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Ask any Chinese readers for their impression of books from Taiwan, and most likely they will cite meticulous editing and beautiful covers while reeling off the names of authors of literary gems, romance titles, and martial art novels. Turn to any American or European publisher, and chances are they will mention outstanding picture books with deceptively simple story lines that captivate kids and adults alike. And both sides are right on the money.

Taiwan is big on literary works and original picture books. It is also a major rights market, especially for American and European bestsellers. Not surprisingly, frenetic rights selling and buying activities are a prominent feature of the Taipei International Book Exhibition.

But this barely scratches the surface. PW turns to insiders—five of the most accomplished publishers in town—for an assessment of the industry’s current situation, as well as its challenges and future.

“Taiwan’s publishing industry is very much shaped by history,” says John Kuo, president of Book Republic. “The years under Japanese rule [1895–1945] and the subsequent government basically spelled the death of literature and publishing freedom. Only in the early 1980s did the first generation of publishing houses emerge—namely Yuan-Liou and Commonwealth—to promote original works and kick-start translations. But for most publishers of that era—myself included—publishing is a passion. We were low on capital and expertise. We pretty much made it up as we went along. In the current fast-changing Internet economy, however, publishing has to be less of a passion and more of a business proposition.”

“Very roughly, the publishing industry has probably grown 50% in the past decade,” Kuo continues, “the retail and distribution channels, 1,000%. This imbalance may be corrected by having bigger publishing houses or groups. Unfortunately, existing ones are not big enough or have huge enough capital, to influence the retail and distribution sector.” Digital publishing, he says, may provide the platform for an industry transformation and reorganization. “Everybody starts from ground zero when it comes to creating e-books or running e-bookstores. Incidentally, this change may attract the younger, Internet generation to the publishing industry.”

Meanwhile, original works are growing fast because, he adds, “There is now pride in being an author. Before, making a living off writing books was considered a dead-end career in any Chinese community. Over the next decade, I fully expect to see many more homegrown authors making it big here and overseas.”

Executive director Sing-ju Chang of Hsin Yi Foundation shares Kuo’s sentiments on digital publishing: “With cloud computing and applications making inroads into the book industry, I believe the younger generation will be attracted to participate in the search for new ways to publish, market, and sell books. A new breed of publishers will emerge to transform the industry and take it to new heights.”

For Chang, the fact that most Taiwan publishers own and manage their own companies—aside from playing the role of chief editor—is something to be proud of. “They know the market and the rules of the game very well, and, as owners, are totally dedicated to their business,” Chang says. “But these traditional strengths may hamper their ability to meet the new challenges of a rapidly changing world. We have to recognize that our publishing industry is small compared to China’s. Maybe we should join hands with our counterparts across the strait to capitalize on each other’s expertise and face the new era together.” Chang now treats the much bigger Chinese-speaking market—including China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and other overseas Chinese communities—as a single market, working to digitize content for different devices and channels to fit every territory.

As a children’s book publisher, Chang is mindful of the segment’s many challenges. “Firstly, the low birth rate is a big issue, but it is not something that publishers can solve. Secondly, it is hard to nurture homegrown talents when translated authors and illustrators garner so much attention. It is also more difficult to find a creative title that catches my attention nowadays. Lastly, young parents often do not have a habit of reading and therefore do not put much value on reading. Books now have to compete with electronic gadgets and other things like music or computer lessons for parents’ money.”

Although Yuan-Liou is one of the few publishers with the financial resources and operational capabilities to meet the digital publishing challenge head-on, the company finds the going tough, according to president and CEO Jung-wen Wang: “Even the most aggressive publishers derive less than 5% of their revenues from e-books, a figure too insignificant to merit much consideration. In contrast, online magazines and electronic databases have seen substantial growth through steady development.”

For Wang, who is also chairman of the Taipei Book Fair Foundation (an 18-member committee in charge of the annual event), the government should play a bigger role in supporting e-books by promoting digital reading. “In the B2B2C educational market, one way could be for copyrights to be shared among author, publisher, distributor, and digital service provider, and titles purchased through a government-controlled model with standardized pricing,” Wang says. “Sadly, such a model has yet to materialize. Much of our universities’ funding is now spent on imported e-publications, and elementary and high schools have no budget for e-books.”

Adding to the dilemma is that publishers, while crucial to the content-making process, are not the key players dictating e-book development. “Digital technologies have revamped the traditional publishing model,” Wang says, “and the promise of a global Web-based reading community has turned ICT [information and communications technology] companies into either effective collaborators or formidable competitors.” But the more pressing issue, he says, is how to meet the needs of a much larger market. “In the past, Taiwan publishers catered to only 23 million people who read traditional Chinese. With China [and simplified Chinese readers] now in the picture, competition for translation rights of foreign titles is intense. Naturally, Taiwan publishers also want to penetrate the mainland market. But a reading population of 1.3 billion requires new types of personnel, funding and organization.”

So the challenge is multifold: searching for good authors and quality works while plotting entry into China and e-book markets. “We have to leave our comfort zone and seek collaboration with ICT companies and even China’s publishing groups,” adds Wang. “This will bring new resources to meet the challenge. And we need our government’s support. Government-to-government negotiation on cross-strait publishing activities would speed up the creation of a unified Chinese-language publishing market.”

For publisher and editorial director Linden Lin of Linking Publishing, “Taiwan publishers’ open-mindedness is without equal. We are open to foreign authors, new themes, and different perspectives. Not surprisingly, translations account for nearly 28% of all new titles produced annually, and they include most world languages. Many of the translations make the bestseller list, a testimony to our readers’ receptivity to different types of works and other cultures. But publishers need to do more to introduce homegrown authors and Taiwanese culture abroad. One way of accomplishing this, I think, is for publishers to seriously start thinking about publishing more English titles for foreign readers. We also need to consider expanding the Chinese-reading market within Southeast Asia. The popularity of books from China has caused readers to shift from traditional Chinese to simplified Chinese. Thus, Taiwan publishers should start releasing books in simplified Chinese for export.”

Presently, most of the books available in Taiwan, adds Lin, are “published by small and medium-size publishing houses, which represent the bulk of the industry. They publish more varieties of books, thus enriching the reading experience. Some of these houses are run by the younger generation—from publishers to editors and designers—and they have lots of new ideas to offer in terms of design, format, and marketing strategy. They have made great contributions that enliven the Taiwan publishing industry.”

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