For many readers, no matter where they come from, the collective childhood experience begins with the line “Once upon a time” – reading and playing with their siblings and parents. Imaginations are ignited in infancy by fairy tales drawn from diverse cultures and languages, carried far and wide by the wonders of storytelling.
However, for Chinese children there is something missing in the social experience: a sibling. In 1979, the government introduced the family planning policy, limiting each family to one child. Ever since then the “single child” generation (Balinghou in Chinese – literally, young people who were born after the 1980s) has missed out on the experience of playing, sharing and growing up with siblings.
This year, the third Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair (CCBF) opened just as China announced a change in policy, allowing all couples to have two children for the first time in more than three decades. The reform will have a profound impact on society. Markets that serve the younger generations, in particular, education and publishing, are certain to feel the impact.
The booming children’s market
There are 230 million children under the age of 16 in China, with an average of 16 million born every year. With the introduction of the new policy, one can only imagine that the number will grow at an even more incredible speed – an estimate puts it at 3 million extra babies each year. Already the world’s largest publishing market (Open Book statistics), China has a children’s market accounting for 18% of the total (turnover RMB9.9bn/GBP990m) and is set to continue its 20% year-on-year growth trend, reaching up to 30% of the total market.
Just before the opening of the CCBF, 11 November marked Singles Day in China, a phenomenon that has evolved into a record-setting retail event, with Alibaba reaching US$14.3bn (RMB91bn) total sales in a single day. The new urban middle class in China has fully embraced consumerism, and the current generation of parents has driven a purchasing frenzy. The Magic School Bus, the bestseller on Dangdang.com, sold 193,700 copies in a single day.
JD.com, the largest B2C online platform for electronics goods in China with an annual sales turnover of RMB260.2bn (GBP26bn), entered the book market in 2010. In the past year it has seen a 60% increase in its book sales, overtaking Amazon to become the number two book e-retailer in China, just after Dangdang.com. Although currently books account for only 1-2% of its total sales, JD.com is ambitious to set up an online children’s club with customised recommendations, as it is the market leader in sales of mother and baby products.
Yang Ye, the General Manager of books at JD.com, and Children’s Buyer Zhang Ge suggested three key factors for an international title to succeed in the Chinese market. First, brand quality: how the book is perceived in the West and other Asian countries such as Japan and Korea; second, becoming an early seller – JD.com is the exclusive online retailer for Secret Garden, which has sold 800,000 copies since June; and last but not least, social media marketing via WeChat.
Learning about siblings and friendship
However, despite the scale of consumerism represented by these numbers, there are even bigger challenges ahead. It is the generation who grew up without siblings who are now facing the new option of having a second child. Parents and children who are both of the single child generation are keen to read stories that allow them to look at the world a little differently from their personal experience. Just what is it like to have a sibling?
An interesting example of such a story is Shh! We Have a Plan (Walker), which won the prestigious Chen Bochui International Best Picture Book Award at the fair. It is a story of four friends who try to catch a beautiful bird, and is beautifully illustrated by Chris Haughton. The story ends with a quote by Albert Einstein: “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”
A story about going on an adventure with friends, making friendships, and facing competition among peers/siblings helps to illustrate how to interact with others at an early age. The virtues of working together and being respectful to your peers are some of the topics that appear to work exceptionally well in China today.
During the three-day fair at CCBF there is a refreshing Scandinavian presence, with a special area dedicated to Moomin – only recently introduced to China on its 70th anniversary. However, according to its Chinese publisher Shanghai 99, even for internationally renowned characters, a successful introduction to the Chinese market can still prove challenging. Chinese parents are more likely to choose home-grown series, because they weren’t exposed to many international titles when they themselves were young. Sales of Shanghai 99’s bestselling Big Red Dog series have reached 1.5m; however, bestselling Chinese titles such as the Laughing Cat Diary series can easily reach 500-600 million copies. Almost 90% of international titles are sold online rather than through traditional retail stores, said Han Xiaohong, founder of Dandelion Children’s.
With the first Disneyland in mainland China set to open in Shanghai next spring, the place is buzzing with the desire to see the latest and best content from all over the world. Preschool products such as picture books are a booming market for the 300 million middle class consumers in China. Even Le TV, the largest online streaming company in China with 50 million daily users, is exhibiting for the first time at CCBF this year. It is setting up an edutainment channel aimed at families with children (accounting for 47% of its current users), and has started to acquire international content from broadcasters and publishers.
With the recent change in policy, it still remains to be seen how the Chinese will react. The children’s publishing industry needs to tap into that reaction and be ready to assist future parents in educating a generation. Will the international children’s market produce content that appeals to this exciting and yet challenging market? Here is your chance!
Topics: Books, China, Society, Culture, Children