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Finding Wonderland: Selling Taiwanese Rights Abroad
by Sean Hsu. English translation by Canaan Morse.
Jun 30, 2016

There are any number of possible angles from which we can introduce and analyze the state of domestic publishing in Taiwan today. In this article, I will rely on my own concrete experience and observations as well as the results of interviews done with industry members to describe the current scene as I understand it, as well as offer my own expectations and suggestions.

 

Over the past twenty years, Taiwanese publishing has evolved away from an editor-centered model that privileged personal connections and individual artistry, toward a more standardized management model that aims to lower costs, increase revenue, and grasp market changes by actualizing the potential of the strategic business unit and controlling key performance indicators (KPI) throughout the production process using digital and network tools.

 

Major publishers and publishing groups maintain clear company structures, in which the editorial and strategy departments are the primary production units, while sales, accounting, administration, and legal counsel are considered logistical support. Small publishers with editorial teams of four people or fewer often require their editors to wear several different hats, yet the majority of resources are still redirected to editorial production. No matter how large or small the publisher, editors remain the “movers and shakers,” and are responsible for everything from topic selection, market positioning, design, and marketing to community management and after-sale advertisement. They also play a key role in rights sales and purchasing.

 

Excluding a small cohort of manga, light novels, picture books, celebrity memoirs or other works connected to mainstream media, books published in Taiwan have only one market: Taiwan. Peripheral markets like Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and Malaysia offer a chance to extend sales because of a shared writing system (traditional Chinese), but do not offer opportunities to sell rights for multiple languages. Therefore, over ninety percent of international rights transactions accomplished through agents or by Taiwanese publishers themselves are purchases. International sales are very rare, and most of these are not accomplished solely by the strategic action of the publisher, but through events and sponsorship offered by government organizations like the Ministry of Culture, or NGOs like the Taipei Book Fair Foundation. 

 

As we investigate more deeply the front lines of publishing, we find that domestic publishers are extremely adept at “localized interpretation,” and know how to select valuable topics and marketable language amid the vast landscape of foreign- and Chinese-language books. When evaluating the former, they rely heavily on global sales records, criticism from the media and from readers, and prize records. The perennial dominance of literature in translation as well as the bestseller lists generated by bookselling channels both reflect this competency. Moreover, as editors of literature in translation are often separated from their Chinese-language counterparts inside publishing companies, an editor who wishes to market a domestic title internationally will still have a hard time gaining effective marketing language and strategy from editors across the aisle.

 

 “Simply carrying out the editorial duties we already have is exhausting enough. The best we can do is put together some marketing materials after the publication, find someone to translate the Chinese into English, and wait and see if foreign publishers show any interest.” I heard this response from nearly all the editors whom I interviewed. Their pessimism may simply reflect a lack of time or a shortage of resources, yet the fact that they approach international rights marketing with a Chinese-language mindset and act as if they were working for Chinese readers is itself obviously problematic.

 

Larger publishers and publishing groups frequently have rights departments, staffed by associates more experienced in international publishing than the editors. Yet the reality is that those associates spend nine times more time and energy purchasing international rights than selling their own. They are not credited for royalties earned through international licensing (the editorial department is), and they lack the budget in translating Chinese literature and maintaining the long-term relationship with potential international buyersintroducing. While the sale of international rights continues to bring no appreciable profit to Taiwanese publishers, motivation to do so will continue to be lacking.