not especially difficult for Americans and other Westerners to navigate—from the cleanliness of the taxis and subway cars to the English found on street signs and shopfronts to the astounding number of not-terribly-expensive European and American restaurants, in addition to innumerable reasonably priced, very good Chinese restaurants. The average cab ride to most parts of the city is no more than twenty minutes and in the $6 to $8 range. The subway system is vast, easy to use, and less than 75 cents a trip, even if, during rush hour, the individual trains pack in more people than the average American county. Most agreeably, a commendable level of English is spoken in most markets, retail shops, and restaurants frequented by Western travelers. Hotel front desk staff and concierges generally speak English extremely well. Yes, smog is omnipresent and concerning but emissions seem to be trending downward due to control measures; at least, that’s what the government is telling people. If my memory serves me well, there did seem to be less smog this year than last.

To be sure, my wife, Victoria (Foreword’s founder and publisher), and I adore this book fair because the book-loving energy on the show floor is unbelievably high.

As you may be aware, there is an August book-trade event held in Beijing that includes a focus on adult books and educational titles. The Shanghai CCBF event is an effort to spotlight children’s books in the Asian marketplace, and the 2017 event saw an increase in both exhibitors and attendees in the form of publishing trade professionals from all over China and Asia. Improved distribution and digital marketing initiatives have increased book sales in areas outside of China’s typical business centers of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing—all of which serves to heighten demand for books published in Chinese and English. Some of the bigger state-owned and private publishers have taken to opening bookstores in China and certain bookstores are now offering a sharing program, similar to libraries, though with a registration fee.

A recent issue of Publishing Perspective reports that China currently has more than five hundred publishers, the majority, government owned. Interestingly, “Private publishers are required to purchase ISBNs for the titles from a publishing company that is government owned—which, in other words, creates a system in which all ISBNs are in one way or another registered through government channels.” Yes, you read that right, it’s a system that ensures the Chinese government is able to approve each book published in the country.

In any event, a sizable number of those publishers are acquiring the rights to English-language books, and that’s why Foreword continues to attend book events in China. Approximately 80 percent of the books sold in China come from content produced abroad, the country has 375 million kids under the age of eighteen, and English is widely taught in schools across the massive country. Furthermore, income levels amongst the middle class are stable and sales of children’s books are strong (up 10 percent over last year). Indeed, prospects for a healthy book market seem positive for years to come. China is the world’s second-largest market for children’s books, according to Nielsen Books.

As twenty-three-year veterans of international book fairs in England, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, USA, and China, Victoria and I like nothing more in this business than to see book joy—the look of irrepressible delight you see on the faces of those lucky people who simply love to be in the company of books, and China definitely produces more than her share. Western images, famous movie and children’s book characters, and even the simple matter of English words on book covers drew visitors inside the Foreword Indie Press Collective which, once again, was part of the Children’s Books USA stand. Over the course of three days, many hundreds of Chinese attendees slowly worked their way over the CBUSA shelves, pointing at individual letters on covers, sounding out English pronunciations with their lips, most of them unable to contain feelings of open-mouthed wonderment. For many, it’s not only English as a second language, it’s English as a special fascination. Just a few weeks off the massive, ultra-professional Frankfurt Book Fair, CCBF is a quick cure for book fatigue.

Sophisticated, artful children’s picture books and basic education titles were the primary lead-generators in our stand, and books with superb artwork also earned the most attention and touches from passersby. The fact is, great art is crucial to a book’s success in the foreign rights marketplace, regardless of the country. As it relates to content, common themes like morals, common courtesy, bullying, sharing, friendship, and learning disabilities ranked high on the demand list. Just about every inquiry asked whether individual books were part of a series and many wanted more info on the award seals featured on some of the front covers. If there’s a takeaway from this paragraph, children’s book publishers need to prioritize art and design as much as writing and content.

Titles we represented were a part of the Children’s Books USA (CBUSA) stand, a subsidiary of Foreword Magazine, Inc. CBUSA is a thirty-two-year-old concierge service for larger children’s book publishers at the world’s premier book fair for children, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair held every spring in Italy. This means we host a number of more established independent and larger children’s book publishers at our stand, taking care of the details like shipping, setup, and working with the organizers to make attending as easy as showing up and getting to work immediately.

As you might imagine, Children’s Books USA has incredible brand recognition in any language, and particularly at the China Children’s Book Fair where we were the largest presence (in terms of square footage) from the United States. As in past years, we contracted with an extremely talented local designer to create an eye-popping booth for agents and publishers to browse with two tables for meetings and a front-of-stand counter to handle inquiries. Our stand was so attractively designed, dozens of attendees posed for pictures in front and on all sides.

This year, the American Psychological Association’s Magination Press joined us in the CBUSA stand and, with several shelves of acclaimed books, certainly added to our booth’s foot traffic. As an example of the show energy, a Chinese publisher fell in love with the I Saw the Sun series we had displayed on our shelves and implored us to sign a contract on the spot.

Representatives from some of the largest and finest publishing houses in China paced the show floor along with thousands more trade visitors (publishers, editors, distributors, designers, movie companies looking for animation projects, booksellers, librarians, printers, you name it). To us at the CBUSA stand, it felt like every single CCBF attendee stopped by our booth. In addition, we had visits from European and Asian agents and publishers. European publishers were already represented at several combined stands, the UK had a strong presence in their pavilion, and a new Canadian pavilion of ten or so publishers participated for the first time. Casual conversations with other Western exhibitors and publishers confirmed that the Shanghai fair is busy, exciting, and profitable. Other media, both Chinese and foreign, report that the fair is enjoyed by exhibitors and attendees alike.

It is still abundantly clear that China is on an amazing road to growth, and when you think about the sheer number of people (hundreds of millions) anticipated to become English readers in the next decade, you can’t help but be enthusiastic about the publishing opportunities. From our experience, the driving force behind publishing in Asia continues to be English as a Second Language (primarily through children’s picture books), followed by education, business, leadership, and self-help titles. In addition, new doors are opening for fiction on portable devices, also contributing to ESL efforts.

For children’s picture books in particular, as well as young adult fiction and nonfiction titles, we strongly believe CCBF will increasingly assert its role as the Asian center for the exchange of sub rights to books. For independent presses in particular, it is an excellent venue to begin a rights program if you don’t have one in place, but you should also strongly consider participating in the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the world’s largest children’s book event each April in Italy. Next year, we will be exhibiting again in Shanghai (as well as Bologna) with premium space already reserved through CBUSA. Independent publishers with 8+ books are encouraged to contact CBUSA directly (info@childrensbooksusa.com) to reserve meeting space and a panel of shelves, in case you may be interested in attending this amazing show personally. Of course, we will always be able to help smaller publishers should they need assistance with a smaller number of titles through our Foreword Independent Press Collective within CBUSA.

Matt Sutherland

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