Visitors walking through the children’s pavilion in Hall 3 of the Taipei International Book Exhibition (TIBE), running from February 6 to 11, are not likely to believe that Taiwan has the third-lowest birthrate in the world (at 1.13). Parents with strollers, toddlers, and kindergartners are everywhere—undeterred by the unseasonable cold snaps or three major earthquakes (at magnitudes 6.1, 6.4, and 5.7) in the past four days.
The fact is, dual-career urban Taiwanese couples, mostly with one child, are spending a large portion of their discretionary income on educational materials and edutainment products. Throw in doting grandparents, aunts, and uncles (not to mention godparents), and Taiwanese tots are spoiled for choice when it comes to books and educational games or toys. It is no wonder then that its children’s book segment has been defying the odds (and irony) and continues to grow. The island’s largest online bookstore, Books.com.tw, for instance, saw sales of its children’s books growing an average of 10% in the past two years.
Translations remain big, and so are imports of original English editions. Put these two together, and TIBE, despite its much smaller scale (compared to the Beijing or Shanghai book fairs), continues to attract exhibitors from the region and beyond.
The U.K. pavilion, for example, is back after a 17-year absence, hosting 10 publishers who want to explore the market and check out its potentials. During conversations with several British publishers in Hall 1, where the International Zone is located, one particular observation came up repeatedly: that Taiwanese publishers share more similar interests with their Japanese counterparts—and to some extent, Korean ones—than with those from China, its closest neighbor in terms of distance, culture, and language.
History and popular culture have much to do with this. Japan, which occupied Taiwan for 50 years (from 1895 to 1945), left behind a lasting cultural influence: teenagers and adults read Japanese manga, watch Japanese movies, and are fans of all things Japanese. Hello Kitty, the Japanese cartoon cat, for instance, is licensed to more than 200 companies in Taiwan, a small island of 23.5 million people with numerous homegrown licensed characters. As for Korean influence, it is all about the magnitude of the so-called Korean Wave, specifically K-pop and K-dramas.
Rebecca Lake, rights manager for Asia at Pavilion Books, was among those who are intrigued by the similarities between Taiwan and Japan’s publishers when it comes to book selection and preferences. “I was not sure what to expect from Taiwan since this is my first TIBE. But after about 30 meetings, I know there is much more to be done for this market. This trip has been a great opportunity to see up-close the potentials, and to start the groundwork for future growth,” said Lake, pointing out that “while there has been plenty of interest in pop science titles here, it is not at the same level as in China.” Picture books and nonfiction remain popular, Lake said. William Bee’s Wonderful World series, Adam Hargreaves’s Molly Mischief series, and Matt Sewell’s Dinosaurs are among those that garnered a lot of attention at her booth.
Sales of the augmented reality-based Digital Magic series, translated and published in Taiwan by Suncolor, has been steadily growing, said Sharon Miller-Gold, senior foreign rights manager (Asia) at Carlton Publishing Group. “Taiwan publishers are very thorough in their decision-making, preferring to take their time in evaluating titles and market potentials. As a result, they are comparatively slower in pushing out titles than Chinese publishers. But they are catching up fast,” explained Miller-Gold, who has added a new agent, Kim Pai of PaiSha Agency, to help in identifying new publishing partners. “In this vast region, it is always good to have agents who are on the ground and able to bring market knowledge to the table.”
The Taiwan-Japan similarities have prompted international rights director Nirmal Sandhu of Scholastic, who is in charge of U.S. titles, to bring in the I Spy series. “This series is very popular in Japan but has yet to make an appearance in Taiwan. I’m hoping that what works there will work here, too,” he said, adding that STEM subjects and picture books are popular. “We are also introducing Klutz titles, especially those that are paired with brands like Lego, to Taiwan publishers. The challenge is that these titles are rather expensive to produce and the print run is likely to be small. We are also looking into finding the right partner for Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man series.”
For Tanya Harris-Brown, rights executive of Scholastic (U.K.), novelty board book series received plenty of positive feedback. So did new picture books such as Lorna Scobie’s Collecting Cats, Nicola Kinnear’s A Little Bit Brave, and Melissa Castrillon’s Mighty Min. “But middle-grade and YA titles remain challenging since Taiwanese schoolchildren are too busy preparing for exams to read for leisure. Overall, the focus is on titles that deliver educational and moral values.” However, the right pitching of a title makes a difference, she said, “and that requires a good understanding of different cultures and markets. At the end of the day, we and our partners—in any market—simply want a book to succeed.”
