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  • Censorship, the Rural-Urban Divide, and We-media Integration: The State of Reading in Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia
    Sep 24, 2019 / By Lin Hsuan-Wei (Readmoo) ∥ Translated by Canaan Morse

    While the Taiwanese government’s commitment to a “South Bound Policy” has survived two electoral cycles without wavering, its plans for how to advance that focus and invite deeper cooperation with South and Southeast Asian nations are far from complete. By contrast, certain private and popular interests have been executing their own campaigns in Southeast Asia for several years already. This year the summer session Taipei Rights Workshop for publishing and rights professionals, organized by the Grayhawk Agency, invited Phan Thanh Lan (Vietnam), Fidyastria Saspida (Indonesia), and Jureeporn Somart (Thailand) to share their understanding of current trends in reading and publishing in South Asia with audience members at the Brilliant Time Bookstore, a well-known local purveyor of  Southeast Asian literature in its original languages and in translation.

     

    An Up-and-Coming Book Market

    Phan Thanh Lan works for Kim Dong, Vietnam’s largest publisher of manga and children’s literature. Founded in 1957, they are responsible for many of the titles that Vietnamese readers grew up with. According to Phan Thanh Lan, Vietnam represents a growth market for the publishing industry. The majority of its 95 million citizens are young, capable members of a burgeoning work force currently driving fast economic development. Unlike in Taiwan, Vietnam’s publishing industry is split between cultural companies and publishing houses; when the former wish to publish a book, they must first acquire a permit via the latter. About sixty-four domestic publishing houses and a multitude of culture companies operate in Vietnam today, with at least one publishing house in almost every province. Educational publishing accounts for a dominating 75% of the market, a testament to the influence of the nation’s school enrollment and testing system. Given annual sales numbers, Phan Thanh Lan estimates that the average Vietnamese citizen reads about four books a year. Meanwhile, children’s publishing now stands at a rising 10% of the total market, a trend she attributes to increased care on the part of Vietnamese parents for their children’s early education.

    One significant blemish on this otherwise sunny picture is the slow growth of digital publishing. To date, only twelve domestic publishers have entered the digital publishing space, many fewer than expected. Disparities in literacy between rural and urban centers have made publishing much less profitable in the countryside. Moreover, the nation’s Communist regime mandates that all books undergo central government censorship before publication, leading to situations in which, according to her, “even a fully finished book project can become unpublishable.” Meanwhile, bootleg publishing remains rampant, and continues to escape government control.

    Kim Dong publishes an average of three hundred new titles every year, including a significant number of Taiwanese works in translation. Yet cooperation is not always easy, as deals can get hung up on issues like licensing and list prices. Phan Thanh Lan notes that, for instance, while Jimmy Liao’s children’s titles are extremely popular in Vietnam, Taiwanese publishers worry that the lower retail prices of the same books in Vietnam will end up cannibalizing sales in Taiwan.

     

    Do Indonesians Really Not Like to Read?

    Fidyastria Saspida is an editor at Elex, a multimedia company founded in 1985 that has been a paragon of modernization in the publishing industry: In 2001, Elex set up a commercial products department to sell the literacy cards that had become extremely popular among pre-school children, and in 2016, the company started a IP department in order to stay at the cusp of digital publishing. Elex has published a total of nearly twenty thousand titles to date, with an average of 150 new titles emerging each month in every theme and market segment – the new biography of Jack Ma, for instance, was extremely popular with their readers. This trip to Taiwan has left Fidyastria with the impression that Taiwan’s reading environment is not so different from Indonesia’s. Both readerships share a love for genres such as romance and fantasy, leading Fidyastria to conclude that “We ought to have a lot of room for cooperation!” Elex publishes domestic manga as well as translated titles; religious tracts, owing to the strength of Indonesia’s Islamic population, are also quite popular. Furthermore, Elex has capitalized on a recent surge in international tourism to Indonesia by partnering with the Ministry of Tourism to produce guidebooks and other related titles.

