In April 2018, Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press (FLTRP) will publish Winnie and Wilbur: The Naughty Knight, the 18th title in the Winnie the Witch series. Plans are also in the works for illustrator Korky Paul to do a three-week tour of China, giving several lectures, including one to 3,000 primary school teachers in Guangdong Province.

Launched in August 2012, the Winnie the Witch series has sold 1.3 million copies in two editions: bilingual paperback and Chinese hardcover. The latter offers a reading guide, excerpts from media reviews, an expert article, and interesting tidbits about Winnie (including her birthday, favorite things, and photos of Paul in her house). Also included is an MP3 audio file recorded by a popular host from the Beijing Broadcast Station.

So, what makes the series so appealing to Chinese children? Xu Haifeng, director of FLTRP’s children’s book division, offers several theories. “The image of Winnie is unique and vastly different from that of traditional witches, who are often depicted as ugly and evil. Winnie, in contrast, is a modern and fashionable witch who is prone to making funny mistakes,” Xu says, pointing out that the imaginative and humorous plots combined with Paul’s detailed illustrations invite readers to explore the topic further on their own. “Winnie Under the Sea, for instance, has Winnie appearing in the style of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, triggering an interest in learning more about the original painting and artist. This is great for encouraging extracurricular reading, which is one of the major goals of China’s latest education reform.”

Korky Paul in China

During his first China tour with FLTRP, in May 2017, Paul visited eight primary schools in Xuzhou (in Jiangsu Province) and Beijing, gave a lecture at the National Library, and participated in an academic panel with illustrators and educators. Nearly a dozen media outlets interviewed him about his work, and one of the interviews that was broadcast online was viewed more than 100,000 times.

The 10-day tour was nonstop. “It was a unique trip to engage with enthusiastic readers of my books. The warm welcome from all the children, schools, and staff was amazing, and the high level of English spoken at these schools was a big surprise,” Paul says, adding that he was “most impressed by the resources these schools have, and the money the education department is investing in education and teaching.” Taking the high-speed train from Beijing to Xuzhou and experiencing Chinese cuisine were other highlights for him.

The success of the series, now available in more than 30 languages and having sold more than seven million copies worldwide, continues to be a source of amazement to Paul. “Who would have imagined this when I first completed the artwork for a book about a witch and a black cat 30 years ago?” The FLTRP team, he adds, has done a great job promoting the Winnie and Wilbur series in China.

As for the application of social media marketing in promoting his series, Paul says, “Prior to coming here, I had no idea this particular channel was so popular. But I like all aspects related to it, especially the ability to go direct to the parents and educators via online communities.”

Reaching audiences outside of major cities and beyond brick-and-mortar bookstores is another big advantage, Paul says. “This is one of the best things about the digital revolution. Physical bookstores can hopefully stock your latest title and perhaps two or three from your backlist. But with online retailers, your entire collection of works can be stocked and listed and sold for a long period of time. As for group selling through social media, the time-limited offers and customized promotions are unique, and they obviously generate a lot of buzz for the titles and content creators.”

Social Media at Play

Promoting the series via social media was a new marketing tactic that FLTRP started deploying in August 2016, after the publication of the hardcover edition of the whole series. The WeChat-based Michael Qianer Pindao platform was one of the outlets that Xu and his FLTRP team selected. At the time, the platform had more than 600,000 fans—now it boasts more than a million. One of its unique features is its capability to broadcast children’s books in addition to offering interesting and instructive articles on children’s education.

Ensuing discussions with the platform’s representatives resulted in the decision to have a group sale just before Halloween. “We custom-made Winnie-style hats and cloaks to give as gifts to buyers of the whole series. Then, the week before the group sale, Michael Qianer cofounder Bai Yanfei broadcast several volumes of Winnie, targeting mostly mothers of preschoolers. More than 1.3 million people tuned in to those broadcasts.” Within seven minutes, 2,000 sets of Winnie were sold; a decision was made to have the next group sale before Christmas.

A month-long “Join Winnie the Witch for the Winter” event was organized by FLTRP in collaboration with children’s picture book galleries from four provinces. More than 200 galleries participated, and two experts, led by FLTRP, gave online lectures to about 200 WeChat groups, which hosted around 100,000 families. At the second group sale, 3,000 copies (at CNY 34.80) of Winnie and Wilbur Meet Santa were sold within two and a half hours, along with 5,000 sets of all 17 titles (at CNY 591.60). Over the years, Michael Qianer Pindao has moved 120,000 copies of the series for FLTRP.

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