Li Na coup typifies Penguin flair

Updated: 2012-09-14 08:46

By Andrew Moody and Yang Yang (China Daily)

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Li Na coup typifies Penguin flair

John Makinson, chairman and CEO of the Penguin Group, believes China can prove to be a big digital publishing market. Cui Meng / China Daily

Wolf Totem set the tone for UK publisher's success in China

John Makinson believes foreign publishers are much more prepared to take risks in the Chinese market than their domestic competitors.

The chairman and chief executive officer of the Penguin Group said Western companies were focused on coming up with new publishing concepts and ideas to attract readers.

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Penguin recently had a major coup in China by publishing the autobiography of tennis star Li Na in Chinese that has become an instant best-seller.

"You have to be entrepreneurial and you have to take risks and be quite fast moving and flexible and also quite tactical about the way you think about business," he says.

Makinson, who was in Beijing to attend the 19th Beijing International Book Fair and who was speaking from his company's China offices on the 7th floor of one of the Jiaming Center towers, says Chinese publishers are often more focused on the mechanics of publishing.

"I think the publishing culture in China is a little bit different to that in the West. The conversation in London and New York tends to start around the author and the sensibility of the reader. Here it is much more about the business model, the technology and the planning issues," he says.

"There are some good publishers in China, however. There is no doubt about that."

Injecting new ideas into what some see as the somewhat stolid world of Chinese publishing has been Penguin's mission since it was the first foreign trade publisher to enter the China market just seven years ago.

The deal with Li Na, who drew large crowds at a signing session in Wangfujing when she returned from the US Open, is certainly one of the most striking.

It was unusual in that the UK-based publisher was chosen ahead of Chinese rivals to publish the book in Chinese.

Normally a foreign publisher would only become involved with buying the rights to translate such a book for overseas markets.

Li Na was said to be keen to use a foreign publisher, although Penguin partnered with Chinese publisher CITIC Press to bring the book to market, because she wanted her book to have more of an international feel.

Makinson, 57, said Penguin was keen to do other such deals and bring books to the market in Chinese.

"We are now at the state of becoming a presence in the Chinese publishing industry in the Chinese language. I am not saying we are going to do one of those (the Li Na autobiography) every week but that is an example of the publishing we have brought to the market."

Makinson, who had a total salary of 1.4 million pounds (1.79 million euros, $2.25 million) in 2011, says China, despite not being one of Penguin's traditional English language markets like India, is now one of the most exciting in the world.

"The potential is enormous. With China you always look at the numbers. It is not just the overall population numbers but the appetite for English as a second language is just absolutely vast," he says.

Makinson, the son of a Staffordshire accountant, began his career as a journalist with Reuters after reading history and English at Cambridge University.

He moved on to the Financial Times, where he was one-time editor of its Lex column.

After leaving the paper to join advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi and then launch his own capital markets advisory agency Makinson Cowell, he returned to be managing director of the FT in 1996. After that, he became finance director of the FT's parent group before assuming his current role at Penguin, another Pearson subsidiary and one of the best-known names in publishing globally, in 2002.

Part of his drive has been to expand the Penguin brand internationally, including markets such as China.

"The brand was fairly well known (in China). Much less well known than in India but better known than we thought it would be. We were quite struck by the resonance of the brand in the early days and that made us very attractive to potential (Chinese) partners," he says.

When it entered China in 2005, it had a publishing hit straight away when it decided to publish Wolf Totem by the then little-known writer Jiang Rong.

The book, which has now been made into a soon-to-be-released film, was the result of a scouting mission by Jo Lusby, a new recruit with no previous experience of publishing.

Fluent in Chinese, she was hired to look out for Chinese books that might be successful in English.

The book, about a Beijing student sent to Inner Mongolia during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), became an instant hit. Lusby is now general manager of Penguin in China.

"We had a little bit of a flying start," admits Makinson. "The fact that Penguin Classics had been imported into the Chinese market for a number of years also gave us the head start to think about the acquisition of Chinese titles like Wolf Totem."

Penguin, which reported first-half sales of 441 million pounds in July, slightly down from 457 million pounds last year, has seen sales grow in China by 15 percent annually since arriving in the country.

It is not the only non-English language market on which it is focused, having acquired a 45 percent stake in the leading Brazilian trade publisher Companhia das Letras, earlier this year.

Makinson says there are three strands to growing Penguin's business in China: the sale of imported books, selling Chinese language rights for existing books to local publishers and coming up with its own ideas for books that might be a hit in China such as the Li Na autobiography.

Penguin is believed to have recently clinched a deal with a Chinese celebrity-figure to write a novel.

"Developing China books for China is an area we are in now. It is something we have done everywhere else. I think we have always been the most international and adventurous of the major publishing houses," he says.

"When Allen Lane formed the company in 1935, he established businesses in America and Australia very early on and it was something that no other publishing company was doing at the time."

Makinson believes that China can prove to be a big digital publishing market. In the first half of this year, 19 percent of the company's worldwide revenue came from the sale of e-books with the United States leading the way with 30 percent.

"I think there is no reason to suppose it shouldn't be a big market. The Chinese are early adopters of mobile consumer technology. There is a lot of reading going on on phones already."

(China Daily 09/14/2012 page6)