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The Future Pathway for British Publishers in the Chinese Market

It is a year since The Literary Platform launched its research ‘The Publishing Landscape in China: New and Emerging Opportunities for British Writers (2015). One year on, we are commissioning a number of articles continuing to investigate the current situation regarding the relationship between the British and Chinese publishing industries. In this article, Fan An presents her personal observations from this year’s London Book Fair, following interviews with Chinese publishers exhibiting there, and considers how cooperation between Chinese and British publishers might be improved. 

Under the Chinese Going Out Policy, more and more Chinese businesses are now dedicated to exploring international trade and actively establishing partnerships with foreign companies. Specifically within the publishing industry, Chinese publishers now have an increased demand of both importing and exporting books from various genres including foreign literature, social sciences, childrens education and academic research. Although British literature currently ranks highly in the Chinese market, there is still a need to better understand both the current Chinese and the UK publishing environments, in order to fully exploit how British publishers and authors might find new pathways to promote titles to Chinese readers.

If British publishers want to improve business relations with Chinese publishers, it is essential that they understand Chinese national initiatives. Because most Chinese publishers are government-affiliated, they have a duty to implement government guidelines and this is an important factor for British publishers to take into account. In 2013, “the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road” was launched, one of the most important development initiatives in China. Following the government launch of its vision and actions, Chinese publishers now focus their work on specific countries and areas along the Silk Road. According to the China-Britain Business Councils report  One Belt One Road  UK companies can play a vital role in supporting the communication and connectivity of China and beyond. In recent years, the Chinese publishing industry has also focused its publishing on social issues reflected in the “Report on the Work of the Government” like air pollution, renewable energies, Internet finance and childrens education etc. This might explain why social sciences and education are now dominant areas among the Chinese book trade. For British publishers, keeping abreast of Chinese national policies could give them an advantage in understanding forthcoming publishing strategies of Chinese publishers. 

The Chinese market offers a lot of potential to British publishers, however in-depth market analysis is still much needed in order to discover where they could make a difference. As we know, there are big numbers of Chinese e-readers and digital sales on Amazon and mobile platforms, but it is also worth emphasising that there seems to be a lack of extensive research into who are using these platforms, how they are using them, what they are actually reading on them and how much influence this form of reading has generated. If this kind of research was undertaken, this would enable British publishers to make more practical and prudent strategies when identifying opportunities. British publishers would also benefit from analysing the reading habits of Chinese audiences, as this would help inform which key genres to introduce to the Chinese market and approaches to take. For example, following the communication with Chinese publishers on 2016 London Book Fair, it seems that fiction is not currently that popular among Chinese audiences, and it is very important to investigate why this might be, and also to consider what other areas readers are interested in. Given the market economy, perhaps this would explain a focus on reading about practical matters or even some people ignoring the value of reading, since it has not become essential for many Chinese people. Some Chinese readers still seem to prefer physical textbooks for academic research, instead of reading more than a hundred pages on a tablet. As a result, academic publishers tend to make more efforts to develop online journals, although it is not easy for them to neglect the demand for quality printed books. The current Chinese digital publishing industry has not yet been fully and systematically developed, and this lack of structure could hinder the way that UK publishers do business with it. However, if these challenges could be strategically improved, the Chinese market could be very promising for British publishers looking to open up new avenues for their business as British publishers hold a great deal of advantages. 

Another clear observation from the London Book Fair were the apparent differences between the UK and Chinese publishing industries: the history of their publishing models, the mechanism in which they operate, the way publishers think and work, as well as the way readers treat and value books. If you spend just a few minutes looking around the Book Fair, you quickly notice these differences. My feeling is that we should admit these differences, whilst recognising that there is a way we could connect with each other. Whereas a number of Chinese publishers have made their first steps to enter international trade, British professionals have vast advantages such as relatively mature digital business models, advanced marketing strategies and effective social media techniques for promotion. Just have a look at the animated book cover and notable book trailers created by Engine House, promotions like these have contributed to a considerable amount of book sales and also present the aesthetic value of books in innovative ways. Therefore, if the two part can learn from each others strong points, the differences between them could be very charming to exist.

My last point is that, apart from meeting the needs of existing readers, there is also another pathway for British publishers in launching new content to them. Just like J.K. Rowling led the prevalence of fantasy and magic literature through Harry Porter, Sherlock Holmes made people realise how thrilling detective fiction could be. If you do not want to follow the others, then surprise and fascinate your readers in your own ways! Nobody would deny themselves the treat of a great literary masterpiece, no matter what genre it is or format it is in. 

Fan An has worked as a journalist in China and is currently an MA student in Digital Humanities at UCL. 

Fan An spoke to the following at London Book Fair: with thanks to Li Xin (Copyright Manager, Higher Education Press), Chris Lin (Big Apple Agency, Inc) and Zhang Wei (China Communications Press).

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