The second edition of the International Children’s Content Rights Fair (ICCRF), focusing on children’s content from ASEAN publishers, ended its four-day run on December 2 in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is a 51-year-old bloc that collaborates on economic growth, social progress, and cultural development. The 10 member countries—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—have different official languages, economic growth, political structures, and sociocultural make-ups. English, as the working language, binds these countries together. Population-wise, this complex and varied bloc has about 651 million people, of which nearly 200 million are below 18 years old.

For Trasvin Jittidecharak, chair of the fair’s organizing committee (and known to many as the chair of the IPA Congress in Bangkok in 2015 and a member of IPA’s Freedom to Publish committee), the compact ICCRF is free of any ties to politics or policies. “This is not a government-driven top-down initiative. Instead, we have N.C.C. Management and Development Ltd., an investment company passionate about advocating for reading and promoting great content for children, spearheading this event. The goal is to bring ASEAN publishers to the table to uncover new content, promote different cultures, and exchange industry ideas while facilitating rights trading within the bloc and with overseas exhibitors.”

Making sure that exhibitors get a chance to meet and sit down to talk business is one of Jittidecharak’s biggest goals. “Many of the larger ASEAN publishers congregate in Bologna, Frankfurt, or Shanghai, but are often too busy to talk to, and connect with, their regional counterparts. ICCRF is a platform to address these missed opportunities.” So the business matching session, which many participants deemed the best feature of last year’s inaugural event, was back, bigger and better organized. The session ensured that everyone had a chance to interact, understand each other’s publishing programs, and find out if there was potential business to be made.

The choice of Chiang Mai as the host city, Jittidecharak explained, “is intentional, driven by the fact that it is 30% cheaper than Bangkok, and that its international airport is accessible from different points within ASEAN. We want to make the process of visiting ICCRF as easy and enjoyable as possible.”

Enjoyable (and diverse) aptly described the ASEAN Illustration Award exhibition, where competing works were showcased before large crowds. This year’s top prize of $5,000 went to Mohd Khairul Azman Ismail from Malaysia for his unpublished work A Big Good Wolf. Seven other awards—one each for best illustrator in fiction and nonfiction, and five more for emerging talents—bring the cumulative prize monies to $12,500.

But the ICCRF is also about boosting reading in Thailand itself. During the opening ceremony, Thai Health Promotion Foundation board member Dr. Jiraporn Witayasakpan highlighted the country’s crisis in developmental delays (of up to 38.2%) among children age 0-to-six that affected their cognitive, emotional, language, social, and speech skills. She stressed the importance of ICCRF as a conduit to spread knowledge and awareness of reading in health promotion in all dimensions, especially for the young.

For Belgian publisher Philippe Werck of Clavis, having Thai Health as one of the fair co-organizers was particularly illuminating. “Their advocacy of reading and knowledge acquisition as being essential to a child’s well-being and development is unique. Most book events that we usually attend are organized or supported by cultural ministries, in which the emphasis revolves around culture acquisition, and that pursuit sometimes comes across as only affordable to a faction of the community. Here, it is about reading and knowledge accessibility for everybody, and I really like this fresh idea expounded by the foundation and ICCRF.”

Werck was among the many exhibitors who expressed their enthusiasm and optimism for the fair. Their sentiments ranged from “thrilled by the opportunity to meet hitherto unknown regional players”; “excited to have a small but focused event that is conducive to fostering further understanding of different and emerging markets”; to “hoping that this fair will grow bigger and more ambitious.” On the flip side, some lamented the low turnout of participants representing the bigger ASEAN markets such as Indonesia and Philippines, where the children’s publishing segment is growing fast.

For Werck, who attended ICCRF with foreign rights representative Nele Mathé, having a dozen meetings scheduled prior to arriving in Chiang Mai was a great start. “We are here to learn about the different markets within ASEAN, their requirements, and retail prices, and make sure we set reasonable advances for titles that suit the specific market. We also want to know more of the region’s illustrators and content creators.” Werck, whose team had recently sold the eight-title Kevin’s Big Book series and Guido Van Genechten’s Little White Fish to Vietnam, has formed a joint venture in Indonesia for translation and merchandising. At the booth, the series that drew the most attention was Liesbet Slegers’s 20-title What They Do series.

Over at Find Out Team Publishing Agency, an Italian company that represents international publishers including La Coccinella, general manager Cinzia Seccamani was “excited about finding a new book event that will uncover more of the region. Asia is now our biggest market, with China leading the sales. But I have been working with Thai and Vietnamese publishers in the past few years, and looking to focus even more on Asia and ASEAN in the next five years.”

