The free market’s last great territorial conquest, China remains a daunting and volatile arena for many book publishers in the West. This month Toby Eady, of the eponymous London-based literary agency, looks back on some of his Asian adventures and shares a few words of wisdom for those seeking Chinese fortunes.
When I first visited the Beijing Book Fair four years ago, by the time I got into the halls there was hardly a book left on the stands. These volumes had all been sold, stolen, or seized by the censors the day before, deemed unsuitable for popular consumption. But for all that, compared to BEA in Chicago or even Frankfurt, there was action — and in cash. My client, a Chinese lawyer, had written a book roughly translated as “How far does contract law reach in China?”, and we sold it for cash handily withdrawn from a suitcase by the highest bidder. There was no question of royalties. But there were other sales to be had. We made separate deals with publishers in Beijing and Shanghai, and what I learned that day, later to be reinforced, is that there is no national distribution in China. Each major city has its own publishers who print and distribute locally. Printing is cheap, distribution is easy — and piracy is endemic.
There are no less than five different pirated editions of Wei Hui’s novel Shanghai Baby being sold in Shanghai, several in Chengdu, two in Beijing, and probably several Mongolian editions. The censors’ office reckons over a million copies have been bought of this banned novel, which so incensed the powers that be that the government burned 40,000 copies, shutting down the book’s original publisher last year. Wei Hui will not become rich on her Chinese sales. A bestseller, much borrowed, has a mere 7,000 copies printed throughout China.
Yet the story of Shanghai Baby’s circuitous route to success is instructive in its own way. If you really want a Chinese bestseller, here’s how: Get the list of banned books from a friendly policeman, download them off the Internet, get four chapters translated, and sell them. I was in China when the authorities moved in on Shanghai Baby, and believe me, you couldn’t ask for better publicity. Wei Hui was bought by Judith Curr at Pocket. Eight publishers turned her down in London, but watching her in BBC’s Breakfast Time this morning, she’s got it — she could damage Pfizer’s Viagra sales. She has been sold in France (Picquier), Italy (Rizzoli), and Japan (Bungei Shunju), where 200,000 copies were sold in two weeks after she toured. Robinson’s first printing in the UK will be 60,000 copies. Singapore, Hong Kong, and Australia will take 100,000, the latter in connection with her tour there in July. In total 19 countries have bought her, and with film rights, book rights, and royalties, we’re talking $2 million easy. Yet would her novel have been noticed if it had not been burned?
In fact, though busts of Mao and copies of the Little Red Book have now flooded the junk shops in Xian, Chinese authors still know that the government publishing houses won’t publish a Shanghai Baby, Ma Jian’s Red Dust, or Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. In Ma Jian’s case, knowing his story from another expelled poet/painter, three years ago I gave him $10,000 to write Red Dust — a remarkable Chinese answer to On the Road. But at the same time I gave Flora Drew money to work on a simultaneous translation. At Frankfurt I sold it to Jan Mets, a Dutch publisher, and then to Rebecca Carter at Chatto & Windus and Dan Frank at Pantheon. Yet American publishers are parochial, and frightened of foreigners. Though it was well reviewed, Simon & Schuster couldn’t get Wild Swans on the bestseller list. The book has nonetheless sold over 9 million copies in 32 languages. It sells 400,000 copies every year, 10 years after publication. How did that one start, you ask? A young woman walks into your office in 1985 and says, Do you think a book telling the story of three women would work, and in the telling of which the book could show how China had changed in the last 60 years? Instinct immediately said yes, where others had said no. But beyond instinct, I also follow a simple rule: don’t represent authors mimicking Western writers, and don’t use academics as translators — they don’t have Chinese as a living language. (Check out the dead translation of Hong Ying’s Daughter of the River, or Gao’s Soul Mountain.)
Publishing in the Streets
Officially there are over 1,000 recognized publishers in China, with the major houses in Beijing and Shanghai. Each book is chosen by an editorial board on which there will be a party member, hence the cautious nature of what gets published. A sampling of major Chinese publishers would include Xinhua Publishing House, which has good relations with Germany, Russia, Japan, Singapore, and the US, and has over 5,000 titles in print that cover a range of fiction and nonfiction. Also players are the People’s Education Press (which is as it sounds) and the Foreign Language Press, which was founded in 1952 and has published over 20,000 titles emanating from 40 languages. Most foreign titles are bought through Taiwanese agents at present. Advances are not gargantuan — Bill Gates’ $50,000 being the highest advance paid. Most advances run between $500 and $2,000 per title, and be surprised if you get paid royalties: the sales force from my experience gets space by giving the kiosk or bookstore extra copies to sell without accounting for them.
Books not of the educational or how-to variety are a luxury, as evident in the past strength of the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild. Now Bertelsmann’s book club in Shanghai is working on the basis of subscription and home delivery, much the same as in West Germany after 1945. On the other hand, China boasts very good art book publishers such as Art Books in Cianjing, whose work rivals Abrams. And in Nanjing, which has many mom-and-pop bookshops with the same feel as a good independent store in America, booksellers proffer two-volume works to foreigners for $30 (there is nothing comparable in the West!). With the main publishers in China firmly controlled, however, Chinese writers tend to publish their own books, and distribute them via their networks of friends on the streets. What they are writing today is exciting, real, and new, but you’ll find them not on the big lists of the Chinese publishers. Danielle Steel or John Grisham they are not. Chinese writers are distinctly wary of product writers, and they don’t come out of writing schools. John Steinbeck would have understood them, and so would have the original poets and authors published in the Evergreen Review in the fifties. Their enthusiasm and courage is that of first novelists everywhere.