China to losen state control over publishing by 2010?

The Chinese internet platform Danwei reports, quoting an article in China Youth Daily, that the Chinese government is set to abandon direct control over most publishing companies by the end of 2010.

The goal is to allow “for profit” media companies to get rid of direct state control, to end state restrictions on the allocation of ISBN, and to encourage the forming of “six or seven internationally-recognized press and media companies that are domestic leaders with assets and sales each over 10 billion yuan.” (Original quote in Chinese)

After experimenting already with IPOs of state controled publishing groups since 2008, and with more or less independent “creative agencies” acting as defacto publishing companies, or at least, as – partly very successful – imprints, this next move could be decisive in pushing China’s publishing industry internationally from being only a big buyer of copyrights into a real player in the global cultural industries.

See also our privious posts here and here and here

Global bestseller list 2008 featured in German buchreport

Our Global bestseller list has been featured in the week’s, and buchreport online – Germany’s leading source of book market information.

The list which has been established for the first time ever, based on bestseller information from across Europe, the USA, and China, has had braod media attention, including The Bookseller, The Guardian and Associated Press.

China update: Trends, topics, new titles

While it is frightening to see in this very moment how the new Mandarin hotel next to Rem Kohlhas’ CCTV tower is burning, I was checking all kinds of sources on news with regard to China’s publishing landscape.

Friends told me that the crisis so far did not have any knock out impact on the industry, but at the same time, I hear a lot of lines about “restructuring” – or reconsidering all to bold and expansive strategies in publishing companies.

We learn for instance that Liaoning Press which was the first publishing company allowed to go public at the Shanghai Stock exchange in 2008 has been re-branded as North United Publishing and Media (Group) Co., Ltd. More significantly, most of the major Shanghai based publishing groups have been encouraged to become more of  ‘companies’ instead of state run cultural agents, and yet another publisher – Reader Publishing Group in Gansu Province –  is also preparing to go public.

The annual Beijing domestic book fair held in January says in releases that business concluded with 2.5 bn RMB worth of deals (ca. 200 m up as compared to 2008).

Also, translations which had shown tremendous growth to an estimated 10,000 titles sold into China for translation per year, seem to remain solid. In a workshop sponsored by the British Council, it was announced that China will be the guest of honor at the London Book fair in 2012 (after being in that role in Frankfurt later this year).

Forcasts e.g. in China Daily have it that books about macro economics as well as the now exactly 30 years of China’s opening may be among the top issues in the year’s new releases.

In fact in  the top bestseller segment, the controversial “Currency Wars” (货币战争) by Song Hongbing  is back as #1 in non fiction. And 30 years of the special economic zone in Shenzhen have been turned into a novel called “Destiny” (命运 ) by Lu Tianming.


Much more interestingly in terms of international reach is the clear trend that more and more regularly, books from Chinese authors are given prominent recognition abroad. In a piece in the New Yorker, the broadening reciprocal exchange of books and ideas via translations in both direction has been recently discussed – and compared to the lack of such an exchange with the Arab world.

Pankaj Mishra reviewed the English translation of the in its Chinese edition hugely successful novel “Brothers” by Yu Hua  in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. But also the very dark The Vagrants: A Novel, a captivating new book on the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution, by short story writer Li Liyun, got instantly attention and appraisal in the Times as the English translation was released by Random House.

In the most recent Chinese bestseller lists provided by China Publishing Today, a new novel, long listed at last year’s Man AsiaLiterary Award, Murong Xuecun, hit the charts, “Dance the Red Dust” (原谅我红尘颠倒), while his earlier book “Leave Me Alone, Chengdu” was given a German translation at Zweitausendeins.

So one can be cautiously optimistic that the flow of books and ideas between China and us starts to broaden from the odd trickle that it once was into a quite robust – and exciting – stream.

The next step ahead however would need to involve more sophisticated and also two sided working relationships between publishers and editors from the West with their counterparts in Chinese publishing houses – which used to be for so long just this: state controlled government agencies.

Ripping off the cover: Has digitization changed what’s really in the book?

The wonderful journal “Logos” has published a tink piece I wrote on the “future of the book” or, more precisely, on what e-Books and digitization may have changed – or not changed at all – about books:

What is a book? And, what’s really in it? These
two simple questions are getting both more
complicated and more interesting as books are
moving from their incarnation as “laminated wood
pulp” — as some digerati nerds mock the ink-onpaper
versions of traditional knowledge containers
— to other, mostly digital media.
With a multitude of new manifestations of
the book, initiatives on the book, book-related
gadgets and uses, and with 2008 as a likely
watershed year for the future of electronic books
(e-books), it seems only appropriate to revisit
these two primal questions in a more systematic
and serious way.
Admittedly, this article is more a loose set of
initial observations, thoughts and notes than a
thoroughly researched essay — at best a think
piece, trying to identify and pick up a number of
the loose ends of the current and often emotional
debate on e-books. I try to identify some aspects of
what may change — or has changed already — as
books go digital; what on the contrary will not be
so different, after all, in the digital future; what is
at stake; and, somewhat as a postscript, why ebooks
so far have not been at all successful in
competing with the traditional book.

