The story gets better for publishers

Updated: 2012-11-15 02:03

By Mei Jia in Beijing and Wang Kaihao in Jiangsu (China Daily)

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Nobel success reflects a plotline of growing confidence, report Mei Jia in Beijing and Wang Kaihao in Jiangsu.

Mo Yan's Nobel prize has sparked a global wave of interest in Chinese literature and the foreign book market is hungry for China-themed publications.

The story gets better for publishers

Mo Yan's books at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair. Mo's Nobel prize has sparked international interest in Chinese literature. [Photo/Xinhua]

It's all a far cry from the days when the country's publishers felt the task of selling books overseas was so hopeless that they devised a "kidnapping" strategy. The trick was to invite representatives of foreign publishers to meetings offshore for a few days of bonding on a boat. According to a joke doing the rounds at the time, the foreign businessmen weren't allowed back on dry land until at least one deal had been signed.

That's an exaggeration, of course, but even when deals were agreed the odds were always stacked heavily in favor of the foreign companies. In 2002, for every Chinese book sold abroad, 15 were imported in return.

Lu Jiande, director of the Literature Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, praised Mo's talent and contribution to Chinese literature, but said he believed the writer's Nobel triumph reflects the strength of modern Chinese writing as a whole and the recent transformation of the country's publishing industry.

"I don't think Mo working alone in his study can claim all the credit. His achievement must be seen in light of the wider social background," he said.

A root and branch reform has swept through the Chinese publishing industry during the past decade and its impact has surprised professionals and interested observers alike.

"Chinese publishing continues to shift toward becoming a consumer business. And the publishing reforms have widened the space that foreign publishers such as ourselves can operate in," said Jo Lusby, managing director of Penguin China.

"Over the past few years, it has become easier for us to find partnerships for the books that we want to co-publish in Chinese," she added.

Ten years ago, there were no commercially-driven publishers in China and the book market was moribund. Publishers were either fully or partly funded by the government.

"Chinese publishers were hampered by the system at that time. It restricted their ability to develop a vibrant culture, especially given that other sectors of the social economy had been transformed and were beginning to operate under market principles," said Zhou Mingwei, president of China International Publishing Group.

"The contrast was obvious, and things had to change so publishers could function efficiently," he added.

Currently, 120 publishing groups in China, most having grown from scratch through mergers and acquisitions, stock market listings and private capital, according to a recent report from the General Administration of Press and Publication.

China's publishing industry is now eight times larger than it was in 2002. The income derived from books and press publications was 1.45 trillion yuan ($232 billion) in 2011, accounting for 60 percent of the culture industry's total earnings.

Meanwhile, the ratio of imported to exported titles has become more balanced — from 15-to-1 in 2002 to 2.1-to-1 in 2011, according to the GAPP, and the number of titles available in the mainstream Western market has risen dramatically.

The driving force behind these changes has been a top-down cultural restructuring and systemic reform, instigated exactly a decade ago at the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The completion deadline for the first phase of reform was scheduled for the months before the CPC's 18th congress.

Liu Binjie, director of the GAPP, was able to inform delegates at this year's congress that the first 10-year agenda for the reform of the publishing industry had been accomplished, "as planned".

The Phoenix rises

As chairman of the first Chinese publishing group to generate income of more than 10 billion yuan and hold assets of equal value, Chen Haiyan, has been a leading figure in the Jiangsu province-based Phoenix Publishing & Media Group, building it into one of the industry's leading players.

The group is notable for thinking outside the box and adopting strategies previously untried in the industry.

For example, Chen insisted on establishing the new-media company Phoenix-Tangel New Media Co, despite doubts among other members of the management team. Zhang Li, the managing director, admitted that five years ago she could never have foreseen the success the company enjoys today.

When she first entered the animation industry in 2007, Zhang felt trapped by the old operating structures. So she cooperated with a number of privately-owned companies, including the Internet giant Tencent Inc, to focus on online games for children. Phoenix-Tangel's first successes were books based on the games Seer and Mole Manor.

Zhang was chosen to establish the new company in 2011, with the parent company holding a 51 percent stake in the new venture, worth 5.1 million yuan. Sales income exceeded 80 million yuan in 2011.

The company has also revamped an old cartoon figure, a boy called Dingguagua: "We had this cartoon figure for almost 20 years, but didn't pay enough attention to promotion, but the boy will become our next superstar," said Zhang.

The company has also designed a tablet computer for kids that will hit the market next year and it has also established a website to back up its content, but as yet, no release date has been set.

Phoenix has listed two spin-offs on the stock markets, with a combined market value of more than 27 billion yuan. In a break from usual Chinese publishing practice, employees have been given shares in the companies.

"The move will help us retain talent and maintain sufficient cash flow for business development," said Chen.

PP&M is expanding overseas, including establishing Hachette-Phoenix Cultural Development Co in Beijing, a collaboration with the renowned French publisher Hachette Livre, plus a printing and publishing company in the UK.

"We'll not wait for foreign publishers to select books from our lists to introduce to their local market as we did in the past. Now we offer the books and co-publish them with overseas companies," said Chen.

Yilin Press, part of the Phoenix Group, was one of the first Chinese publishers to break with the practice of waiting passively for books to be chosen for overseas publication. Instead, it collaborates on books with Britain's Compendium Publishing Ltd from the earliest planning phase.

Instead of simply offering titles for translation, Chinese publishers are taking a hands-on role. When planning Symbols of China in 2009, a book that presents Chinese culture by paraphrasing cultural symbols in nine categories, Yilin collaborated with the veteran British publishing expert Paul Richardson to tailor-make the content, structure and design. Even the language is a recreation and not just a verbatim translation.

"There has been a growing relationship between Chinese publishers and the international market, and a good development in mutual understanding of each others' markets which should bring more results in the coming years," said Richardson.

Richardson, formerly a member of the foreign consultative team for the China Book International project, said the biggest change he's observed during the past decade has been "the publishers' move from cultural institutions to market-led businesses".

"And the creation of the publishing groups," he added.

By 2011, the total assets of all of China's publishing-related groups reached 368 billion yuan, according to the GAPP.

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