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  • Jun 30, 2016
    Books, Friends, Fellows: Lessons from the Taipei Rights Workshop
    by Eric Abrahamsen, founder of Paper Republic

    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.

  • Mar 26, 2015
    Same, but Different: A Lesson from Across the Straits
    by Jo Lusby, Managing Director of Penguin China

    There is a sense around the publishing world that a major bestseller is hiding somewhere in China, the one book that can race to the top of English language charts. So far, however, it has proved elusive. Chinese literature in English generally falls into the ‘important’ rather than ‘popular’ category, alongside eating kale and drinking green juice, reading Chinese literature in English can often feel like something that is done because it is good for you, rather than for the simple pleasure.


    Penguin Random House sells imported US and UK books into China, and partners with local publishers to co-create Chinese language books. More than anything else, however, it is our work to publish Chinese books in English that I am called upon to discuss.


    Penguin opened its first China office in Beijing in 2005; today, we employ twenty-two people in three Chinese cities. Back in 2005, before we had established a legal entity or found an office space, my boss asked me to get started by looking for a Chinese novel that could be translated into English. The idea was to emulate the origins of Penguin in India more than twenty-five years ago, who made their mark signing up a slew of major Indian writers who went on to become household names in the West. It felt like the right way to get started in China, in part because there was an interest in finding stories from China, and also because it felt important that our business was not a one-way traffic of books from the West to China, but a genuine two-way.


    A novel called Wolf Totem 狼圖騰 by Jiang Rong 姜戎 was a surprise bestseller in late 2004, and by April 2005 it was firmly established at number one in the bestseller charts. It was no hidden secret, it was piled high in every Xinhua Bookstore. Its fans were college students, business executives, young girls—the novel was read and interpreted differently by a wide range of readers.


    I had been working for Penguin for one month when I bought myself a copy. I read it, talked to friends who I knew had read it, and I thought it was something really interesting and quite different. I also liked the idea of publishing something that was not ‘banned in China,’ but rather ‘big in China.’ I managed to get hold of the author (Jiang Rong is a pen name and at that point his true identity had not yet been revealed online) and when I said I was calling from Penguin he was very enthusiastic. He was keen to sell his book to us, but as this was my first book deal I wasn't sure how to negotiate the next step of actually buying it. That was how it ended up with our CEO making the deal, face to face, on a visit to Beijing, in the executive lounge of a hotel. Jiang Rong spent an hour telling amazing stories about baby wolves, ancient cultures, incredible encounters, and sold my colleagues on the ideas that were captured in the book. It was an unusual way to buy a book, none of our international colleagues who would be responsible for publishing the book had been involved in the acquisition, but it was just a wonderful story that felt like the right thing at the right time.


    From the moment we signed Wolf Totem it created a lot of buzz internationally. Partly, it was because it was such a Chinese story—life on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in the 1960s and 1970s—and it was revealing of a very romantic time and place that Westerners really didn't know anything about. Equally importantly, it was a story with many universal themes—humanity versus nature, tradition versus modernity, threats to the environment, not to mention one man's relationship with an animal—that made the story feel much more accessible than a lot of Chinese literature.


    In many ways, Wolf Totem benefitted from timing: Penguin was the first English language trade publisher to set up an operation in China and, as such, it became a talking point for people interested in understanding the local literary and business scene. It raised our profile locally, as Chinese readers were proud that such a popular work was being embraced overseas. But it also raised expectations from Chinese authors, who hoped we would keep repeating this trick and that everything we bought would generate the same degree of buzz, which of course, was just not possible.


    Since that acquisition in 2005, the process has evolved over time. Nowadays, we acquire the rights to Chinese writers that range from literary celebrities to genre writers and classic authors. We don’t look for authors who ‘represent China,’ but works that we believe tell a great story that has appeal beyond the Chinese context and setting, writers such as Sheng Keyi 盛可以 and He Jiahong 何家弘. Sheng Keyi writes wonderful novels about loss of innocence, whereas He Jiahong writes rich and detailed crime stories with forensic and authoritative insider detail.


    We enjoy publishing books that will challenge readers' expectations about the subjects that Chinese writers are prepared to address. When we published the officialdom novel The Civil Servant's Notebook by Wang Xiaofang 王曉方, we heard from various quarters that it was an unusual choice. From my point of view, I think it was a wonderful project to work on. This novel—fiction that deals with the inner workings of the Chinese political system and examines how corruption can move through the ranks—could only be written convincingly by a Chinese insider and this is precisely the kind of story that should be translated for readers in other cultures. Our goal was to publish it along similar lines to the books of Andrey Kurkov such as Death and the Penguin; absurdist, satirical, strange, and distant, yet with connections to the known world.


    While Wolf Totem was the most famous book of its time, we are as willing to buy small, unknown books as we are to acquiring major bestsellers. A book's popularity in one country does not guarantee it success in another, and books unknown at home can strike a chord elsewhere.


    Selling the first works by Chinese authors in foreign translations is highly challenging, even if that writer is a major name at home. Literary festivals are critical in establishing new authors in Europe and Australia, but with non-English speaking writers their participation is limited and complex. Journalists and broadcasters rely on people being available—a writer who can take a taxi across central London to join a BBC discussion about recent events will be chosen above someone who must be hosted by satellite link from halfway around the world. Bookstore signings—small, intimate events—are scheduled at the last minute and at very low cost.


    For the Penguin China list, we have looked at what readers have responded positively to and adjusted our publishing mix accordingly. So for example, with crime novelist He Jiahong, we realized that the greatest selling point was his expertise on anti-corruption and miscarriages of justice, so we published a non-fiction Penguin Special on his work with the Chinese ‘innocence project’ as a way to cross-promote and introduce him to a wider readership.


    We also had to accept that while being the first people to publish translations of Chinese literary fiction was a real pleasure, we needed some heavy hitters on the list as well. And so we recently published Nobel Laureate Mo Yan's newest novel, Frog in English.


    It's been almost ten years since we acquired the foreign rights to Wolf Totem and over that time, I have come to the conclusion that readers really don't care if a work is translated or not. They just want a great story. If it doesn’t appeal to them, they won’t read it. I have adapted the way I evaluate and talk about our books as a result, choosing to focus less on translation and more on the stories.


    Publishing has few certainties. Buying books from authors involves taking a calculated risk and even a book you are passionate about may fail to find a readership. I find myself thinking a lot about the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and thinking about how he found such great success internationally. Of course, he's a wonderful writer, but I would guess that the majority of readers forget his are works of translation when they read his novels. While his stories could only take place in Japan—the country is very much a character in each story—you don’t read his books to understand Japan. And so, when I read a book from China and think about publishing it in English, I have to think: Do I care? Does it matter to me if they live or die, if the guy gets the girl, if it all ends well? Too often I don't care, I'm not invested in the story, and no matter how accurately it portrays life in China, it will not make up for the sense that the story doesn’t speak to me on an emotional level. I look for books that take the reader on a journey and, more than anything else, I look for the books that I myself want to read.