By Kate Whitehead
In 2002, when Irish journalist Peter Goff and his friend Alex Pearson began running book readings and discussions in Beijing the literary salon concept was something of an anomaly. Not only were books published in English hard to come by in the Chinese capital, you didn’t often find people sitting around talking about them and hobnobbing with authors.
“That whole culture of an author actively promoting their work via book talks and reading and signings historically hasn’t really existed in China, but it’s very much developing now. There are a lot more of these salon activities where people go along and meet authors or have a panel discussion. They seem to be really blossoming in China now,” said Goff.
China is one of seven key countries featured at The Markets: Global Publishing Summit at the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 13, 2015.
China’s literary scene has changed significantly over the last decade or so, and Goff and Pearson have been key players in that transformation. Those early, informal literary salons were run in the small lending library-cum-café that Pearson set up in a Beijing courtyard. She called the place Bookworm.
Over the next few years the Bookworm moved to several sites before finding a permanent home in Beijing’s Sanlitun district in 2005. The bookshop/library/café concept took off and a year later Goff quit journalism to focus on the business, opening a branch in Chengdu in 2006 and another one in Suzhou in 2007. When Beijing Bookworm celebrated its 10th anniversary this September, it calculated it had hosted 3,000 authors over the decade.
The visiting authors drive the book sales, says Goff, who admits that even at the best of times the profit from the books was small. The introduction of the Kindle in 2008 followed by heavy discounts on books made that side of the business even more challenging. Business profits are realized from the café/restaurant and the salon events.
The events and the audience had changed significantly over the years. What began as an English-language bookstore hosting English-language events for an international audience has evolved and now hosts plenty of Chinese events as well and the audience is much more mixed.
“We have lots of international events with 60 or 70 countries represented. When authors come through town we often liaise with embassies and councils to line up a reading or discussion,” says Goff, who manages the bookstores in Beijing, Chengdu and Suzhou.
When the Bookworm was founded most Western readers’ experience of literature from China was of the Wild Swan genre, long semi-autobiographical accounts of the Cultural Revolution and other momentous events in Chinese history. Those aren’t the experiences of today’s young Chinese writers.