At the Beijing Book Fair in August, HarperCollins announced it would co-publish books with the Chinese government—run People's Literature Publishing House. Penguin immediately followed, announcing translation projects with Chongqing Publishing group. The gestures were grand, but the specifics of the partnerships hush-hush. It made me wonder if American publishers really know what they are getting into and, if they do, will their efforts be profitable?

At China Books (America's largest and oldest distributor of books from China), we often face cultural misconceptions. Take the following situation: during a recent presentation on book design at a Beijing publishing house, the China Books marketing team and a Chinese editorial board were reviewing the cover image of The Palace of Eternal Youth. The cover was a close-up of a dirty, brown waterfall, murky with mud. We asked, "Is this cover applicable to the content?" Publishers jumped up, exclaiming, "How can you not tell that that is the Yellow River?!" The picture in question had been used for more than 100 titles in the Library of Classics series published by China's Foreign Language Press. I had lived in China for two years. I had seen the Yellow River. I speak Mandarin and Cantonese. Yet, through my American lens, I could not see why the publisher used an image of cascading, polluted-looking water to symbolize the Chinese classics.

As the gap between Chinese and American publishers narrows, it becomes apparent neither knows much about the other. At our BEA booth this year, we were often asked about translating and distributing English books for the Chinese market. The hope of these inquiring authors and publishers was palpable, each thinking, "If my book reaches just a fraction of China's population, I can be rich." I wanted to tell them that it was more likely that their book would be copied, reprinted and sold on the streets. There would be no royalties, because copyright laws and exclusive rights are terms that mean different things in China than in the U.S.

Often American publishers describe doing business in China as the "Wild West." The rapid growth, apparent lack of infrastructure and "lawless" business practices frustrate and intrigue American entrepreneurs. An increase in cultural awareness and the formation of long-term relationships will eventually improve that, but until then, it may help to put aside the "Wild West" metaphor and realize that many Chinese business practices are entrenched in the country's complex history.

For example, consider restaurant menus. A typical American menu can fit on one or two pages—some appetizers, 10 to 12 entrées, a handful of desserts. The Chinese menu, conversely, can have up to 300 dishes—some good, some not-so-good and some just variations of one another. Last year, the U.S. published 70,000 new titles. China published 130,000 new titles. This rush to create an impressive statistic may be at the books' expense—books are often poorly translated and have grainy photos and even typos in their titles—but there is something to be said about China's ambition and ability to make things happen.

Besides the "more means better" mentality, there is also the issue of promoting and eliminating certain material. The Chinese people, culturally rooted in the ideology of saving face, avoid discussing politically defaming material. Newly revised Chinese history books focus on China's economic growth, barely mentioning the Cultural Revolution or Mao Zedong.

HarperCollins executives plan to publish five books a year with the Chinese government over five years, but two of the first three announced titles—Border Town by Shen Congwen and Rickshaw Boy by Lao She—are peculiar choices, considering they were originally published in China in the 1930s and have been translated into English before. Still, it's a start.

Yet cultural differences will always remain. Even after working with Chinese publishers for nearly 50 years, we could not recognize the reasoning behind duplicating the Yellow River on a hundred covers in a classical literature series. Will other American publishers be able to?

Author Information
Chellis Ying is the marketing director for China Books and a writer (