New and old literature on the Web and on paper in China

Writing literature online has a substantial tradition in China, going back to the 1990s, and the most famous site was certainly (or “Under the Banyan Tree“), and a report in China Daily recounted already in 2004:

 “According to Lu Jinbo, chief editor of the website, it used to receive two or three articles a day in its first days, but today gets more than 5,000 submissions every day.Here

Lu stopped working with the website already a few years ago, and re-invented himself as an entrepreneur. His ambitions and his vision had Chinese format though, as he didn’t set up shop in some garage or backyard, but formed a joint venture with Bertelsmann. This joint venture is gone now, just as Bertelsmann decided to end most of its China publishing operations altogether (which seems odd as so many exciting things seem to happen right now in Chinese publishing).

Anyhow, Lu did it again, but this time his partner for his new joint venture called Wan Rong is Liaoning, the publishing group gone public recently. It seems funny that Lu, who in his slim and unpretending allure has everything both from  a nerd and a young writer (or even poet), stays with the printed book while, as we sat at a booth at the Beijing International Book Fair in Tianjin a couple of days ago, he told me some of the most extraordinary stories about what is going on online right now.

There are over 10 writers who made more than a million RMB (or 100.000 Euros) in 2007 just by writing online novels, and they seem to be completely disinterested in turning those things into paper books, as they consider books just uncool and, from an economical stand point, void of interest.

A great deal of it is “fantasy fiction”, and the sheer length of those texts, with up to 7 million words, would give any traditional book publisher a hard time in the first place.

The currently most popular website for literature online seems to be  with some 10 million registered users who pay for their registration. The business model is simple: Either you buy access on a subscription basis, or you get access to half of the book free of charge, but if you want to find out if and how this ghoul or some other bad spirit is dealt with after all his bad (or even good) deeds, you need to contribute on average 3 Chinese cents (or 0,003 Euros) per 1000 characters, which makes, if multiplied by the many words and the many users, a lot of sense economically.

I asked Lu if piracy was an issue, and he shook his head.

While this, looked at from a Western perspective, may seem to be just another of those many weird, yet colourful Chinese boom stories, there is perhaps more in it at a closer look.

I asked several  Chinese publishers and book people if in all those mushrooming pieces of Chinese  “Young Adult Fiction”, of fantasy or whatever style and format of literature one could find one or the other author who may be of interest for a readership in the West. And the answer was short and univocal: Sure!

One problem seems to be that the few large Western publishing groups who set up their own offices in Beijing only pick up very few ‘big books’ – like Penguin’s Jo Lusby did so successfully with “Wolf Totem” by Jiang Rong, published in the UK, US and France this year, selling some 70.000 copies in English, and due for release in Germany by Goldmann in 2009, well timed for China being the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair next fall.

But virtually all those smaller, independent publishers who ordinarily are the ones to explore new cultures and find new authors for all of us curious readers so far rely mostly on local subagents. And those subagents seem to go for what they consider safer bets (and bigger deals!). Those discoveries that only a daring editor may be keen to make are left out so far. So there is really room for improvement and for thrilling surprises in the years ahead.

To go from Beijing to Tianjin for the fair, I took the bus, paid 70 RBM (or 7 Euros) and could sleep on board for 2 good hours. To go back, Chinese friends bought me tickets for the brand new ‘bullet train’ that started only for the Olympic games. We rode at 333 (!) Km per hour  and were back in the capital in 30 minutes, paying 68 RMB ( or 6,80 Euros, or the price of ca. 2 books). A giant poster at the new Tianjin train station waved us good bye as we took off:


Publishing in China: More groups who prepare to go public

Here are some more Chinese publishing groups who prepare to go public and, as mentioned already, take note how many of them are procincial groups:

Schanghai Century Publishing Group

Jiangsu Publishing Group

Anhui Publishing Group

Hunan Publishing Group

and the distribution division of the central state run media group Xinhua.

This will trigger an interesting race for sure.

China publishing going public – new bold steps

The well established and well controlled environment of China’s 578 or so state owned publishing companies is probably about to be shaken up considerably as several of those companies are about to go public.

Liaoning Publishing Group is the leader of the pack as they already are listed at the Shanghai stock exchange for several months (for a company profile see here). But several others are about to getting their act together, including Anhui Publishing group, Jiangxi Publishing Group and Hunan Publishing Group. Take note that all of them are ventures of specific Chinese provinces, which highlights a) how complex China has become today, as provinces sharpen their profiles and very aggressively use e.g. publishing and other creative industries for recognition building and b) it shows that even as the Chinese state stays formally in control as the majority stakeholder, things are getting more complicated – and, you bet, more dynamic.

