With a population of 1
billion, a literacy rate of 84 percent, and a publishing industry that is
exploding, China has been touted on one hand as the final frontier for American
book publishers, and on the other hand as the piracy capital of the universe.
Where does the truth lie, and could there be a tiny portion of that huge market
for a small children’s book publisher from the American Midwest?
Joining the week-long Stanford Publishing
Program’s Travel/Study Tour to China presented a perfect opportunity for me to
find out. Eighteen publishers from six countries were my traveling companions
as we journeyed to Shanghai and Beijing, visiting publishers, printers, and
bookstores, participating in seminars with our Chinese colleagues, and walking
the floor at the Beijing International Book Fair.
My goals for making the trip were
both personal and professional. Leaping out of one’s comfort zone is
scary—traveling 15 hours on a plane (one way) to a country where culture,
language, and government were so totally different from what I was used to and
spending the week with a group of strangers—publishing strangers, but
still strangers—would either kill me or make me stronger (apologies to Nietzsche).
Professionally, I wanted to learn: about the industry, about the culture, about
doing business, and, on a micro level, whether the Chinese market would have
any interest in my series of children’s historical fiction about famous
The Industry: Censorship,
Copyright, and Contrast
The term <span
is an oxymoron in China; all publishing houses are owned by the government. The
government alone may issue ISBNs, and the government decrees a long list of
content restrictions, specifying what may or may not be published. Could that
be any more different from the United States? And yet the difference is often
the same, as our group met with colleagues in one of the largest publishing
units in Shanghai and learned that distribution and returns are some of the
biggest challenges they face! When we heard that, there were smiles all
around—some things do appear to be universal.
The issue of piracy continues to
be a major challenge. In a keynote address during a seminar our group attended,
along with more than 30 Chinese publishers and government officials, the vice
general director of the National Copyright Administration of China informed us
that the government was committed to prosecuting violators. China’s entry into
the World Trade Organization has strengthened its position on punishing
offenders. If the number of bootlegged copies of bestsellers for sale on the
street was any indication, however, there is clearly room for improvement.
We’ve all read the many stories in
the press about illegal copying of the <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Harry Potter series. Author J.K. Rowling
and the Chinese publisher of the most recent Harry Potter book recently felt it
necessary to issue a formal public statement asserting that Rowling is the sole
legal copyright owner, and the People’s Literature Publishing House in China is
the exclusive legal publisher.
The Culture: A Mixed
The underlying theme that ran
throughout our week of meetings and visits was “partnership”: between
countries, between publishers, between individuals. Looking at the sheer
numbers in China—that population of 1 billion, that 89 percent adult
literacy rate, and 230 million school children K–college—is enough
to make any publisher salivate at the thought of capturing even the tiniest
percentage of that market through licensing deals.
The caveat is that, quite simply,
the good old American assertiveness, task-focus, and “in your face” method of
doing business do not work in China. Trust and relationship building are
critical to any kind of business relationship. Time and again, we heard from
our colleagues that, although licensing is still a critical component of their
business model, they want to forge alliances with foreign
publishers—“join hands,” as they put it—to collaborate and
A word about the language barrier.
From my perspective, it is the single largest challenge to doing business in
China. Interpreters are critical for any business meeting, but cultural
misunderstandings can still arise. Case in point: Our group was invited to a
late-afternoon “reception” with our fellow Chinese publishers. When we think of
a reception, normally we think of beverages, appetizers, roaming around,
informal chit-chat, wandering in and out as we please, right? Imagine our
surprise (to say nothing of embarrassment!) when we ambled in (fashionably
late) to what we thought was going to be a casual cocktail party and saw our
Chinese colleagues, who had been assembled, waiting for us, for 15 minutes,
sitting like this:
(Note to self: In China,
“reception” means “meeting,” and don’t look for the food.)
Beijing Book Fair and
Our week ended with a visit to the
Beijing Book Fair.
What struck me instantly was that,
unlike BookExpo, glitz and larger-than-life-sized book characters did not rule
the day. Beijing is becoming a serious contender in the rights arena, and
attendance is growing. PMA is exploring the possibility of participating in the
future, and nearly 1,000 companies from 48 countries participated this year,
including my own company, Patria Press. We exhibited in the <span
magazine booth, which was located in the American Collective Stand—a
cooperative group of U.S. publishers and industry professionals.
The booths were not elaborate. In
fact, a huge U.S. corporate publisher/conglomerate had the exact same signage
The lack of “glam” had the result of putting the focus where it
belonged—on the books.
Earlier, I mentioned that one of
my goals was to see if our series of children’s books had a market in China.
Some of the most popular subjects at the Beijing Book Fair were business,
self-help, how-to, and children’s, and since English classes are mandatory in
China from grade 3 on, I was hopeful that our books might be useful in teaching
English. As a result of my participation at the fair, I have received several
inquiries from interested Chinese publishers. Now I’ll need to begin taking my
own advice about the importance of building relationships first!
The reward from my visit to China
with the Stanford Publishing Travel/Study Tour did not come from learning the
Chinese book business, nor from participating in seminars, nor visiting the
Beijing Book Fair, although all those opportunities were indeed extraordinary.
It was looking out my hotel window
the first morning in Shanghai and seeing a crowd practicing T’ai Chi in the
It was the smile on the face of my
Chinese colleague who was so proud to converse in English.
It was the opportunity to meet and
learn from an international group of publishing colleagues.
In the end, the true impact of the
journey was measured by the rare insight into another culture—which was
exceeded only by the perspective I gained on my own.
Florrie Binford Kichler of
Patria Press, Inc., is the publisher of the <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Young Patriots Series and a PMA board
member. She can be reached at email@example.com.