    “A lot of people say, ‘Indonesians don’t read books, so the market isn’t good,’ but if the market weren’t good, how could we do so well?” She introduces audience members to a number of popular domestic writing and publishing events, including the Bali Readers and Writers Festival, a five-day event on the island of Bali that draws huge crowds of famous authors and enthusiastic readers; it’s “the best reader’s festival in the world,” Fidyastria avers. This year, representatives from Taiwan also attended. One widely-anticipated feature of the festival is a one- to two-day book sale in which prices drop as low as 70% off.

    But the Indonesian book market is also not without its difficulties. Since 2015, about half the nation’s bookstores have closed. The majority of publishers are located in Jakarta, the largest city on the island of Java, which means that readers on more remote islands usually have to rely on online retailers to buy books. Significant wealth gaps between the cities and countryside also create significant instability and inequality in the book market, despite its large size. Children’s literature remains the only dependable genre from a sales perspective, though other facets of the market still have room to develop.

     

    Thailand: Facing a Revolution in Publishing Practice

    Jureeporn Somart works for SE-ED Publishing House, a business whose name refers to science, engineering, and education. Founded by engineers in 1974, it publishes very popular titles in the hard and natural sciences, as well as in computer science. The business’s crown jewels are its dictionaries, which are the most trusted and best-selling in the country. The Thai people love learning foreign languages, and SE-ED’s TOIEC and English-learning titles are also hot commodities. “After all, these are the kind of books that can get you a raise,” Jureeporn notes.

    Jureeporn reports that over the last few years, Thai publishers have begun focusing on their online readership communities. Bricks-and-mortar bookstores, no longer the main vehicle for sales, have become more like exhibition spaces. Publishers have also warmed up to social media as a tool for understanding reader’s appetites more quickly and completely. “Tastes and reading habits are changing,” Jureeporn says. While DIY titles and “boy-love” romances have become extremely popular in recent years, she observes, hard-copy works on cooking, cosmetics, and nutrition have fallen off sharply as readers have turned to online outlets for that sort of information. “They believe the tips and tricks that internet celebrities teach them,” and therefore are less willing to buy printed books. SE-ED caught onto the global social media craze long ago. They encourage online authors to publish previews of their work in advance, so that customers may pre-order titles, which the publisher will then print and distribute according to demand. Jureeporn believes that traditional content and digital content can exist symbiotically; readers still want to feel the weight of a book in their hands, while digital publishing gives them more choices and a different method of reading.

  • Jung and Farber: Partners in Crime (II)
    Jan 14, 2019 / By Liu Chih-Yu ∥ Translated by Roddy Flagg

    A good crime story isn’t just about suspense: it portrays a society. The protagonist in Moses and the Ship of the Dead, which Jung is to publish in 2019, is a thoroughly German chief inspector: well-educated, meticulous, and punctual and polite to the point of being boring. Yet on arrival at a crime scene he is repeatedly mistaken for an assistant – because he is black. And with that particular perspective and an intriguing crime to solve, the novel shows there are subtler forms of racism than violence and abuse.

    Hideo Yokoyama’s 64 sounds like exactly the kind of book Germans aren’t keen on: long, slow and full of foreign names. No other publisher would touch it, but Jung added a stunning cover and sold the book as a window on contemporary Japanese society. In doing so he created a much-discussed success which spent four months on Germany’s crime bestselling list and was hailed by critics as “doing something no other crime novel has done.”

    After the success of 64, many people asking Jung when he’d decided to jump on the Asian crime bandwagon. He struggles to answer – as far as he is concerned, he did no such thing. It was only after the success of 64 that bookstores started to dedicate sections to “Asian Crime Fiction” – the trend didn’t exist when he bought it. “To force books on the public which they don’t want is the publisher’s most important and most wonderful mission,” said Jung, quoting another German publisher.

    And once a publisher decides what type of book to publish, how are the actual books found? Jung stressed again and again the importance of partnerships – in this case, partners in “crime”. It was US literary scout Kelly Farber who first recommended 64.

