Book Publishing in China – A Paradox World to Explore

There are 577 publishing companies in China – versus several thousand in Germany alone – and all are owned by the state, sort of.

There are more than twice as many new titles published per year – 233,000 against 90,000 in Germany -, yet the Chinese book market  is only worth half of the German. But at a retail price of 1 Euro per book in China against more than 10 in Germany, one can start to marvel at the magnitude that the Chinese book market does represent.

We had a terrific seminar on these issues last week, in Vienna, Austria, and in Berlin, Germany, with Ou Hong of the trade magazine China Publishing Today, and Huang Jiwei of the primarily children’s book publishing company Jie Li (#27 among all PR Chinese publishing ventures) who introduced us to how things work in PR China.

The amazing paradox is that on the one hand, publishing is still supposed to be under state control. Yet at the same time, this is an amazingly expansive industry, and, second surprise, books and reading over there are very much targeted at young audiences in their 20ies – as opposed to book reading as a typically 50+ past time in Europe.

This is reflected by any bestseller list, such as the fairly reliable one researched by Nielsen affiliated OpenBook which is published on a monthly basis by Publishing Today (and recently, we proudly disseminate this list to major book trade magazines worldwide).  

We have a fair amount of pop star like writers in China today, like Han Han, Anni Baobei, or Guo Jingming, all in their early twenties, who cater to a likewise audience, obviously dwelling on their agenda of how to find guidance and meaning in a turbulent society full of change, and with few secured guidelines (with old fashioned Chinese literary critics asking desperately if those young folk can be seasoned enough to understand the depth of art and life).

On the other hand, we see how books and writers a growing into huge cornerstones for orientation and values in a society turned upside down every other month.

A few simple examples: Bill Bryson’s huge narrative across millenia of Earth and Human history, “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, has been turned into a must read for ambituous youngsters, and successfully so, because this is what “young people should learn to know anyway”. Oops, pardon me! This is not only a flatly ambitious statement. Anyone with some experience in branding and marketing will marvel at the daring approach of just turning around some global success story for free re-formating!

I also liked how deliberately global and home grown success stories have been shown at our workshops.

There is, for young readers up to ca. 12 years, the wild ‘we’re all happy’ books of Yang Hongying, about a kid with a toy designer papa and a super nanny all-is-good mom. Mrs. Yang traveled to 90 cities in 4 years, selling 12 million books domestically, plus rights to the US and to France.

More surprisingly, almost the same happened to Thomas Brezina, of Austria, except for the travelling, who authored the “Super Tiger Team” series, selling a few hundred thousand books in Austria and, to a lesser degree, in Germany. But now, 6 out of the current top 10 in children’s fiction are of his books – representing many millions in sales, and solidly more than J.K. Rowling with her Harry Potter series indeed!

The interesting point is this: Reading books in China is obviously closely linked to being upwardly ambitious and young in PR China, and everyone, authors, publishers, of course foreigners, but also the domestic authorities are heavily experimenting on how to make these things happen most effectively.

Any major web 2.0 website, most of which are wildly popular in China, display prominently ‘book’ or ‘reading’ channels, displaying often entire books, sometimes for free, sometimes at a fee.

 I came apon the novel of a  „Zhi Feng 1133“ at sina who had clearly drawn over a million readers as of last week with a still unprinted story.

And of course it is at little risk to early warn about one of the top worldwide fiction discoveries in 2008 by quoting “Wolf Totem” by Jiang Rong, who had spent 11 years in Mongolia in the Cultural Revolution, sentenced to be re-educated, but in fact studying wolves and how they recognize and respect rank, and order, when hunting as a pack – which made him develop a theory of “wolf stratagems” – obviously a set of rules of behaviours and success that applies not only to China, but also to the rest of us. His book, “Wolf Totem”, sold for translations into many languages, will be in a book store near you at some time next year, with rumours of Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”) preparing to turn the unique story into a movie.

What else should I add? Let’s go China, if you want to check it out.

More on these pages and at my every once in a while over the next year.

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