China Will Never Be a Gold Mine for Western Publishers

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

China’s book market is itself largely a self-contained entity—politically, socially and, more importantly, economically.

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

The Great Wall of China

I’m told I missed a great opportunity in 1997. Living in Hong Kong and reporting on the change of sovereignty back to China — I still have the amazing cover of the Sunday South China Morning Post from that day hanging in my house — I refused entreaties from friends to “move to Beijing and make a fortune.” I was there, they told me, early, way before my fellow Westerners were going to flood in and make a killing. Of course, all this was discussed in Le Jarin bar in Lan Kwai Fong as the fireworks were being set off below us on the harbor and Prince Charles was doing his best to smile as he handed over the keys to the city. I opted first to go to Macao (then still Portuguese, but just barely) and then to Jakarta instead, which led to even stranger invitations “make a fortune,” this time coming from people inside the Soeharto regime. I, wisely, declined those as well.

A few publishers have made inroads into China. HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin. But others have failed as well…

Of course, I really don’t think I made much of a mistake bypassing Beijing at the time. I am not Chinese, nor do I claim to understand the country, culture or its people. But the one thing I learned during my time in Asia was this: generally speaking, the Chinese are, when given opportunity, very shrewd business people.

Over the past few years, the furor surrounding China as a business opportunity for Western publishers has subsided somewhat. It reached a fever pitch a few years back when China was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. But the realization seems to have finally dawned on many that doing business in China is a daunting proposition, particularly when it comes to working in the media business.

The restrictions are just too severe. Foreign movies are limited, the internet is curtailed, foreign companies cannot take full ownership of their subsidiaries. And the culture is, let’s admit it, too distinct for Western individualists/capitalists to fully engage with — something Duncan Jepson discusses in detail in today’s feature story.

Yes, a few publishers have made inroads into China. HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin. But others have failed as well — Random House, scaled back considerably in the 2000s (which is also why it’s merger with Penguin makes good sense on the international front).

But all this talk of culture is mere window dressing to the underlying fact that China’s book market is itself largely a self-contained entity — politically, socially and, more importantly, economically.

There are best practices that can be traded, certain hot titles, educational materials, certainly…but selling into China is a limited proposition for the time being. There’s a reason why only a handful of literary agents service China and why Kobo hasn’t launched there yet (and we know they always get there “first”).

In publishing, as in the rest of business, the Chinese are far more interested in developing their domestic market than their international exposure.

The simple fact is we need them more than they need us.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.