Publishing and rights management are relatively closely related professions.
I have been working in the publishing industry for over 10 years. I started as an editor, but now I oversee the acquisition and sale of foreign rights. This significant change in my career had its own unexpected turning point.
From Editor to Rights Agent
In 2017, I went to Beijing on a business trip with our Editor-in-Chief. While catching up on work in the hotel, we received a proposal from our editorial team: they wanted to acquire a title from Thailand, “SOTUS,” a popular novel that had been adapted into TV series.
Yet in those days, our publishing house primarily focused on Chinese-language novels. We had never even considered other languages until our team brought up this new proposal.
Based on their research, the acquisitions team believed that the widespread popularity of drama made it very likely that even a non-Chinese title would be worth a try for us. After hours of discussion with the Editor-in-Chief, we agreed that the project could work. Yet we had never acquired anything from Thailand before; we weren’t even sure how exactly to go about it.
One might ask: did you think about engaging an agency to acquire the rights? The truth is that agents weren’t a part of our world at that point; we were accustomed to contacting copyright holders directly without help from agencies. When we first began acquiring from China, I communicated with rights holders via email or in person. So we sent a query directly to the Thai rights holder, and luckily for us, they responded positively. This moment, it turned out, was a watershed for my career.
In 2017, on the invitation of the Thai publisher, I attended my very first Bangkok Book Fair. There I met other publishers to whom we had been licensing our own titles, illustrations, and designs for years. It was a great opportunity for me to meet more editors and share my experiences with them, as well as to understand more about Thailand’s book market.
After returning to Taiwan, I received letters from multiple Thai publishers asking me to help them to acquire rights to more Chinese light novels. Some were having difficulty contacting rights holders, while others were sometimes made to wait for six months or longer every time they requested a title. As I happen to have years of experience dealing with Chinese and Taiwanese light novel authors and utilizing online literature platforms, I could help them save a lot of time.
As time went by, we began working with more Thai publishers looking for light novel titles. My Editor-in-Chief asked me if I would like to start working full-time in our rights department. As luck would have it, I found an opportunity to attend the Taipei Rights Workshop hosted by the Ministry of Culture, where I learned more about the responsibilities of a rights editor and was exposed to new ways to pitch work to clients – both crucial confidence-builders as I started a new career.
Hot in Thailand: Light Novels and MM Romance
Our company has an imprint, Pinsin, that publishes exclusively light novels featuring MM romance. Many people may wonder what qualifies as a light novel, and what we mean by “MM romance.” The light novel initially developed in Japan as a category of fiction suitable for casual reading and aimed at teenage and young adult readers. The boundaries of that definition expanded when the light novel came to Taiwan, and it now frequently includes new or hard-to-classify genres of novel fiction.
MM (Male-Male) Romance, more recently known as Boys Love (“BL” in Asia), refers to a genre of fantasy romance (not LGBT fiction) between men for female readers (to be known as Fujoshi). Boys Love romance also originates in Japan. Taiwanese readers first encountered it in novels translated from the Japanese, but domestic authorship of BL novels has been going on since 1998. Although most readers are female, it is my understanding that the population of male readers is also growing.
In recent years, MM romance as a subgenre of light novels has exploded in Thailand. Its popularity has grown in other southeast Asian nations as well, though many of these countries – China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and others – restrict the publication of LGBT-related content. Close observation of the Thai market suggests that Chinese light novels (especially those set in ancient China) occupy a mainstream position. Some of the publishers consistently acquire titles that have already been published or become popular in Taiwan, and we have found that the tastes of readers in both countries share common ground: both markets love fiction involving fantasy, wuxia knight-errantry, mystical martial arts, and palace rivalry, while sci-fi or stories of modern China enjoy a much more limited readership.
We start to recommend Taiwanese novels to Thai publishers in 2019, they are more than welcome to give a try. As licensing fees for Chinese titles increase, Taiwanese authors who produce work of identical quality have an opportunity to compete with their Chinese colleagues. Taiwanese titles also possess the advantage of lower average word counts; while a Chinese online novel might stretch to five or even ten volumes, Taiwanese authors frequently conclude their stories in one or two volumes. Taiwanese novels therefore cost less, from a publisher’s point of view. While Chinese titles frequently gain cross-media support from large companies that repackage them for television, web series, and games, thereby attracting new readers, these adaptations also inevitably result in substantial alteration to the romantic content.
Personal observation suggests to me that MM romances owe their growing popularity in Thailand to their adaptation of the traditional romance storyline. While most romance novels follow the formulaic story arc of meeting, falling in love, conflict, and happy ending, MM romances frequently incorporate adventure-based or fantastical plot elements that enrich the reading experience. Perhaps the most popular example at the moment is the Demon Grandmaster (Modao zushi) series; if you search for hashtags like #MDZS or #MoDaoZuShi on Twitter, you will be astounded by the number of fans it has. Rights to this series have sold in China, Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, and Russia.
I was very lucky to attend the Taipei Rights Workshop. It greatly increased my understanding of international rights sales and taught me important new strategies for pitching work. I even made a few friends there whose positive influences make me a better agent and a better person. Those experiences remind me of how important it is to keep tabs on trends in both domestic and foreign markets.
Although light novels never find their way to the top of agents’ lists for promotion, their potential market is huge. While some social barriers still exist between West and East, success stories are not unknown: the Japanese comic City Hunter, illustrated by Tsukasa Hojo, has done well enough to be adapted into a movie in France. Perhaps its example will pave the way for more Asian light novels to make inroads into the European market. All it takes are publishers who are ready to offer the right chance – and if you never try, you’ll never know!