By Xing Daiqi
BEIJING: The slogan of this week’s 16th Beijing International Book Fair (BIBF) is “To see what the world is reading.” But with China’s position as the engine of the global economy reinforced under the present financial crisis, the world is increasingly curious about what China is reading. Still, in spite of the economic downturn, more than half of the 1,500 exhibits at the BIBF are international and some 56 countries are represented.
As part of the trade program, the BIBF hosted an International Publishing Forum, where executives from some of the world’s leading publishing groups, including Reed Elsevier, HarperCollins and Cambridge University Press, spoke on this year’s theme of “Publishing Policies and the Global Crisis.”
Youngsuk Chi, vice chairman of Reed Elsevier, observed, “Globally, all publishers are faced with consumer demand issues as well as the rising cost of transforming from the traditional way of publishing to digital publishing. It came at a very bad time but it is also an opportunity for publishing industries in general to select and prioritize what investments to make. So you can see that as an opportunity as well.”
Li Pengyi, vice president of China Publishing Group, the country’s largest publishing conglomerate, pointed out that while publishers across the globe have seen sales decline due to the economic crisis, the Chinese market continues to grow, with publishers reporting a 20% increase in revenue since the start of 2009.
“Because the Chinese economy is very good, the Chinese publishing industry is still growing,” said Pengyi. “Especially strong segments are cartoons, digital publishing, and textbooks.”
Youngsuk Chi of Elsevier attributed the growth to “a natural rising of the water level,” but added, “I think people in China know that in the new economy they are enjoying, being better prepared intellectually and educationally is good for their job prospects. I think that’s terrific. Also, the Chinese government has placed an emphasis on reading and that is paying dividends.”
The Chinese government has been actively helping the publishing industry combat the financial crisis. Substantial investment is expected in public cultural services at grass-roots level. One such example is the “Rural Bookstore Program,” which promises to build a library in each of the nation’s 600,000 villages within ten years, bringing more books to the 70% of the population of 1.3 billion who live in rural areas.
In addition, the government is attaching more importance to international cooperation and technological innovation, as well to the protection of intellectual property rights. Starting this month, a new government program will crackdown on piracy, both online and off, as well as heighten awareness among companies for the need to use only legal software.
As a consequence of these efforts, international publishers have become ever more interested in participating in the Chinese market.
Asked what more the government might do, Youngsuk Chi offered this insight: “In one way, it needs to continue encouraging reading and making books more accessible through various programs, but on the other side, they also need to help the Chinese publishing industry to modernize in a globally competitive way. That means attracting talent, keeping talent, and training talent. The other is to make sure the capital structure is such that those who believe in the future of publishing can make an investment in it.”
The financial crisis has not only had a profound impact on shaping the future of publishing industries, but also on people’s reading habits. In particular, the economic crisis makes job seekers consider how to become more appealing to prospective employers. As a consequence, academic and educational publishers see an opportunity in the market, as more people seek out titles for self improvement, rather than merely for pleasure.
“The biggest readership is around our English language courses,” said Stephen Bourne, chief executive of Cambridge University Press, who served as chair of the International Publishing Forum. “Because China is engaging with the Western world more, there is an increasing interest in social sciences, international law, and topics like that, so there is a big demand for learning English or improving one’s English.”
Borne added that the Chinese publishing’s growth is being fueled by domestic demand. “As [China] becomes more accustomed to working internationally and to selling into international markets, I think that momentum will continue,” he said. “There’s lots of innovation in the Chinese market. I think the Chinese have become very familiar with digital development, and right now, I think the most important thing everybody should be doing is preparing for the digital age.”
Xing Daiqi is a reporter for China Radio International, where this story was broadcast in a slightly different form.