    Kelly, the All-Knowing Literary Scout

    Kelly Farber, often mentioned by Jung, finally had the opportunity to talk about her own work as a literary scout. It’s not a common job in Taiwan, but she summed it up as a form of consultancy. Her publisher clients, hailing from various time-zones and cultural backgrounds, look to her for the latest intelligence on the US book market, recommendations and market analysis, and help reaching out to rights holders and closing deals.

    The need to stay on top of the latest first-hand info mean literary scouts spend much of their time talking to editors, trying to figure out what manuscripts are being considered. Sometimes an editor will voluntarily send over a manuscript he or she would like a scout’s opinion on, and a nod of approval from a scout can be an important indicator of potential success internationally and help rights sales.

    A literary scout’s job is not, as some people think, to read all day. Most of their working day is spent on the phone and replying to emails. At most they read short outlines of non-fiction books, with novels read at home in the evenings. Four manuscripts a week is the norm.

    Kelly also pointed out that book markets are becoming polarized – well-known authors with a clear political stance are more popular. Fiction is becoming harder to sell, but in Spain fiction sells twice as much as non-fiction. So don’t give up, she says: it’s a tough market, but there can be good news where you least expect it.

  • Jung and Farber: Partners in Crime (I)
    Jan 14, 2019 / By Liu Chih-Yu ∥ Translated by Roddy Flagg

    The Taipei Rights Workshop is an annual highlight for local editors and agents: an opportunity here in Taiwan to meet publishing sector people from around the world and discuss differences in cultures and markets – something that can be hard to do in the chaos of the major book fairs.

    2018’s workshop, the sixth, again welcomed attendees from around the world: from agents who have sold books worldwide to overseas editors who have snapped up Taiwanese books. But what do they discuss?

    Recent years have seen German Tim Jung excel in his role as publishing director at Arche/Atrium, snapping up the rights to Chan Ho-Kei’s The Borrowed, Wang Ting-Kuo’s My Enemy’s Cherry Tree and Hideo Yokoyama’s 64 and guiding these books to impressive sales on the German market. Meanwhile Kelly Farber, a young and talented literary scout and the eyes and ears for Jung and other publishers across eighteen countries, is helping bring Chinese-language literature to a global audience.

    Reading in Germany

    Tim Jung manages two publishing houses. Arche was originally founded to provided reading materials for German prisoners of war during World War Two; Atrium has been publishing novels since 1935.

    There were 72,499 new books published in Germany in 2017, 31% of those novels and 9,890 translated. The majority of the translated works were originally published in English, French or Japanese (including manga). Rights to an impressive 7,856 German books were sold overseas, with the three most common target languages for translation being Chinese, English and Spanish.

    But the news is not all good. Here’s one worrying statistic: the number of people buying books in Germany has plummeted by 6 million over the past four years, to 30 million. It’s a trend which has Germany’s publishing sector on edge.

    It’s not just Germany: publishers around the world are finding themselves squeezed between Facebook and Instagram. But Jung believes books can hold their own against new competitors and remain the "touchstone" against which television shows and video games are judged. Even though many regard other forms of media, including movie or game adaptations, as competitors, Jung finds this approach inadequate. Those adaptations still have value, even if the book market does suffer, and may be key to converting viewers and gamers into readers.

    Why Publish Crime Novels?

    Novels account for a large percentage of book sales and the crime story is an important category of novel: every book store will have a crime section. A German movie director once said that there is no better way to understand the world than through a crime story, and while each publishing house has its own criteria for choosing books, Atrium’s publication of 13.67 proves this point.

    The English edition of the book was titled The Borrowed, hinting at Hong Kong’s particular status. Fears the relationship between China, the UK and Hong Kong may not have been so familiar to German readers, however, meant the German edition was titled The Eye of Hong Kong – a clever combination of the setting and the “Eye of Heaven” nickname of detective protagonist Kwan Chun-dok. The novel tells of six key cases over the course of Kwan’s career, covering key events in the city’s history as it does so and making for a read which provides German readers with both entertainment and a better understanding of the territory.