For the latter it is enough to browse the really flashy 2008 Autumn catalogue of e.g. the  “Liaoning Science and Technology Publishing House“, Lioaoning’s most cutting edge imprint which is not about some odd hardware store kind of books, but design, art, or architecture in China and from around the world. Or you have a look at their outstanding stand design at BIBF where you can chat, in English of course, with one of their editors who would instantly fit into any Soho ambiance in London or New York.


They will, of course,  be present at the major upcoming international book fairs, and I guess they will be in the professional news rather sooner than later.

It is also telling that one of the leading young and individualistic entrepreneurs of Chinese publishing, Lu Jinbo, after getting out of his joint venture with Bertelsmann, teamed up for his new brain child “Wan Rong” with the Liaoning Group.

Please allow me a few days for further details and some back ground research on this as I just arrived in Beijing, after quitting Tinajin and BIBF earlier today, and am utterly exhausted. But there is more to report from how publishing in China seems to be on the brink of change.

I guess it all only starts really now.

The (book) world according to China

Today was networking day at BIBF – or the Beijing International Book Fair 2008 in Tianjin. On the international side, we had one workshop with presentations of major international book fairs, namely Frankfurt, London, Hongkong, Abu Dhabi, while I had the pleasure to represent BookExpo America. But it was not anymore a simple wooing for a high potential new customer, but some serious debate about strategies of internationalization, and why – in the words of Frankfurt director Juergen Boos – in a globalising world, more and more rights will be traded, broken down into more and more slices, for more and more customized regions (and again, the issue of ‘localization’ was the buzz word).

Then we had another workshop between Chinese and US publishers, with big houses from both sides at the table. While some  like Penguin or Harper Collins – have opened their own Beijing offices already a few years ago, or Wiley trading in China already in the second generation of the founder family, highly specialized scientific journals (like the “Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery”) exploring whether they rather translate their journal, or have at least Chinese abstracts, but in the certain perspective of finding a readership here.

Another issue was that most Western publishers who have not set up shop in China, still need to go through local ‘sub-agents’, but as helpful as those intermediaries and go betweens may have been initially, in walking the first mile into uncharted territory, this system of only indirect contacts  turned now into a hurdle to deepen and specialize the mutual understanding. “We need more direct editor-to-editor conversations, as a colleague of Simon and Schuster put it, and many at the table nodded in approval.

Lesson learned: It is not “cultural dialogue” or politics anymore, but nuts and bolts, heavy, steady work.

The same is true from a Chinese perspective, it seems. I had dinner with a major Chinese publishing group who set up their overseas office already a year ago in London, and is full of enthusiasm and strategic ideas how to overcome the cultural barriers the other way round. And guess what, the tale sounds very similar to that of the Western explorer’s accounts before. I asked them, among other things, what was their core business here atBIBF, and the answer came without hesitating a second: 1. Selling into the Japanese and Korean markets, 2. Selling to local booksellers, 3. Looking for cooperations with the West, and 4. building theirs brands for the Western attendants. Which is a pretty clearly framed plan, I think.

So the Chinese slogan of “Going out!” (not refering to partying, but to go overseas for publishing business), drafted by government officials at first, is kind of a reality already for many at both sides. This reality, I will try to look at a bit more in detail in my conversations at BIBF tomorrow.

BIBF – The day before the opening: Chaos and Fun

Tomorrow is the grand opening of this year’s Beijing International Book Fair BIBF in Tianjin. That means for some, this is lazy Sunday…

Having fun with the kids…

while for others, it is frenzy work, many last minut calls and anxiousness for everything to be perfect…

The busy man!

I am always amazed the day before a fair to open when the chaos is at a climax…

BIBF under construction

You may discover that for some exhibitors, there is still room for improvment, e.g. in their marketing skills

A clear message that says it all

while others have finished their day well ahead…

Ready to go

So they can go out to play (while the others are still in the works)

A kite in the sky

To be continued as BIBF opens tomorrow.

“We are all wolves”, says a Chinese publisher to the world – and Mickey as well, ads another.

It is a unique story, on several levels, that promises to unfold at this year’s China International Book Fair BIBF – in Tianjin, 120 km from Beijing in this 4 m harbour town. Upbeat not only by 50+ gold medals from the Olympics, but even more so by a surge in dynamics, growth and profile in Chinese publishing over the past five or so years, Chinese publishers, book retailers and guests from overseas are gathering under a motto that simply says: China wants to turn what used to be a one way street – of China buying rights for translation and imports of books from Western publishing houses -into a market of equal contenders.

With the Chinese buying over 10.000 rights per year and selling in return, even by very optimistic accounts, at best one third of this, the new goal, as defined here at various seminars on the day before BIBF’s 2008 openening, this is a bold claim. But aside from the ambition, it is worth to listen to the fine print.

