By Jeffrey Yamaguchi
I really can’t believe I almost said no to the China trip — a country I had never been to before and only really know from media accounts and the movies. A special thanks goes out to my closest confidants for telling me to get out of my own head, get on the damn plane and just go for it. In the end, I had an amazing time, got to meet a whole bunch of new, interesting people, learned all about the publishing industry in China, ate endless amounts of food, and got a brief but telling glimpse into a truly fascinating country that is in the midst of rapid and extraordinary change.
I was invited to give a series of lectures on digital marketing trends in the U.S. publishing industry. I spoke about everything from digital innovation in the YA market to the rise of podcasting to the dominance of Amazon. I admit that my overall approach tended to assume that the audience would be hearing about some of the digital marketing concepts for the first time. Wrong! After seeking out some early feedback, it became clear that they didn’t need overview-ish, conceptual explanations — they wanted to hear more about case studies and actual results based on data and well-documented reporting.
And they didn’t need to hear that analyzing data was an important part of successful digital marketing initiatives. They needed to hear the cold hard data!
The short of it is, I was learning so much. When I set out on the trip, I thought of it as a venture in which I would give lectures and share some knowledge. But it was more about creating an exchange of information. I honestly don’t know why I didn’t have this sensibility from the get-go, because I know this, deep down. I know this from the classes I teach at NYU — that it’s all about an exchange of insights through questions and comments and reactions (bored looks or a flurry of hands). It’s why I teach!
So here are some things that I learned:
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Gmail — even Google search, is blocked in China. That’s chilling. And yet, it’s openly discussed, so everyone knows they can just use a VPN app to create a way around the countrywide firewall. Which is illegal, technically, but everyone does it anyway.
Even so, everyone over there is using WeChat — which is not blocked and is totally thriving. During the conference, people in the audience were using WeChat to share notes and make comments to each other. They also use it for book marketing. And to send money. And to make free calls. And to manage workflow. And to send audio messages. It’s a combination of Facebook and Instagram and Slack and WhatsApp and Venmo.
The tell-tale sign: When your plane lands in China and passengers are given the all clear to use electronic devices, everyone pulls out their phone and starts tapping away in the WeChat app.
Speaking of flying within China — the airlines still serve a hot meal, even on short flights. You can also get a beer without having to pull out your credit card.
The companies that are involved in publishing aren’t just publishing houses — they’ve got printing facilities, online storefronts, ereading apps, bookstores and more. In other words, they don’t have the Amazon, ecosystem reliance problem. They have direct, commerce-related connections with their customers/readers, unlike publishers in the US.
The books that are published are approved by the government, and can only be published by the sanctioned publishing companies.
Chengdu is the home of the coolest independent bookstore I have ever been to — Fang Suo Commune. Modern and sleek, from the interior design to the sculpture like escalator to the fashionably dressed patrons browsing the carefully curated, plentiful book selection.
Barnes & Noble could learn a thing or two from the more energetic vibe of the “big box” bookstores in China. Just like Barnes & Noble, these several-story high retail spaces have expanded well beyond books — the ebook encroachment is happening in their market as well. They’re selling everything from toys to cosmetics to luggage to electronics. But there’s better connective between the non-book product and related books, and the overall retail experience feels much more natural. Not to mention that the stores are vibrant and bright and bustling with activity.
There’s a product over there — FigureRobics — that I couldn’t help but notice because it was blaring from a big screen TV in the exercise section — a line of books and DVDs and basic exercise equipment. It feels a bit like Jane Fonda’s 1980s workout dancing videos, but with 2015 short shorts.
When you go out to dinner, bring a gift for the host. And be ready to receive many toasts, and give a few as well. When giving a toast, make sure you clink your glass below the glass of the person you are toasting with. Meals involve multiple courses, and the food is plentiful. Fruit signifies the end of the meal — not fortune cookies! Also, damn, Chinese liquor is strong.
There is constant building going on, seemingly at every turn, off in every distance. Ten buildings being built right next to ten buildings under-construction, everywhere.
The view of Shanghai as day turns to night is breathtaking. From up high, you can look out on the old city and the new, and it’s a wondrous mix of futuristic Blade Runner, nightlife Las Vegas, a walk through Time Square at midnight, and the blow-your-mind video game from your own personal dreamscape.
Of course I learned a great deal more, but you can’t really expect to truly understand a country in a whirlwind, week long trip, whether it’s a huge expanse like China, or a small tropical island. But even though my time in China was brief, I was overwhelmed by how much I did learn — about the culture and customs, the book business, the speed — and the leisure — at which people move at 11 pm on the city streets of a regular ol’ night of the week, not interested in you, the visitor, but their own busy lives.
This holds true — I know it, and sometimes just have to remind myself (or, as in this case, be reminded): Always get on that plane. Always go to the place you’ve never been before. Always.
Jeffrey Yamaguchi is a writer, marketer, and educator focused on digital publishing and the edtech space. Follow him on Twitter @jeffyamaguchi.