Buy a car (with a book), and other funny thoughts

This weeks edition of The Economist runs an insightful piece about the music industry’s experience of change over the past decade. I hadn’t thought of it either, but Apple’s iPod launch coincided exactly with the recession that had followed the Internet bubble burst and 9/11 less than a decade ago:

“Many observers thought the company had gone mad. Apple was launching an expensive new product (the first iPod cost $399) in the depths of the worst downturn the technology industry had ever seen. It was venturing outside its familiar market, for personal computers, into the fiercely competitive field of consumer electronics. And it was taking on Sony, the giant of the industry. The iPod’s name, sceptics declared, stood for ‘idiots price our devices’.”

The Economist also notes how, after the crash (of music pricing and music revenues from CD sales) the record companies had started to understand how much more convenient a subscription model was against selling music by the album. Now the next step is to “hiding the cost of a music subscription inside something else.” You buy a Nokia phone and get a year’s load of music for instance. Or you buy a car, and it sings for one year – or a car’s life time perhaps.

And just as iPods and downloadable music have strongly increased the relevance of live acts, especially for independent bands, so will e-Books do for literature and writers – says Irish writer and e-Book evangelist Julian Gough in an article of the Irish Times, because readings and literary festivals will become much bigger “as books dematerialise”.

New entrants to e-Book perspectives: iPhone more popular e-Book reader than Amazon’s Kindle

I was always surprised about ow much attention is focused on reading devices for e-Books instead on new user habits, new channels or new business models that emerge from or drive the new digital reading environment. It just seems unlikely, in my view, that books will stay the same once we start to consume them online.

It makes no sense to expect that we continue to see the book as an isolated item, pay for it per item, or exchange it with friends and peers only when allowed to do so by some complicated DRM scheme. It also is pretty unlikely that it will be the big old book companies, from major publishing behemoths to major online sellers like Amazon who have the strongest ideas when it comes to energetically explore the new possibilities and new usages. I would rather expect both a bunch of new consumer habits and a few new entrants on the technology and on the distribution side to come in.

Now I read in the Bookseller and then in Forbes that Apple’s iPhone has become more popular as an e-Book reader than Amazone’s Kindle. So perhaps my scepticism about “e-Books will be just more of the same” was just a correct guess.

eBooks like the Kindle will change publishing’s business modell

In an essay for the Vienna daily Der Standard (in German here) I tried to make sense of the new generation of electronic reading devices such as Amazon’s Kindle, Sopny’s eReader or the iLiad.

I am convinced that they will push the cause of online publishing and reading on screens substantially, but which is more interesting still is what side effects online publishing may cause.

I assume that little may change for the bestselling segment, at least in the medium term, because large print runs and big marketing dollars or Euros still have the best and most effective model in printed books and on the current retail structure (which, of course, includes already a lot of powerful change driven by digital elements, starting with Amazon and how it deeply affects book selling – see the recent piece in New York Magazine).

But for all those many – and ever growing – numbers of titles  that make up the cultural diversity of books, and by that the Long Tail, everything may change with considerable punch and speed.

And with this, we may face a changing business model for electronic books rather sooner than later. As already with music, internet acces or scientific journals, paying for access in the form of some subscription or flat rate may prove to be the model of choice, against paying per item which we usually do when we purchased a book in the past.

This, of course, would trigger enormous chain reactions across the book industry and book culture. (More on this soon here).

Where do Chinese publishers want to go today?

With all the ambition and enthusiasm and curiosity I met among Chinese publishers, the answer to this question may remain ambivalent – yet it also requires more in depth research.

When I discussed the list of publishers who prepare to go public with Hong OuYang, the energetic and very well informed editor-in-chief of China Publishing Today, probably the most relevant independent source of insight into the industry right now, she insisted that one must be cautious. A great deal of the energy at this point goes to the domestic market. For many decision makers in the industry just as well as in the government, it seems safer and more reasonable to look at developments in the home market first – while overseas is considered more risky and more difficult (as you need to travel, to speak or at least understand foreign languages and cultures, and hardly can predict success with both the professional and the consumer audiences abroad).

