When you have trouble moving product overseas -- and cash in your pocket -- you can always call on a classic strategy: take control of the distribution channels.
There are four traditional ways to do so: set up your own local firm; invest in a local firm; merge your firm with a local firm; or simply acquire an existing player in that market which owns a respected brand name.
Is China getting ready to do so in the publishing field, as part of its soft power push?
Wang Yafei of Hefei-based, publicly listed Time Publishing and Media Co. Ltd (时代出版传媒股份公司, 董事长) mentioned the possibility at "中国出版走出去论坛", a recent forum on China's publishing globalization campaign:
Of course, China already owns publishing entities overseas, e.g., CYPI, which has offices in London and is owned by the influential state-run China Youth Press (中国青年出版社).
But what if, as part of this strategy, China's state-run publishers were encouraged to make some outright purchases of existing publishing houses, particularly in the EU and North America?
Sadly, a large proportion of CBI translation funds for 2013 went to CYPI International…
Eric Abrahamsen, September 15, 2014, 7:40a.m.
Fortunately, while it would be worrisome to see a major Chinese soft-power acquisition in the US publishing industry, and painful to watch an honest publisher be forced to push 走出去 crap, the American market economy would, I think, make very short work of the experiment. The 走出去 perpetual motion machine only maintains its illusory success in China because the audience is being forced to buy the product. By contrast, no one can legally force Americans to buy, and we know that the 走出去 people are not interested in putting the hay down where the cows can get it -- that is, in investing money anywhere but with their own people, so the quality will never be there. Perhaps the subsidiary gets propped up by its Chinese parent for years and years, but it'll never be successful, thank God.
Canaan Morse, September 15, 2014, 1:40p.m.
"Don't put the hay down where the cows can get it": that's an awesome American version of 肥水不流外人田 ("Don't let the fertilizer flow into other folks' fields.") Thanks for that.
Eric Abrahamsen, September 15, 2014, 1:58p.m.
I'm not so negative about the prospect of Chinese firms using their $ (or the government's $) to buy their way into book distribution channels outside China. I'm confident it will happen, and that it will result in markedly better sales of Chinese fiction in translation.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that things are moving ahead at a good pace. Partly as a result of China's "debut" at the Frankfurt Book Fair (2009) and Mo Yan's nobel prize (2012), and the launch of several foreign-language literary magazines, many of us here at Paper Republic are getting more requests to translate Chinese fiction; certainly the fees offered are becoming more attractive.
Just 1-2 years ago, I still often saw articles in the Chinese press about how only native Chinese speakers were capable of rendering Chinese fiction in English; more recently, many articles have been emphasizing "collaboration" -- working more closely with foreign translators, international literary agencies and publishers, etc.
Meanwhile, as part of a state-sponsored effort, Mai Jia's Decoded has been translated into Spanish, and he has gone on a road show in Spain and South America to promote sales. It marks one of the first times that China has worked with foreign partners to launch a piece of translated fiction in such a modern manner.
Although many of us cynically assumed that only politically correct writing would be chosen to receive newly launched subsidies for translation/publication, large numbers of authors and works are benefiting, and -- it seems to me -- offer quite a bit of variety. This is hardly an onslaught of poorly written, pro-China propaganda. Happily, a good chunk of the subsidies are going to editions in languages other than English.
Given the above, I do believe we can expect to see Chinese publishers -- like Chinese media -- investing in establishing a presence in global book distribution channels in 2014-15. They've done so in other areas, such as IT/electronics (e.g., Haier, Lenovo), and I see no reason to expect they won't eventually succeed.
Of course, as Canaan suggests above, distributing Chinese fiction no one wants to read will not win them market share. But let's not be naive. If they buy into an existing publisher/retailer, they gain immediate access to market research teams. Their marketeers will do what they do for any product: determine what the target audience wants, and report back to the manufacturer with suggestions on how to design and deliver such a product.
This is the "missing link" at present. China has some great fiction out there, both contemporary and past. Once professional booksellers who understand their consumers begin to use scientific methods to determine what is likely to sell, and communicate this to the Chinese publishing industry, we can expect greater demand and stronger sales within just a few years.
Bruce, September 16, 2014, 7:51a.m.
I have no doubt that the business of publishing Chinese literature will continue to grow apace, as Chinese publishers find more ways to get their books into other countries.
But everyone seems to be going to great lengths to avoid real cultural contact. If it's at all possible "go out" without having to meet or speak to any foreigners, then that's the route Chinese publishers are taking.
I agree somewhat that market pressures will change the situation, but I'm not all that optimistic. The fact is that Chinese books are never going to be big earners, and will never create the kind of financial imperative that might compete with domestic political pressure.
My guess is that, for many years to come, most Chinese publishers will continue to see effective marketing and distribution, aimed at actually reaching readers, as simply added work with little benefit. The sort of "shadow publishing" world, where Chinese books are flowing outward on paper, but remaining invisible to local markets, societies, and cultures, is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
Eric Abrahamsen, September 18, 2014, 2:30a.m.