    Jung quoted Mark Billingham, another of his best-selling authors: “Above all, give your readers characters they care about, that have the power to move them, and then you will have suspense from page one.”

  • A report on the Taipei Right’s Workshop (II)
    Apr 06, 2017 / By Anne Meadows

    What then of us, the eight fellows who had come so far to talk about the challenges we face in our own countries? Dave Haysom, a translator from Chinese into English and editor of the Chinese literary magazine, Pathlight: New Chinese Writing, and Gloria Masdeau, a Spanish-born editor and rights seller at the Beijing publishing house Shanghai 99, talked about the difficulties of getting Chinese-language works published in the West. The English-language editors – myself, Janie Yoon from Anansi in Canada and Johanna Castillo from Atria in the US – spoke of readers’ reluctance to encounter translations; whether this might now be changing; and how we as publishers seek to overcome it. My company, Portobello Books, has had great success in the past years with a number of translated titles, most notably Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which has sold more than 150,000 copies in the UK alone. There have been big successes too for other UK publishers, with “Ferrante Fever” and “Knausgaard Mania” improving the visibility of literary fiction in translation. A widely quoted study commissioned by the Man Booker International Prize found that literary fiction in translation is actually on average outselling literary fiction publishing in English. Michel Van de Waart, an editor at De Arbeiderspers in Holland, spoke of a growing insularity in the Dutch market, which is nonetheless much more open to translation (14%) than either the UK or the US (3%). In Thailand, where Sirithada Kongpha founded her publishing house, Legend Books, the market for literary fiction is very small, and there is little or no support from the Thai government. Bookstores are closing, as they are worldwide, and magazines are generally only. The South Korean market fares a little better, with 21% of titles translated (43% of which are from Japan; 23% from the US; 8% from the UK). But according to Jungha Song from Sigongsa, a law fixing book discounts at a maximum of 10% of their recommended retail price in perpetuity is driving readers to second hand bookstores and hampering publishers’ profits.  Finally, New York-based scout Bettina Schrewe spoke of helping publishers around the world discover and acquire the best new American writers, a job which sounded both exhilarating and exhausting.


    A well-run fellowship is an exchange of expertise between multiple cultures, so after we had finished talking for two days about our own books, careers, and cultures, we sat down to listen. In Encounter, a bookstore-cum-cafe in the Zhongshan District, we heard short pitches from Taiwanese translators, rights sellers, book reviewers, and critics. It was literary speed dating, with a bell rung every five minutes pushing us on to the next table and the next proposition. Taiwanese literature is as diverse and varied as that of any other country, but among the books I heard about there were a number of notable confluences: a return to questions of the environment and its protection; an unusually high number of novels set in coffee shops; short story collections sell (they struggle in the UK); and illustrated books are thriving. 


    I returned to England after two weeks in Taiwan to find things much as I had left them: dark and cold, Trump-ridden. The London underground was chaotic and aggressive, whereas Taipei’s metro had been smooth, efficient, and polite. Nothing tasted as good in those weeks as gua bao had, and I missed both the other fellows and my hosts. In idle moments I found myself searching for Taipei on Instagram and dreaming of going back to open a coffee shop of my own. As a publisher abroad, your hope is to discover something remarkable you can bring home. In Taipei, I had heard about one novel over and over again – Wang Ting-Kuo’s My Enemy’s Cherry Tree – first from the Chinese translator of Alice Munro, and later from journalists, students, and our hosts. Back in London, homesick for somewhere that is not my home, I sent this novel to two readers whose taste I trust.  


    I brought a number of things back with me from Taiwan: a green stone found on a beach in Hualien; hand-forged Chinese characters from a foundry in the ramshackle district of Datong; a lifelong love of gua bao; and new friendships forged with the other fellows and with my hosts. Of these, Wang Ting-Kuo’s novel is the only thing I can share with you. We’ll be publishing the English translation in 2018. Meanwhile, if you have the chance, go. 
     

