By Liz Bury
China has flirted with English language trade publishers for best part of a decade, but the sparks of anticipation have gradually fizzled along with the Chinese government’s failure to relax restrictions on the distribution of foreign-published books.
China remains a rights-only territory with a royalty rate which is, relatively speaking, very low. Undeterred, a delegation of UK children’s publishers flew to China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair in November 2013, and report having done excellent business.
“We’ve done 22 Chinese rights deals since then,” said Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow, independent children’s book publisher and app producer. “We’re quite cleaned out of the sort of thing they thought would work.”
Adbul Thadha, of two-year old independent Sweet Cherry Press, said Shanghai was “excellent, excellent, we had back to back meetings, we could have sold the Diaries of Robin’s Toys [a series for under 7s, inspired by Jeff Kinney’s Diary of A Wimpy Kid] 40 times over.”
Both publishers will visit Shanghai Children’s Book Fair again — both on a two-yearly basis. “We need to clock up a few more properties in between times,” Wilson said.
The restrictions on distributing foreign-published works in China is no obstacle to app sales either. Nosy Crow does “very well” with direct sales of English language apps in China, although it found that apps were “not a topic of conversation” with Chinese publishers at the Shanghai show.
Estimates put smartphone ownership in China at about 760 million (56% of the population), with the number expected to reach 1.08bn (80% of the population) by the end of 2014. Chinese consumers can buy apps direct from the app store.
Challenges from Tight Government Controls Remain
Limits on physical distribution of foreign-published works remain, however. Ian Taylor, consultant and sales agent for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, said: “The anticipated opening up hasn’t really happened. International publishers thought that the market was going to become more accessible to them, but the way the Chinese see it, they want Chinese publishers to be international, and to serve the Chinese market.”
Back in 2006, at a time when heavy hints were given that trade restrictions would be relaxed, HarperCollins opened a chi-chi, well-staffed office in Beijing, and signed deals to publish Chinese classics in the West, but it has since given up waiting, and moved on.
China was guest of honor at Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, and then again three years later at London Book Fair. Since the new government came to power in 2012 it has moved to curb travel by state publishers, hence the relatively small number of Chinese houses expected at this year’s London Book Fair.
“The Chinese government is very keen on soft power, it wants to spread influence and language. At the same time, it has told government publishers to limit travel,” Taylor said. “It was an austerity brought in by the new government, which thought there was too much lavish expenditure going on.”
“Although they want to increase trade, they’re upset because of the negative trade balance of import and export when it comes to books. In most other lines of business it’s 19:1 in China’s favor, in publishing it’s more like the other way around.”
UK Publishers Not Buying in Shanghai, But Optimistic
UK publishers at the Shanghai show were not buying. Thadha grabbed a hurried hour at the end of his visit to look at the Chinese works there, but said “there was nothing that we could publish in the UK. The style and the way they do things is completely different. A lot of fiction books had color pictures, in the seven plus age range, and the style and topics were quite Chinese; things like local history.”
Restrictions on imports to China have choked international trade, and, though “there is no getting away from the fact that it’s still complicated,” Taylor said, there is “light ahead.” Growing demand for a better quality and variety of children’s books from an increasingly affluent and internationally-minded middle class will stimulate trade, with about 300 million Chinese estimated to be learning to read English.
“The challenge is to grow links with the private sector publishers, as these are the future of Chinese publishing,” Taylor said. “There are a lot exciting private sector companies trying to make a go of it — it will be rights deals to begin with — but they are not terribly well funded and overseas travel is expensive. Also, they’re often unsure of their visa status until quite late, and so if they do come, they end up trying to make appointments at book fairs at the last minute.”
At the time of writing, David Greggor, sales director of Top That! Publishing, was on the ground in Shanghai, trying to forge just such links with private sector publishers. Top That!, an entrepreneurial UK outfit which is in the process of building up a digital business separate to its publishing, prides itself on being a first mover. M.D. David Henderson said, “the backbone of our publishing business is selling international co-editions, but that is a complex thing to do in China. A Chinese publisher may have a printer, but they don’t necessarily have the skills and the mindset. We are working with them to get them up to speed. Selling co-editions in China isn’t straightforward, but it’s not impossible either.”
If successful, Top That! may become one of the first to chip away at the barriers to print distribution in China’s trade book market.