The Beijing International Book Fair (BIBF) 2015 took place in the last week of August under a storm cloud of a slightly weakened Chinese economy and a tumbling stock market.
Yet at BIBF, Chinese and foreign publishers were talking of a bright and sunny future: a book trade that is solid domestically despite the recent roller-coaster of the markets, and an industry that is increasingly looking to export Chinese Intellectual Property (IP).
Domestically, the world’s second-biggest books market has returned to growth after two years of decline, up 11% in 2014 to a value of RMB 66bn (£6.7bn), according to figures supplied by the German Book Office Beijing. The rise was driven by a rebounding physical book market, strong library purchases and continued growth in digital.
The growth is cheering news to Western publishers who have significant stakes in the country. “China is our biggest market in Asia now. And it’s very promising,” said David Wolfson, senior vice-president of international sales at HarperCollins.
Penguin Random House also reported improvements: “Everything is growing and it’s big growth,” said Jo Lusby, PRH m.d. for North Asia. She highlighted children’s books as an “unstoppable train” in both English imports and Chinese language, and also identified key trends affecting the industry in China.
“One of the biggest changes over the past few years is that readers are not money poor anymore, they’re time poor . . . If something is worth their time then money really is no object,” she explained.
Perhaps the most significant change at BIBF was the focus of Chinese publishers on exporting its IP. Somewhat ironically, given that it
is the largest exporting nation of manufactured goods in the world, China has long been a net importer of IP from mature books markets. British publishers, for example, sold 2,698 copyrights into China in 2013, according to HMRC. Yet Chinese rightsholders only sold 731 into Britain in that same year.
The Chinese government is keen to rectify this trade imbalance of “soft power”, backing a number of initiatives to help get Chinese content out into the wider world, such as the One Belt, One Road initiative, which in part aims to boost Chinese IP trading in countries along the old Silk Road. The major pre-BIBF conference was the second International Communication Forum on Chinese Culture, a series of seminars sponsored by conglomerate China Publishing Group, exclusively devoted to Chinese rights trading.
The most immediate impact will be in academic publishing, particularly Science, Technical and Medical, said Nick Campbell, executive editor at Springer Nature. He explained: “In the past few years in particular, China has spent an increasing percentage of its gross domestic product on academic research—it is looking at becoming a knowledge-based economy—so we are publishing more and more [Chinese researchers]. The difficulty with Chinese research used to be that the quality wasn’t there, but now we are seeing both quality and quantity.”
Exporting Intellectual Property from trade sectors of China’s publishing industry to the Anglophone world remains more of a challenge, not least because of the dearth of translators. Eric Abrahamsen, founder of Beijing-based translation consultancy Paper Republic, reckons there are “only 30–40 good Chinese-English translators” working in the world today.
He added: “There is also a disconnect between what publishers want to export—usually quite worthy books about Chinese culture written by the literary old guard, rather than the stories from a vibrant, modern China by its new writers . . . [stories] that I think people in the West really want to read.”
Read our interview with Tan Yue, president of China Publishing Group, here.