Rights Edition: Gray Tan on Taiwan Books in World Markets

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The Taipei-based international rights agent Gray Tan talks about his 15-year-old agency’s success in translation and publication rights deals.

Publishers at the Taipei International Book Exhibition’s ‘Do the Rights Thing’ international rights-trading program listen to Grayhawk Agency’s founder, the literary rights agent Gray Tan as he speaks to them in Mandarin, interpreters in the rear of the seminar room. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

See also:
Marketing in ‘Tandem’: Naomi Bacon and Taipei’s Publishers
Taipei International Book Exhibition: 505,000 Attendees in Six Days
Interview: Taipei International Book Fair’s Isabella Wu
Taipei International Book Exhibition Opens Its 31st Edition

Tan: Taiwan’s Books Are ‘of Increasing Interest to the World’
While at the 31st Taipei International Book Exhibition earlier this month, Publishing Perspectives moderated a full-morning rights session programmed by the Taiwan Creative Content Agency program (TAICCA)—with which Publishing Perspectives readers have been familiar since its 2020 development.

The expertly arranged TAICCA programming served as a counterpoint to the professional program provided by Frankfurter Buchmesse, about which you may have read already.

In coming editions of Publishing Perspectives, we’re planning more articles based on the TAICCA program. Today, we’d like to look at the centerpiece of the presentation, which was focused on the challenges facing smaller markets when it comes to selling book translation and publishing rights into international markets, territories, and languages.

The standing-room only session, Do the Rights Thing: Expert Views From Poland, Lithuania, and Taiwan featured agents Karolina Jaszecka, Benas Berantas, and Gray Tan. And it’s the presentation from Tan, the founding chief of our host market Taiwan’s Grayhawk Agency, we want to focus on today.

Tan as a reliable fixture on the literary rights-trading scene. Not only does he maintain a large and aggressive agency staff of as many as 20 employees based in the island democracy’s capital, but his understanding of the rights-trading scene for Asian literature goes far beyond Taiwan.

His staff handles sub-agency representation for more than 200 publishers and agents based in Taiwan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam, and he has seen the work of authors writing in Chinese sold into more than 30 international markets since founding his agency in 2008.

Gray Tan

The Grayhawk Agency’s most recent Frankfurt Rights guide for 2022 is here (PDF), and Tan has a creative sense for his work as well as a canny expert’s business wisdom: He’s the translator into simplified Chinese of 权力的游戏—Game of Thrones.

And Tan had taken his brief to heart and was there to tell publishers of Taiwan’s content how to think of opportunities to move Taiwanese literature into the world’s literary channels and currents. He called his presentation Sailing/Selling to the World: A Taiwanese Perspective. And it triggered probing, energetic questions from his big audience of publishers.

Selling Into One Language—From Another

several Taiwanese books, Gray Tan told publishers, have found success in international markets after being given multiple “other Asian-language” translations first. Image: Grayhawk Agency

Three points came early about the approach needed by work born into many smaller markets–even ones that speak and publish in massively “large” languages such as those languages of the Chinese and Taiwanese cultures.

  • “Prepare an English translation” early in the rights-marketing process, he told the roughly 200 publishers listening. “Whether a sample or a full translation, however, don’t think of selling into the United Kingdom or United States first, because it’s hard.” Tan’s point was that an English translation—because of the lingua-franca position of English in world business—can be used to open doors into other “nearby” languages. “We prepared a full English translation of Chang Kuo-Li’s thriller The Sniper,” he said, “and sold it in the Netherlands, Germany, and France ahead of an English-language deal,” which turned out to be with Canada’s House of Anansi.
  • In other territories, “A key translation,” even one not in English, “can open many doors,” Tan said. “If a book is published in Spanish, French, Italian, or German, you’ll have free access to a full translation that can be read by many editors. We sold Sanmao’s Stories of the Sahara in a Dutch pre-empt two hours after submission, then closed a big three-book auction for Spanish and Catalan rights.”
  • And third, he said, consider the Asian markets and a book’s relative cultural references. “Some books,” he said, “can only be published in Asia because of cultural references. What if you’re not sure? Sell such a book in as many Asian markets as possible, and that may give you enough momentum to bring it into Western markets, as well.” In this case, he used the example of Chopsticks, a book written by five authors from Asian countries—now sold into Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. There’s also a television series in the works. This means it must may be a good Asian horror tale to be exported into Western markets.”
Supportive Government Initiatives

Image: From Gray Tan’s rights-trading presentation, Taipei International Book Exhibition 2023, the Books From Taiwan initiative. Image: Grayhawk Agency

Quickly, Tan enumerated three Taiwan government initiatives that can be helpful:

The ministry of culture-run translation grant program offers up to $20,000 to international publishers interested in publishing Taiwanese books in translation, subject to a 20-percent withholding tax.

The Taipei Rights Workshop has a fellowship program not unlike some offered by Frankfurter Buchmesse and the Jerusalem International Book Forum—the Zev Birger Editorial Fellowship. In Taiwan, the workshop program brings up to 15 fellows (international publishing professionals) to visit Taiwan annually, and since 2013, more than 100 editors, rights managers, translators, agents, and scouts have visited Taiwan, in the process seeing those visiting fellows leave as new ambassadors of the literature of Taiwan.

And Books From Taiwan, modeled on New Books From Germany, annually highlights up to 40 Taiwanese books in fiction, nonfiction, comics, and children’s content, providing English samples and synopses for each. Since 2014, Tan said, the program has 446 titles with 305 translation deals into 29 languages and 37 countries.

So Much Happier Together

Grayhawk Agency’s Gray Tan answers a publisher’s question during the ‘Do the Rights Thing’ session at Taipei International Book Exhibition, with Lithuanian agent Benas Berantas to Tan’s right and Polish agent Karolina Jaszecka in the foreground. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

While a decade ago, Tan said, there were very few professionals working the field to get Taiwan’s literature out to world markets. But today, the group is bigger and both publishing-industry and government-based personalities are becoming more interested in the international rights trade.

Last year, seven rights professionals of Taiwan’s market—including Pei-Shan Huang of Slowork Publishing, who joined us in October in our Publishing Perspectives Forum program at Frankfurt as an independent publisher—came together to travel to Frankfurter Buchmesse, with five working from one of Taiwan’s three stands, and two based the Literary Agents and Scouts Center, the LitAg. Tan and Jessie Hsieh had meetings both in the LitAg and at the Frankfurter Hof with more than 50 international editors, scouts, and co-agents. The cooperative effort is paying off, Tan said.

As he sees it, “some 40 percent of trade titles in Taiwan’s market,” Tan said, “are translations”—meaning that as in many smaller markets, international books are moving aggressively into the local retail channels. Rather than seeing this as a threat, however, Tan says it’s an advantage. “Our rights professionals,” he said, “can assess the hottest books in the world just by reading their Taiwanese editions,” and thus learn what’s selling on the broadest markets.

Today, Tan said, “Many international businesses have left China and moved to Vietnam or India. Taiwan is in the spotlight”—he included a shot of Nancy Pelosi on last year’s visit to Taipei—during the war in Ukraine and what he says he believes will be an attention shift to Taiwan after the Ukrainian crisis is resolved.

“Not just because of Taiwan’s prominence in the semiconductor business,” this man of books said, “will Taiwan’s stories be of increasing interest to the world.”

More from us on international translation and publishing rights is here. More on Taiwan and its market is here, and more on the Taipei International Book Exhibition is hereMore from us on international trade shows and book fairs is here, more on social media is here, and more on book marketing in the world industry is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.