Writing Chinese

New Models of Publishing in East Asia, by Peter Gordon

peter gordonWhen we were starting up the Man Asian Literary Prize, it was decided—after much deliberation—to specify that it would be for “works as yet unpublished in English.” This was not so much with the goal of bringing relatively unknown writers to light, although it did do that; rather it was because not a great deal of Asian fiction was being published at the time. If the Prize had required “publication” as a condition of entry, therefore, it might have ended up rewarding commercial serendipity instead of intrinsic literary merit.

Things have improved in decade or so since. Much more East Asian literature is appearing in translation and the English-language Indian market has exploded. Print-on-demand and electronic publishing have greatly lowered barriers to entry. If one were to start the Prize again now, one might not reprise the “as yet unpublished” criterion.

Chinese fiction, both in translation and some written directly in English, has increased manyfold in this period, albeit from a very low base. But this overall progress has been driven more by publishers in the main anglophone markets than by East Asian publishing itself. English-language publishing in the region remains intrinsically difficult.

It is the rare book that sells extensively outside of the publisher’s home market and Asian markets for English-language books are particularly small and fragmented. While Hong Kong, for example, is a city of seven million, the English-language market is much smaller: perhaps between 250,000 and 500,000, i.e. the size of a single not-very-large city in the UK.

The wider Asian markets do not in fact offer much additional opportunity. A novel set in Hong Kong might resonate for Hong Kong readers, but isn’t inherently any more appealing to the average Singaporean or Filipino reader than one set in London or Sydney. The logistics are also daunting: distribution within Asia is more pro forma than commercial. Freight within Asia is hardly less costly between America or Britain and Asia (in part because the planes leave Asia full of Asian-made products and generally return much emptier), and volumes are in any event small. It is one thing to consign books to a shop across town but quite another to consign them across the sea. Asian publishers cannot usually afford the sorts of terms their larger Western publishers offer. The result is that it is relatively rare to find Hong Kong books in Singapore, the Philippines or Thailand and vice versa.

Print-on-demand technology in the West may allow Asian publishers to avoid the need for trans-continental shipping and the cost and inventory risk of overseas warehousing, but availability alone does not lead to sales. Asian publishers remain a long way from the main anglophone markets.

Penguin China, in an-exception-that-proves-the-rule sort of way, is pretty much the only multinational publisher regularly publishing in English out of East Asia. The majority have been non-fiction titles by non-Chinese authors, often with an already-defined readership. Even with Penguin’s heft and global distribution, these hasn’t yet amounted to a breakthrough for regional English-language publishing.

The growth of English-language publishing in India is another exception that proves the rule: this is driven by the astounding growth in domestic demand, not by publishing “for export”. East Asia’s English-language publishers lack a market the size and depth of the developing Indian one.

This is not to say that no regionally published English-language book is ever a commercial success. Everyone can probably point to a few, and we at Chameleon Books have had several ourselves. But there aren’t really enough of them to go around.

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Electronic publishing does not change this picture substantially; indeed, it might make things worse. E-publishing certainly makes it easier to publish or to get published—there are no financial or other barriers at all now. But if “getting published” consists of little more than uploading a file, it ceases to be a meaningful objective in itself. Nor has e-publishing magically eliminated the need for editing, fact-checking and other sorts of quality-control that have until now normally been a concern of, and major cost-centre for, publishers.

Like print-on-demand, e-publishing gives Asian publishers immediate access to a global market; but, also like print-on-demand, access does itself generate sales. The problem of generating focused attention remains, and has if anything gotten harder as the market gets noisier.

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East Asian publishers, alas, are unlikely to have much effect on the aggregate availability of Chinese fiction in English. Attempting to make an impact, even electronically, thousands of kilometres from one’s home base is difficult, perhaps prohibitively so. It is proximity to the market, not the authors, that matters.

However, much of this discussion is of course predicated on the future publishing ecosystem—the process of getting words to readers—looking like some variant of what we have today. But it may not.

E-publishing has removed the physical and logistical constraints to the unit of text we have called “the book”: there is no inherent reason—other that commercial exigencies due to printing—why text should be consumed in units of about 100,000 words or a few hundred pages. Physical books, furthermore, may be bought and kept, or borrowed and returned, sometimes signed, sometimes collected. E-books, however, may end up being read more like magazines and newspapers: consumed and then set aside. This model for publishing fiction exists, of course, in magazines and journals. And for some genres such as science fiction, it has long been a prime mechanism for publication.

Should a considerable amount of writing move from individually purchased books to something that looks more like a subscription, the economics will be very different, as will the relation of writer to publisher and publisher to reader—and writer to reader. The current model of writer>publisher>distributor>bookseller>reader may be superseded by one that looks more like writer>publisher>reader, or writer>e-seller>reader or maybe publisher>reader (with writers being on contract), but in any case, one with fewer levels and transformed relationships.

When Chinese enters the picture, the model is complicated by translation. Sometimes, it will remain linear, i.e.  writer>publisher>(publisher/translator)>… Or the translated track may be parallel to original language publication, e.g. writer>rights agent>translator>publisher… or writer/translator>publisher… Translations are usually of books that have already proven themselves domestically, but in a subscription model where writers write to spec, one may end up with writer/translator pairs, perhaps writer/translator>e-packager>reader.

These developments are unlikely to help East Asian publishing per se, because the costs and main marketing issues—being far from the largest markets—will remain. But traditional publishing is a bundle of many potentially disparate functions—recognizing good writers and material, supporting these, editing, translation, marketing, distribution, sales, finance. E-publishing may result in this being unbundled into constituent parts with different combinations of cost and revenue centres. Exactly what it means to be a “publisher” under these circumstances may be a matter of debate, but there may be configurations in which East Asian industry professionals’ proximity to the sources of the content—the ability to work closely with authors and translators—is more a catalyst of direct commercial opportunities than it is at present.

Current industry structure makes it difficult for East Asia’s English-language publishers to make more than a tangential contribution to the availability of Chinese writing in English. But should the entire deck of cards be thrown up into the air, who knows where they will come back down?


Peter Gordon is publisher at Chameleon Press and editor of the Asian Review of Books.


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