    A report on the Taipei Right’s Workshop  (I)

  • A report on the Taipei Right’s Workshop (I)
    Apr 06, 2017 / By Anne Meadows

    I arrived in Taiwan late on a Sunday afternoon in November. Outside the air-conditioned halls of Taoyuan International Airport, the weather was humid. In London it had been raining on and off for weeks. I had been travelling for sixteen hours and back home it was still early morning. As the taxi sped from the airport along the freeway towards the hotel where I and the other fellows of the Taipei Rights Workshop would be staying for the week, the city grew in density around me until at last the world’s second tallest building, Taipei 101, came into view, framed by the mountains. Knowing very little about Taipei, I had anticipated tall glass skyscrapers, buildings jutting against one another. I had thought it would feel like a city from the future: uniform, glassy, unwelcoming. What I saw from the taxi cab window was far more familiar: a jumble of architectural styles, bulky steel and glass buildings rubbing shoulders with older blocks, wide plazas bordered by a rare glimpse of a Japanese factory or Confucian temple; a colour palette with more earthy tones than silvers. All the while in the background was the presence of the mountains. Taipei felt cradled. By the time the taxi arrived at our hotel, I was in love.


    The Taipei Rights Workshop has been bringing together publishing professionals from around the world with Taiwanese editors, translators, and rights sellers since 2013. In the 2016 cohort, we were eight – six editors, a translator and a scout – from three different continents; seven different countries; and six different time zones. All of those present were facing challenges in their markets – diminishing review space, bookshops and readers that are shy of translations, the proliferation of other endless forms of entertainment. Publishing, it is often said, is in a state of crisis, but here we were, eight people who had travelled a great distance in the hope of making new connections and bringing home a piece of Taiwanese literature. The fellowship itself, founded and run by the indefatigable agent Gray Tan and his colleagues at the Grayhawk agency, is an example of this same optimistic spirit and a resolve to make literature travel.  


    Over the next five days, Gray and our hosts Grace Chang, Jade Fu and Emily Chuang acquainted us with the history and culture of Taiwan. At the National Palace Museum we saw ceramics so delicate they were almost transparent and ornate sculptures hewn from a single piece of jade. Standing in front of a case which holds a 30th century BC representation of our universe – sun and planets orbiting around a disc of jade – I felt overwhelmed by a culture and craftsmanship that extends back in time so much further than my own.


    Taiwan’s modern history is as complex and multi-layered as its ancient treasures. After the Museum we ate at The Grand Hotel in Zhongshan District, one of the world's tallest buildings in a Chinese classical style. It was constructed on the orders of President Chiang Kai-shek after his flight from mainland China in 1949. The hotel was built over the remains of the Taiwan Grand Shrine, a beautiful Shinto complex from the early days of  Japanese occupation. The Grand Hotel embodies Taiwan’s twentieth century: Japanese colony until 1945, Republic of China and the West’s ally during Mao’s rule, and now; a country in limbo, a modern democracy with a thriving economy which is nonetheless unrecognized by the United Nations and which is regarded by China as an errant son. What then to make of Taiwanese literature, which shares a language its Chinese counterpart but remains distinct from it? Indeed Taiwan, because it is a democracy, does not suffer from the censorship imposed on Chinese editors and authors. If you are a radical Chinese writer, your work is more likely to find a home in Taiwan. If you are a bookseller or publisher, it is in Taiwan that you can exercise independence. If you are a foreign editor looking to translate Chinese authors, you would do well to turn to Taiwan first.


