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 Amazon.com, 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.

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