Frankfurt 2019 Rights Meeting Recap: China’s Expanding Book Market

This year’s Rights Meeting at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October explored a series of exciting book markets and rights selling technologies, covering various aspects of the Chinese book market, the Czech and Slovak markets, and digital tools such as blockchain. In our latest blog series, we will be sharing some of the insights we gleaned from the event presentations and discussions. In today’s post, we summarize some of the key takeaways provided by the experts on China’s expanding book market.


As the world’s second largest economy with a growing middle class and literacy rate, China’s book market is in a period of expanding domestic book production. As Yanping Jiang, CEO of OpenBook, explained, the Chinese market has seen significant growth in both print and digital book sectors. OpenBook, which was established in 1998 as a research and consulting company tracks book sales statistics in 60% of the Chinese market. According to their data, the print market almost doubled in size in 2019, reaching close to 12.5 billion USD in sales with a total market for foreign titles at about 3 billion USD. While print book prices have been increasing, sales in this format increased by 82% compared to the same period in the previous year, with online sales serving as the primary channel for print book purchases while sales from physical bookstores declined by 11%.

At the same time, China has experienced growth in sales of digital formats with a 42.9 % growth in audiobook sales alone. Subscriptions are the fastest growing business model for selling ebooks and audiobooks, while free reading with advertisements is the latest model to emerge. Although audiobooks are popular for English-language learning in the Chinese market, the bestselling categories in all formats, according to OpenBook, continues to be children’s books and education titles by Chinese authors. However, the number of new titles in the first half of 2019 was down by 6.22% from the previous year.

International Publishers in China

Despite the looming US tariffs on books printed in China and the decline in foreign rights purchases by Chinese publishers, there is still room for international publishers to make inroads into this evolving market. Chinese publishers are interested in both importing and exporting. OpenBook provided tips for international book publishers and sellers, emphasizing the importance of finding and securing a reliable local partner as a key first step. Yanping Jiang also recommended using a data-driven approach to finding investors and assessing which publishers or booksellers are the best “fit” for your books. An uncommon—yet potentially successful—strategy for entering the Chinese market also suggested by Yanping is translating titles into Chinese locally and importing them into China with the help of a Chinese importer. And, underscoring these tips, was the importance of understanding China through its own bestselling authors and appreciating the country’s current sense of cultural renaissance.

Translation Rights

Although the demand for foreign titles is slowing down, international publishers can still work well with Chinese publishers looking for new or international content to share with their readers. Wuping Zhao, deputy chief editor of Shanghai Translation Publishing House explained that the translation market is still relatively sizeable. With 585 state-owned publishing companies and over 10,000 privately-owned publishers in 2019, seven percent of the country’s new titles were translations (or approximately 16,000 books). The top-selling translation rights were from the US, the UK, Japan, France, and Germany. Public domain books are also popular choices for translation with English-language classics like Charlotte’s Web becoming a bestseller in children’s books. International titles most likely selected for translation by Chinese publishers include award-winning fiction (Nobel, Booker, an Pulitzer) and nonfiction titles in history, popular science, psychology, parenting and self-help—with a particular focus on critical social issues, technologies such as AI and robotics, and Sino-American relations in 2019.

As with any market, selling translation rights in China has its own particularities. For example, it can take one to two months for a payment to be remitted and the duration of a license is usually for five years. Some common challenges include policy uncertainty, difficulties finding qualified translators, and antipiracy campaigns, and numerous translations of varying quality of the same title because of the lengthy term of copyright protection after an author’s death (50 years). When a Rights Meeting audience member asked by about the Chinese state limiting the number of ISBN for foreign titles, the presenters acknowledged that, while they had not heard of this practice themselves, there were no firm guidelines and that the Chinese state is trying to limit low quality translators of public domain books.

University Press Publishing

With approximately 2,000 universities and over 100 university presses in China, scholarly books and textbooks provide another potential avenue for rights sales into this expanding market. Textbook publishing, for example, is a profitable activity for university presses attempting to meet the needs of their institution’s teaching faculty, as well as meeting larger national publishing needs, such as commemorating 2019 as the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China.

At the same time, large university presses prioritize the publication of profitable titles as a way of contributing to and supporting their institution’s financial needs. As Tracy Liu, Director of International Cooperation and Rights at China Renmin University Press explained, titles that sell fewer than 5,000 units will not be of interest to larger presses who have established relationships with large international publishers such as Pearson, Wiley, and Sage. University presses will look to an author’s star power, sales in the local market, the number of print runs and editions, as well as rights sold in other territories as important reference points when considering buying rights to a foreign title.

Liu cautioned that international publishers interested in making rights deals in this segment of the Chinese market be prepared to encounter challenges and employ creative problem-solving approaches. Publication categories at Chinese university presses may differ greatly from categories used in western university presses. Some extra work will be required to learn about and identify different publication categories in order to ensure a good match. Lastly, while most university presses value business integrity and openness, their experience with copyright trade is relatively new and the publication process can be slow. Licenses are determined by both parties—five years for trade books and up to six to eight years for more difficult or complex titles. Payments will depend on a title’s content, but advance payments of $800t to $2,000 are the most common.

Want to learn more about this market? Check out the recording of our webinar on exporting to China or download our 2017 report on our trade mission to Shanghai.

12/02/2019 | Book Fairs, Digital, Export, Rights