“Research, networking, and understanding”—that is the goal for Aby Mann of Aby Books in the U.K., who represents Milly Flynn and i-Read at this fair. “I’m seeing a great deal of interest in our activity books—My First Counting Activity Book, and My First Words Activity Book, for instance—and the Facts Sticker Book series. For board books, I’m surprised to see publishers open to titles with bold colors as well as those with softer illustrations; usually, they tend to go for one or the other. This opens up the range of titles that we can sell, which is great news. At the same time, there are demands for books that will help children to understand and deal with various emotions. Requests for co-editions also come as a surprise—but then again, this is an indicator of a mature market like Taiwan.”
The lack of import restrictions for used books is music to some agents’ ears. “This means an easier and more cost-effective business process for us,” said Sam Perry, the agent for World of Books, which is the largest seller of used English books in Europe. “But for this TIBE—marking our first foray into this market—the goal is to meet with importers and retailers, and get to know the market. I see the opportunity to provide affordable reading materials to young parents and English-language learning materials to their children.”
At the Belgium pavilion, director Melanie Roland of Alice Editions was thrilled to have illustrator Ian De Haes attending this year’s fair and signing books for fans. “I have sold several of his titles in Taiwan, including Imagine, The Little Old Lady on the Ground Floor, and Simon’s Anger. Four Taiwanese publishers are now interested in buying his sixth and latest title, The Butterfly.” Peaceful, nature-based illustrations seem to work well in this market, she said. “But there must be a message within the story—not just beautiful illustrations. Friendship, courage, and forgiveness, for instance, are topics that publishers are looking for.” The higher price of children’s books in this market, Roland added, “also means better royalties.”
Back for its fifth visit, Belgian publisher Clavis is keen on continuing the conversation with Taiwanese publishers and others from the region. “Books are important, but in this business, people and the relationships are much more important,” said publisher Philippe Werck. “This market is pickier, with publishers preferring single titles to series. They also strive to do a better job for their readers.” The original cover of Pimm Van Hest’s Everywhere and All Around, for instance, was replaced by another illustration for its Taiwan edition because it was deemed too dark for the local market. “Our Taiwan publishing partner is also creating a math game based on the character of Guido Van Genechten’s Little White Fish series. They are bringing another dimension to our titles,” Werck said, pointing out that Van Hest and Van Genechten titles sell the best in Taiwan.
Rights manager Giulia Scandone of Editions Auzou in France is back at TIBE for the seventh time. “This is a stable market that is very professional and mature, which means that publishers here do not simply buy a title. If they say ‘no’ to a title, I know they must have a reason for it, and I would not push,”. But this is also a market that is willing to take risks if they think it is worth it,” added Scandone, who is seeing big-format novelty titles incorporating touch-and-feel and scratch-and-smell, and board books with sound or light modules receiving plenty of attention. Fairy tales continue to sell, especially those in book-plus format, she said, adding that “our 2017 business was not as good as in 2016, but I expect it to pick up this year.”
Over at Montreal-based Caillou, this first TIBE outing is about visibility and a local touch. “Our English editions have been available here for a long time, and we are very much a brand to Taiwan parents and educators,” said Genevieve Lagace, who handles foreign rights and coeditions. Novelty books such as My First Piano Book and My First Words, for instance, got plenty of positive feedback, as did the basic Potty Training series. There were also requests for its Clubhouse series and boxed sets, in which publishers see more added values for the market. “We are also here to introduce our new Crackboom range of products, which expands our offerings to kids up to nine years old.”
Back in the U.K. pavilion, sales manager David Meggs’s mood was not dampened by the cold and drizzly weather, or the frequent tremblors rocking the city, but by the temporary loss of his voice during the second day of the fair. Nevertheless, his confidence in finding a new market in Taiwan is loud and clear. “We haven’t sold anything to Taiwan in the past decade despite the fact that we sell to about 100 countries and in 70 different languages,” said the Award Publications sales manager, who had received helpful advice from fellow exhibitors on the dos and don’ts of doing business in Taiwan. “So I am here to learn and to establish contacts with distributors for direct imports and agents for rights. There is no shortcut: adopting a long-term view when it comes to doing business in any new market is crucial and the key to success.”