Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs—the only authorized biography of the Apple founder—went on sale in China at 10:05 a.m. Beijing Time on Oct. 24, 2011. Because of time differences, the Chinese edition was available in 30 Chinese traditional retail bookstores even before it was available in the United States. Due to the huge presale demand, China CITIC Press could not estimate the size of the initial print run.
The Kite Runner, by Afghan-born American novelist Khaled Hosseini, was introduced into the Chinese market nearly 10 years ago, and more than 3.5 million copies have been printed. Only two other books have spent longer on China’s foreign literature bestseller chart. In 2014, The Kite Runner was the second-highest-grossing book for Amazon China’s Kindle store, and, at one time, the book had more than 500,000 comments at another e-commerce site in China.
Steve Jobs and The Kite Runner are two representative cases of successful introductions of American books into the Chinese market. The U.S. has outstanding authors, extensive influence, and abundant material for publishing books. In recent years, China has imported more and more American books, many of which have become bestsellers. However, the U.S. publishes hundreds of thousands of titles every year. How do Chinese publishers sift through the vast sea of American books to determine which should be introduced to China?
Publishers Determine Their Targets
Different Chinese publishers have different requirements when it comes to acquiring books from the U.S. Liu Dongmei, the assistant managing editor at the Anhui Publishing House, says Anhui ties the foreign books it publishes to its own product line planning. For example, in recent years, Anhui has mainly published suspense and mystery works. Because of this, it pays particular attention to those genres in the U.S. market. To find titles of interest, Liu says, Anhui employees browse U.S. newspapers and other media, paying particular attention to book reviews and bestseller lists, such as the New York Times Book Review and Amazon rankings. Chinese publishers have long kept up with the more authoritative sources of book information in the U.S. After taking into account the rights catalogues from foreign publishers and agents, as well as recent awards and reviews information, Chinese publishers analyze the Chinese market. Only then are titles purchased and readied for Chinese publication. Recently, Anhui released Lisa Jackson’s bestseller Shiver, which has had strong sales in China.
Beijing’s Shiji Wenjing Culture and Broadcasting Company has a good track record with books from the U.S. market, having published translations of The Da Vinci Code, The Kite Runner, and other bestsellers. Shiji Wenjing, which focuses mainly on literature and the social sciences, has acquired a growing number of U.S. titles in recent years. In an interview with Foreign Policy in February, Shiji Wenjing CEO Wang Lei said he has become very interested in the long-term sales of The Kite Runner in China, which, he noted, has not had the same long-lasting success in the U.S. as it has in China. “We pay close attention to the U.S. popular market, both to trends developing in the U.S. and in U.S. books being published abroad,” Wang says. “We hope to find outstanding books with popular appeal.”
But Wang also admits that bestselling American titles such as The Da Vinci Code and The Kite Runner are few and far between, and it is not always easy to reproduce their success on the Chinese market. He thinks that one reason for this is the growing strength of Chinese writers. Readers’ tastes are also changing, he notes. In addition, the U.S. success of many bestsellers depends heavily on their film adaptations, which sometimes aren’t screened in mainland China. For example, film adaptations of Insurgent and Gone Girl boosted sales of those titles in the U.S. but had little impact on Chinese sales.
Wang says that as Chinese editors’ English skills improve, they can better monitor book reviews and rankings in U.S. media through the Internet and participate in international book exhibitions. These are all important methods for understanding American books, and they allow publishers to gain access to the latest industry information from the U.S.
Looking for Award-Winning Works, Famous Authors
“Every year we introduce more than 200 books, mostly books in English from the United States,” says Tang Jiafang, director of rights at Shanghai Translation Publishing House. “These primarily include fiction, classical literature, and works from award-winning authors.” In recent years, Shanghai Translation Publishing House has acquired books by well-known American authors such as Philip Roth, Woody Allen, and Susan Sontag. Popular American titles such as Inherent Vice, Masters of Sex, and First Person Plural: My Life as a Multiple have all been well received in China.
Jiangsu Yilin is another Chinese publisher that has done well with American books. The company has published the memoirs of presidents Obama and Clinton, as well as the biographies of basketball stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Zhao Wei, director of international cooperation, says that Yilin released more than 170 titles in China last year, 80 of which were from the U.S. She notes that Yilin is very interested in literary fiction, particularly by authors with the potential to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and in the biographies or autobiographies of Americans who are well known in China. “We have bought almost all the works of American authors who are considered likely to win a Nobel Prize,” Zhao says, adding that Chinese publishers closely follow news about important literary awards in the U.S. Winners of the National Book Award, for example, are focal points, and editors pay close attention to the latest works of renowned authors.
Keeping Pace with Technical Developments
Technical publishers in China also acquire many books from the U.S. As one of the country’s largest technical publishing houses, China Machine Press publishes many technical and scientific titles. Rights director Chen Jianhui says that, from an academic perspective, the U.S. is more scientifically and technologically advanced than China in certain fields, meaning that there are many quality titles in those fields to choose from. “More importantly,” he adds, “we consult changes and adjustments in national policy, as well as market demands, when selecting works to publish.” According to Chen, China Machine Press has recently focused on titles related to smart household items, electric cars, and automated smart manufacturing technologies.
Like China Machine Press, the People’s Medical Publishing House is interested in English-language titles that are closely linked to its focus. Zhang Fengxin, director of the international department, says about half of the 100 titles that the company releases annually are acquired from the U.S. He believes that China has a flourishing domestic market, and its publishing industry has more or less reached international standards. However, he says, in some areas of medicine, the U.S. still has comparatively mature scientific techniques and ideas that are in the early stages of development in China. The People’s Medical Publishing House is actively pursuing titles in these areas. Through communication with domestic medical scholars and experts, the publisher can better understand needs of the industry and introduce related books from abroad.
Filling a Void in Children’s Books
Recently, Jieli Publishing House, a Chinese company that specializes in books and other materials for young readers, has introduced bestselling series such as I Spy and Goosebumps into China from major American houses like Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House. Bai Bing, the editor-in-chief at Jieli, believes that these books display powerful imagination and can fill a void in China’s market. Goosebumps, for example, is for young readers who enjoy scary stories, an area where there are very few strong Chinese authors.
When evaluating titles from the U.S., Bai asks five questions: 1) Do the style and writing display strong creative thinking, of the sort that is lacking in the Chinese market? 2) Is it a work of outstanding quality, influential in its home market, and/or a bestseller or award winner? 3) Is it well received by American parents and professional book reviewers? 4) Are there special considerations in exporting this book to other countries, including factors related to transportation, language, and the effectiveness of new media? 5) Is the book able to bridge the historical and cultural gap between the U.S. and China, and is it a book that Chinese consumers will be able to appreciate and accept?
“Recently the market in China for children’s books has grown very rapidly,” Bai says. “It is perhaps the fastest-growing and fastest-developing market area, with the greatest potential. This is true in China, the U.S., and around the world.” He hopes that Jieli can continue to cooperate with U.S. publishers and introduce more quality books to China. “I have always held on to a single wish, which is that young readers in China and around the world should be able to read the same books,” Bai says. “If this happens, I think we can create a positive foundation for the future of U.S.-Sino relations.” He notes that China also produces many works by outstanding authors, potentially suitable for young readers in the West, and hopes U.S. publishers will take note of books that are popular among young readers in China.
Shu Jinyu is an essayist, critic, and cultural journalist at China Reading Weekly.