I must say, as a European, this reminds me pretty much of the US approach in many respects.

The money raised at the stock exchange, Mrs. Ou insisted, will be spent primarily to get things going within China. That recalled manifold details that I had come across over the past week or so in China publishing – as well a story in the New Yorker from the end of July about young Chinese often hesitant against too much impact from things and ideas coming from the “West”.

Chinese are very keen to ‘localise’ – or culturally adapt – the content they buy, to the point of sending Mickey Mouse, with permission from Disney, to a journey across China, thereby adapting they cultural focus on “education” and values against a Western crave for pure entertainment. So why go for the trouble of a more complex ‘dialogue’ with the other?

A second thing is the many things to be done domestically. Mrs. Liu Yuan of the large “Higher Education Press” gave a few impressions of her company’s vast projects in merging and customizing and making interactive all the educational material between print and online, including large scale experiments with flexible business models where a lot is free, but more in depth interaction is charged for. Here, capital raised at the stock exchange can be used for very appropriately for quite some time.

A third field of expansion within is distribution. I have mentioned that the distribution division of the state held Xinhua agency is considering going public. With the consistently growing presence of English books available to Chinese readers – and many major US and UK groups – like Pearson – starting to produce low priced local English editions for Chinese readers, and distribution within China controlled by very few key companies, like Xinhua, the domestic online retailer Dong Dong and the Chinese branch of, Joyo, there is only limited need for broad and, to use the dirty word again, ‘complex’ interaction on many various levels.

A last issue is, as I have been told in more private conversations, that many of the ‘Presidents’ – or CEOs – of the major Chinese publishers who, I must remind us, are all owned by the government, are very much more focused on their home turf than the international. But again, this is exactly where perhaps change and opening up sets in.

“Going out” has been declared the official slogan not only, but also for publishing. And with the recently encouraged ambition to not only buy foreign rights, but quite a few success stories of Chinese books making it abroad. This is of course, once again, “Wolf Totem”, but also the highly popular kids’ series “Naughty Boy” by Yang Hongyin, launched by Harper Collins as “Mo’s Mischief” in the UK and US, and by Les Editions Piquier as “Les Affreux Jojos” in France. (By the way, allow me to add a funny footnote on those translations: The graphics that come with the texts have been taken as they were for the English translation, even more so as the kids are portrayed very much in an American style, with baseball caps and all, while for the French edition, new illustrations have been made, giving the kids a somewhat Asian allure!)

In Chinese fiction for kids, Yang Hongyin has only one rival, and that is the Austrian Thomas Brezina who with his “Knickerbocker Gangs” sold almost as many million books as she did. Next month, a panel is prepared at the Frankfurt Book Fair with both Yang and Brezina who together allegedly sold some 25 million books in China alone.

Before heading back to Europe, I had been given the wonderful opportunity to talk to young editors of China Youth International Press, or CYPI. They had chosen an even more direct approach to “go out” by opening an office in London a year ago to find a market for their top quality illustrated books.

With less than one day between the invitation and the time for delivery, I had prepared a really improvised presentation, thinking of a conversation of perhaps 60 minutes. On arrival, I was shown the international division’s classy new offices, with a conference room as you would expect to find it rather in a PR agency in Hamburg, Germany, than at a Chinese publishing company. Then I was introduced to some 40 hungry minds, all young editors, most in their late twenties who instantly produced an atmosphere of highest attention and curiosity.

So we started, with some overview on international trends that I tried to explore at the beginning, and then I was shown a long list of ongoing book projects. I was amazed by the wide range of topics, by the quality of the work, and by the unpretentious way of how those projects were discussed.

At one point, I looked out of the windows noticing with surprise that it was getting dark. Nevertheless the Q&A went on for another 15 minutes, and in the end, we had a really highly compact workshop that lasted for three full hours, without even a break.

While saying good bye, a little bit exhausted, I must confess, I realized with what ease these young professionals had for all this time moved back and forth between their visibly tightly woven group patterns, and the individualistic curiosity of similar folks in any creative company anywhere in the world.

Chinese Icons

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.

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