Selling English Language Books to China
Thomas V. Cassidy -- 8/10/98
In 1997 China imported over $30 million worth of books from the USA, according to the US Dept of Commerce, more than half of them scientific, technical and professional, at least six million each in trade and textbooks. There are three million college students in China today oriented towards English and English is the second language taught to China's 62 million high school students. So the future is bright for a variety of English language books in China.
But in 1978, when they just opening up to the West, the first priority was to gather as much information as possible about the progress in the STM areas. Many university and research libraries and even the prestigious National Library in Beijing has been cleaned of Western, especially English language, titles during the Cultural Revolution (1965-1976).
New books and scientific journals were urgently needed to help professionals, professors and students understand the advances in the hard sciences. John Wiley & Sons, for whom I worked, Springer Verlag and a few others sent their chief executives to China. They offered free book exhibitions to support the designated importer of science books at the time, the China National Publications Import and Export Corp. (CNPIEC), which is still the major player. The funds to support the resulting book-buying frenzy came from the State Education Commission, the World Bank, and some wealthy overseas Chinese who donated funds to their alma maters.
Many foreign publishers gave special buying terms to gain an advantage and many emptied their warehouses of outdated dictionaries and overstocks. The buying continued strong until 1985, when the Chinese government devalued their currency to help their exports. Since Chinese foreign book-buying was 99% institutional, the budgets were in local currency. China lost almost half of its book buying power and sales dropped by a similar amount.
Only the World Bank money made the promotion of foreign books viable for Western publishers. In the years 1986 to 1997, there were two more currency devaluations and unit sales of books into China plummeted to about 25% of the mid-80's records. The Golden Chinese book market of 1.2 billion people, was actually an export market for American publishers only about the size of Mexico. Taiwan was bigger.
Then in 1989, following the Tiananmen Square conflict, the bottom fell out of the foreign book market for tourists, such as it was. Another currency devaluation in January of 1995 to 8.4 yuan to $1.00 affected imported academic book sales and to a lesser extent foreign journal/periodical sales.
But by 1995, China's new wealth was giving many Chinese disposable income. Every young educated person in China saw learning English as a way to expand their career opportunities. A retail market in China for English literature and the British/American classics and books on business success by Western authors became very popular.
Anything that reflected Western culture, music, business, economics, sports and the arts was purchased in ever increasing numbers by Chinese youth of the large cities of China, especially Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou.
The second change in China has included Chinese publishers buying translation and reprint rights by the thousands, covered elsewhere in this report.
I predict now that China will surprise all its Western publishing critics. There will be an ever increasing market for both English language books and Chinese language translations.
More foreign magazines are appearing in China and as the internet and other forms of communication from abroad impact on China, the population will be absorbed into the international community. Eventually China will have bookstores that are less controlled and open to the free exchange of ideas on all subjects.
Meanwhile, the major player in imported academic titles remains CNPIEC. They have an effective monopoly in periodical sales, mostly STM journals, which are 65% of the estimated $25 to $30 million market now. The rest are books. CD-ROM sales have picked up recently, but China d s not have enough hardware to make this a major growth market.
China is quite a different market for others in Asia, I have found. Hiring a rep firm in Hong Kong, Singapore or Taiwan is no guarantee of successful sales in China. While Mainland book/periodical importers prefer to speak in Chinese, they often depend on getting special terms. Visitors from the USA, UK ad Europe are often better able to react to these requests.
Since China is becoming more of a retail market for locals, books must be priced for local buyers. Here are some price parameters for importers buying in quantity of popular subject areas:
British/American Literature: $1 to $5
Art & Architecture: $1 to $20 (Some exceptions)
Business: (all subject areas under this heading) $3 to $10
Dictionaries: $3 to $10
Normal credit terms are 120 days plus 30 days grace. Everyone pays, but some are late payers.
Importers are mostly in Beijing (the source of all money) and Shanghai. Others are on or near east coast of China. Here are the importers, all licensed by the Chinese government to import foreign books. There are no private book stores or importers of foreign books.
1. China National Publications Import & Export Corp. (CNPIEC) in Beijing. Largest of all with many departments and a Shanghai importing operation as well. Also run the Beijing International Book Fair.
2. China Educational Publications Import & Export Corp. (CEPC) in Beijing. Part of the State Education Commission, they handly mostly academic books for university libraries and special projects.
3. Beijing Publications Import & Export Corp. (BPIEC) The fasting growing in Beijing, importing all kinds of books and with a new bookstore in Beijing, covered elsewhere.
4. China Book Importing Corp. (CBIC) in Beijing. Mostly academic book importing and art/architecture books. With a small Shanghai branch.
5. CTI in Beijing. Importing mostly high level STM books from all publishers including associations and societies.
6. Shanghai Book Traders (SBT) Like BPIEC in Beijing, they have their own building, showroom and good location, doing academic and increasingly retail business.
7. Jiangsu New Trading Import & Export in Nanjing, doing STM books.
8. Zhonghua-Shangwu Trading Corp. in Guangzhou, doing mostly art & architecture.
9. Hubei Publications Import & Export Corp. in Wuhan doing mostly STM.
Read about Book Publishing in the People's Republic of China.
See a list of Publishing Resources in the People's Republic of China.
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