Prior to 2009, academic monographs were not even listed in the catalogue of the China Book International Project, which provides financial support to publishers that translate Chinese works. The focus was simply not on academic publishers or university presses at that time.

When Shanghai Jiaotong University hosted a fourth forum of China’s academic publishers last month, however, the consensus among the speakers was that the sector’s “Going Out” strategy is now entering its 2.0 era. At the forum, Zhou Huilin, deputy director of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, put forth a four-point proposal for revamping the sector and strengthening the strategy: spread contemporary Chinese values and inform the rest of the world about what is happening in China; increase international collaborations and rights-selling activities; keep pace with digital publishing while transitioning to dynamic publishing formats that will meet new market demands; and fully participate in, and take advantage of, the collective Going Out efforts.

Timing has a lot to do with the accelerated progress made by the Chinese academic publishing sector in the international arena. The year 2010 marked the culmination of a nationwide restructuring campaign to turn university and academic presses into financially independent publishing entities. This “emancipation” from parent universities or institutions forced the presses to fend for themselves and diversify their publishing programs to find sales and profits. As the domestic market was very much covered (driven mostly by textbook publishing), the search for sales went overseas, which effectively increased the momentum.

Textbooks Dominate the Game

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, there are almost 27 million college students, more than seven million graduate students, and close to two million postgraduate students at China’s nearly 2,915 higher learning institutions, including those in the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau. Additionally, there are nearly 84 million students at 78,421 secondary schools for youths ages 12–17, including vocational schools, and almost 97 million students at 190,525 primary schools (for ages 6–11).

The immense size of the educational system means that textbooks and supplementary teaching and learning materials make up more than 60% of China’s book market. Naturally, the core publishing program at all university presses is focused on this particular segment in order to meet rising demands from students and teachers. The press’s role in university and student life remains steadfast and essential.

Beijing Jiaotong University Press’s textbook program, for instance, started back in 2001, and it remains a lucrative segment that funds much of the press’s academic publishing pursuits to this day. Textbook publishing, explains Zhang Zimao, the president of the press, “is regimented, with students being spoon-fed relevant content in a mostly passive one-way top-down street. It differs greatly from academic publishing, where the audience is far more judgmental, with a propensity to critique the material. After all, who is better at disproving a theory or research hypothesis than the professional or expert in that particular field?”

But that is not to say that textbook publishing requires less attention or effort than academic publishing, Zhang adds. “Both segments require high-quality editors and authors because you simply cannot spoon-feed students, who may one day be your future authors or editors—or engineers building the next-generation high-speed train—with low-grade content,” he says. “We must consider, and be responsible for, the content that we provide and its long-term impact.”

Challenges Big and Small

As in other sectors in the book industry, new talent for academic publishing is in short supply in China. “We are essentially competing with internet giants such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent, which are offering incentives that are hard, if not impossible, to match,” says Xie Shouguang, president of Social Sciences Academic Press. “Add talent mobility to the picture, and it is rather grim.” He adds that schools and universities do not specifically prepare graduates for careers in publishing and, given the growth of the publishing industry, the talent demand is unlikely to be matched by the supply anytime soon.

Xie has instituted extensive on-the-job training and internal employment opportunities at the press. “The hope is that, given the right motivation and skills, these editors will stay with us or, at least, within the industry,” he says.

For Wang Yan, president of East China Normal University Press, the big challenge is changing reading habits caused by the ubiquity of mobile devices. “Mobile devices are optimally sized and wired for chunked and fast-feeding information,” Wang says. “Reading on these devices is often fragmented and discontinuous due to distractions such as emails, social media, web browsing, instant messaging, and other apps. Such bite-sized reading on the go—‘snack reading’—is more suited for entertainment news and light materials.”

For a university press to be successful in the mobile world, Wang says, its publishing program must appeal to serious and professional readers. “For our press, this means making the positioning of our books clearer to readers, which will also make our marketing, targeting, and selling efforts easier and more defined,” she says. “In-depth content that is well researched and equally well written offers great value to the reader. Otherwise, the reader will just trawl the internet for general information and sketchy details instead of buying the book.”

Despite its fast growth and high output, the academic publishing sector cannot keep up with the rising social and cultural demands for more books, observes Liu Dongfeng, the president of Shaanxi Normal University General Publishing House. “Producing an academic title involves a lengthy process for research, writing, and review, for instance—steps that cannot be rushed,” he says. “Prior to that, there is also the matter of identifying and selecting the right author and the appropriate content.”

Liu further points out that there will always be an input-output imbalance in academic publishing, in which investment tends to be much higher than returns. “But then we have to consider the deeper values—academic, social, and application—of each publication, and the amount of research that has been done to get to that point,” he says. “The intrinsic values far outweigh its monetary gains.”

