The frenetic pace of the first two days of the Beijing International Book Fair (BIBF), which ends on August 26, gave way to a more relaxed atmosphere as the weekend approaches. Overseas exhibitors were busy exchanging market observations and debating the impact of some industry changes while they began packing up to go home.
For Kate Wilson, managing director at U.K. book and app publisher Nosy Crow, there are three significant shifts in the Chinese book market in recent years. “Chinese publishers are now more willing to do complex novelty books and the market is willing to pay more for quality content. These are mostly due to the baby boom that came after the end of the one-child policy in 2015, and rising disposable income,” says Wilson. “Thirdly, there is the creative and highly successful usage of social media platform in promoting and selling huge volumes of titles—a feat not seen elsewhere in the world. These shifts point to a vibrant market with high growth potential.”
Wilson was impressed by many Chinese editors and publishers’ fluent English. “Five years ago, I would need a translator to help me. Today, their fluency makes the whole working process more efficient and effective.” Chinese publishers are also more accepting of a wider range of formats and content types whereas previously, their interest were solely on picture books and nonfiction, in series, says Wilson. “But they continue to want books with explicit message and learning outcomes, which is not found in most U.K. titles, where storylines are more subtle and moral lessons are not necessary the goal.”
Over at Thames Hudson, sales volumes of illustrated books are going up, as are the retail prices, says head of foreign rights John Saunders-Griffiths. “The expanding middle class and higher disposable income have created a bigger pool of consumers, thereby attracting more Chinese publishers to enter the segment. The quality of their content is improving, and they are very good at generating interest and creating sales through social media platform. This has effectively created a vibrant and competitive segment.”
But rising paper price is worrying, added Saunders-Griffiths. “Chinese online retailers, who often practice heavy discounting, will need to adjust the retail prices if they want to maintain their profit margin. At the same time, we are keeping an eye on the impact of the Brexit referendum and the falling British pound, which will see cheaper imports into China, where the Chinese edition is usually priced much lower. We need to maintain price parity.”
Bestseller status, the number of foreign editions, and overseas sales volumes are no longer the criteria when it comes to rights buying, said Jackie Huang, Beijing-based chief representative of Andrew Nurnberg Associates. “Nowadays, the selection often reflects the editor’s personal taste and interest. The new generation of editors is also fluent in English, with many having studied overseas, and is more confident and familiar with Western cultures and communication styles. In fact, they are more willing to accept proposals based on manuscripts—instead of waiting to see the finished product—which means a shorter gap between the publication of the original and Chinese editions.”
Current hot topics in China, said Huang, “are popular science, psychology, adult nonfiction, and history. Middle-grade fiction from authors such as Bear Grylls, Philip Pullman, and Philip Reeve are getting big sales, mostly due to the new focus on reading in classrooms.”
Bilingual English-Chinese titles are also in demand, according to Huang. “But overseas publishers do not like to license bilingual rights for fear of cannibalizing their original editions. But the success of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid bilingual series has proven this fear to be baseless. The English edition will continue to be read by native speakers whereas bilingual editions are read not just by children, but also by parents and adults wanting to learn and improve their English.”
Educational audiobooks are getting more popular, especially for learning English. Says Huang: “Many online platforms have emerged in recent months to offer audiobooks of fiction and nonfiction in American and British English, with tiered subscription covering different access and proficiency levels. So if children are allowed to have mobile phones, or given limited and supervised access to audiobooks, this segment will grow even faster and bigger.”
Next year’s BIBF is tentatively scheduled for August 21 to 25.