Penguin, the world's leading book publisher, announced the purchase of the world English language rights to the best-selling Chinese novel, Wolf Totem (Lang Tuteng) last week in Beijing, opening the doors for Penguin to access the market in China and for Chinese writers to break through internationally.
Peter Field, chairman of Penguin Asia, and representatives from the book's Chinese publisher, the Changjiang Literature and Arts Publishing House, signed the contract at a press conference held in Beijing last week.
But the low-profile author Jiang Rong, who has consistently declined to make any public appearances, did not show up.
Penguin said the purchase was a significant step in its leap into the Chinese market.
Field revealed that in 2006, another two Chinese novels and a collection of Chinese fables will be published.
"The purchase demonstrates a serious commitment to exchange with China, both in terms of bringing Western literature into the country and taking Chinese literature to the West," Field said.
The publishing giant made a generous offer to get the rights. It would pay a 10-per-cent royalty, considerably high for translated work, as well as an advance of US$100,000 (813,000 yuan).
Wolf Totem was the surprise hit of 2004. It topped China's literature bestseller charts for 16 continuous months after its publication. It still holds fifth place in the charts today.
According to An Boshun, the title's managing editor, more than one million copies had been sold by August 20.
For both the Chinese publishing business and the literati, the purchase is also a significant move.
China has a huge adverse balance in book copyrights trading. The amount of copyrights it purchases every year is nearly 10 times that of the copyrights it sells.
The Chinese publishing business has been striving to export more cultural products to the world, and the sale of the rights to Wolf Totem helps them move towards that goal.
Penguin's plan of marketing the title is ambitious. According to Field, Wolf Totem is slated to be in bookstores in all English-speaking countries simultaneously, something quite rare even for an original English novel in Penguin's history.
To take full advantage of the "China mania" expected to sweep across the world with the approach of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Penguin decided that the book's launch date would be late 2007.
Another reason for postponing the international launch of the book is that according to local Chinese media, a movie based on the book shot by the globally-acclaimed New Zealand director Peter Jackson and his The Lord of Rings production team would also come out in 2007.
The movie's release could significantly benefit book sales.
The book follows the life of Mongolian nomads in the grasslands of North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region during the 1960s.
Through their interactions with the wolves of the plains, the narrator explores the ancient myths and spirituality surrounding this beautiful animal, now largely extinct.
Through the eyes of an urban youth of Han ethnicity, the book also explores a vigorous nomadic culture.
Whether the title would become an international bestseller is still uncertain. Some Chinese literary critics have pointed out the bad use of the Chinese language and the cumbersome narration in the book.
Though the writer said that his book is a product of academic research, some critics have questioned the story's accuracy.
Despite the criticisms, Penguin Asia's Field said he was very optimistic about the market prospect.
"This kind of novel is also seldom seen by Western readers, and it will give readers an insight of contemporary China," he said.
According to Boshun, the title's managing editor, sales of the Japanese language and the German language rights are now under negotiation. Editions in more languages, he said, will follow after the English language edition hits the market.
Over the years, Penguin has introduced to English readers several contemporary Chinese novels, including Fortress Besieged (Weicheng) by Qian Zhongshu, Rice (Mi) by Su Tong, Red Sorghum (Hong Gaoliang) by Mo Yan, and Beijing Doll (Beijing Wawa) by Chun Shu.
(China Daily September 8, 2005)