From Mao to Potter: publishers vie for China’s new market

Beijing, October 12:

With millions of readers offering a growing market for books, China’s importance will not

be overlooked at the October 10-14 Frankfurt Book Fair, which is set to have 160 Chinese exhibitors this year.

When the English version of the latest Harry Potter story was released worldwide in July, Chinese bookshops were included in the global jamboree for the first time, reflecting the emergence of China as a major book market.

The People’s Literature Publishing House plans to release 800,000 to one million copies of the Chinese version of J K Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, according to different reports. The Chinese version of the book about the schoolboy known here as Hali Bote (pronounced Ha-lee Bo-tuh) will retail at 60 yuan ($7.90) when it is released on October 28, People’s Literature said.

Despite a price at least three times that of most books printed in China, the publisher can almost guarantee the success of its Harry Potter title, unless pirated copies flood the market first. Most publishers are not so fortunate, in an increasingly cutthroat industry that the government is trying to reform.

Just 25 years ago Chinese bookshops were austere places stocking only a few volumes of propaganda work produced under the close supervision of the ruling Communist Party. But last year, Chinese publishers produced only 389 titles on Marxism, Leninism and Maoism, compared with 4,478 other philosophy titles, the government said.

Today it is possible to publish almost any book that omits overt political content. The Beijing International Book Fair, launched 14 years ago, is now the world’s fourth-largest book fair.

Chinese publishers printed 233,971 titles, or 6.41 billion books, with a retail value of

64.9 billion yuan ($8.4 billion) in 2006, according to government statistics.

Yet online buying and publishing are already having a dramatic effect on the book market in China, leaving many publishers with large stocks of unsold books. To maximise income, books by popular authors are rushed out and often incorporate elaborate designs or special security details to deter the pirates from copying them.

Most of China’s tens of thousands of publishers are small, state-run enterprises mired

in traditional bureaucracy and lacking high-technology equipment.

The state-run industry group China Book International (CBI) recently suggested an ‘urgent transformation of the growth pattern’ in book publishing. “We believe that the core of growth pattern transformation should be in the way of market-orientation, industrialisation and conglomeration,” said the group.

CBI favours larger publishing groups, technological upgrades, and the encouragement of greater innovation. It admits that such a transformation is ‘sure to be hard for the traditional Chinese book publishing industry’.

A total of 560,000 imported titles with a nominal value of $43.2 million entered the Chinese market last year. About two-thirds of the imports were non-fiction works covering science, technology, culture and education.

South Korea and Japan remain the biggest markets for translations of Chinese books, but an increasing number of Chinese novels are published in English and other European languages.

Penguin opened an office in Beijing in 2005 to tap the flow of contemporary Chinese literature. It plans to release worldwide an English translation of the Chinese best seller ‘Wolf Totem’, by Jiang Rong, next March.

Jo Lusby, the manager of Penguin’s China operations, sees a ‘sense of excitement’ among publishers at their prospects in China. The acclaimed Mo Yan is probably the most widely translated into English of all contemporary Chinese novelists based in China.

Mo Yan is best known outside China for ‘Red Sorghum’, which director Zhang Yimou adapted for an award-winning film of the same name. He is sometimes called a ‘rural writer living in the city’ by Chinese critics, while some laud him as China’s version of William Faulkner.

Most of Mo Yan’s translations are by US-based Howard Goldblatt, a leading Western scholar of Chinese literature.