China: BEA's biggest story

China: BEA's biggest story

Three things were evident: the Chinese presence at Book Expo was inescapable. The reactions it generated in non-Chinese publishers and writers were ambivalent. And on many levels, for American and European publishers, it would be a mistake not to take the Chinese very seriously indeed. Lest we forget, one Beijing editor reminded us at one of the public ceremonies: part of his country’s integration into the international community involves being the largest owner of US debt.

“They have the urge to come here, to be in the world and show the world, but they don’t know how to do it,” a sympathetic China-watcher said of the PRC presence.

A seasoned British publisher put it more bluntly: “What they’re doing conveys a curious mix of arrogance and ignorance.”

Nevertheless, “Thank God for the Chinese,” many a European and American fair-goer wryly observed: without their outsize footprint and plentiful greenbacks, BEA would have been even more a shadow of its former self.

Throw in actual publishing and bookselling business between China and the West (think Wiley, Penguin Random House et al). Add screenings, panels and readings by officially-sanctioned Chinese writers (famous in their homeland) arranged all over town. The PRC even enlisted the “largest” Times Square billboard, which, as Mr Li Yan, v.p. of China Publishing Group (40 companies, domestic and overseas, with 96 subsidiaries) put it, aimed “to draw the world’s attention to the Chinese publishing industry.”

But do not forget the off-site forum decidedly unsanctioned by the PRC, featuring dissident writers such as Bao Pu (nowadays a Hong Kong-based publisher as well), Murong Xuecun, and the UK-based Guo Xiaolu, who writes in English what she says she cannot in Chinese; the demonstration on the steps of the New York Public Library where they were joined by Jonathan Franzen, Paul Auster, and others; and major newspaper editorials, all organized by PEN American Center, protesting censorship and repression.

Taking everything together, China was the lead story coming from this year’s Book Expo.

As online bookselling has risen, the show has shrunk; BEA is an expensive event in an expensive city (one reason that in 2016, it will move for a year to Chicago). Javits Center is unionized, making it especially costly. Except for in-booth signings, where long queues and large piles were evident, far fewer books were on display, particularly on stands mounted by the large houses. Publishers who came regularly have dropped out, or bought a suitcase and ticket to walk the halls, rather than a stand. One used to be able to count 20-odd British houses organized by the Publishers Association each taking space; this year there were eight.

Real estate

The huge 25,000 square feet that the Chinese took – an “unprecedented” amount, according to BEA director Steve Rosato – went a long way to filling the void. No previous Global Market Forum international “honoree,” or for that matter, US company, even Amazon at the advent of Kindle or Random House in the big-splash days, had ever taken so much real estate at the fair.

A 500-strong delegation of (mainly) publishing folk came from the PRC, along with green plastic bamboo trees; a qin player; artists demonstrating traditional crafts; and huge book-related (but even more politically-inspired) posters celebrating “Shared Memories of The US and China: The Pacific War Against Japanese Aggression” (a clear example from the “don’t know how to do it” department). And there were books, both in Chinese and translated into foreign languages, all over stands - lots of them.

China sent Mr Wu Shangzhi, deputy director of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) – the body that oversees books and other media in the country, answerable ultimately to the State Council and Central Propaganda Department – to lead the delegation. That, certainly, was a serious statement. In China, the “number two” official is very high.

At the end of a keynote that in its classic declamatory style would have been right at home delivered in the Great Hall of the People, Wu told an audience skewing more Chinese than Western, that “at a new starting point in history,” China invited its publishing counterparts “to join us in in-depth cooperation.”

In many ways, it is a new starting point within China, but one that promises even more unknowns, rather than guaranteeing the “win-win” “beautiful tomorrow” that Wu foretold. The consolidation of power by current Chinese president and Communist Party secretary Xi Jinping is unprecedented since the death of Mao. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring.

Thus far, the evidence coming from China is that it’s brought greater strictures on all forms of expression. Anxiety has ratcheted up. Xi Jinping: The Governance of China, a translated volume of collected speeches, writings, etc. by the president - the English version meant in part to help explain him to Americans before his visit here later this year - was made much of by the Chinese at the fair. The cover design unmistakably harked back to the Mao era.

Not spoken about at international gatherings like BEA, in China it is well known that many of the largest publishing houses are flourishing economically due in large part to their non-book businesses – like real estate or restaurants. Still, at BEA, many interesting facts, figures, and trends were unfurled by Mr Wu, Mr Li, and others, like Nielsen’s Jonathan Nowell and Jo Lusby, manager of Penguin Random House North Asia, and it was well worth taking note.

Reading on the go

In 2014, approximately 446,000 books (including new titles, republications, and reprints) were published. Their book business is an $8.7bn industry, second-largest in the world, after the US. There has been rapid growth in digital, to the point where 58.1% of Chinese adults engaged in digital reading last year, whereas 58% read print books – digital nosed ahead of paper for the first time, noted Mr Wu. Mobile phones, along with iPads, are the “number-one terminals” on which Chinese read, he said. Others emphasize that a lot of what Chinese read on their phones is “micro-chapters,” designed for reading on the go. Trade fiction long-form is a challenge.

