Hong Kong: Launchpad for the Future of Asian Publishing

Mainland China’s book business may be receiving most of the international limelight lately, but Hong Kong’s industry is also worthy of notice, even if its growth hasn’t been as dramatic. Though the British hand-over of Hong Kong took place in 1997, Hong Kong will maintain its established legal and governmental system until 2047. So, while “China is a country that has moved forward something like a century in the last 15 years,” says David Parrish, Sales and Marketing Director at Random House UK’s Hong Kong office, “Hong Kong was already a developed economy.” Book business is one of Hong Kong’s long-standing institutions, and the Hong Kong Book Fair, held this month from July 17-23, has been a steadily growing event since its founding in 1990. This year it attracted more than 500 exhibitors from over 20 countries, and estimates over 900,000 visitors.

Given its well-established market and prime location, Hong Kong seems to offer unparalleled opportunity for global publishers looking East—though not necessarily quick deal- and money-making opportunity. Hong Kong does have a strong book market, says Carmen Kwong, Editor in Chief at Mguru, but “We [Chinese-language publishers in Hong Kong] are not permitted to publish or sell directly in the Chinese market—we have to work in partnership with local companies…and make sure book content is politically correct.” In addition to trade restrictions, the separation is linguistic: In Mainland China, text is printed with simplified characters, while Hong Kong still uses traditional characters.

“There’s a get-rich-quick mythology surrounding China, but there are significant barriers for entry, and at some point reality has to kick in,” says Marshall Moore, Publisher of Typhoon Media, a digital-and-POD-focused publisher. In the long run, argues Peter Gordon, Publisher of Chameleon Press and Founder of the Man Asian Literary Prize “the bulk of [China’s] potential and growth will be reserved for Chinese publishers, authors, and content producers—very similarly to what happened in the United States.” This doesn’t mean China will be without significance, though. Peter Gordon predicts that “as Chinese publishers develop, they will begin to influence international industry trends: copyright laws, export/translation of Chinese works, and investment in and purchase of overseas publishing companies,” predicts Gordon. (CN Times Books, the US branch of Chinese publisher Beijing MediaTime Book Co., launched in spring 2013, is a perfect example of this trend.)

Forming partnerships with new, global Asian publishing business models requires a home-base more permanent than a table at a book fair rights center. In this area, Hong Kong has much to offer, with “the right combination of language experience [English and Cantonese are both official languages], publishing experience, minimal government interference, and innovation,” says Marshall Moore.  Kelly Falconer, who established Asia Literary Agency in Hong Kong earlier this year, adds that “the government makes it easy for entrepreneurs like me to set up.” Policies are equally friendly to corporate players:  Pearson, Pan Macmillan, and Random House UK have had offices in Hong Kong for several years, and Hachette UK set up shop there in late 2012.

While globally powerful partnerships between Chinese publishers and international publishers may take a while to unfold, Hong Kong’s own industry still offers plenty of international exposure to authors and titles that otherwise might be overlooked. Its regional connectedness and lenient censorship laws make it an ideal headquarters for the Man Asian Literary Prize, established in 2007. China’s consistent presence in world news is a boon for those publishing books from or about China in English, says Pete Spurrier, Publisher at Black Smith Books.  Additionally, he says, “since so many books printed here are for export, shipping books to our overseas distributors is very affordable,” even for small print runs and shipments.

Though it isn’t a funnel for selling directly to the Mainland, Hong Kong has recently discovered a market for Chinese-language books specifically targeted at Mainland tourists who come to Hong Kong ready to shop. This is a growing part of the Hong Kong Book Fair, which the Financial Times reported this year drew several hundred thousand Mainland shoppers. This large-scale market for Mainland tourists is symptomatic of capabilities that are likely to keep Hong Kong a key player in the global publishing game. Both the Book Fair and the region as a whole have demonstrated their ability to organize quickly and to support new initiatives in the short and long term. For those hoping to establish long-term relationships in the region, says Kelly Falconer, all these qualities make “Hong Kong the automatic first stop.”

Related reading:

In Hong Kong, a Sanctuary for Banned Books from The Atlantic

Hachette UK’s Tim Hely Hutchinson Sees Big Potential In Asia from Publishing Perspectives

Hong Kong: Spreading the Word by Peter Gordon in the South China Morning Post

Asian Review of Books

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  1. [...] Want some insights into the world of book publishing in Hong Kong and China? A bunch of local publishing folk, including yours truly, are quoted in an informative article in Publishing Trends. [...]

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