The nine-day New Delhi World Book Fair, which kicked off on January 9 and runs through January 17, occupies 10 of the 18 exhibition halls at the sprawling Pragati Maidan complex. Hall 14 is designated as the Children’s Pavilion, with drawing competitions, storytelling sessions, author signings, and skits keeping children (and parents) entertained. This 43rd edition, just like previous fairs, is mostly a public event, with two days (January 11 and 12) focused on rights trading.

Currently, the Indian book market is the sixth-largest in the world (valued at $3.9 billion, according to Nielsen) and the second-largest in terms of English-language market (after the U.S.). There are about 10,000 active publishers served by a complex (and often struggling) distribution network, and hindered by rampant piracy (with copies abounding at neighborhood stalls).

The good news, especially for children’s publishers, is that half of India’s 1.277 billion population is below the age of 25, middle-class households are growing rapidly, and the average literacy rate has risen about 10% in the past decade, currently at 74%. However, diverse socio-economic levels across its 29 states and seven union territories – resulting in vast discrepancies in disposable income and literacy rate – means that the Indian book market is very fragmented. Overseas brands Scholastic and Grolier, for instance, are working the market alongside local counterparts such as Sterling, Navneet, and Tulika to target specific age groups and segments while many more rely on distributors and booksellers to promote and sell their titles.

At the Children’s Pavilion, the Scholastic India booth is one of the most packed, with crowds paying a lot of attention to its two bestselling series Geronimo Stilton and Tom Gates. Stilton, according to marketing head Shantanu Duttagupta, sells between 5,000 and 10,000 copies per title, and remains its biggest series in both school and retail channels.

“Most retail outlets will pick established titles and stock as low as they possibly can. So, the outlets will stock our Stilton and Gates series, which are already very popular. In fact, sales of our products through the retail channel often mirror what we promote at schools,” said Duttagupta, adding that by going direct to schools, Scholastic India has avoided relying heavily on the retail channel, which is struggling across the vast country. “As for online book retail, it is starting to have an impact, and in our case, we have a Geronimo Stilton brand store on Amazon India.”

The Scholastic team works from 14 locations in India and visits about 8,000 schools annually. “We hold around 4,000 pop-up book fairs per year, and show approximately 500 titles per event. Such exposure means that our book club and book fairs are well known among teachers and students, and schools tend to look at us as their reading partner, recommending titles and authors for reading lists, and to lead promotional reading activities,” he added.

In general, picture books do not sell well in India, and this, according to Duttagupta, “is mostly because Indian parents still do not fully understand the value and benefit of picture books for children. They will purchase our leveled readers – with hot titles like Star Wars – but not picture books. But we have started to market picture books more aggressively with authors such as Julia Donaldson. The idea is to popularize such authors and their titles.” Price-wise, he pointed out that children’s books remain affordable. “Five years ago, the average book price was between 135 and 150 rupees. Now it is between 150 and 190 rupees, or approximately $2.25 and $2.85.” (Stilton titles sell at around 295 rupees each.)

The success of Scholastic, Duttagupta added, is based on its strong relationship with schools and parents. “That is the trust that we have gained, and this is something which many do not recognize. We have been in India for 18 years, and those kids we first met at schools are now parents themselves. Scholastic becomes their point of reference when it comes to searching for suitable titles for their own children.” Many parents, he said, are getting tired of electronic gadgets, and “they are starting to spend on more expensive books. That’s good news for everybody in the children’s segment.” (More market information can be gleaned from Scholastic’s inaugural Indian edition of the Kids and Family Reading report, set for release in April.)

Over at Bhopal-based Aadarsh, its children’s book imprint Purple Turtle has been transformed into a gender-neutral preschool character for a global audience. On the first day of the New Delhi World Book Fair, the company signed a rights deal with China’s Hebei Publishing Group for the 150-title Purple Turtle series. This series is currently available in five languages for the Indian market, and has been licensed to 30 countries including Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.

“In general, for the children’s segment, people are looking for more character-based titles as children often like to be associated with their favorite characters. They also want titles with more educational and moral values, and these are what Purple Turtle offers,” says publishing and licensing head N.K. Krishnanand, whose editorial team has just launched Colour Fairies, a new series of books for girls.