Children’s is clearly an important area of growth, strength, and opportunity for foreign publishers. Nowell said that the children’s sector accounts for 29% of the trade market (in the US it is 35%); adult non-fiction accounts for 62% in China (42% in the US), of which “study aids” comprise 22%. Most other non-fiction sold in China is either aspirational or business. Only 10% of the trade market is fiction (in the US it is 23%).

As opposed to Mr Wu’s reading stats, Nowell’s numbers indicated that bricks-and-mortar stores remain dominant in terms of sales: $5.4bn came in via physical stores; $3.2bn online.

CPG’s Mr Li noted that “the government is launching a new round of urbanization, which will be a boon for the book market.” His companies have licensed 2,000 titles to foreign publishers in the last three years, and “our strategy within the next five to ten is to become a world publishing group, and form a structure” to build a presence in the US, Europe, and developing countries.

Lusby opened Penguin’s office a decade ago, and speaks excellent Mandarin. Her skill was evident when she translated for PRH c.e.o. Markus Dohle, making a public appearance at the central Chinese stand, “to celebrate the office’s 10h anniversary in China” (the company now has 30 people divided between Beijing, Shanghai, and a much newer, Korean office in Seoul, dealing in English and Korean language titles). The Chinese operation is officially “an independent culture company” – that means it has to partner with a state-owned publishing partner in order to do business.

“We have had no bad partnerships to this date,” Lusby emphasized. And she has seen a “greater trust” develop towards foreign firms like hers during her time in China.  

PRH has introduced some Chinese works to the US in English translation, most notably Jiang Rong’s novel Wolf Totem (the film tie-in is coming this year). It has placed more than 450 books in print in Chinese, the great majority being Penguin Classics and children’s, but also the autobiography of tennis player Li Na and cookbooks by Jamie Oliver. It is notable that the biggest-selling Penguin Classic in China, in both Chinese and English versions, is George Orwell’s 1984.

A new business list is launching later this year. Perseus’s Rick Joyce, speaking on the same panel as Lusby, noted that Harvard Business titles, which Perseus distribute, sell really well into China.  

Bullish about children's

Everybody, Chinese and foreign, was bullish about prospects for children’s books. “An unlimited amount of money is spent on kids up to the age of four, and that’s the real opportunity for crossover,” Lusby asserted. Mothers often buy books for their children online during their lunch hours, but prefer print over digital – they worry about their children’s eyes and discourage them from too much screen time.

“We lose readers around the age of nine but pick them up again when they’re 14-15 and reading the classics.” But Lusby cautioned that “the idea of reading purely for pleasure is still not widely held. Learning English is a big driver in the purchasing decision. And for younger children, animal characters work better: parents say yes to naughty dogs or pigs, but no to naughty children!” They are the ones making purchasing decisions; children have a lot less autonomy in China.

On another panel, Clay Stobaugh, e.v.p. and chief marketing officer at Wiley, gave some pointers, especially regarding the STM area. Wiley has been active in China on those fronts for a very long time, perhaps longer than any other modern American publisher. “China will have digital leadership. It is must-have content that will grow there, and the quality of, and demand for, Chinese content will also grow rapidly internationally. We published 90,000 Chinese authors last year in our research publications. China will more and more become an exporter of content.”

But the “biggest challenge” Claybaugh sees is not online piracy, but “training and workforce development for publishing professionals in China. They need an overview of how the publishing business works internationally; they have to learn about product management, web analytics, etc.”

Other American publishers at BEA saw China’s biggest challenges rather differently. Grove Atlantic president Morgan Entrekin sits on PEN’s board, and was asked by PEN to host and put together a group of publishers and editors to meet with Mr Bao, Mr Murong, and Ms Guo, to, in Entrekin’s words, “learn the real situation, versus the state version, of what’s going on in the literary world.”

Authors like Paul Auster and American PEN president Andrew Solomon have already discovered, to their dismay, how their works, when translated into Chinese and sold in the mainland, have been censored on political and sexual grounds without their knowledge. “There should be checks put into place so that we know what is happening to the text before the books are published there,” and can stop publication, Entrekin said. He is bringing Mr Bao to this Wednesday’s PEN board meeting. “It’s necessary. I’m going to work with him, and spread the word.”

At the PEN forum on the eve of BEA, Mr Murong noted that 16 of the 30 most popular websites – Google, Facebook, and Twitter among them – are blocked in China. Words are being “hijacked” by censors, Mr Bao explained, so that readers don’t remember what they really mean. And Ms Guo and the others asserted that many Chinese students at prestigious universities in Britain and the US – Oxbridge, Harvard, and the like – are children of high officials, interested far more in bringing back the prestige of “education brands,” than in propagating American or British books and ideas when they get home.

“Experience the future through China,” was the motto plastered throughout the Chinese area of BEA. One thing is for sure: that future will be complicated.