Publishing Perspectives

One of Chameleons dual-language childrens titles: Sha Sha visits Hong Kong

JL:The general English language market is more established in Hong Kong English is still more widely spoken on a daily basis in Hong Kong than in China. In China, we know that our English books are primarily read by people who want to specifically improve their English, in order to get a better job or travel. In Hong Kong, this motivation also exists, but people also have a higher degree of comfort with English, and read for more general interest.

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How does the English language publishing market in China compare with English language publishing in Hong Kong?

PG:Hong Kong is a small market whose readers are basically similar in interests and sophistication to those in other major English-language markets. But the market is very small: I estimate it at perhaps 250,000, i.e. the size of a single small city or large town in the United States. This makes it difficult to operate in ways that would be recognized as economically viable.

English-language publishing in China, though, is different. This is a market that is potentially much larger, but its more of an English as a Second Language market. Of course, there a lot of native English speakers in China, but they are mostly served by imports (as are HK English-language readers). But there are some China-based publishers working in English. (Earnshawcomes to mind.)

JL:It is possible to run a successful publishing business in China.

How did you get into publishing in your market?

It is critical that our approach to China is two-way publishing books out of China as well as bringing books in and in addition to our local English language publishing programme, we have also worked to establish a literary translation training programme for early- and mid-career translators between the Chinese and English languages.

Publishing Perspectivesinterviewed Peter and Jo about English language book publishing in the Chinese market, from the perspective of a relatively small publishing company in a relatively small market (Hong Kong) and a large publishing company in a large market (China.)

What is the best kept secret about publishing in China and Hong Kong?

But more importantly, what we are working to do is to develop the infrastructure for a publishing industry in Hong Kong. Paddyfield provided online book distribution. Chameleon provides book production services.

What was the best-selling English language book in your market last year?

InFeature ArticlesbyGuest Contributor

Guest contributors toPublishing Perspectiveshave diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.

Is the market for English language publishing in China and Hong Kong growing or slowing?

PG:I dont have the answer to this. The Chinese are pretty good at spotting a commercial opportunity.

All of these activities have catalyzed discussion and awareness mostly in English, but they have given Chinese writers avenues into the English-language markets, introduced them to readers, etc. This is all useful and necessary pieces of infrastructure.

Jo Lusby:My entry point to publishing was trying to launch a bilingual entertainment listings magazine in Nanjing in 1999. The magazine didnt take off, but I was recruited by a Beijing-based magazine publisher, where I subsequently worked for five years before joining Penguin.

This cant really be called a business. Hong Kong needs a publisher; we can do this and do a pretty good job without losing (too much) money, so we do. We also offer these capabilities to other people and organizations who want to put books out for the local market but we specialize in poetry and literary fiction and non-fiction.

PG:As I mentioned, I originally got into the business via Paddyfield, the Internet-enabled bookseller. Of all the activities we have, Paddyfield is the business in the sense that it is large enough to make economic and commercial sense. Paddyfield succeeded by doing a few things rather well: we were able to sell books at the original US and British list prices HK bookstores had, traditionally, non-trivial mark-ups. We also introduced a HK version of school book club catalogues, delivering high-quality childrens books at reasonable prices. Books in HK used to be relatively expensive; that is no longer the case, and Paddyfield had, I think, had a great deal to do with that.

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Jo Lusby launched Penguin in China eight years ago.

JL:Interestingly, the biggest seller for Penguin was1984by George Orwell. The overall bestseller (non-Penguin) was [Walter Isaacsons] Steve Jobs biography. The two sum up the drivers of the China market the latter being front list, business, inspirational and aspirational, the former being a solid book that readers have probably previously read in Chinese, that is taught in classrooms, and with a message that has resonance in contemporary China.

Who do you think are some of the notable authors from China and Hong Kong writing in English today?

PG:China is also a growing market for imported English-language books. Someone must be reading them. Huge numbers of Chinese have gone to University or College in the US or other countries and have returned with the ability to consume English-language content.

JL:The market is in its very early stages not as established as the US or the UK. We sell our UK and DK books through a distribution partner Founder Apabi at present.

Whenever I have been asked when electronically delivered books will supplant traditional books, I answer In about five years. I have been giving that answer for at least a decade and, like a stopped clock, I may finally have the timing right.

