We’ve always marveled at the immense chasm between the Chinese book market and the rest of the world. Of course, issues of translation and appeal abroad have kept the market pretty domestic, but that seems to be changing slowly. Chinageeks makes a great point in response to the coverage of Frankfurt Book Fair: it seems that the only interest the west can muster towards Chinese literature is when the book or author carries some sort of scandal with it, leaving the vast majority of authors and books unnoticed. There’s a lack of foreign awareness of books that split the difference between banned-in-China and sterilized-by-censorship that leaves a big old lacuna where books by talented Chinese authors should be.
Despite the limitations of government censorship that tarnished the book fair, its focus on China is an obvious step towards a more internationally recognized literary culture. Furthermore, it seems that Xinhua has opened its first bookstore in London, which is a great step towards increasing exposure in the book industry. Both are good signs of a slow realization that China’s literature, along with the rest of its culture, are now becoming issues of international importance.
Perhaps most promising, however, is the introduction of Penguin China, an independent branch of the UK publisher exclusively devoted to texts on China. With its new division, Penguin will become one of the first major publishing houses to devote a section of its market specifically to China. Though Penguin will publish its books through Hong Kong because of issues relating to the government distribution of ISBN numbers, it seems that the government’s role in the mainland’s largely privatized book industry is beginning to change.
Yet there’s another change working to Chinese private publishers’ advantage: the government’s three-year “commercialization” plan to remove all subsidies from state publishers by spring 2012. The subject is politically sensitive, with publishing and media widely expected to be the last barrier to fall in China’s long process of economic restructuring that began in 1978 with Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policy. Even the name is carefully chosen: “We don’t say ‘privatization’,” said Hang Min, an associate professor of media economics and management at Tsinghua University’s School of Journalism and Communication.
Still Ms. Hang is upbeat. “I think this sends a very good signal to other aspects of the media industry. The government wants to have certain kinds of reform and progress and the book publishing industry is a good place to start.”
Whereas before, private publishers bought an ISBN from state companies for around 25,000 yuan ($3,600), the relationship now is that of joint investors, said Shanghai 99 Readers Deputy Editor Peng Lun. “We have had five or six state-owned houses approach us with a view to cooperate just in the last several months,” he says. For its part, Penguin is not a local private publisher but aims to act like one. “We’re in a market, to be honest, that demands we be more nimble, because things in China are changing very fast,” says Ms. Lusby.
And finally, it comes as no surprise that a talented Chinese author is once again up for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Su Tong, the author of Wives and Concubines, which was later adapted for Zhang Yimou’s film Raise the Red Lantern, has been nominated for the prestigious award for his book The Boat to Redemption. Considering that China’s Jiang Rong won the inaugural award in 2007 for Wolf Totem, we’re sure Su’s nomination is an auspicious sign for the future of the Chinese book industry.
Photo by timbeckenham @ flickr