Seattle and Beijing-based publishing company Candied Plums, the children’s book imprint of Paper Republic LLC, has entered the American market with a list of 20 contemporary English and bilingual picture books from China.
Candied Plums publisher Richard Lee launched the company in December 2016, after seeing an increased market for Chinese-language books, particularly in schools and public libraries. “There are more than 4,000 schools that provide Chinese courses and more than 500,000 students are learning Mandarin as a second or foreign language in the United States, and the number is still on the rise,” said Lee, who spoke with PW via email from the company’s Beijing office. He added that “public libraries serve all kinds of needs from readers of different languages and cultural backgrounds.”
All of Candied Plums’ launch titles were originally published in China within the past five years. The imprint repackages each book in bilingual format with simplified Chinese text and pinyin phonetics at the front and a glossary and English translation at the back. Five of the titles—including Dongni Bao’s Who Wants Candied Hawberries?, illustrated by Di Wu, about an old street vendor who draws a crowd of mysterious customers; and Xu Zhou’s Picking Turnips, a retelling of Tolstoy’s “The Gigantic Turnip”—are also available in English-only editions. “Although the bilingual books are specially designed for Mandarin learners, they are also great choices for picture book lovers. With the accompanying English translation, anyone can enjoy the illustrated stories,” Lee said.
Lee believes that there is a high demand for contemporary picture books among the growing number of Chinese-language learners in the U.S. “Our survey showed that it is very hard for schools, teachers, and students to find reading materials in print form, not to mention contemporary Chinese picture books. That’s why Candied Plums decided to take the initiative to select, translate, and publish bilingual picture books for Mandarin learners,” Lee said.
Though this is Lee’s first venture into children’s publishing, he is familiar with the market for Chinese literary translation. Lee was instrumental in bringing Liu Cixin’s science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem to the United States in 2014. Translated into English by Ken Liu, it is the first work of Chinese fiction to win the prestigious Hugo Award.
Bringing in the Experts
For help in building Candied Plums’s launch list, Lee brought on Roxanne Feldman, middle school librarian at the Dalton School in New York City, to serve as publication consultant. Feldman said she sought out books that give an authentic view of everyday life in China when selecting the debut titles. “My goal was finding things that were very contemporary that reflect what children are reading in China—not necessarily the outsider view of what China is like,” she said. Her search began two summers ago at the Beijing International Book Expo. “I spent most of the show going through all of the current and recent backlist from publishers. I didn’t know much of the [Chinese] children’s book world until I was there,” she said. Feldman is mindful, however, that not all Chinese picture and board books are a good fit for American readers. “A lot of Chinese books don’t shy away from the harsh truths of life. And it can be kind of shocking.” She cited as an example Cao Wenxuan’s environmentally themed picture book The Last Leopard, which tells a tale of extinction, and which has what she feels is a disturbing ending.
Though the imprint’s annual output remains to be determined, Feldman spoke of plans to expand beyond picture books. “I’m hoping, and the publisher is hoping, to have not just picture books, but beginning readers and novels.” She added that, in the future, the company would “love to do original books.”
Originally from Taiwan, Feldman has faced cultural differences in readers’ attitudes toward foreign literature. “When you are in Taiwan, you read the world. When I came to America, I only read Western literature.” Feldman has also found differences in the field of literary translation. “In China, people are trained to translate competently and quickly. I don’t see that here,” she said. It’s estimated that a mere 3% of the books published in the United States each year are translations.
Candied Plums draws on a stable of esteemed translators—many affiliated with Paper Republic, the network for Chinese translators—including Helen Wang, who recently translated Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower (Candlewick, Mar. 2017). “We definitely have talented editors who know how to translate just the right way: to preserve the integrity of the original text but also to reach out to people who are not necessarily familiar with Chinese politics or culture,” Feldman said. She pushed for Candied Plums to feature translators’ names prominently on all book covers, saying: “They are co-authors.”
Marketing Challenges and Strategies
Candied Plums faces a number of marketing challenges as a bilingual publisher. “The biggest challenges so far,” Lee said, “have been book distribution and marketing, which I believe is also true for any start-up independent publisher in the States.” Pathway Book Service is Candied Plums’ exclusive trade distributor in the U.S. and Canada. The titles are currently available for sale through Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Amazon, Amazon Canada, and Books-A-Million. The company will have a presence at the National Chinese Language Conference in Houston, Tex., as well as BookExpo in New York City. In the digital sphere, Feldman assists in managing the company’s social media platforms, which has proven challenging due to the Chinese government bans of Facebook and Twitter.
Lee also plans to tap into the educational market through original, online resources. “The focus will be on adding value to the product by providing more language-learning resources to better serve the needs of Mandarin learners,” he said. Housed in the Chinese Corner section of the company’s website, these materials will include downloadable sound recordings of the Chinese text; a glossary of common words and expressions for daily life; and additional context and videos for classroom use.
In spite of the barriers to publishing and promoting international fiction, Feldman is optimistic about the company’s goals. “If we stick with the principle of selecting and making good translations, and produce books of the highest quality, there’s a fighting chance.”