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.

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