Editorial by Duncan Jepson
Eight thousand copies out of 1.2 billion sold isn’t exactly a major market share, but it has to be far more than James Joyce ever expected Finnegans Wake would sell in China — if indeed he thought anyone there would be capable of reading his work. But if he had heard that statistic, he’d probably have wondered what the rest of us are thinking: who exactly is reading it?
The cynic in me, someone who’s been involved in business in China since 1993, is reminded that readers and buyers do not necessarily equate, and the total sales could be attributable to a single buyer only or to eight thousand individual purchases. The optimist in me, though, hopes that the majority of sales were made to individual buyers wanting to read more by the renowned Western author. Yet from the publisher’s perspective, spending eight years on translating a work that will sell eight thousand copies — lucky as these numbers are in Chinese terms — seems a poor return on their investment, given the potential of the market.
Every retailer heading East dreams feverishly of harnessing the vast consumer potential of China. They rack their brains trying to think of the one surefire thing all Chinese people will flock to buy. Well, I can tell you what that is — though if you’re reading this, you’ve long since missed that particular slow boat. In 1994 I sat shelling nuts in that funny German micro-brewery off The Bund, thinking about my Chinese friends and family, when it dawned on me. What did they all need? Glasses. A chain of opticians would make billions in the domestic market! As they surely have. I passed on the idea myself as it seemed like a lot of trouble, but somebody went ahead. So now that most people can see to read, what are the publishing equivalents of the millions of horn-rims, prescription haute-couture sunglasses, sports wraparounds and half-moon spectacles sold every day?
Perhaps before you read any further I should come clean and apologize: I cannot offer any commercial insight into Asian reading habits, any clever analysis of the demographics or understanding of book distribution channels. But, interestingly, when I wrote my first novel I was told that a potentially strong market for it would be among book clubs in the US, particularly Middle America. Now, I have less knowledge of American reading demographics than I do even of Asian ones. I struggled to imagine the participants and dynamics at such clubs. How would they view my book? Would the members be Soccer Moms taking the night off, or business professionals chatting over a glass of Pinot Grigio? What would they think of the characters I had imagined? Should I change any aspect of the book to appeal to these unknown readers? Somehow I always ended up visualizing them in a place that occupied the mid-ground between Desperate Housewives and Weeds.
My only significant insight into the mindset of the Asian reader, on the other hand, occurred on my last day at school, about 25 years ago. I had been awarded a prize for photography and had chosen to receive a copy of The Interpretation of Dreams at the prize-giving ceremony. After collecting the book, I returned to sit down next to my Chinese grandmother, who had made the trip especially to witness my triumph. As I sat down, she smiled at me and glanced at the book’s cover before, quite reasonably, asking me who Freud was.
You see, the revered Austrian psychoanalyst — and all the work that he and his successors carried out on the study of the unconscious mind — was quite unknown to Asian people of my grandmother’s generation. They were the victims of wars; they suffered and died in revolutions; they emigrated with their families to alien shores; they worked and saved relentlessly. People like them focused primarily on educating their children because it was — and still is — considered the best way to ensure a secure future for the family as a whole. They did not enjoy rock in the sixties, follow the Beat writers, join the Hippies and engage in the joys of the sexual revolution. They did not have punk or disco, and the idea that lunch should be skipped because it was for wimps was anathema to them; for people of my grandmother’s generation, just being able to eat was one of life’s key pleasures. They did not let their sons have girlfriends or their daughters go out of the house unaccompanied, so as to avoid any risk of their becoming distracted from their studies. For years the people of Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam coped with continually changing leadership. Or up until recently, in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan, they coped with having no change at all. After experiencing extreme vicissitudes during the last 60 years, often choosing to work miles away from their relatives and sacrificing individual need so as to safeguard the family’s future, when they did stop work they wanted to be entertained, to laugh and to sing, to be made to feel good about themselves.
In the ’80s, people started buying business and management textbooks, and talking about MBA courses they planned to attend. New nations were being built and the people needed skilled builders. Stay-at-home moms were dragons, not tigers; they did not encourage and coax, reward and punish, they just demanded. People hustled from street-level upwards, just as they do in China today. At home people read wuxia novels, comics about the fighting monkey god, Wu Kong and historic tales of Ip Man beating soldiers from the imperialist powers.
Asia is naturally aspirational and ambitious. I remember talking about this to colleagues at the head office of the European investment company I worked for when the financial crash occurred in 2008. They were earnestly trying to formulate their response to the adverse conditions. I tried to explain to them that people in Asia saved and worked almost 24/7. Rightly or wrongly, in Asia we laugh at the idea of any restriction to the working week. If markets go down, we work harder and push them back up. In my own experience within other industries, such as television programming or branding events for anything from drinks companies to luxury jewelers, the sales messages always promoted hope for a better future and the desire to improve. It is perhaps an ethos more naturally akin to the American Dream than to any of the traditional values promoted by the departed European colonial powers, who were perhaps cynical towards such naked ambition. Maybe that’s why Asian people today do seem to align themselves naturally towards America and its culture. People want success stories; they want to know their lives will get better as they struggle with the often burdensome legacies of their personal and national histories.
So if you want to understand what Asian readers want, I suggest, tongue only slightly in cheek, think about the American Dream…but without the therapy.