While the rest of the world suffers the economic squeeze, the government-run Chinese publishing industry has counterintuitively managed to cultivate opportunity for expansion both for local entrepreneurs and international publishers. Talk of less state interference and mounting interest from foreign markets is encouraging some publishers to brave the censors, fears of piracy, and the cultural divide and head east.
China’s publishing industry (guest of honor at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair) is currently regulated by assigning ISBN numbers only to state-owned publishing houses, forcing both local and foreign publishers to partner with them. Foreigners must also commit to a venture with a Chinese company that represents the majority of shareholders.
“At the moment publishing is still restricted,” says Stella Cho, Managing Director of the HarperCollins Beijing office. “But the government has given a very clear indication that it is more willing to further open up the publishing industry.” HarperCollins has partnered with Chinese publishers to translate some of its big-name authors, including Donald Trump, Michael Crichton, Tony Parsons, John Nesbitt, and Cecilia Ahern. They are also introducing bestselling authors like Yang Hung Ying to the West.
The Pacific Rim, France, Spain, and South America have traditionally been more receptive to Chinese authors, and the U.S. and UK are just catching up, says UK literary agent and China rights pioneer Toby Eady, adding that Chinese publishers intend to develop their own publishing structures in Europe and South America, and to ally themselves with receptive U.S. or UK publishers.
Luc Kwanten, Executive Director of Big Apple Tuttle-Mori, says the number of private publishers in China is on the rise, and though they still have to work with a state house to get ISBNs, they’re publishers in all but name. “The government seems ready to allow a number of these private companies to become legally privately owned publishing houses, a first step to the general privatization of the industry,” Kwanten says. The government is working to get out of the retail business altogether.
Of the 159,508 bookstores in China, 108,130 are privately owned, and that number continues to climb. The 100+ superstores like Book City Beijing and Book City Shanghai put Barnes & Noble to shame, with around 9,000 visitors a day, according to Robert Baensch, President of Baensch International Group Ltd.
Piracy remains a major issue in China, and Patricia Judd of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) has seen a troubling surge of pirated English-language trade books selling on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai over the past year. Educational books are still the most pirated (in libraries, you’ll often find one medical title sitting next to three illegal copies) but Judd says piracy comes second to market restriction issues for international publishers wanting to enter the Chinese market.
Restrictions and copyright concerns haven’t stopped the flow of books in and out of the country. Rights sold to China jumped from 9,300 in 2005 to 12,000 in 2008. Due in part to the translation fund set up by the government-backed General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), China has increased its sales of translation rights from 1,400 in 2005 to 2,100 in 2008 (up from just 638 in 2000).
Jo Lusby, Managing Director of Penguin China, is both acquiring rights to Chinese titles (including Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem) and bringing its new titles and classics to China. “We are definitely at a point of transition. What I think you will see is more quality publishing—by which I mean higher prices for books, more marketing spend, major authors being treated more like brands as they are in the West.” Because purchasing power is so low, books are almost always paperback and sell for around $3, but the average 10,000 copies printed helps to offset low sticker prices.
“Production costs are low, but yes, we struggle to strike a balance between foreign expectations for an offer on one of their great authors, and the fact that we can only sell the book for a few dollars here,” says Patrizia van Daalen, Senior Rights Manager at Shanghai 99, a private publishing company specializing in translated fiction from all over the world. She believes that the transition from complete government control will force Chinese publishers to be more competitive and take greater risks, but doubts it will affect the freedom of the content published. Presently, everyone from authors to booksellers is wary of appearing on the censors’ radar, and because no precise guidelines exist, editors self-censor and back away from anything that could be even slightly sensitive.
Some say censorship is hardly an issue if you avoid sensitive political topics (often referred to as the “three T’s”: Tiananmen, Tibet, and Taiwan) but avoiding such relevant topics completely without creating a noticeable void can be a problem not just in historical or political titles. Daniel Watts, Managing Director of Pan Macmillan Asia, is based in Hong Kong, which he says remains “a little bastion of true democracy.” He had his own struggles with Chinese censors recently when his company published Bamboo Goalposts, a lighthearted novel by Rowan Simons about a man who starts a soccer club in Beijing. The book made it through the state censors, distributors, and all the way to the bookstores without any trouble, until one bookseller noticed a reference to the 1979 events in Tiananmen Square, which created a panic. That mention alone caused other booksellers to pull the book from their shelves.
But as e-books and cell-phone novels enter the market, will censorship still have the same reach? “China does firewall the internet,” says Watts. “But they are fighting a losing battle.” As more readers—especially in China, where online readership tops 25 million and downloadable e-rights can reach one to ten million copies—move away from paper in favor of digital, it becomes more complicated for the government to interfere.
And as the roles of the state-run publishers gradually change, those in China see the start of a much larger shift to more opportunity and less blanket control. “Already, young, bright publishing firms are taking market share away from some of the more conservative, traditional state owned publishers,” says Lusby. “And this is leading the reform, really from the ground up.”
Which are the Bestsellers, Anyway?
No outside sources exist to gauge sales, and the lists vary widely between publications and cities. “Sales figures for books are incomplete and untrustworthy to the point of being nearly meaningless,” according to Paper Republic, a website for publishers and translators.
Van Daalen says many of China’s recent successful titles have been in line with mega-bestsellers around the world, including The Da Vinci Code, The Kite Runner, and Twilight. Acclaimed literary titles don’t necessarily make bestsellers here, but the recent success of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader (even though the movie wasn’t released in China) and Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red were exceptions. Van Daalen says the latter instance was the first time she saw the Nobel Prize have such an influence on sales in China.