Publishers turn a new page

By Lu Qianwen Source:Global Times Published: 2012-7-30 20:05:03

A boy reading Harry Potter Photo:CFP
A boy reading Harry Potter Photo:CFP

From classics like Anderson Fairy Tales and Jane Eyre to modern fiction like Norwegian Wood, literature from abroad floods China's market every year. With the spread of best-selling book lists, international literature prizes such as the annual Nobel Literature Prize and the biennial Hans Christian Andersen Award, and frequent visits by Nobel laureates to the Chinese mainland, the domestic market is continuously opening up for foreign literature. 

With the recent announcement of the shortlist for the fourth Fu Lei Translation Award, China's prestigious French-to-Chinese translation contest, literature is again on readers' radar. A total of 10 books translated from French originals including Anthology of Camus and The Second Sex made the shortlist.

 "The market for foreign literature is on the rise," said Gu Aibin, president of Yilin Press, one of China's leading publishing companies established in 1988 in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. "We have a group of die-hard foreign literature fans in the country."

Despite the era of the Internet, foreign classic literature is irreplaceable. 

"Avid readers keep up with the latest development of foreign writers," said Gu. "They have a higher standard of the books than they did before," he told the Global Times.

Gu said that from the book's translation to its graphic design, every aspect of publishing involving foreign literature must be complete. Readers are no longer willing to accept a simple translation.

"This reflects the quality of our readers, but at the same time brings us a sense of competition," he said.

Fierce competition

As the Chinese government encourages the transformation of the cultural industry, many State-owned publishers and emerging private book houses are expanding. A spot in the literature market is becoming increasingly coveted.

Apart from established professional publishers like Yilin Press and Shanghai Translation Publishing House (STPH), both of which have a long history of introducing foreign literature, new players like Thinkingdom House in Beijing, 99 Read and Wenjing Book in Shanghai are emerging.

Besides the substantial demographic of readers in the country, increasing interest in this sector is due to the low-risk factor for publishers, in introducing work that is already popular in other countries.

"Many domestic publishers are publishing translated literature as a way to strengthen their status," said Han Weidong, president of STPH. "These works have been tested in the foreign market."

As for current competition in foreign literature, according to the analysis of Huang Yuhai, president of 99 Read, 60 to 70 percent of the foreign literature market is occupied by private publishers like Thinkingdom House, 99 Read and Wenjing Book.

Domestic publishers who previously focused on Chinese books are now also eying this market, such as Tianjin Huawen Tianxia Book Company and Citic Press Corporation.

The fierce competition parallels surging copyright royalties.

"The purchasing cost used to be in the thousands, but now this number has risen to the millions over recent years," said Gu.

Segmented market

With diversified tastes, there are many opportunities to introduce various types of foreign literature. Besides historically classic works, other genres like thrillers, science fiction, and children's literature are swarming in.

For example, whodunit stories, a sub-division of the detective story, have been increasingly popular in recent years. In 2008 Thinkingdom House, a leading domestic private publisher specializing in foreign literature, introduced Japanese whodunit writer Higashino Keigo's works, Into the White Night and The Devotion of Suspect X.

According to Li Yao, chief editor of foreign literature department in Thinkingdom House, works by Raymond Thornton Chandler (1888-1959) and Lawrence Block (1938-) are also popular, with circulation reaching hundreds of thousands.

"These submarkets will continue to expand in the future," said Li.

With the publication of translated fiction book One Hundred Years of Solitude by Columbia author Gabriel García Márquez in June last year, the market share of Latin American literature in China increased, while traditional Western literature declined, according to Li.

Insiders are optimistic about the foreign children's literature market. Popular stories including Window of the Small Peas by Japanese writer Toru Kuroyanagi, Charlotte's Web by E.B.White, and The Knickerbocker Gang by Thomas Brezina have occupied the top of best-selling lists in recent years.

"The sustaining popularity of foreign children literature is indicative of the competition in this market," said Huang Yuhai, president of 99 Read.

Government regulations

Although piracy is not as severe of a problem as before, other issues are surfacing in the industry.

 "Though piracy still exists, it's not our main concern now," said Shi Lingkong, chief editor of STPH.

"With a sound legal system, anti-piracy lawsuits can be handled effectively. With more domestic publishers allowed to enter this market, competition for copyrights is the biggest headache," Shi told the Global Times.

"We haven't had any industry associations or relative government institutions regulating the market," said Gu. In light of market growth mixed with chaotic competition, Gu added that there is no limit for royalties, different from other countries.

With ballooning copyright cost, foreign publishers are setting up their own agencies in China to deal with copyright issues, a different direction than hiring local agents like Barden-Chinese Media Agency, which was the method used before. Foreign publishers like Kodansha from Japan and Harper Collins from the US have both established their own copyright institutions in China.

Domestic publishers engaged in introducing foreign literature have their own advantages, according to Li.

Time-honored names like Yilin Press and STPH have superiority in translating and editing and a pool of copyright resources, while novices like 99 Read are better at planning and selecting a variety of books.

In Li's view, the relationship between these groups should be complementary instead of competitive.

"When the overall industry is more developed and mature, foreign publishers can trust domestic brands," Li said.

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