You find more here

Back from Cairo International Book Fair – A true adventure in books

If book fairs are supposed to be still some kind of frontier, Cairo is the place to go. It is arguably the largest book fair on the planet, both in space (a huge area, with halls, shacks, walks and lawns (for pick nick), and a lot of surprise.

The Cairo book fair - a place for many and many purposes

Yet despite its 1.5 million visitors in 2 weeks – who come to shop for books, as hardly any normal bookshops exist outside Cairo, and no reliable distribution, the variety is very limited to religion, children’s educational materials, romance and a few sprinkled other books.

Cairo - book stalls

Cairo - book stall

The Cairo book fair – a place for many and for many purposes

You see large crowds, people of all strands of life, many children, religious people and laymen, ready for a discovery.

(Find an entire album of pictures from the Cairo book fair at Flickr.)

However, doing the facts on the Arab book market is sobering. Looking out for relevant data about Arab book publishing, I got introduced to Salah B. Chebaro from Beirut, Lebanon, who runs Neel Wa Furat, probably the largest online book store in the Arab world. I asked him how many titles he has on his online catalogue, and the answer is ca. 8.000. He estimates that between Lebanon and Egypt, the two main book producing countries of the region, plus Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, some 15.000 titles are currently available. The Maghreb states may add another 5.000.

New titles on display

New titles on display

So altogether, this equals roughly the output of Poland, yet Poland’s population of 38 million needs to be set into perspective to an Arab population of 200 million. The Arab Human Development Report of 2003 estimated the Arab book production at not exceeding 1.1 percent of world production.

However there is growing international interest in the Arab world’s publishing. This year, the United Kindom, helped by the British Council, is the guest of honour and brings a lot of expertise and support. In the Emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, ambitious new foundations have been set up to give a strong push and develop reading culture, translation and diversity. a few big players from Western publishing have set up shop recently in Dubai, notably Random House, Harper Collins and Bloomesbury.

And in just a few months, we will hold a “Global Market Forum: The Arab World” at BookExpo America (28 – 31 May, 2009, in New York).

Omar Moussa, General Secretary of the Arab League, with Anna Swank of ArteEast, Nasser Jarrous and myself

Amre Moussa, General Secretary of the Arab League, with Anna Swank of ArteEast, Nasser Jarrous and myself

It will be inaugurated by the General Secretary of the Arab League, Amre Moussa who received us kindly.

It will be a very special event to present writers, translators, publishers and experts to explore Arab culture in New York.

With more details, both on the Arab book market – with data and ressources – and about our program at BEA to come here soon.

Publishers Weekly fires 4, including editor-in-chief Sara Nelson

Publishers Weekly (PW), once acclaimed as “the Bible” on US publishing, fires 4 members of its staff, including editor-in-chief Sara Nelson.

PW is owned by Reed Business Information, the professional magazine division of Reed Elsevier which was for sale throughout most of 2008 and, finding obviously no buyer, was subject to restructuring plans even before the current financial downturn had hit.

Sara Nelson, formerly a highly acclaimed reporter for the early days media start up, had been hired by PW in 2005 to renew the magazine. She made her reputation at PW quickly as an outspoken  voice on the industry and thereby helped to sharpen the profile of the old lady that PW has been for a long time.

The magazine’s move obviously triggers many questions on the publication’s strategy ahead.

Proudly presenting: The global (and European) bestselling authors of 2008

Working on bestselling books and author, we did a first ever ranking of the bestselling authors 2008 in Europe and globally. Here is our gobal top 20 fiction list:

1 Khaled Hosseini

2 Stieg Larsson

3 Ken Follett

4 Stephenie Meyer

5 Muriel Barbery

6 Carlos Ruiz Zafón

7 Anna Gavalda

8 John Grisham

9 JK Rowling

10 Henning Mankell

11 Alan Bennett

12 Jodi Picoult

13 Christopher Paolini

14 David Baldacci

15 Nicholas Sparks

16 Elizabeth George

17 Lauren Weisberger

18 Michael Connelly

19 Patricia D Cornwell

20 Paulo Coelho

The Bookseller broke the story, and the Guardian picked it up here.