But I think the best work by Hong Kong writers who live here and who write about Hong Kong is probably in the genre of poetry. There are several: one deserving of particular mention is Leung Ping-Kwan, who unfortunately passed away just a few months ago. Leung wrote in Chinese, but also in English and managed a particular fusion unique to Hong Kong. We have two new collections of his poetry this year, and one of his from last year recently won the Singapore Literary Prize).

What has been your experience with ebooks in China?

Nothing has really slowed in China, as the market is still in a growth phase, spurred on by new store openings (independents as well as chains) and greater range offered online. Self-improvement is a very popular and growing category, but more so in the Chinese language than In English.

JL:Penguin is active in three main areas imported English language books, local Chinese language publishing, and local English language publishing. This cuts across print and digital formats, and incorporates sales and marketing.

For example, one needs to print 2,000 copies of a book to get any reasonable economies of scale (and even thats low.) Given the different market size, thats equivalent to selling something like 2,000,000 in the United States. In other words, every book in HK must be a mega-bestseller or it isnt really viable. We have managed this on occasion.

PG:This I dont know, Im afraid. In general, HK bestsellers tend to track US/British bestsellers. There is occasionally an exception when a book is particularly HK-oriented.

We are seeing growth across the board of categories in our English sales and the main growth is among Chinese readers of English, aged 16-30.

Peter Gordon is at the epicenter of the Hong Kong literary world.

PG:There are significant problems of definition. There is Janice LeesThe Piano Teacher, set in HK by a writer who lives here but whom one could also argue is American. There is Chetan Bhagat, a huge bestseller in India, who used to live here and wrote his first books here.

PG:I dont know that there is a secret, but I believe to publish in Hong Kong you must have a real love for poetry and literature.

Peter Gordon:I am originally a tech guy specializing in the development of non-English computer systems (my specialty was Arabic, but I worked on Russia, Thai, Turkish and many languages). I came to HK in 1985 and never went home. I struck out on my own doing various things, the most interesting of which was developing trade and investment relations with the former USSR and Russia for just over 10 years. In 1999, I , an internet bookseller. Paddyfield was one of HKs first e-commerce firms, and one of the few that has survived for this long. My involvement with Paddyfield introduced me to Hong Kong publishing and a number of literary activities. I became president of Chameleon because I was asked to adopt it so I did. At the time, Chameleon only had a title or two.

Paddyfield and Chameleon became the foundation for our non-commercial activities, such as the Literary Festival which started in 2000. This was really Asias first international literary festival; TIME called it The Best in Asia in 2006. Most of the others in Asia today can in one way or another be traced back to the HK Festival not a bad legacy.

JL:Pornography is banned in China, andFifty Shadesis not yet widely available because of uncertainty about how to categorize it. I understand the Chinese rights have been sold, and the publisher is trying to negotiate approval to publish. However, I do know that lots of people have read it, either in English or by translating paragraph by paragraph in online translation software.

Peter Gordon and Jo Lusby are publishers work in two related but very different markets: Hong Kong and China. Peter Gordon is publisher atHong Kongs Chameleon Press, and a founder of theAsian Review of Books,theHong Kong International Literary Festival, and theMan Asian Literary Prize. Jo Lusby guided Penguins efforts to enter the China market in 2005 and currently runs thePenguin North Asianoffice from Beijing.

How has publishing in China reacted to theFifty Shades of Greyphenomenon?

JL:Paul Frenchs history books on China are great, and John Garnauts recentThe Rise and Fall of the House of Bois wonderful.

Legal restrictions mean that we are not permitted to publish or sell directly in the market instead we must work in partnership with local importers, retailers, and publishers. We are careful to invest time and expertise in our partnerships, to form sustainable relationships. At present, we have more than 150 books in print in Chinese in our partnership publishing, including the autobiography of tennis player Li Na. In July, we will partnering with CITIC Press to publish Jamie Oliver in Chinese for the first time, starting with 30 Minute Meals.

I normally call what we do at Chameleon, i.e. English-language literary publishing, as the equivalent of Triple-A baseball (or Second Division football). One hones ones skills, develops a readership and the hope is that onell be scouted by the Majors. It does happen.

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