Foreign publishers plug into China

Updated: 2012-05-04 08:47

By David Bartram (China Daily)

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Foreign publishers plug into China

China was chosen as the "country of market focus" at the London Book Fair. Rapid growth of China's publishing industry is offering opportunities for Western publishers. Jin Yi / for China Daily

Foreign publishers plug into China

Major imprints exploring partnerships and opportunities in fast-expanding market

At last month's London Book Fair, publishers from across the world gathered to discuss how international houses could make an impact in China.

Experts from across the industry have traditionally struggled with the China market, but if a consensus was reached in London, it was that there has never been a better time to look at expansion into China, and that those who do not are in danger of being left behind.

"If you want to deal with China, you've got to ask: What can I contribute? How can I make a difference?" says Chris Paterson, the China publishing consultant of the London Book Fair and a professional with more than 40 years of experience in the industry.

"It's a clich, but if you can make a difference as a publisher you can go into China with that confidence. You need to find people who are like-minded. You must have the same vision and then get to know people well enough for there to be mutual trust."

In recent years such an approach has become far more attainable. While China has regulations regarding the operation of foreign-owned publishers in the country, these have been consistently loosened in recent years. It is now viable for foreign publishers to enter joint-venture partnerships on an equal footing.

The industry in China is also rapidly professionalizing, according to Paterson. "The top levels of management in Chinese publishing are becoming more and more professional, and a greater percentage of the surplus from publishing is being reinvested.

"The industry is becoming more self-confident in China. The old model of foreign publishers trotting into China and issuing some licenses for a fee is less common. You've now got a situation where you have publishers in China facing similar problems to those in Europe or the US, and they can talk as equals."

The scale of opportunity in China is the primary draw for European and US publishers. In 2012, China's publishing industry is expected to generate $9.5 billion (7.2 million euros). UK book exports alone to China have increased by 15 percent a year for the past three years.

"China's publishing sector has grown so significantly over the past few years that now is the right time to forge closer links between our countries' publishing industries," says Ed Vaizey, the UK minister for the creative industries. "In the UK we have one of the most successful publishing industries in the world. We are one of just four countries in the world that publishes more than 100,000 books a year."

The UK has had a couple of notable successes in China, not least the Harry Potter series which sold some 180,000 copies in English alone, with the Chinese translation selling many times more.

Nigel Newton, the founder and chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing, the publishing house responsible for Harry Potter, says: "I'm not an old China hand, but rather someone to whom the Chinese market is a new and exciting opportunity in the present. I visited China in 2010 and was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the market."

"Even a Barnes & Noble or Waterstones superstore would be hard pressed to equal the sheer size of some of the Chinese bookstores I saw. But although the UK and Chinese book markets are different in size and scale, there are a lot of similarities.

"I was delighted to see a whole wall dedicated to Harry Potter in one store. With Harry Potter we found that big sales in England were matched by big sales in China. It shows that people want to have shared experiences when reading, regardless of nationality."

There is a worry, however, that the experience of Harry Potter could make publishers complacent. The success of the series is, in reality, a once in a generation phenomenon, and most publishers will have to work harder to offer the Chinese market something of interest.

"Traditionally, the UK publishing industry has always prided itself on its international reach," says Victoria Barnsley, chief executive of HarperCollins. "In fact the UK is the largest exporter of books in the world and now we're becoming a truly global business.

"With our own market shrinking, the only way for us to sustain growth is by broadening our horizons. China, which is still predicting what in the UK seems like very healthy growth, is a very attractive market."

One of the focuses for HarperCollins will be China's digital publishing industry. China is the world's second-largest e-book market, accounting for 20 percent of global e-book sales.

"Young people are consuming information and other forms of content in quite a different way from their parents," Barnsley says. "We book publishers have to see ourselves as content providers across multiple platforms if we are to remain relevant. The whole world is now our market - large swathes of the world's population are just one click away."

HarperCollins has had an office in Beijing since 2006, and works in partnership with a number of Chinese publishers.

From the other side, Chinese publishers are being encouraged to work alongside foreign firms to expand their reach.

"The Chinese government is encouraging publishers to produce books that target both the Chinese and the international markets," says Li Pengyi, president of the China Education Publishing & Media Group. "We are always looking for opportunities to cooperate with international publishers."

However, there is a limit to what can be achieved through such partnerships. Paterson, the publishing consultant, argues that for the potential of the Chinese market to be fully realized, there needs to be a more fundamental integration of the Chinese publishing industry.

"The interface I'm interested in is taking the whole thing a step forward by making China a big part of the international publishing community," Paterson says. "This means that it will be doing exactly the same sort of things that publishing companies in America, Germany or the UK are doing."

Paterson points to the internationalization of worldwide publishing as a trend that China must play a greater role in if it wants to become a major player in the industry. He sees no reason why China cannot be a big stakeholder in the sector.

"It really means bringing China more into the fold. At the moment China doesn't really use the international supply chains. If there is a good Chinese language teaching book in Beijing and people are recommending it, you still won't find it on Amazon or in Waterstones.

"Why can't China be like France or Germany or the US? If it could invest in the market like other countries do then that's a way for everyone to get a really good understanding of the Chinese market.

"Books only sell if the market wants them, but being well organized is important so we can find out what the market wants and convert those ideas into sales."

For China Daily