The Race to China

C. Max Magee
From the January/February 2007 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Not unlike European explorers five hundred years ago, the U.S. publishing industry is looking for a route to China. And, like those explorers, each company seems to be setting a different course. HarperCollins recently partnered with a Chinese publisher and plans to release new and classic Chinese books in English translation in the United States, the U.K., and China. Penguin has also secured a local publishing partner and is already offering Chinese readers ten of its Penguin Classics in Mandarin—and it has an open-ended plan to bring out more. At the same time, Penguin has stepped up its efforts to release more Chinese literature in translation in Western markets. Macmillan, meanwhile, has started a new publishing division, Picador Asia, based in Hong Kong.

Penguin made headlines last August with the announcement that it would be publishing ten books in Mandarin.

Accompanying these corporate moves, the rest of the literary world has been looking eastward as well. The Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest trade fair for the book publishing industry, held annually in mid-October in Germany, plans to feature China as its guest nation in 2009; and the Man Group investment company, the sponsor of the annual Booker Prize, has announced the creation of a new literary prize for Asian writers. The race to China hasn't been without its shipwrecks, however. It was reported last October that Random House had to abandon its China plans, for the time being, when talks with a local partner fell through.

But generally the mood among publishing insiders has been enthusiastic. Speaking of her recent trips to China, HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman says, "I'm completely invigorated by the energy of Beijing, and I was truly blown away by it." Her excitement, shared by others at the New York City–based publisher, led HarperCollins to open an office in China and to partner locally with the People's Literature Publishing House. "We wanted to find a publishing company that had this deep backlist and this classic backlist and to put together not a one-off but an actual publishing plan," Friedman says. That plan starts with a trio of Chinese books arriving in translation in the United States this year and could ultimately yield thirty to fifty titles, all of which Friedman expects to fit in well with the HarperPerennial Modern Classics line.

Penguin, meanwhile, made headlines last August with the announcement that it would be publishing ten books in Mandarin, including Jane Eyre, Don Quixote, and Moby-Dick, under its Classics brand as part of a partnership with Chongqing Publishing Group. "It's a rather momentous way of celebrating our sixtieth birthday to publish outside the English language for the first time," Penguin CEO John Makinson says, "and what better language to choose than the second biggest language in the world." The move isn't Penguin's first in China, however. Reference book publishers Dorling Kindersley and Rough Guides, among other Penguin properties, have long had relationships with Chinese partners.

Like HarperCollins, Penguin also laid out plans to publish more Chinese books in English translation. In 2005, it spent close to a hundred thousand dollars to acquire the English-language rights to Wolf Totem, a Chinese best-seller published by the pseudonymous author Jiang Rong, and Makinson sees Penguin publishing four or five translated works a year. Any more than that and Makinson would be concerned about saturating the market. "We don't want to be translating and publishing books just for the sake of it," he says.

Toby Eady, a U.K.-based literary agent with a long history of working with Chinese writers, echoes that sentiment. Currently working as a consultant for Picador Asia, Eady is somewhat skeptical of the market for such books. "To actually sell more than six or seven thousand copies of a Chinese book in America has been very good," he says. "Some will work, some won't. It'll all depend on the translations."

In Eady's view, a dearth of translators with the ability to convey the energy of contemporary Chinese literature will hamper the ambitious efforts of Western publishers. "If you can get a young translator under thirty who learned Chinese in China on the street, in restaurants, in people's homes, then you will get good books," he says. If not, "you're going to get a stereotype translation." According to Eady, Picador is working with young translators and paying them almost equal what it is paying its authors. (It's worth noting, however, that the lead title for Picador Asia's launch, Fan Wu's debut novel, February Flowers, was originally written in English.)

As for English-language authors hoping to ride the major Western publishers into China, they'll be disappointed for now. The flow of the recent initiatives seems to be predominantly from East to West, though Makinson says that this reverses a broader trend. There are far fewer books "that are translated out of non-English into English compared to English-language works that are translated into foreign languages," he says.

Penguin is only publishing its Classics titles in Mandarin, and while some categories of English-language books do regularly see success in translation in China—children's books, technical books, and a handful of best-sellers—there are no big efforts under way from Penguin or HarperCollins to bring contemporary novels to China. Eady suggests that this is for the best, since the market for such books in China is "tiny" and the distribution infrastructure in general is underdeveloped.

Nonetheless, many in the publishing industry have the sense that they're onto something big as they eye China's huge population and growing global influence. "The world has become much smaller, and we all recognize our similarities and not just our differences," Friedman says. By making partnerships in China, she is hoping to discover new writers rather than simply cultivating the Western taste for Eastern writing. In her words, "a good story is a good story," no matter the language.

Compared with the constantly evolving plans and initiatives of the global publishing industry as a whole, the announcements from U.S. publishers so far have been minor. But this appears to be just the first leg of the race to China. "I can't wait to go back to China," Friedman says. "And I think that's a big thing because it's a hell of a long plane ride!"

C. Max Magee is a writer living in Philadelphia. He writes about books at