Publishing has long been known as a “gentleman’s profession.” The term originally held several different implications, many of which are no longer true – that it’s a profession dominated by men, for instance, or only for the independently wealthy. But one understanding of the term is still very much in effect, namely that publishing, more than most industries, depends on personal connections, friendships, and being part of an international “publishing culture.”
Nearly a decade of working in literature and publishing in Beijing has driven this point home for me in two ways. The first was watching editors at Chinese publishing houses trying to pitch their books to foreign publishers and failing. As I watched these interactions, it became clear to me that the problem wasn’t so much the books or the editors, but with their methods of communication. Chinese editors simply didn’t know how to talk naturally with international editors, much less pitch their books in a compelling way. The second was my own interactions with those same international editors. As an American and native English speaker, I enjoyed an unfair advantage – at least we could chat, and find a natural rapport. But when it came to pitching titles I wanted to translate, I fell down just as hard as the Chinese editors. I had no trouble in conveying how much I liked a particular book, but when it came to why I liked it – and more importantly, why they should publish it – I wasn’t making myself clear.
The usual term for what I experienced at the Taipei Rights Workshop is “publishing fellowship.” In November of 2015 I was invited to Taipei, along with a handful of editors, agents and translators from other countries, to spend a week getting to know both each other and the Taiwanese publishing and literary scenes. The word “fellowship” is telling. It fits very neatly with the idea of publishing as a social endeavor: these week-long events provide participants with a way to get to know each other on more than just a professional basis. There’s shop talk about books and rights and markets and sales, but there’s also late-night conversations about personal history, arguments about taste, admissions about past misjudgments, and war stories about near misses. Participants in these events are “fellows” in the sense of having experienced something unique together.
By the time I attended the Taipei Rights Workshop, I had (over the years) spent enough time with editors that I had a better sense of how to introduce Chinese books in an effective way. We had hosted a UK editors’ trip to China, attended the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs, and midwifed several Chinese books into English publication. Looking around the Chinese publishing industry, however, it was clear that most Chinese editors still didn’t really know how to communicate with international editors. Some privately-owned publishing companies were extremely adept at acquiring titles from other countries, but the challenge of pitching Chinese books abroad still seemed insurmountable.
My week in Taipei was the longest period of time I’d spent in the company of a mixed group of international editors. I’ll admit it felt like a bit of a homecoming – though our backgrounds were completely different, they seemed like my kind of people. I simply liked talking to them. We had a lot of the same opinions about books. And I realized that that’s one of the great appeals of the publishing world – it’s a great global society of people who like nothing more than talking about books.
Returning to Beijing, I thought immediately of the cynical side of all this. The business of publishing is – the love of books aside – a game of chance. As in all games of chance, most players think they have better-than-average odds of winning, which is why everyone keeps playing. When it comes to international fiction, however, the odds are even longer: one has less information, more uncertainty, and far greater risk.
It is part of human nature that, when faced with such uncertainty, we seek out the opinions of other people, and of our friends in particular. And who are our friends if not our fellows, the people we’ve spent weeks bonding with in foreign countries?
Here we have the reason Chinese editors are so often unable to pitch their books: no one knows who they are. Specifically, no one has a sense of them as individuals; no one knows their tastes; no one has stayed up until 2 a.m. arguing with them about the relative merits of Milan Kundera versus Haruki Murakami. When they drop by a stand at the book fair and say, “I’ve got something I think you might like,” the crucial question is: will they be heard?
Imitationis the sincerest form of flattery, and in a few days the Beijing Publishing Fellowship will begin. It was directly inspired by the Taipei Rights Workshop, and it will, like all publishing endeavors, be an equal mix of market pragmatism and literary idealism. My hope is that the visiting fellows will learn a great deal about China, and go home with future projects and partners in mind. But more than that I hope that local editors will learn how to talk to the fellows. How to be social, how to share their enthusiasm, how to make what they’re trying to say heard. Everyone belongs to their own milieu. But we also need to be able to reach out – to convey our passions, to speak to others’ markets, to show we understand. That’s a lesson I learned in Taipei.