Hou Mingliang of Children’s fun Publishing Co. Ltd., which has earned a substantial investment from Scandinavian publishing group Egmont and is one of China’s best children book publishers, lined out the strategy in some interesting detail. He said that of course, at first, it was good and important, to translate from the West, and to learn how to behave properly in an environment regulated by international copyright (China joined the Bern and UCC agreements back in 1992). In a second step, which is roughly now, China must “behave like the Romans in Rome”, or, it must develop all the skills and habits that are the standard all around.

Already, this does not mean however, to mimic the rest of the world (or the West), but to prepare its own share and heritage, to put it on an equal level, by “localizing” international content for the Chinese audience.

Localisation is the second most important buzz word here, it seems. It means on the one hand to adapt marketing or formats to Chinese – local – usage. But it also claims to soon thereafter ‘localize’ foreign content in its core – by local Chinese elements, and soon by full blown Chinese creation as well.

You think “Mickey Mouse in China”? You are absolutely right!

We have been shown samples of a “Michey Mouse travels around China”, under fully legitimate Disney  licensing agreement, and local Chinese ‘creative’ work based on Disney’s “Princess” series as well. That’s not all.

“My first reference”, again from Disney, was considered by the Chinese licensing partner as “too much entertainment”, and having even structural shortcomings, labeled “lack of system”by the Chinese. Well, no problem, with again agreement from Disney, “Children’s fun Publishing” corrected this, deepened and extended the learning aspects, and off it went to the press and to a few million kids in the East.

This is not reserved to ambitious children and their parents. Liu Yuan, deputy President of China’s largest educational publishr Higher Education Press gave a broad overview of her company’s strategy, including digitasation, online & print integration, user enhancing platforms and all that stuff around text books, under the headline of ‘glocalization’ – or how to merge globalization with local adaptations. You may remember that slogan “Think globally, and act locally”. Here this is turned into a publishing strategy.

The borders between the local and the global is blurring, added  Meng Chao of Renmin University Press, because for Chinese publishers, he sees only “one global market” in which they have to act. And on this global stage, the Chinese consider themselves as being just wolves, among wolves, with not much difference between Western and Eastern carnivores.

Recently, both Macmillan and Pearson signed deals for Chinese teaching material to travel West. And the novel “Wolf Totem” (oh yes, Wolf metaphores are currently pretty popular here), after some months, and after the Olympics, once again the #1 fiction bestseller in China, with over 70,000 copies sold in its English translation at Penguin, all this is not only dreams, but probably the early days of just one more Chinese miracle to come.

Well, perhaps it may take some time before we – or our kids – learn our Math the Chinese way, or read something like “The Devil Wears Mao”. As Pearson’s grande dame of the rights business, Lynette Owen, who had started coming to China as early as 1982, remarked: One key to selling rights onto the world market is ‘relevance’, or you only sell in the book markets what the others consider cool, or being some sort of gold standard. Standards don’t change overnight. But they shift, as times go bye.

Beijing International Book Fair – a sidestep from the Olympics

Arriving at the Beijing airport this morning from Europe, I find myself picked up even before I could realize the really dump whether and the thick smog clouds above the city, by a young band of helpful youngsters waving billboards spelling the fair’s acronym BIBF, and guided gently to the bus stop for Tianjin. For several days from now on, they wait patiently at the international arrival hall to collect every single soul that may show up not for the ‘paraolympics’ – which seem to start these days after the classical Olympics -, or for any type of other business, but for books.

So half an hour later, I find myself in this medium sized bus, being driven not so much across the country side, but foggy highways, for some two and a half hours, until I am dropped again, at the Tianjin bus  station where, you bet, another group of young people, waving similar bilboards, shows up, with a long list with names in their hands -trying to identify me, which fails. But no problem, they get me into another bus, this time for me alone, and from the shabby bus station neighborehood, I am driven to the heart of the city. Midway, I am allowed a quick glance at the huge olympic statium of Tianjiin (London’s Millennium Dome pales in a comparison). The the journey ends at the exhibition hall and my somptuous hotel.

Across the street, in the early evening, there is another impressive and very big hall whose purpose I ignore, a tower with not formal purpose aside from being a flashy landmark, with laser beams on its top, and hundreds (or even a few thousand) of people leisurely strolling around, some dancing in groups to the sound of a ghetto blaster, others controlling kites high up in the sky at the end of long strings, some of the kites even have colourful lights attached, while other people ambitiously make rounds and rounds on their rollerblades.

What this has to do with books? It is simple: In China things tend to be really big. We saw it with the Olympics, and with their cities and their ambition. We need to acknowledge the same lesson when it comes to books, publishing and the size of the reading audience, and hence the size of the market.  And the Chinese became pretty good and straight forward in getting all this set up and connceted with the rest of the (of our) world.

