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Challenges facing Chinese publishers
Last Updated(Beijing Time):2010-09-04 16:52

Thanks to Bi Sheng (970-1051), the inventor of movable type printing technology during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), books replaced expensive silk scrolls, monopolized by the rich, and became an affordable source of knowledge for the common people. But even Bi didn't know it would take another thousand years for his people to take their global publishing initiative seriously.

Selling books is just one part of China's effort to present its true picture to the rest of the world. Although books, or more importantly copyrights, are commodities in the international market, they differ from other made-in-China products. The added value of cultural products makes the book business a test for the country's ability to tell its story.

Books as cultural products reflect the difficulties that Chinese publishers face in capturing the international market. Chinese publishers need to study their target markets and Western readers thoroughly to present China in the proper light.

Merger and acquisitions may be the fastest way to build a global marketing network, but they are the riskiest, too. Setting up self-owned brand outlet systems, therefore, is the safest option, though it would take a long time for them to earn a profit.

Seeking overseas copyright agents and established publishers is the proper choice for Chinese publishers in their early "going out" stage. China Publishing Group Corporation (CPG), the largest national publishing group, has set up branches in the West and published more than 200 tittles abroad through joint ventures in the past two years.

As Nie Zhenning, president of CPG, said before the 17th Beijing International Book Fair that concluded on Friday, "Exporting copyrights and strategic localization are guiding principles for China's book trade. CPG takes part in 20 world-class book fairs a year. It gives domestic publishers valuable opportunities to know the industry and find business partners."

The reform in the Chinese publishing industry, previously affiliated to governments, will transform all publishing houses into business enterprises. Thus, Chinese publishers' "going out" is also a process intertwined with inward reform and outward expansion in the digital era.

Language barriers and cultural differences are the real problems domestic publishers face in promoting Chinese books. The central government has funded 1,350 projects of 246 publishers in the past three years to promote their books in 46 countries, and helped them publish nearly 200 types of books in 26 languages.

Behind the not-so-impressive figures is the pathetic dearth of people at home who have the gift or talent of translating "culturally" rather than "literally". This language bottleneck muffles modern Chinese writers' voice so much that repetitive interpretations of ancient Chinese thinkers and writers line a good part of the shelves that display Chinese books abroad.

China's strong economic growth should give its publishers more confidence to tell stories of modern China. Just as Stephen R.R. Bourne, CEO of Cambridge University Press, said at a recent forum on global publishing hosted by CPG: "English and Russian were the most important languages 25 years ago, and later Spanish. But it is Chinese now and it will be the most important language for quite a long time."

Bourne added that romance and some other human-interest stories were the best way to present to the outer world the great changes that have taken (and are taking) place in modern China.

It is important, too, to not ignore overseas Chinese writers and translators. Many of them have keen insight because of their cross-cultural backgrounds and experiences.

But more importantly, Chinese publishers and writers should not sacrifice their national identity to cater to the Western readers. What really defines modern China is not only something it shares with the West, but also something that makes it different.

Source:China Daily 
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