Aadarsh also offers more than 300 titles besides Purple Turtle and Colour Fairies, and these are mostly curriculum-based books and general titles. Krishnanand said, “We are focused on getting children to read print books – which you may think is only natural since Aadarsh is a Disney-approved printing house with a publishing subsidiary. But the India market remains largely a print book market. Reading on digital devices, especially for children, is not as widespread as it is in the West. With books priced so affordably low, there is actually no reason for parents not to buy print books for their children.”

For Tara Books, an independent publisher based in Chennai, offering “very special” picture books – to both children and adults – is the goal. The Cloth of the Mother Goddess, for instance, is a newly published limited-edition hand block-printed textile book from a western India artisan community. Another new title, Knock! Knock!, illustrated by Kaori Takahashi, literally unfolds a child’s search through an apartment building for her missing bear. “We printed 3,000 copies of Knock! Knock!, which is our average print run,” said marketing and sales manager C. Manivannan, who finds that the picture book segment in India is developing very quickly in recent years.

“The picture book segment is becoming a good market with big potential,” he said. “At Tara Books, we produce design-driven books such as I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail and handmade books, including Bologna Ragazzi winner The Night Life of Trees, that are affordable to book and art lovers across the world. We have turned our bestselling children’s hardbacks into more affordable paperback editions, priced at around 200 rupees, or $3. And we have also published our bestselling paperbacks in special editions,” added Manivannan, whose team do not subscribe to the usual marketing tactics. “We sell through word-of-mouth marketing, and we sell to a few select stores directly. We also provide mail-order services to readers through our website. Tara Books is about cultivating the appreciation for good books and quality authorship.”

One of Tara Books’ best-known authors is Anushka Ravishankar, dubbed “India’s Dr Seuss,” who has penned more than 35 titles since 1997. Those published by Tara Books include One, Two, Tree!, Tiger On A Tree, and Catch That Crocodile! For Ravishankar, “there is a universal lack of understanding of the value of picture books. People do not understand that the pictures get to tell the story in a picture book. They often regard an illustrated title and a picture book as one and the same.”

There is also a huge difference in how original Indian titles are positioned in the market. “People are looking for India-specific content with an Indian setting – where the characters are Indian and the locales are in India – and these are more acceptable to them. However, since the titles are ‘made in India,’ people expect the prices to be very low regardless of the content quality. So there is a disconnect, and publishers have to bridge that.”

Ravishankar is also the co-founder of three-year-old Duckbill, an independent house offering titles for those aged seven to 18. About 43 titles have been published, most of which are leveled readers. “Few series, with Indian settings, are available for that age group, and our titles fill that gap,” she said. “But this market is very fragmented. There are 22 major languages, 13 different scripts, and more than 700 dialects in India, even though Hindi and English are the official languages. To sell domestically, in languages other than English, we need to have different distributors for different languages and provinces, where local market know-how is crucial in promoting and selling the titles. In other words, India is a challenging and exciting market for those who dare to venture into it.”

However, the need to price children’s books at low prices (averaging $3) is a major challenge to overseas publishers, especially mid-size houses, looking to enter the Indian market. Comparisons between China – coincidentally, the guest country for this year’s book fair – and India, the two biggest markets for children’s books, on size, potential sales and rights protection, are unavoidable. Whereas Chinese children read in one language and increasingly more in English, Indian children in different parts of the country read in different scripts and languages besides English.

Such market fragmentation means that English books are best promoted through schools and book clubs, which is how Scholastic established itself so firmly. Penguin Random House, the largest English-language publisher in the Indian subcontinent, on the other hand, represents not just its own range of children’s titles but also distributes exclusively for publishers such as A&C Black, Bloomsbury, Faber, Marshall Cavendish, and Quercus. Macmillan and HarperCollins are two other brands with well-known local publishing programs for children and teens. Brand strength and established distribution network are crucial to working the Indian market.

But the biggest challenge is piracy, mostly through commercial photocopying and reprinting. Bestselling titles often lost half of their potential sales to pirated editions. This is surprising in light of the low prices already offered by publishers, and many players are joining hands to hold road shows with authors and distributors to create awareness on copyright protection.

As for the market itself, Indians are reading more and looking out for good books from local and overseas publishers while children are being encouraged to read for leisure. Such love for books can be seen from the ticket sales: on the second day of the fair, attendance exceeded 100,000, with the eventual figure estimated to surpass last year’s total of nearly one million visitors.