Time to embrace publishing opportunity

Updated: 2012-05-04 08:47

By Debbie Williams (China Daily)

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There are many, many debates about the direction of, and challenges facing, the UK publishing industry. What nobody is disputing is that the business we know is rapidly changing. Digital advances and the blurring of publishing boundaries and traditional business structures have led to discussions about the very nature of our trade.

One of the biggest changes has been the shift in focus from an often-introverted industry largely targeting the home market to a more globally-focused, outward-looking one. Many are saying that this is not only inevitable but also an exciting opportunity to embrace other cultures and celebrate the literature of diverse nations. There is no better example of this than the recent opening up of opportunities for the UK publishing industry in China.

Anyone looking at the publishing world from the outside might be forgiven for thinking that these opportunities are overplayed. With the hosting of China as the Market Focus guest at the recent London Book Fair, media stories about this rapidly developing nation and its influence on the publishing industry are everywhere.

This was the largest "Market Focus" which the London Book Fair had ever seen with more than 180 Chinese publishers and nearly 60 Chinese authors in attendance. Alongside this, there was a burgeoning cultural program of events, seminars and discussion forums. It was impossible to attend the book fair this year and not realize that China was the honored guest. But just how important is this new market to the UK publishing industry?

The latest global figures about the publishing trade speak for themselves. China is now one of the largest book markets with a market value of nearly 11 billion euros ($14.5 billion) and is rapidly catching up with the United States. It is no overstatement to say that to ignore this market is no longer an option for the UK publishing trade.

David Roche, chair of this year's London Book fair, said: "At its simplest, the opportunities in China are huge and not overplayed. These still need to be taken in association with Chinese companies but the vast and growing population of English speakers in China make it a very attractive market for the UK publishing trade."

Zhang Fuhai, general director for China's General Administration of Press and Publication, added: "The Chinese publishing industry is the second-largest global marketplace for rights negotiations and sales."

Certainly that seemed to play out in a recent "seismic" deal negotiated by Spanish literary agent, Carmen Balcells, who sold the rights of Gabriel Garca Mrquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude to China's Thinkingdom Media Group based in Beijing for a staggering $1 million.

These economic facts alone should make even the most traditional publishing businesses sit up and take notice. However, it is not simply a case of leaving the "often mysterious" (as one publisher put it to me recently) rights department to deal with the Chinese emerging market. Though potentially lucrative, at least in the short term, this would be missing an important opportunity to take the direction of the business in a new direction.

At another important seminar at the London Book Fair entitled The Four Cs of Successful Publishing, a distinguished panel of publishing professionals argued that the future of publishing lies in fruitful collaboration and the development of community. This seemed to be very much in the spirit of what the Chinese delegation at the London Book Fair was collectively saying.

As the Chinese ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming put it, this is "a rare opportunity for China to communicate the richness of its culture and to increase mutual understanding between China and the UK".

China is a country rich in literary talent, most of which is unfamiliar to the UK book reading population. Examples include authors such as Annie Baobei, a No 1 best-seller; Liu Cixin, China's most popular science fiction author; and Xi Chuan, one of the most influential poets in contemporary China. We need to think in terms of a mutual exchange of talent with a commercial backbone.

Canongate is taking up this opportunity and will soon publish Ah Lai, one of China's few famous Tibetan writers, whose new novel King Gesar will form part of the Canongate Myth Series.

This premise can also be applied to the business innovation side of publishing as well as the literary side. Just in the same way that everyone in the UK publishing trade is talking about China, they are also talking about digital.

Of course, nobody can claim to know where this is leading but no one doubts there are colossal changes happening in the industry and that someone needs to do something about it. But exactly what? For far too long the UK publishing trade has been reluctant to share ideas, locked into a culture of secrecy and "closed shop" mentality, something which China has ironically been accused of many times. There are still issues such as piracy, literacy rates and censorship to resolve but China has opened up just at the right moment when there is everything to play for. The UK publishing trade would do well to embrace this unique moment.

The author is course leader for MA Publishing at the University of Central Lancashire and head of UCLan Publishing.