You can taste the air in Shanghai as soon as you touch down in the airport – a little gritty, a little sour. But you’re kind of expecting it, by then, because you can’t see the city through the smog as you are landing.
First glimpse of Shanghai skyscrapers from the taxi
The trip into the western part of the city from Pudong Airport leaves you in no doubt that this is a city that is thriving economically: you whip past endless high-rise buildings. The taxi driver had a brisk manner and an iPhone, but no English. I had to pass the address of my hotel, written in Chinese, to him, with one of my four words of badly-pronounced Mandarin.
Very official looking double-stamped breakfast voucher for the hotel
I’d come to Shanghai for the first Chinese Children’s Book Fair: two days of business-to-business meetings with a couple of public days tacked on at the end. I’d been invited to speak at the digital conference they were holding as part of the fair.
Gloria Bailey from the Publishers Association was, as ever, the unflappable and impeccable organiser of everything, taking in hand even our last minute stand design: we were too late to be added to the UK Pavilion where publishers as varied as HarperCollins and Sweet Cherry Publishing had sections. But it all worked out well, as it turned out that the Nosy Crow stand was opposite our Chinese-language agent’s stand… and I really needed their support: very few of the people I met, particularly the people who were older than, say, 30, spoke enough English to sustain a book fair conversation, so they were invaluable as translators (you can see me with Yolanda Tang, rights assistant at the agency we use, above).
Nosy Crow’s stand at the Book Fair
The Chinese children’s book industry is thriving, bucking the trend for the rest of the Chinese book business: there was no growth in adult book sales, according to Mrs Zhou from Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House, who briefed us the day before the fair began, while children’s book sales had grown by over 10% in both 2011 and 2012. But while volumes are high, prices are low: Mrs Zhou estimated that the average retail price for a children’s book was between £2 and £3, but spoke of bestseller sales figures in millions of copies. Children’s picture books and non-fiction were particularly strong areas for growth, and areas in which, I felt, there was particular opportunity for UK publishers to sell rights. It looked to me as if a lot of the most successful children’s fiction was home-grown: inevitably, and rightly, Chinese children want to see their own culture and experiences, as well as their own language, reflected in their reading material. It seemed to me that there was particular lack of interest in older, edgier fiction.
This avoidance of gritty, grown-up issues, like much else that I encountered, may be because of elements of continued state involvement in various aspects of book publishing and book selling. It was interesting to see the split between older companies, with their origins, at least, in state ownership, and the newer, private companies. You could tell what kind of organisation you were dealing with just from their names: East China Normal University Press on the one hand, and Dandelion Children’s Book House on the other, for example. The state/private origin divide was also reflected in the style of the stands. The private houses were more flamboyant, and stuck less to the standard fair booth template: they’d spent more money.
I was fascinated to hear about evolving marketing work both state sponsored and private, with the appointment of reading promoters such as Zihan Mei and with the arrangement of author signing tours to schools – a huge challenge in a country as enormous as China. It was interesting, too, to see the development of recommendation and selling websites from Red Earth to dangdang.com as well as Amazon.cn.
I spent the first day and a half in standard, Frankfurt Book Fair-style thirty minute appointments, set up for me by our Chinese language agent. Our list is small and we’d sold Chinese language rights in various picture books already, some through our agent, and some, before we appointed our agent, directly, but there was real interest in many of our picture books (particularly picture books in series) and in younger fiction (again, particularly books in series). Ironically, there was less interest in those books that we invariably print in China: novelty books like board books with moving parts and pop up books. That’s not to say that children and publishers weren’t gripped by them. A five year-old, Wang Chuangqi, whose English name was Tina, went through every page of every novelty book we had on the stand, and a little boy gazed on as publishers took photographs of one of our Playbook pop up titles. But my experience was that Chinese publishers wanted to buy files and pay an advance and royalties, so the co-edition model that is so essential to novelty book publishing didn’t seem workable, at least for now. The prices just don’t work. It seems unlikely to me that our novelty books will sell to the country in which we print them.
Publishers photographing – and a little boy looking at – Nosy Crow’s forthcoming Playbook title, Playbook Castle
The digital conference on the afternoon of the second day was interesting. I was one of five speakers, and the audience was a couple of hundred strong. The other four speakers were Chinese men, and it was noticeable that my presentation style was very different from theirs. Asked to speak about trends in children’s digital reading, I spoke about, and demonstrated what I thought were interesting innovations from other publishers and developers including Source Books, Tinybop, MeBooks and No Crusts as well as our own apps. I emphasised the importance of creativity and experimentation and working collaboratively. I spoke about the advantages of being small and nimble. By contrast, the other speakers focused exclusively on their own businesses, and spoke of hugely ambitious projects – personalised educational platforms, Manga-inspired transmedia projects with books, trading cards, digital games, TV and movies – with the emphasis on strategy and a vision of the future. It was strange, too, not to have the parallel experience – and instant feedback! – of Twitter.
Looking upriver from The Bund – on a “clear” mid-morning
It’s very positive to be working with reputable publishing houses who are keen to collaborate fairly and legitimately with foreign publishers. For many years (and I have been in publishing for quarter of a century), China was pretty much the “home of copyright piracy”. Of course, it remains hard to have insight into the business practices of companies from whom we are divided by so many miles as well as by culture and language, and that is why it is often helpful for us to have the mediation of an agency. But we have to trust the publishers with whom we deal: there’s no other way we can do business.
I spent less than 70 hours in China from Pudong landing to Pudong take-off, so I can’t begin to pretend any level of expertise! But our Chinese-language agents said that they were pleasantly surprised by the turn-out at the fair, both Chinese publishers and international publishers.
China isn’t, at this stage, one of our most lucrative markets: we make more selling to other countries, but every rights deal is welcome. We have received, and accepted, one offer since the fair already. A single deal isn’t enough to justify the cost in money and time of going to Shanghai, but depending on the overall results, I think that we’d go again.