    The bookstores we visited in Taipei were bustling. At Eslite’s multi-level flagship store (a chain similar to Waterstones or Barnes & Noble) we wandered through room after room filled with books, many of them translations. Western big hitters dominate in Taiwan as they dominate across the world. The Girl on the Train has sold 100,000 copies(Taiwan’s population is only twenty-four million). Around 40% of the books published here are translated. Of these, 55% come from Japanese and 30% from English, mostly from the United States. Compare this to Britain and America, where a mere 3% of titles are translations. At Crown Culture, publishers of the magnificent writer Eileen Chang, we were told that fiction sales are at an all time low, and sales in general are being driven by film tie-ins. As with most of the Western world, print sales of newspapers in Taiwan are in severe decline, and review culture is vanishing. Book recommendations come from celebrities or social media, and the books that sell best are often film tie-ins, or self-help. Most books will have only a single edition, rather than a hardback followed by a paperback. At Readmoo, an innovative, multi-platform e-book publisher and app developer, they are experimenting with “gamification.” Readers who purchase an ebook are invited to enter competitions and are rewarded with points they can then use against future purchases. The app connects to your social media. It’s Amazon meets Instagram meets Nintendo, and it’s working: their number of readers is increasing month by month. Publishers in the West would do well to pay attention.
     

    A report on the Taipei Right’s Workshop  (II)

  • Far Afield: The Fantastic Journeys of Chinese Books in Translation (II)
    Jan 05, 2017 / By Chen Yu-Hao. Translated by Eleanor Goodman.

    First published on October 12, 2016 by Readmoo News

    https://news.readmoo.com/2016/10/12/161012-books-from-taiwan/

     

    3. Is Taiwan’s uniqueness a major selling point?

     

    Literature that deals primarily with Taiwanese culture frequently faces hurdles in foreign markets. Tan offers an example: a book about Taiwanese tea will be unique, but many foreign readers will have no use for it. They don’t know anything about Taiwan, nor do they know anything about the culture surrounding tea. A strategy for this kind of book is to translate it into English and sell it in Taiwan primarily to tourists already interested in the island and who want to bring a piece of Taiwanese culture back with them. Grace Chang suggests that one can go a step further and combine such projects with sightseeing tours, and offer accounts of scenic sites in different languages. If there are overseas orders, it can be sold directly abroad and avoid other licensing issues.

     

    4. Popular Taiwanese authors should be easy to sell abroad, right?

     

    Being known as a “famous Taiwanese blogger” or “one of Taiwan’s most controversial  writers” does not necessarily carry over to the international market. As soon as you enter the global arena, where you can’t rely on reputation, book sales are dependent again upon the quality of the work.

     

    For that reason, the essential thing is the contents of a book. What kind of book has a chance to make it out of Taiwan, to be translated, published and sell well in other countries? Literary agents are constantly on the lookout for the right books to introduce to a foreign audience books. The fact that Taiwan’s bookstores are being overtaken by large numbers of translated books can be a problem for local writers, yet it is also a chance to examine bestsellers from different countries, and figure out what the most popular kinds of books are right now, to ferret out where an opportunity may lie.

     

    Gray Tan believes that there is no shortcut: “It comes from looking at and reading a lot of books.” The more books you read, the better you are able to grasp potential trends.

     

    Literary categories in Taiwan and abroad do not always align. Some, like the essay or newspaper column collection, are not as familiar to foreign readers as they are to Taiwanese.  Young adult novels face strong competition from U.S. authors, so it just might be that picture books, with little or text, can better overcome cultural differences and different reading preferences, and have a better chance to be published abroad.

     

    IT’S ALL ABOUT PEOPLE

    Grace Chang thinks that the success of a Chinese-language book entering a foreign market depends primarily on the people involved, from the translator to the agent to the editor. Time and effort must be invested by many in order to make it all work. Opportunities won’t just come knocking; connections have to be made. This is why book fairs play a crucial role in the introduction of  domestic titles to the global market.

     

    “Think about it, if you’re trying to buy an apartment, do you want to just see photos of it, or do you want a real estate agent to show you the place and tell you about it personally?” Chang asks with a laugh. You have to be there at the book fairs, because you never know whether a foreign editor might pass by your booth and “discover” a book.

     

    It’s also a good idea to attend fellowship programs, where you can talk to editors, scouts, and agents from other countries, and build up your international network. Very often, a single book sale is predicated on years of friendship and meetings at book fairs. Your relationship is just as important as the content of the book.

