Report from Shanghai: Kids’ Books Go Global

Visiting Shanghai bookstores big and small, touring publishing houses, volunteering for two days at a vibrant book fair and, yes, a fourteen hour flight (each way). The China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair and accompanying VIP program was a whirlwind for our four NYU SPS M.S. in Publishing: Digital and Print Media students selected to participate in this amazing global opportunity. This was the first year that the NYU Center for Publishing sent students to the children’s book fair in Shanghai, giving them the unique opportunity to observe the publishing industry on a global scale. (Graduate students in the Center for Publishing also volunteer at the Frankfurt, London, and Sharjah book fairs.) Understanding the children’s market in China, networking with 11 leading international publishers, and helping out at conferences and events at the fair, the four students in China had the experience of a lifetime.

When Lainey Mays, Kirsiah McNamara, Chris Plattsmier, and Caroline Randmer stepped off the plane, they knew instantly that they were in for an unforgettable week. The China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair, only in its third year, attracts publishers from around the world. Currently, there are 370 million children below the age of 18 in China; with the new ruling that families may have a second child, Chinese and international publishers are more eager than ever to work together.

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M.S. in Publishing: Digital & Print Media students outside the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai.

Before beginning their official duties, the students had the opportunity to do a little sight-seeing. The Center for Publishing believes it’s important for students to have a sense of a country and its culture, so everyone ventured outside the big city of Shanghai (25 million people!) to Suzhou, considered the “Venice of the East.” The next day, back in Shanghai, the students visited the Shanghai Museum in the People’s Square and the Jade Buddha Temple.

That evening, the publishing excitement began. The book fair invited 11 Visiting International Publishers (VIPs) from around the world to attend the fair, speak at conferences, and gain a deeper understanding of Chinese children’s publishing through visits to bookstores and publishing houses. From the US came Erin Clarke, Executive Editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers at Penguin Random House. The other countries represented were Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the Czech Republic, France, Finland, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. Over a family style dinner, the students got to know the VIPs and hear more about publishing in their countries.

The VIP Tour

Erin Clarke, Executive Editor at Knopf Books for Young Readers, at Poplar Kid’s Republic Bookstore

Everyone headed off the next morning to tour several popular Chinese bookstores in Shanghai. (Two are profiled here.) The first stop was Poplar Kid’s Republic Bookstore, a small children’s book shop with a variety of titles and an adorable reading area upstairs that looks like you’re entering a magical world.  Yang Di, Wholesale and Bookstore Manager, told the audience that one of the most popular original series in China is the “Little Bear” books, which sell 30,000 copies a month; 30 to 40 copies are sold in this branch of Poplar alone. Yang Di also talked about marketing, which she said is done through promotions on the company website and through a special membership club with in-store readings and events.

In contrast to the cozy Poplar, the downtown branch of Shanghai Book City, part of a major chain, was a huge modern store packed with displays.  Because children’s books are so popular in China, the store puts them on the top (sixth) floor as bait: customers must walk through the entire store, looking at (and buying) other books and merchandise before they can reach their desired location.

Repeatedly on the bookstore visits, the students and VIPs heard about the emphasis on education in the Chinese bookselling market. Yang Di from Popular Kids Republic Bookstore explained that Chinese parents are very sensitive to the price that they are willing to pay for a picture book. (The average price of a book is 35 to 40 yuan, or about $6 USD, for hard covers and 15 to 18 yuan, or about $2.50 USD, for paperbacks.) She told the group that for a Chinese parent to buy a book, it must have rich content that goes beyond pretty pictures so that the child learns from it. At Shanghai Book City, this message was repeated: picture books and children’s literature in general are most successful if they are teaching Chinese culture or life lessons. We learned that parents are also interested in books that help teach kids English as a second language.

Student Kirsiah McNamara and Andrea Chambers, Director of the NYU SPS Center for Publishing, with Mr. Kan Ninghui, Founder of the China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair

A special treat that day we was lunch hosted by Mr. Kan Ninghui, Founder of the China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair. He explained that he helped create the fair because he saw a rise in interest in children’s literature in China as well as globally. “Children’s books are a very hot topic in the world right now, and there are very few child-exclusive fairs; there is only Bologna,” he explained. Because the book fair is so new, Mr. Kan believes that there is huge potential for the fair to grow:  “Kids books are the most developed books in China, both in format and content,” he observed, adding that he envisions more audio-visual products dealing with behavior and development, 3D Books, and toy/interactive books on display at the fair in the future.

The last stop that day was Shanghai 99, a publishing house that focuses mainly on translated and foreign books. The company began publishing children’s books in 2011, and their list includes bestsellers like Clifford the Big Red Dog. Yuhai Huang, General Manager, noted that classics are the biggest sellers followed by beautifully illustrated books. When asked about the success of YA books with controversial themes, he explained that they do not always work: “That’s because the Chinese culture is focused on different things—studying, for example.”

Continuing visits to publishing companies, the group arrived at Shanghai Juvenile & Children’s Publishing House (JCPH) the next day.  “How do you acquire books?” a VIP asked. We learned that in China, there are no—or few—agencies to represent authors. Most editors look for new talent through connections and by perusing works published in magazines and journals. As for digital, we were told that Chinese parents far prefer print books, worrying that screens hurt their children’s eyes.

Next stop: The China Welfare Institute Publishing House, which was founded in 1938. The company’s attachment to the China Welfare Institute, a network of hospitals, kindergartens, and charities, sets them apart from other publishers; the network gives them direct access to specific markets, but also increases their responsibility to publish topics that benefit the wellbeing of children. Many of the VIPs felt that the types of books the house publish are particularly “accessible, appealing, and international.”

Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair

Kirsiah McNamara and Lainey Mays explore  the China Shangahi International Children’s Book Fair.

By the time the China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair started, we already felt like experts on the Chinese children’s book market. The first two days of the book fair were industry exclusive with only a very limited area open to the public. Publishers from around the world came together to discuss their books and make deals that would bring literature to new markets.

Each of the four students was assigned to a conference room where they assisted moderators and panelists addressing a wide variety of topics. Students helped troubleshoot technical issues, greet guests, field questions and more. One panel, “The Rise of the YA Generation: What Is So Special about Teen Readership,” featured Erin Clarke and two other publishers. The discussion highlighted the huge difference between the US and China YA markets, which is younger in China (for readers aged 8 to 12 vs. 12 to 18 in the US). Clarke explained that in the US, “more adults are reading YA and they aren’t embarrassed by it. 40% of YA books are bought by adults and not necessarily for their kids.” In China, adults buy YA books for their kids, and usually from the recommendations of schoolteachers. Other panels on topics like Chinese Literature in Translation, Children’s Literature from the Nordic Countries, and Marketing Children’s Books Effectively showed the breadth of areas covered.

Caroline Randmer and Christopher Plattsmier make friends in the exhibition hall.

One  major observation from the conference is that Chinese children’s book publishing is exploding with potential. Publishers in China are eager to expand throughout the world. They have open arms for what other countries can provide to them—and they are ready to emerge as a strong provider of children’s literature. And now the four M.S. in Publishing: Digital and Print Media students can think of themselves as mini experts—they had a unique and eye-opening exposure to one of the most burgeoning book markets in the world.



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