Searching for the limelight

Updated: 2012-09-14 08:46

By Lu Nan (China Daily)

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Ironing out the finer nuances essential for Chinese literature to shine in global markets

Demand for Chinese titles witnessed an upswing, particularly from overseas publishers, at the 19th Beijing International Book fair. The robust political and economic environment in China and the efforts put in by the Chinese publishing industry were largely responsible for the buoyant trend at the fair.

The rapid economic development in China has drawn attention not only from close neighbors in Asia, but also from Europe, the US and the Pacific. The world is now more than ever curious about what contemporary China is like and how an ordinary Chinese lives his/her life in the cities or in the countryside.

Literature is undoubtedly the best media to showcase what is happening across China. It is interesting to note that interest about China in the past was mostly restricted to history and political disputes.

Popular literature translations were largely confined to the classics and the translated works catered to a small audience.

That has changed now and overseas readers are now more than hungry to read about the present and their areas of interest have extended to all walks of contemporary life.

Multi-dimensional international communication and cooperation is one of the new trends that the publishing industry in China needs to be aware of. The process of globalization has meant that the global economy is more like a tight net and the efforts of the publishing industry in China should be oriented more at staying within it.

Efforts to promote Chinese literature from within the country is another aspect that the industry should not ignore. The Chinese government, publishers, writers and private agencies have all contributed collectively to make this effort a success.

Many of the problems for the industry came about due to the limited market for Chinese literature in overseas markets. As such it was rare that publishers would get enquiries for books from outside the East Asia economic circle, and even when such offers did materialize, the remuneration amounts were abysmally low, around $500 (390 euros) to $1,500 for a full length novel.

Since this hardly provided any financial recourse, many writers and publishers also did not feel the urge to actively promote their books and rather decided to wait for a lucrative offer. There were also no auctions to help sell a book for a higher price, while the private agencies were not interested in joining the business.

However, policies from government department also made it obligatory for publishers to sell the rights for overseas markets.

With the pressure on, publishers had to take things in their own hands and work out a way to sell titles in unfamiliar territories. Along the way, they also learned to protect their rights, explore promising titles and develop possible channels.

Support from the government has been a great help in the international rights trade. At the moment, government funding covers a proportion of the translation costs and possibly some production costs for certain books.

This is a huge encouragement for overseas publishers to buy the rights of Chinese titles.

Translation had also been a big wall stopping Chinese literature from being published overseas as good translations by experienced translators were hard to come by. In other words, there were not enough translators who could translate the books from Chinese to English, let alone other languages.

However, finding quality translators, though relatively expensive, is no longer such a major problem. They have been working with publishers and writers, producing introductory samples or full translations of books.

Meanwhile, overseas scholars in Chinese studies have also been introducing and promoting Chinese literature to foreign publishers. Private agencies have started to represent writers to negotiate with overseas companies by providing more options for Chinese writers to reach out. Some of these agencies already have a reputation and established connections in the trade.

Writers have also been making appearances at international book fairs, and there have been more visits and projects between Chinese and overseas publishers. All these have created a beneficial condition to sell Chinese rights.

But international rights trading still remains a challenge for China. I think there are several factors that are making the trade difficult.

The difference in reading preferences of Chinese and Western readers often plays a huge role. One example is the preferred length of a novel. The Chinese are used to reading long novels of more than 500,000 words and believe that's the way to explore a topic to a full extent. But in the West a literary work would normally be restricted to less than 300,000 words.

The style of writing also varies too. Though Chinese novelists learn from Western classics and modern works, they have inherited more techniques from historical classics and that influence is subtle and hard to be erased.

As for the content, Chinese culture is based on its long history, which is not only a huge genre but also the ideology behind many novels. This is something that is unfamiliar to many Western readers.

The cultural barriers also leave one question: Should Chinese writers modify their writing to the international market or should they work out something that is appealing to Chinese and international readers? So far, there haven't been enough voices to make Chinese literature a star in the global market like Haruki Murakami for Japan or Stieg Larsson for Sweden. I certainly hope, with concerted efforts from writers, publishers and all other forces in the industries, we can find that voice soon enough.

The author is a representative of the rights department at the People's Literature Publishing House in Beijing. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 09/14/2012 page7)