As consistent readers of this column probably know, even Chinese-language books that come with a complete English translation have a much easier time finding audiences in Asian countries than in Europe or America. The reasons are exactly what you’d expect: better cultural and geographic proximity make the exchange of ideas quicker and smoother, while greater populations of Chinese learners create greater demand. Yet in the process of promotion, we often find that bottlenecks can emerge even in markets where prospects seem strong. Here, I would like to examine two particularly interesting case studies: Thailand and Vietnam.
Thailand: Competing with Publishers in China and Around the Globe
In 2015, after only six short months working as a literary agent, I flew to Germany to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair. There I turned several email relationships into personal relationships, including with rights managers from Amarin, one of Thailand’s most influential publishers. I knew that as a comprehensive publisher, they put out all kinds of books, yet I was very surprised to hear them say that they were expanding their list of Chinese books in translation.
Thai interest in China has a long history, motivated in recent years by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s enthusiastic promotion of Chinese language learning. Their bestseller lists frequently feature Chinese kung fu epics, romances, and novels adapted for television; even Taiwanese light novels have found enthusiastic young readers, and established its own place beside domestic and Japanese counterparts. The fact that a major publisher like Amarin decided to move into an already competitive market has two major implications; first, that Chinese books in translation can be profitable, and second, that their market still has room to grow.
Thailand is an ideal market for the promotion of Chinese-language books. It boasts a large number of readers familiar with Chinese literature, as well as editors and translators who read Chinese, and can appraise Chinese manuscripts directly. Even a rights manager who doesn’t speak Thai need only to find the right book and prepare introductory materials in Chinese and English to make a play to sell Thai rights.
Given such excellent conditions, could Amarin become a major buyer of Taiwanese copyrights? The answer is, probably not. With the exception of a few publishing houses that consistently published Taiwanese literature, most houses that work with Chinese-language books have their attention firmly trained on China, where single print runs can stretch into six or seven figures, viewings on screen adaptations of books regularly move into eight figures, while books about successful, high-value business figures can also amass significant returns. Even if such blockbuster successes in the Chinese market can’t be copied to the same degree in Thailand, they create such significant public dialogue that works from Taiwan appear to pale in comparison.
There are other kinds of publishers in Thailand who prioritize good content over everything else. While they do not necessarily target Chinese-language books, their orientation makes them important potential buyers. Publishers like these exemplify in a specific and subtle way the nature of the translated literature market in Thailand – a high percentage of works translated from other countries and regions (America, Europe, and East Asia, among others), spread through many different genres. Grabbing the attention of such cosmopolitan, omnivorous readers involves competing with the best books in the world.