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The 24th Beijing International Book Fair, which occupied seven pavilions at the city’s giant China International Exhibition Centre, hosted a record number of foreign trade exhibitors, including the biggest ever representation from the UK. With more than 2,500 companies attending, the figures were up by 4.8% on last year, almost 60% of the companies being from overseas and 102 of which made their debut at the fair.

The event, which was held from 23-28 August, is particularly important for UK children’s publisher Usborne, which officially launched Usborne China with partners Jieli Publishing House, by far the biggest foreign language partnership Usborne has ever signed. The partnership will see Usborne China publish around 30 titles this autumn, with many more to follow. Usborne has been selling rights into China since 1991 to a range of publishers, though part of the arrangement with the state-owned publisher will see all future titles going through the Jieli.

The opportunities in China are immense, especially in the children’s market which was up 15% by value in the year end to November 2016, having been valued at £1.52 billion (AED 7.2 billion) in 2015, according to Open Book. The children’s market is estimated to be 23% of the overall book market and China’s new, two-child policy is predicted to add more than 3 million babies annually. There is a rising middle class too, with more money to spend, and a proactive education policy now encourages children to read more for pleasure.

While mindful of cultural differences and political sensitivities, Usborne founder Peter Usborne is keen to build on the publisher’s existing relationship with the country.

“China is well on the way to becoming the world’s biggest market for children’s books. Jieli has been a strong rights customer of ours for many years, and I am thrilled to work with them from now on to bring the Usborne identity into the Chinese language market.”
While the move is seen as a major triumph for the company, Usborne came under severe criticism recently for using inappropriate text in its publication Growing Up For Boys, aimed at offering boys advice on what to expect from puberty and how to stay happy and confident as they go through physical, psychological and emotional changes. The book was lambasted in the press and on social media for asserting that some changes in girls’ appearance were “to make them look grown-up and attractive”. The company apologised for any offence, saying it will be revising the content for reprinting.

Just before the fair opened there was confusion over an apparent order from a Chinese import agency instructing Cambridge University Press to remove 300 articles from its China Quarterly covering sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square protests, Tibet and Hong Kong. At first, CUP reluctantly agreed to block access to the articles in question in China, but after concern expressed by the International Publishers Association, as well a growing number of alarmed voices in the academic community, it decided to re-instate the articles.

It issued the following statement: ‘Following a clear order from its Chinese importer, Cambridge University Press reluctantly took the decision to block, within China, 315 articles in The China Quarterly. This decision was taken as a temporary measure pending discussion with the academic leadership of the University of Cambridge, and a scheduled meeting with the Chinese importer in Beijing.

‘The academic leadership of the university has now reviewed this action in advance of the meeting in China later this week. Academic freedom is the overriding principle on which the University of Cambridge is based. Therefore, while this temporary decision was taken in order to protect short-term access in China to the vast majority of the Press’s journal articles, the university’s academic leadership and the Press have agreed to reinstate the blocked content with immediate effect, so as to uphold the principle of academic freedom on which the university’s work is founded.’

The episode has once again highlighted the difficulties some publishers face when trading with one of the world’s most important book markets.