Yi Shuping, the president of Chongqing University Press, says more than individual aspiration is required to create a professionally run university press that can meet changing market demands now and in the near future. “The whole industry needs standardized review mechanisms to eliminate low-level academic works and elevate publication quality,” Yi says. “Focusing on core expertise and building a publishing program based on parent universities’ specialties—instead of having a hodgepodge of offerings—will provide better positioning of the press, and more accurate marketing and branding strategies. These will elevate the overall academic publishing industry.”

Now that university and academic presses are doing more trade-based titles, the big question revolves around their ability to diversify their publishing programs without diluting their niches and core expertise. What remains obvious is that the Chinese book market is big enough—and voracious enough—to absorb the additional output, trade-based or not. Of course, the presence of so many public libraries (3,139 at the last count) with ample funding to buy books is a big plus.

Adapting to Changing Business Realities

Independence from the parent university or institution does come with a price, and that is the requirement to balance profits and losses and find the right business strategies to survive. And survival now hinges on catering to a much broader (and more fickle) market than faculty, students, and teachers.

Thinking like a startup, for instance, has helped Zhang Zimao and his team at Beijing Jiaotong University Press develop an innovative and agile mind-set that is crucial for meeting fast-changing market demands and challenges. “We also need to polish our communication skills in order to effectively communicate with the right people, publicize our titles in the most effective way, and increase our collaborative efforts with overseas partners,” adds Zhang.

Xie, of Social Sciences Academic Press, sees the need to hire staff members with multilingual competence, “not just in English but also in other major languages in order to become a trustworthy and reliable partner to overseas publishers, who count on us to check translation quality.” He says ensuring quality translation will not only go a long way toward raising editorial standards and professionalism, but also augment the positive impact that copublications could have on overseas readers. “Now that the whole publishing industry is going international, we have to do everything that we can to ease—and improve—translation and collaboration efforts with overseas partners,” Xie adds.

Identifying great authors and unique content is one big task that lies ahead, says Lu Dongming, president of Zhejiang University Press. “We also need to establish the appropriate marketing channels, relevant platforms to reach the broadest readership, and the scope to grow the influence of these authors and content. In other words: building an effective content ecosystem,” adds Lu, who likens the situation to having a high-grade pearl. “By itself, there is limited potential. But, with more such pearls, you make a statement necklace. Then you acquire timeless pieces of clothing to best complement and accessorize it.”

Lu, whose publishing program is 70% academic monographs and teaching materials, is wary of oversupplying the readers. “With online distribution so convenient and efficient, information overload is a fact, and totally undesirable,” he says. “Therefore, understanding reader demands and tailoring our publishing goals and distribution channels to match those demands is essential. Offering reader services and dedicated spaces—offline and online—is a way to capture and retain their attention and expand the influence of the content that they are reading. Applying information science and Big Data to track the path and usage of the content will further help us to map future titles and markets. By putting all these together, we can then have a truly global editorial planning with international-based output.”

Meanwhile, university presses are slowly but steadily being professionalized, observes Liu, of Shaanxi Normal University General Publishing House. “For us, this shift in the mind-set and developmental direction is one that is aimed at building a market-driven entity with proper branding, sustainable long-term goals, and unique characteristics with defined expertise,” Liu adds. Economic realities have certainly pushed academic publishers, including his press, to be more creative in publication design, to offer content in multiple formats, and to be much better at marketing and promoting their titles.

But transformation, says Liu, “will take time due to the inherent system and mechanism in most university presses, where the main role is first and foremost to meet the needs of the parent university and its teaching/learning communities, and not the reading public. Getting the human resources to build a transformational management team and look into supply-side reform is another challenge because publishing, compared to many other industries, is not as attractive or seen as offering great remuneration and benefits.”

Zhang Wei, the general manager of Xi’an Jiaotong University Press, has witnessed rapid changes in Chinese academic publishing in the past decade. “The government has encouraged more teachers and researchers to engage in research work, and so we are seeing the amount of research results suitable for publication increasing every year,” he says. “However, these are mostly basic R&D, and the ensuing publications are therefore rather general in scope.”

The short supply of high-level academic monographs on the market is a problem, adds Zhang. “Often, those who are really engaged in cutting-edge R&D do not want—or have the time—to write books,” he says. “They are more amenable to publishing their research papers because writing books take far longer and may divert their attention away from the R&D efforts.” So the issue, he says, is “not about finding good authors—there are many out there with great content—but that they may not have the time to complete the manuscript.”

