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International publishers eye China interest

As a world-leading mass market publisher, Penguin Group has offices in 16 countries and is devoted to the publication and sale of books. It is the publisher of many a renowned writer; Dorling Kindersley (DK), Puffin, Viking, Rough Guides and Ladybird, and its products include a range of globally known works such as The Kite Runner (English), Who Moved My Cheese? and Wolf Totem (English).


Penguin (China) is actively entering into cooperative relationships with Chinese publishers. It has recently purchased the copyright to Northern Girls, a novel by Chinese writer Sheng Keyi, and started a plan to publish from five to eight novels based on topics of "China interest" every year.

The plan gives us a glimpse into Penguin's global vision and its authoritative pick of titles. Does the company plan promote and indicate that there is a new surge in the amount of "China interest" literature in the international copyright market? In an interview with Jo Lusby, general manager of Penguin (China), China IPhopes to probe into the copyright trade in her eyes, as well as her attitude towards rampant piracy in the Chinese market and her expectations for the e-book market.

Copyright trade in Jo's eyes

Copyright trade constitutes an important link in the "going global" goal of Chinese literature. Local authors are often puzzled by how to impose and collect a satisfactory copyright fee and best promote their works. "I found some Chinese authors prefer contact with foreign publishers like us," said Jo. "Copyright trade is relatively new in China, while Penguin, which possesses a history of 75 years of copyright operations, has copyright trade in its blood. It is a skill that has matured over a long period of time and is essential to our survival and growth. Our contracts contain detailed stipulations on rights and liabilities of the licensor and copyright holder. We fully respect authors' demands in publishing their works. Our contracts are based on the protection of authors' interests and we intend to provide them with the best publishing path."

As the copyright trade matures, mass-market international publishers often have multiple considerations in selecting Chinese-language books. Jo told China IP: "Readers of China subjects used to fall into two groups: some preferred classics and traditional material and others liked travel and life books by foreign writers. They picked books that catered to their reading habits and way of thinking. But now, that group of reading consumers with a ‘China interest' has expanded, with more foreigners who are curious about current conditions and events in the country. But a single author or work can only represent a segment of China, not the big picture.

Northern Girls, for example, describes the experiences of rural women that migrated into cities in the 1970s. From different angles and levels, we select reality depicting, thickly Chinese flavored novels to help foreigners understand China from various perspectives. Such subjects can only be written by local authors." Jo's opinion represents the attitude of some international publishing agencies, and reminds domestic publishers that followers of good literature are not only available domestically, but can also be found overseas as well.

Apparently, some Chinese publishers have done a good job in picking books: both Wolf Totem and Northern Girls first became hot at home and then caught the eye of international publishers for global copyright export. Why can't Chinese publishers buy global copyright of works directly and market Chinese authors to the world? Some say local publishers lack the proper resources, such as quality translator teams, research on foreign markets and studies on foreign readers' habits. Developing all of these are time and money consuming. Because international publishers already have these assets in place, they have an advantage and can publish at a much lower cost and therefore have become the main force behind the copyrighting and exporting of Chinese culture.

Such opinions are reasonable, but they overlook one point: even an international giant as Penguin needs to invest a great deal of money and manpower to do the digging to find a book of market value. When asked where the five to eight "China interest" novels will come from, Jo said they looked for readable works through various channels: Penguin (China) editors read and search every day; the authors she has made friends with during her six-year stay in China make recommendations, she herself often haunts through bookstores and newspapers stands; and some Penguin translators also give reading suggestions.

Encounter with piracy

Find a good work, buy out its copyright, and publish it. This smooth-looking process is more often than not disrupted by many factors, and piracy is one of them. In an immature publishing market such as China, both international and local publishers now face serious piracy problems.

Jo told China IP with a sigh: "Sometimes we found pirated versions of our English books at street stands in Beijing. We will buy them, bring them back for analysis, and work with colleagues to discuss and look for solutions. We even went to copyright authorities to report the violations, but no big result came out as the piracy is hard to track." She gave an interesting comparison between piracy markets in China and India: "Piracy is more serious in India. Fake books prop up three to five days after our publishing, but in China, the time is three to five months."

Authors suffer even more from piracy than publishers. "I have deep sympathy for Chinese authors," said Jo. The Chinese publishing environment makes it difficult for them to defend their rights, and a weak social sense of copyright awareness puts them at a disadvantage in comparison to global market competition. So far, modern and contemporary Chinese authors of worldwide reputation are very few. Facing the unfamiliar global market, they are exploring a way for Chinese literature to "go out."

"I once came across a Chinese author who made me speechless. We had purchased the global copyright of his work but when we prepared to cooperate with an Italian publisher to publish his work in Italian, we found an Italian version already existed. We later found out that the author sold his global copyright simultaneously to three international publishers; apparently he had a quite different understanding on global copyright." Obviously, a weak awareness about copyright has dealt Chinese authors a lower hand in copyright trade worldwide. Jo also expressed her support to Chinese writers who united to fight against infringement from Baidu, China's online search giant. In her eyes, Chinese writers have gradually come to understand the importance of copyright, which is a great sign of progress. Their largest audience is still at home in the local market, therefore addressing their rights from the root can help with their position in the global market.

"Great prospects for e-book in China"

Piracy not only happens in the publishing of paper books but runs wild in network dissemination, which has been a big headache to China, a newcomer at the e-book market. Our only focus of attention is in the direction of e-book. China possesses vast reader groups and particularly many excellent writers. The prospects for e-book sales are bright but so far, it is still at a fledging stage in the country.

The United States lead the world in e-book sales, with Britain and other countries closely following. As a world leading publisher, Penguin can be regarded as a pioneer in the e-book market. Jo believes that a mature e-book market needs some conditions working together. First, publishers are able to provide e-versions of quality books; second, a highly secure platform is available to store the content, and distribute it to various kinds of reading devices; third, audience have reading devices at hand; fourth, prices of e-books can satisfy the demand of value from publishers, authors and the platform; last, publishers, authors and the platform can divide the income fairly. Jo pointed out that digital publishing in China still lacks some necessary conditions, including reasonable prices. The audience loves free reading, but to produce quality readings a publisher needs a considerable amount of manpower and physical resources. Jo told China IP that in Penguin, putting out a quality printed Chinese novel requires a year for translation, production and promotion, while a readable e-version is based on the printed one.

Jo emphasized that she is optimistic about China's e-book market. Due to rampant piracy, however, Penguin will be more cautious in selecting partners, and have stricter demands on platform security and file confidentiality. As the Internet strengthened globalization, a loophole in the digital platform will allow piracy to spread worldwide.

As international publishers set their eyes on Chinese literature, they see a potential that poses both opportunity and challenge for Chinese works to "go global."Authors who would like to promote their works are advised to follow global copyright market more closely and choose proper channels so as to promote Chinese culture and literature on a larger scale.

(Translated by Li Heng)

Source: China IP

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