It’s the Crisis, stupid! But what does this really mean?

Tracking news about how the crisis affects publishing over the past two months produces some strange findings. Almost instantly, starting as of  November 2008, we saw predictions about how the crisis would hit the industry. Then in December – and now again, with the year’s end reporting – we are told that notably in the US, UK and France, XMas 08 was pretty dark in various segments of the book trade. In Germany, it was not so bleak, but all of the rest of 2008 was not terrific in the first place.

Between these notes, we also heard quickly reports about imminent job cuts (notably in the US, with Simon &  Schuster, Macmillan), restructuring measures and (at Houghton Mifflin) an instant freeze in the acquisition of new titles.

But frankly, these are all pretty dumb, unspecific measures and reactions. What does this mean for a publishing company to stop buying new titles? (And Houghton had build its Himalaya of debt well before the crisis was on the horizon!)

But most amazing is how little we hear about the deeper – structural – trouble in the industry.  Only in France, in Livres Hebdo and in Le Monde, I found some pieces addressing the huge rise of advances over the past years, or more detailed observations about distribution and consolidation.

I didn’t find any well informed reflections about the overproduction (the flood of titles); or the internationalization of the trade, of trends and of author brands; or the probably new dynamics (and competition) between imprints of large conglomerates and independents with regard to the crisis.

Most of all, I would expect that this crisis will trigger digital change, because if you can dramatically reduce the cost of production, storage, distribution and also marketing by doing it all in an integrated digital environment, it is not all too difficult to predict that at least some actors – from within the industry, or some new entrants – will go down that path.

Well, I will do my best in the weeks and months to track information and thoughts along those lines and discuss it on this site.

On translation across Europe: The Diversity Report 2008

The basic pattern is familiar: Most translations of books have English originals (ca. 60 percent on average) , while hardly any translations travel back into English (guesses are at 2 to 3 percent).

But what happens to smaller languages, e.g. from highly fragmented, yet culturally rich regions such as Central Europe? And how do medium sized languages, like French or German?

This is what the Diversity Report 2008 is all about, a very first approach to mapping the flows of translation all across Europe, which is now ready for download.

There are a lot of surprises in the 44 page report which is packed with over 30 diagrams full of details:

The strongest translating country is not Germany anymore, but France;

Translations between Central European countries are only half of what it was before 1989, disregarding all funding efforts;

Translations from German into many languages decrease, undermining Germany’s role as a gateway to many languages and cultures;

There are a few winners in Central Europe (and elsewhere) though, languages with an upward trend for translations, notably Swedish, Polish, or Czech.

Frankly, compiling the report and mapping cultural diversity was a hell of a lot of work, and my brain is still confused from all the numbers and charts we produced, but it was clearly worth the effort.

And I shall report details here, after our presentation on Friday at the “On Translation” conference at Buch Wien 08.

Change in publishing: Yes, we can! Can we?

A brief visit to the Netherlands parachuted me into an interesting university seminar at Leiden – a lovely city with an outstanding and historically long tradition both in book printing and in gardening and an impressive brand new public library.

After spending a few hours in the botanical garden, where they had planted those very first tulip pulps in the 17th which led to one of the first really severe stock market break downs of modern history, I sat down in an auditorium and listened to three gentlemen from the Dutch book trade, as they rolled out their views on digital change ahead.

Interestingly enough, they seemed to be pretty confident about what was going to happen.

One (who runs a kind of consortium distribution agency for books owned by all the publishers collectively?!) said that they needed only to adapt their fulfillment to the new kinds of electronic books.

The second, a librarian, had visions about how libraries would become agents in turning those digital documents into Print on Demand (POD) books – yet did not seem to be very much aware of the complexities in dealing with all the copyrights and commercial interests  involved.

The third, who was with an e-Book facilitator, saw a good business in helping probably independent publishers in going digital.

All three were kind of sure that e-books will be just a new kind of paperback or audio book subsidiary right of  books as we know them.

As these gentlemen spoke, 4 different kinds of e-Book readers were passed to us in the auditorium, the Amazon Kindle (which kind of froze, and it was impossible to me or anyone else to get it back to life), a Sony Reader (which was clearly my favorite in terms of look & feel), and two others.

Surprisingly enough for such a specialized set of speakers and listeners, money, business models or rights issues – aside of direct piracy, which everybody disliked, of course – were hardly addressed.

I did my best in expressing my suspicion that the paths into the digital future of the book will be less linear than expected by the present practitioners.

Still, I feel an urge to repeat, once again, this old joke:

Remember this debate about how we need to imagine God? Someone from the audience stands up and says: “First of all, She is black!”

I suppose that e-Books will mean real change, and not just more of the same.

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