Though the number of academic books in China continues to increase, the quality and influence has not reached the level of improvement that one would expect given the amount of research and funding, says Zhang Yibing, the chairman of Guangxi Normal University Press Group. “We still have a long way to go,” he says. “But any research is tedious, and forming a cumulative body of research and results before it can be published takes time. The process simply cannot be rushed, or we will have subpar results and publications.”

For now, sales channels for academic monographs remain relatively simple, with libraries being the biggest buyer, says Zhang Wei, of Xi’an Jiaotong University Press. “The lack of dedicated sales channels for this segment means that some great books may not reach the intended audience, especially those in far-flung corners of the country,” he says. “However, given the growth and influence of social media marketing for book promotion and distribution in China—which is now widely used for children’s titles and trade books—some special platforms or online groups for academic monographs are bound to come up soon.”

Despite the crowded bookshelves and prodigious publishing industry, gaps remain to be filled. “Science books come to my mind,” says Yi, of Chongqing University Press. “Natural science, for instance, is one subject that has the potential to grow big.” His team has launched an illustrated series on ecology and biology—with 30 volumes so far—to get young adults to love nature and protect the environment.

Zhang Yibing, of Guangxi Normal University Press, finds that China’s growing influence, especially in the global economy, will draw attention to its domestic initiatives and development. “Chinese academia and readers will want to understand the role that China plays and what is happening outside the country, and vice versa,” he says. “Such interest will promote more research and understanding and increase publication on wide-ranging subjects. We will also see more collaboration between Chinese publishers and partners from other parts of the world for copublishing and rights trading—and this will benefit the book industry as a whole.”

Fitting Digital Publishing into the Bigger Scheme

The shift to digital publishing has been relatively slow in China, where as much as 90% of internet browsing is done through smartphones, and social media marketing for books chalks up sales figures unheard of elsewhere. But all publishers in this report are busy cautiously figuring out the best digital way forward for their presses.

“Relying solely on print books in this era when people access content anytime and anywhere is both illogical and impractical,” says Wang, of East China Normal University Press. “Our publishing model has to adapt to, and anticipate, industry and consumer changes and demands. It has to incorporate and offer digital content. And, for us, this is not just about digitizing our list but to prepare a reader/learning ecosystem that covers content, assessment, additional research results, updated information, social media, Big Data, and analytics.”

Lu adds some historical context while explaining the digital efforts at Zhejiang University Press. “Early Chinese writing was on bones,” he says. “Then it went from bamboo to silk, and finally, paper. Readers and writers are used to paper, and they can live with paper if that is what they prefer. But, for a publisher, content should not live just on paper. It should go anywhere—to reach everybody—and not be bound by a specific format. The target is ultimately the reader, and so my focus is on what the reader really wants to read and learn. And digital publishing offers more choices and channels for us to reach those readers and fulfill their needs.”

With monographs and professional titles often purchased in bulk by libraries, budget allocation is a primary concern for academic publishers. But Zhang Wei, of Xi’an Jiaotong University Press, does not recall any recent reduction of library budgets. “Allocation for digital resources has in fact increased significantly, and this shift presents both a challenge and opportunity for our publishing program,” Zhang says.

In the shorter term, the digital shift will affect sales of print products to a certain extent, Zhang adds. “However, it forces our editorial mind-set to change, as well, prompting the development of new, or repurposed, products that meet emerging market needs,” he says. “With proper execution, a concerted effort to publish print and develop relevant digital content will greatly promote sales in different formats and platforms—and these are good for our press and the overall academic publishing industry.”

At the same time, more should be done for the authors in the digital realm, adds Yi, of Chongqing University Press. “Digital publishing platforms offering online resources to accompany academic books or teaching/learning materials should graduate to a business model that will benefit the author, especially in terms of sales revenue,” he says. “This will encourage the author to develop even more digital content or ancillaries that will keep the reader interested, which will then build and spread the influence of the publication and, by default, the author.”

Yi believes that university textbooks will be drastically transformed within the next two to three years. “Textbooks will be linked to online resources, analytics-backed assessments, and learning management systems,” he says. “The impact on print products—on breadth of coverage, content protection, print quantity, and sales, for instance—is something that we have to deal with very soon.”

Like many of his counterparts, Zhang Yibing, of Guangxi Normal University Press, views digital publishing as an integral development within his publishing program, blending the old format and the new to offer value-added products. “How we assimilate, take advantage of, and adopt digital publishing in different formats and to varying degrees will determine our success in the near future,” he says. “But the value being delivered to the reader should be the driving force. Ultimately, it is the product that sells, and so, instead of focusing on print or digital, our eyes should be on the content itself and the value it provides.”

Note: Exchange rate at time of printing is 100 CNY=$15.19.