Harper UK’s Lucy Vanderbilt on Chinese Opportunties

In Feature Articles by Roger Tagholm

rights-professional-lucy-vanderbiltBy Roger Tagholm

LONDON & BEIJING: At a time when ‘flat’ is the new ‘up’ in the UK, publishers are eager, some  might event say desperate, to find new markets – and as relatively untapped markets go, none comes bigger than China.

HarperCollins has been quick to realise this and is already reaping the benefits.  At last week’s British Book Industry Awards, the publisher’s Rights Director Lucy Vanderbilt was named Rights Professional of the Year.  The award, sponsored by the Frankfurt Book Fair, recognized the publisher’s success at “pushing into new markets, particularly China.”

There are huge opportunities for foreign publishers in the world’s most populous country, as Vanderbilt explained.  “The potential is enormous, just because of the size of the market. The Chinese people want brand name fiction, business books, dictionaries, language and learning – and there is a huge interest in children’s books too. Chinese parents are willing to invest, particularly if a title has an award, or is a classic.”

“We have toured authors very successfully there.  We brought over Tony Parsons, both for the English versions of two of his novels, and for publication in Chinese in conjunction with Read 99. Our Beijing office also brought over Neil Gaiman and managed to get him on CCTV, the state-run television channel.  We have plans to bring Cecelia Ahern over, and HarperCollins US brought over Simon Winchester.  Having an author there is quite unusual and helps to overcome any cultural differences.”

The publisher opened an office in Beijing in 2006 which, Vanderbilt says, has helped enormously because “We have local people on the ground.” The office sells English language editions into China, with displays in ‘HarperCollins corners’ in bookstores, and also handles the sale of foreign rights to Chinese publishers.

What has also helped in recent months is what observers believe to be a softening of government policy towards foreign publishers.  Recent guidelines from the GAPP – the initials stand for the ‘General Administration of Press and Publication,’ the government body regulates publishing – talked about encouraging and supporting “the entry of private capital into state-run publishing houses through various channels.”

According to the China Youth Daily, the GAPP has declared that by 2010 “all for-profit news media and publishing entities will be decoupled from the government institutions they are affiliated with and transformed into separate companies.  The government will no longer place restrictions on them in terms of ISBN numbers, publication licenses and content.”

What this translates to is a greater relaxation on the part of the Chinese government on publishing policy which makes it easier for foreign houses to publish with a Chinese publisher on a project by project basis, or to work with a Chinese publisher by selling rights.

All of which means that when Vanderbilt is on her way home to her native Rhode Island in the US this week, she can pour herself a glass of something special to drink to the thought possibility of more business to come in a market that can only grow.

VISIT: The Beijing International Book Fair.

LISTEN: To a 2008 BEA podcast on partnering with Chinese publishers.

READ: About about one man’s curious confrontation with the Chinese bureaucracy.

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).