“We are all wolves”, says a Chinese publisher to the world – and Mickey as well, ads another.
August 30, 2008 by ruediger

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.

Comments are closed.