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Between the Lines - China's Publishing Woes
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China is facing a major imbalance in its export of book titles as compared to the number of overseas publications that continue to flood the Chinese market, a situation experts describe as "a cultural deficit."

The 1st Annual International Copyright Cooperation of China, which will be held in Changsha, Hunan Province, from May 11 to 14, might be a step towards trying to right that imbalance. Organized by a number of entities including Copyright Society of China, Changsha Municipal Government and Hunan Copyright Administration, and supported by China's National Copyright Administration, the inaugural conference is the first that focuses on copyright cooperation and trade in China.

According to the organizers, the main objectives of the event are to strengthen communication and cooperation among the international copyright industry, promote understanding of the industry, build a bridge for international copyright trade, and push forward the industry's development in a healthy, regulated and persistent way.

Speaking at a press briefing on May 8, Cao Ya, vice mayor of Changsha, said that Chinese leaders, industry heads and experts, and representatives from Europe, the United States, South Korea, Russia, the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan are expected to attend the conference.

Whether or not the conference proves to be a success in terms of promoting the overseas publication of Chinese titles remains to be seen. Experts suggest that it continues to be an uphill struggle.

China's exports of its titles pale in comparison to its imports. Foreign titles such as the Harry Potter series and The Da Vinci Code regularly hog book charts in China.

"Publishing a book overseas isn't just about introducing one country's title to another; it's about bringing one culture into another," Tibetan writer A Lai told China Business Post on May 7. In 2000, A Lai's novel When the Dust Settles Down (1998) won the Mao Dun Literary Award, one of the most authoritative and prestigious literary awards in China, and has sold nearly two million copies domestically. 30,000 copies of the English version have been shipped to the US, a coup in its own right. A Chinese title that sells between 10,000 and 20,000 copies in a foreign country is considered to have done well.

However, according to statistics from the General Administration of Press and Publication, China's export of book rights over the previous 10 years was only 10 percent of imports. As far as overseas book deals, China's proudest moment was in 2005 when British publishers, Penguin Group, paid US$100,000 to buy the English copyrights to The Wolf Totem.

"Our books don't have a strong foothold in the Western countries, and it's difficult for the works of Chinese writers to break into the mainstream," A Lai said. He added that Western readers know very little about contemporary Chinese writers. Their knowledge is largely limited to old Chinese classics such as A Dream of Red Mansions and Journey to the West. But many Chinese readers are familiar with the works of contemporary Western writers.

Mo Yan, who wrote Big Breasts & Wide Hips, said that Chinese writers are trying hard to reach out to mainstream readers "with their works of high quality". Su Tong, writer of My Life as Emperor, admitted that Chinese literature is marginalized in the West: "English and Spanish literature is far more favored than oriental literature."

In the meantime, foreign book fever continues to rage in China. Domestic publishers are falling over themselves to publish foreign titles. Competition for these rights are so keen that they are willing to offer royalties of up to 20 percent, at the expense of their own profit margins.

Ye Xianlin, an editor with People's Literature Publishing House that won the exclusive rights to publish the Harry Potter series, explained the gross imbalance: "Our business management, market sophistication and level of publishing expertise are still years behind countries with a developed publishing industry."

The system of publishing agents, he added, needs to be developed much more in China. Publishing agents, whether working for the writer or the publisher or both, know the book market inside and out, and have extensive professional networks. They are an important bridge between publishers and writers, and are instrumental in securing a mutually beneficial book deal.

But in China, Ye described the system as "hanging in the air," or just plain "nothing." Some copyright companies or copyright brokers might masquerade as agents but their real focus is the import business. He added that the publishing houses usually take on agent roles.

Industry experts highlight that the promotion of a country's culture to the rest of the world is important for ensuring, developing and improving that country's international influence. But the situation currently faced by China is in an indication that its efforts in this respect are severely lacking, particularly in the light of its rapidly developing economy.

A Lai lamented: "Western readers typically only read Chinese literary works out of curiosity or because they want to get a feel for Chinese politics. In my opinion, there have been no outstanding Western writers in the last decade. But there have been many great Chinese writers. Yet, our cultural influence is so much weaker."

(China.org.cn by Zhang Rui, May 10, 2006)

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