At the Trends on the Chinese Children’s Book Market forum at the recent Bologna Book Fair, analysis of the booming market took center stage with plenty of numbers offered as evidence.

For example, in 2016, some 779 million copies of children’s books were published in China. Assuming that all copies were sold, then each of the country’s 372 million children below 18 years of age would have 2.12 books. “During the same period, the U.S.’s children’s book sales hit 195 million copies, with each child having 3.2 books, and over in the U.K., 66.334 million copies were sold, giving each child 5.37 books. This difference highlights the scale of the Chinese children’s book market as well as the immense growth opportunities to reach the level of the U.S. or U.K. book ownership,” said Li Xueqian, president of China Children’s Press Publication Group, the forum’s host, as well as the president of the Chinese section of the International Board on Books for Young People.

The children’s book segment continues to be the most dynamic and fastest growing in the country. Since 2002, Chinese children’s publishing has maintained an annual growth rate of more than 10%; in 2017, the segment had a 21.18% year-on-year growth. Its retail market expanded 28.84% and 14.55% in 2016 and 2017, respectively. As for its overall market share, this segment occupied 23.52% in 2016, and 24.7% in 2017.

But Li pointed out that unbalanced distribution of children’s books remains a major issue for the developing country. “Children in the metropolis and developed regions read—and have access to—so many titles that they face difficulties in selecting what to read. But in the medium-sized cities and small townships, especially in the rural areas of less-developed regions, there are few books available to children. This has resulted in very low per capita ownership of books compared to many countries in the West.”

In 2016, there were 259,400 children’s titles in the Chinese retail market, which are way too many, in Li’s estimation. “CCPPG conducted a nationwide reading survey in November 2016, and based on the data collected from over 100,000 respondents, ‘not knowing what books to read,’ at 34.63%, was the second-biggest factor affecting children’s reading selection. For teachers, ‘too many titles, differences in students’ reading abilities, and not knowing which to choose’ was the biggest concern, at 47.21%. As for parents, 35.14% reported that they ‘do not know which books to buy for their children.’ ”

The above figures (and complaints from students, teachers, and parents) have resulted in many Chinese publishers shrinking their publishing programs, therefore reducing the number of new publications hitting the market. Li, for one, is cutting his publishing program by 10%.

Category-wise, of the 259,400 titles published in 2016, children’s literature accounted for one-third, while picture books and comics took up 23%. This composition is set to change with the new education reform taking effect in 2020, in which homework and standardized examinations will be reduced in order to move to an employment-oriented educational system. There will be more reading and reading services for schools. In fact, since 2014, the Chinese government has reformed the examination enrollment system, which is no longer based solely on test scores and pays more attention to practical problem-solving ability. “Students’ reading ability has received unprecedented attention due to these reforms. This is creating a huge opportunity, and will have a long-lasting impact on the product and distribution of children’s book publishing in China,” Li pointed out.

The country’s second-child policy and the purchasing power of parents born during the 1985–1990 period—educated and young with high disposable income—will exert major influence in the development of the Chinese children’s book market, observed Jiang Yanping, managing director of OpenBook, a clearinghouse for publishing statistics in China. “The development of children’s education and teaching materials based on the new education reform is another factor set to drive the segment’s growth.”

There will be more push for original titles in the coming months, and years. “The success of Harry Potter basically encouraged many publishers to venture into the children’s book market, and to create Chinese fantasy literature,” Li observed. “It also marked the start of imports. But relying heavily on translated titles is not an ideal solution to meet the needs of 367 million children. We need to grow original publications, and since 2004, we have seen originals starting to increase, and this growth is going to continue unabated.”

In 2017, imports accounted for 41.03% of the Chinese children’s retail market, and 30.6% of total publications, said Jiang. “Imports, which took up 34.61% of the market in 2014, increased to 41.56% in 2016, but declined slightly in 2017.” Many of the imports came from the U.K., with the Harry Potter and Peppa Pig series leading the list. Then there were E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (from the U.S.), The Little Prince and Les P’tites Poules series (France), and Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window (Japan).

The Chinese government has also made reading programs a major national strategy, with special legislation enacted in December 2016 to stipulate the provision of public library and reading services for children. Some regions will also see specialized children’s libraries set up separately to encourage more reading.

Given those changes, Li suggested that his counterparts work on importing quality titles (instead of pushing quantity or publications similar to those already available in the market). “At the same time, overseas publishers should consider different types of collaboration besides rights trading, such as leveraging their expertise to co-publish graded readers or subject-specific reading materials suitable for Chinese primary and secondary schools with Chinese publishers. Or collaborate with their Chinese counterparts to adapt and publish original titles from China for the international market.”

Not surprisingly, the booming Chinese children’s book market has led to the creation of a children’s book fair—essentially, a dedicated exhibition hall of about 14,100-square-meters—that will be held concurrently with the 2018 Beijing International Book Fair, to be held from August 22 to 26 within the same exhibition venue. The focus will be on animation, comics, IP licensing, education, and digital publishing, to create a new type of cross-media professional fair. This move can be seen as a natural progression after the BIBF had successfully held a special children’s zone in the past three years. In 2017, nearly 200 children’s publishers exhibited at BIBF, with more than 1,000 deals inked during the five-day event.

Meanwhile, the China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair, which will be in its sixth edition this year, will have a new organizer in the form of BolognaFiere (through its joint venture with Shanghai Press and Publication Administration). This event, the biggest on children’s content in Asia Pacific, will run from November 9 to 11.