Seccamani said that ICCRF “allows me to obtain pertinent information on emerging markets such as Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines, and their requirements for picture books, chapter titles, and middle grade series. This compact fair also gets me in touch with publishers that do not attend Bologna or Frankfurt.” Seccamani, who has long collaborated with Bangkok-based publisher Plan for Kids, recently sold Gabriele Clima’s The Sun Between Your Fingers, a novel for ages 15 and up, to Vietnamese publishing house Kim Dong.

Another happy exhibitor was Singapore publisher Betty Tan of English Corner, who wrapped up her first ICCRF visit with several deals in hand. “Saying that this fair goes beyond my expectation was an understatement. I closed two deals with Indonesia and Myanmar that I just couldn’t do for a long time, and negotiated a few more deals with new partners from Cambodia and Vietnam. There is simply more time to sit down, chat, and learn about different markets within ASEAN at this fair, which feels much calmer and inviting for longer conversations.”

Tan’s STEAM educational magazine, Science Adventures, which seeks to develop children’s scientific reasoning at an early age and cultivate good reading habits, has been distributed to countries wanting original English editions. She is now looking into translating her series into various ASEAN languages. “Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, for instance, are looking for my type of products for their students, and the potential sales—translation or distribution—is huge given their emphasis on education and English-language learning. So more ASEAN publishers should come to this fair, get to know one another, and broaden their inter-regional business collaboration.”

Speaking of Plan for Kids, managing director Risuan Aramcharoen was glad that the dismal bookstore scene in Thailand (which has been riven by closures in recent years) has not affected the children’s book segment. “Thai parents believe that children must read a lot and from an early age, and their preference is to buy print books, not digital editions,” said Aramcharoen, who also sits on the ICCRF organizing committee. Armed with three series (Dino Gang, Kung King, and Took Tik Toobpong) that are immensely popular with Thai children, Aramcharoen has embarked on a character merchandising venture with a toy company. “But we are not just about publishing and sales. My staff and I are looking at helping parents and teachers to learn, understand, and exchange information about new ideas of child development, concepts of STEAM, and executive functioning in a child’s brain, for instance.”

Meanwhile, Plan for Kids has launched two series of books focused on the bloc—namely ASEAN Travel with Kung King and We Are ASEAN—to get children to learn about their neighboring countries. “This is very much in line with what ICCRF is about: a platform to launch ASEAN, which represents a blue ocean of opportunities, into the spotlight,” she said.

For Helmut Wolf, director of Indian publishing house Tara Books, ICCRF’s special art exhibition allowed the company to showcase its collection of folk/indigenous art illustrations and award-winning handmade books. “We have brought about 400 pieces of original art to this fair, and the reception has been amazing,” he said. “What we want to do is to kickstart the conversation to uncover new talents and form new collaborations. This is a diverse region with unique art forms, and we would like to know and discover more.”

ICCRF provided Malaysia-based PTS Media Group’s managing director Arief Hakim with “a chance to uncover old and new ‘gems’ and talents from the region. Basically, I’m here on a hunting trip for suitable edu-comics, which is a new segment for PTS, and I have found some potential titles from Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand that would work back home.” He saw more publishers at ICCRF this year, and found that “it is just nice to have a leisurely time to simply get to know our regional friends and industry counterparts. Interacting and exchanging ideas is what this—and any—book event is all about.”

As for boosting reading and making books available to the public, especially children, Big Bad Wolf Books—a Malaysian book fair established by remainder company BookXcess—was on the ground in a separate wing of the exhibition hall. “There is a growing demand for English-language books in this market, and we have seen it up close since this is our fifth event in Thailand in three years,” said company co-founder Jacqueline Ng, whose team had brought with them one million books in English, which were freighted in from Malaysia, where the remainder company is based, of which 70%, or about 12,000 titles, were children’s books. “We are here—for 11 days—to meet that demand, create the hype, boost the market, and help publishers with the distribution end of their business.” Ng and her team had also set aside a special product demo area to educate and guide parents on the usage of selected titles.

BBW’s Thai director Surachet Worawongwasu saw the importance of bringing English books into Thailand especially given the country’s low English proficiency among children. “There is limited access to English titles here, and that is not helping to boost the proficiency level. With the Thai script being totally different from the Roman alphabet, learning English is difficult for Thai children. And while there are many international schools in Thailand and most high-school children do speak English, the vast majority out there is not so fortunate.” (Thailand currently ranks 53 out of 80 countries globally, and 15 out of 20 Asian countries, in terms of English proficiency. Within ASEAN, it remains outranked by Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam.)

For Worawongwasu, Thailand’s low English proficiency but higher income level (compared to other ASEAN countries such as the Philippines) “opens up the opportunity for BBW and publishers to provide access to more English books to Thailand. We see the synergy between ICCRF, which focuses on the upstream content creation process, and BBW as the distribution channel for the finished products.”

The third edition of ICCRF will return in November 2019; the exact dates have not yet been announced.