Those details will follow in the BookLab over the next few days, coming directly from Tianjin, PR China.

Does the publishing industry follow the road of the music industry into digital trouble?

While German publishers, teaming up with their peers from the music business, ran full page ads in national daily newspapers calling for government help (!) against all those digital threats (see my piece in german in Perlentaucher), some colleagues in the UK give a pretty blunt warning against such shortsightedness:”Some would say that the publishing industry appears to be walking blindfold down the same path and in some cases with even the same players.” This is not some digerati bonzo writing, but the bloggist of the British Booksellers’ Association, Matyn Daniels.Well, we keep you posted, soon with a new overview of recent digital ventures of publishers across Europe and the US. Stay tuned.  

Ever more eBook projects in the US, France and Germany

News come in regularly about just another project aiming at exploring possibilities and perspectives of books on digital platforms.

At the Paris Salon du Livre, the French Minister for Culture and Communication, Christine Albanel, said that “we must stop only endure the digital revolution”, but instead look out courageously for the potential. “The book”, she continued, “is one oft the very last domains where we still can anticipate (what is going to happen) and give it meaning and exact rules”.

Well, even if this reflects a genuinely French belief in rules and control, the statement points to one strong fact: The current wave of experiments and initiatives is probably driven by exactly the fact that many companies – and even public institutions – have grasped that closing the eyes with a strong belief that ever stricter policing of enhanced copyright legislation will not make those digital ghost disappear.

Anyhow, at the Paris Salon, amidst a huge controversy around an Arab call for boycot due to Israels presence as the guest of honour, digital readers and related stories were the “stars of the show“.

Right after the Salon, the “Gallica 2” book digitisation project is supposed to go live, with 60.000 digitised works at the National Library, and 2.000 more new titles from some 50 French publishers – who received some subsidies for their move, according to The Bookseller. (Link – with subscription required)

Also, the French encyclopedia Larousse promised to have its largest edition put online soon (here is a demo), and a new epaper reader called Bookeen was unveiled.

At the Germany Leipziger Buchmesse, Ronald Schild, the head of the German digitization project Libreka, announced e-commerce tools for booksellers and publishers,  allowing them to integrate an eBook shop on their websites, granting readers for instance access to a book for a limited period of time.

 A forum debate with various members of the book and publishing community had it that  “the book will remain, even without paper.”

But when Torsten Casimir, editor in chief of Boersenblatt, the German Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association magazine, asked writer Michael Kumpfmueller about “user generated content”, the writer was sure that “writing fan fiction on things like Harry Potter will be over soon”. Well, well. A colleague of a nerdy Berlin group of online journalists and writers, Sascha Lobo of Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur, dryly replied: “This is what I call fatal arrogance.”

I admit I felt more enlightened by a piece in Shelf Awareness on “Digital Change: A College Survey Course“, with Mark Nelson explaining at CAMEX in San Antonio, Texas, that “digital change could come as quickly as the iPod became a staple of college students: in four years, iPod adoption by college freshman went from 0% to 85%.”

Nelson also reminded professional book people how readers, especially at learning institutions, “want lower prices. They don’t want to buy a whole book if the professor doesn’t want them to read it all. And they want shareable content that they can interact with.” He cautioned, “If we don’t find a solution to these questions, someone else will.” Nelson also pointed to several University projects that are worth exploring:

CourseSmart, an experiment launched by 6 major text publishers, Amazon is begining to sell textbooks over the Kindle and starts partnering with publishers, Ingram offers a growing inventory of content, CafeScribe is an affiliate program, and these are not the last examples of all that is going on out there – we will keep you posted.

In Germany, Amazon is one of the top 3 booksellers

The German book trade magazine buchreport published its yearly ranking of the top 50 German language book retailers (chain stores as well as local chains) emphasizing once again the dynamics of market consolidation.

The 2 leading chain stores, Thalia (a division of perfume retailer Douglas, with book revenues of 801 m Euros) and DBH (the combined Hugendubel and Weltbild groupformed only in 2006, with revenues of 711 m Euros) are way ahead of the rest of the pack. Their closest competitor Mayersche has only 145 m Eros in revenues.

 Well, this is not entirely true, as online retailer Amazon released its sales figures for Germany of 1,48 bn $ or roughly 1 bn Euros in revenues in 2007 (it was 1,1 bn in 2006 – or up 31 % with currency exchange effects taking into account). (Figures reported on 3 March 2008 by Franfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – available online on subscription only)

Acknowledging that Amazon sells a lot more than just books and other media, with estimates guessing that all media combined represent ca. 60 % of Amazon’s German sales, this puts Amazon at least at #3 in Germany, and probably as the retail book and media company with the most dynamic prospects of groth.

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