China - our publishing neighbour

Jane Curry, Director of the Australian Publishers Association and Director and Publisher of Ventura Press, reflects on her first Beijing Book Fair.

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Paul Keating had it right – we are an Asian nation.

Having spent many years travelling the world for my publishing business, I have just returned from my first visit to Beijing and am an evangelist for the pivot to China.  

I had a glimpse of the potential of the Chinese market when Chinese rights to one of my books were sold through an agent. When a very substantial amount of money appeared in my bank account six months later I knew I was onto something. Over 30,000 copies had been sold in six months. So, with good business instincts, I followed the money...

The Beijing International Book Fair (BIBF) is now in its 14th year and in my capacity of Director of the Australian Publishers Association, I headed a delegation of five independent publishers on our very first Beijing outing. And I am pleased to report our inaugural visit was a resounding success.

Why has it taken so long to discover our neighbours?

The English language publishing business is run across empire lines. Books are ‘sent’ from one heart of this empire, the UK, to the colonies as export sales. It was only recently that literary agents actually split ANZ rights from UK. On the other side of the Atlantic, American rights are traded independently of the UK. Consequently, the English language publishing industry has traded as a UK/US alliance viewing translation markets as a secondary market, often prioritising Europe over China.

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Publishers trade in intellectual property. We sell ‘rights’ – the right to publish a book in a specified market. The book is translated by the local partner and published into the market under their imprint.

The Frankfurt Book Fair, held annually in October, is the global behemoth of rights fairs. You are really not in publishing unless you are at the Frankfurt Book Fair. English language sales, German language, and European and South American markets dominate, while the Asian markets (which the UK calls the ‘Far East’) are seen as second tier.  

The relative new Beijing Book Fair refreshingly showcases a world not dominated by the major European or US players. The Chinese publishing market is mature, profitable, self-sustaining and now export-oriented. According to the China Publisher’s Yearbook, more than 444,000 titles are published annually, resulting in a $12.4bn industry in China, the largest in the world after the US.

Rising disposable incomes and the fast-growing Chinese middle class have created new market opportunities for many segments. For example, with the lifting of the one-child policy, 3 million babies are born every year resulting in 370 million Chinese under the age of 18. So, as you can imagine, parenting is a booming genre.

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Although the Chinese book market has liberalised significantly in the past 20 years, publishing remains one of the country’s most tightly regulated industries. All of the 582 official publishers are state-run, with private publishers officially banned. People were amazed that I privately owned my own publishing business. I was even asked how I managed motherhood and business. It is clearly a question that resonates in every market. 

I met with my existing contacts and made many new ones. The Chinese are keen to trade, export their unique culture through their own books whilst translating our books into their lists. Unlike the Australian publishing industry, they revere longevity and backlist bestsellers. Many of the younger generation publishers spoke English so the language barrier is workable, although we did have a translator with us as backup.

I returned completely invigorated that as an independent Australian publisher we have accessed the booming Chinese book market with our own intellectual property, and with much more business to come – and all with no jet lag.

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