PW recently spoke to Gray Tan, founder and president of the Taiwan-based Grayhawk Agency. Tan primarily acts as a sub-agent for American and European authors, selling Chinese-language rights on their behalf. Having represented a number of major U.S. authors--including Khaled Hosseini and Jonathan Franzen--Tan talked to us about the local lure of tie-in's and the slow pace of Chinese publishing.
You describe fiction as your "passion and specialty." What are some current trends you're seeing in fiction in China and Taiwan?
Everyone in China is looking for books that have been made, or are being made, into TV series. A tie-in is fine, but original is better. House of Cards is a recent hit, and we've also sold Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series and Chuck Wendig's Miriam Black series. In the last month we sold Nic Pizzolato's novel and screenplay of True Detective. For Taiwan, the recent trend is, sadly, that no one reads fiction. Nothing [in Taiwan] sells unless it’s made into a movie. Recent examples include James Dashner's The Maze Runner, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, and SJ Watson's Before I Go to Sleep. (Watson's book was already a big bestseller before the movie, but it has now climbed back to the top [of the charts].) It's also interesting that quite a few how-to books on writing novels/screenplays published this year are selling quite well; it's as if no one is interested in listening to other people's stories and only want to tell their own.
Is there an English-language book you recently represented that was successful in China or Taiwan? Why do you think it worked with local readers?
Definitely Hugh Howey's Wool, which has spent over a year on the bestseller list in Taiwan and is the biggest selling debut novel since 2013. It's published as "general" fiction, and I think its story of a government/media cover-up has really caught Taiwanese readers' attention. Howey visited the Taipei Book Fair in February, and I think that really helped, as well. Our biggest bestseller in China recently is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by U.K. author Rachel Joyce. I think it strikes a chord with Chinese readers because of the way it depicts the protagonist's loneliness and sense of failure. [The protagonist's] sudden decision to "just walk" across the country, to save a friend, is very inspiring, too.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing Chinese-language publishers? How do these issues affect your work as a co-agent for U.S and European titles?
They don't read fast enough! Well, it's just that with fiction, China/Taiwan are still very much follower markets, where editors read slowly, very few people have scouts, and a lot of genres--romance, historical, crime--don't work. As co-agents, we are constantly hearing about books being sold in such and such countries, overnight preempts, six or seven figure auctions. But most of these happen in the European markets, and it feels like an entirely different world. My approach to bridge this gap has always been to create as much Chinese material as possible, and I rarely forward emails in English. Because, although everyone reads English, it's always easier--and more appealing--to read Chinese. Finding the balance between speed (and keeping our publishers updated on what's happening with a certain book), and depth (writing a comprehensive submission letter, which in my case can be as long as several thousand words), is the hardest part. But, this is also the most fun part of my job as well.
Is there a Chinese-language author you're particularly excited to introduce to readers around the world?
I just went out with Chan Ho-kei's The Borrowed, an epic crime novel set in Hong Kong spanning half a century and telling the story of a fictional police detective, Kwan Chun-Dok. The structure is quite unique, not to say audacious: six chapters, each set in a pivotal time in Hong Kong history, dealing with a different case. Additionally, each can be read as a stand-alone novella. What's more, the story is told backwards: starting in the present day (2013) with Kwan on his deathbed solving his final case, moving back in time to his earlier days, including the SARS epidemic (2003), the Handover (1997), and going all the way to the beginning of his career in 1967 during the Leftist Riot. There's a huge twist and the end that ties everything up. It's the first epic crime novel about Hong Kong written by a Hong Kong writer. ... The book came out in June, three months before the "Occupy Central with Love and Peace" movement that's taking place right now. ... You can't think of a more timely book than this! We've sold film rights to legendary director Wang Kar-wai, who plans to make an epic film trilogy.