     

    The Ministry of Culture of Taiwan has been sponsoring the Taipei Rights Workshop (TRW) since 2013. It’s a program that combines the traditional fellowship model with a series of presentations from publishing experts from around the world. There’s also the Books from Taiwan program, which was initiated in 2014 and works to introduce Taiwanese books to foreign publishers. Gray Tan and Grace Chang continue to be essential players in the greater project of introducing Chinese-language books to a larger market, desirous of showing off this island’s creativity to the rest of the world.

     

  • Far Afield: The Fantastic Journeys of Chinese Books in Translation (I)
    Jan 05, 2017 / By Chen Yu-Hao. Translated by Eleanor Goodman.

    First published on October 12, 2016 by Readmoo News

    https://news.readmoo.com/2016/10/12/161012-books-from-taiwan/

     

    The night air was cool, and under a thin drizzle in the Songshan Cultural Park, the log-cabin-style Yue Yue Bookstore was lit with a warm glow. Gray Tan, founder of the Grayhawk Agency, and Grace Chang, rights director for Books from Taiwan sat together on a brown leather couch. The two were holding a talk titled “Far Afield: The Fantastic Journeys of Chinese Books in Translation,” in which they called upon years of experience in the rights business in order to impart secrets of selling Chinese titles in other countries.

           

    Typhon Megi had postponed the talk for a week, but the two still drew a full house, including editors, translators as well as writers. With Chinese books gradually receiving greater notice abroad, more people have become interested in the topic. Speaking as a pioneer in representing Chinese-language authors in international markets, Gray Tan disabused the audience of four common misconceptions.

     

     

    1. Does translation just mean English translation?

     

    We tend to think that when we talk about the translation of Chinese books, we mean translating into English, assuming the enormous English-language market to be the main goal for Chinese authors. Although it can’t be denied that English is the world’s most influential language, the English-language market is the hardest to break into. Gray Tan, with seven years’ experience selling Chinese books abroad, tells us that only 3% of the books published in America are translations – an astonishingly low number.

     

    “Taking modern and contemporary Chinese literature together, the number of books published in the United States in any given year can probably be counted on one hand.” Tan said. It would be much more effective to prepare English-language materials (or “rights lists”) so all international editors can read about books in which they might be interested.  Such introductory materials should include plot summary, author bio, sales and review excerpts, and above all, a sample translation by a native English-language translator.

     

    These synopses are like a book’s ID, serving as an introduction and an advertisement. How many copies have been sold in Taiwan? Has it been made into a movie? Any positives that will help sell the rights should be listed, creating a strong case for the book.

     

    It is also very important to use comparison titles (“comps” for short) as reference. For instance, The Man from Riversouth, the novel that has been adapted into China’s biggest TV series, Nirvana in Fire, can be described as China’s answer to The Count of Monte Cristo and Game of Thrones.

     

    This will give a foreign editor an immediate, general idea of what the book and author are like. Although it won’t be completely the same kind of work, this is still an efficient method for promoting a book.

     

    2. Is the friendly relationship between Taiwan and Japan conducive to selling Taiwanese books in Japan?

     

    When you go into a Taiwanese bookstore, the shelves are packed with translated works, and aside from the large quantities of literature from the U.S. and the U.K., many come from Japan. From the literary giant Haruki Murakami to manga and “light novels”, Japanese literature in translation is extremely popular in Taiwan. Does the closeness of the two cultures and peoples help the sale of Chinese books in Japan?

     

    Gray Tan once again threw a wrench into the conversation, noting that the Japanese market is quite closed, and both the quality and quantity of their own books are high, which doesn’t allow for much translated work. Readers there are not accustomed to reading works in translation, and that extends to more than just Chinese-language books. Even global bestsellers like Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games have sold poorly in Japan. An international bestseller could be licensed in thirty foreign languages, except for Japanese. Tan proposed instead that we can turn our attention toward Korea, where interest in Chinese culture is high and there are many Chinese language learners. It’s a market that should not be ignored.

  • Books, Friends, Fellows: Lessons from the Taipei Rights Workshop
    Jun 30, 2016 / 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.

  • Same, but Different: A Lesson from Across the Straits
    Mar 26, 2015 / 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.