The Year of the Rabbit started February 15, just as the first annual Taipei International Book Exhibition, enjoying record attendance, was closing. It was a good omen. Taiwan has weathered the last two disastrous years in Asia remarkably well, but as recently as this past winter, many still felt they might be "just the last domino to fall."

TIBE99, which this year became an annual event, confirmed that the fears were unjustified. Taiwan's publishing industry remains in robust health, and stands as an exemplar of the vast potential of the Chinese-language book market, both in terms of rights and in book sales.

Taiwan was a U.S.$1 billion book market in 1997 (1998 figures are not yet available), with 27,286 new titles. While some publishers complain that this is too many for such a small market, Taiwan readers spend $120 per capital per year on books. Ten percent of the titles, or nearly 3000, were translated from U.S. and U.K. publishers, and these took more than their share on the Taiwan bestseller lists.

It is not uncommon to sell 10,000 copies of a strong translated title now, up from 3000 just a few years ago, according to those who know, like Lily Chen, president of Big Apple Tuttle-Mori, one of the two major agencies in Taiwan. As a result, such sales are credited with pushing up advances.

"We paid the highest advance in our history for The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families last year," says Charles H.C. Kao, founder of Commonwealth Publishing Company. A major publisher strong in midlist titles on business and politics, with two influential monthly news magazines, Commonwealth's boss is also an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin. "Book publishing is more open and competitive in Taiwan now than anywhere else in Asia," Kao told PW. "That is why the publishers are flourishing. Books are inexpensive here and well-produced, too."

PW can attest to that on both counts. The print production has never been better and prices at TIBE99, where discounting was the norm, were often under $5 a book.

"The Chinese approach to books and to analysis allows us to introduce progressive ideas from the West," Kao explains. His list is heavily in translation, with authors such as Peter Singer, Michael E. Porter, Peter Drucker and George Soros, Charles Handy, John Nesbitt and Steven Covey.

While Kao tries to buy the whole opus of a foreign author whenever he can, that is becoming more difficult. Publishers in Taiwan are getting increasingly competitive and sophisticated about the books they buy from abroad. Linden Lin, editorial director of Linking Publishing, bought the new Soros book, The Crisis of Global Capitalism, at Frankfurt last fall and had sold 42,000 copies of his translation by last month.

While Taiwan publishers try to avoid bidding wars, the stakes are going up as they expand their markets. Using the traditional characters of the language, Taiwan editions sell well in Hong Kong, even though the Chinese spoken dialect there is different, and different from those in the Chinese communities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver and New York. World Book Company in San Francisco is the major distributor of these Taiwan editions.

Trade houses like Commonwealth and Linking depend mostly on bookstore sales and mail order, so the retail success of TIBE99 was particularly welcome, though In says it was of little help to him for buying rights from abroad. For that he must go to Frankfurt, New York and the annual BookExpo America to win out against the competition. And like many in Taiwan, the China market is much on his mind.

"We are buying business books of every kind," says Lin. "We are also working more closely with Beijing and Shanghai publishers." They have also had success with art titles. An ambitious new project is 3000 Years of Chinese Painting, co-published with China's Foreign Languages Press (with an $11 million grant from Yale University Press in 1997, it is the first of 75 volumes planned) that will sell for $1500. Lin printed what looks like an optimistic 5000 copies -- but another art title, The Story of Art, which he bought from Phaidon in 1997, sold 10,000 copies in six months at a list price of $750, and in March they printed 15,000 more.

Some seemingly "American" products do remarkably well in Taiwan. Richard Huang, CEO of Classic Communications, has sold 350,000 copies of his Scott Adams titles so far, leading with The Dilbert Principle at 150,000. Like most of the major players, he has both the Taiwan and Hong Kong markets. With just six million people, Hong Kong generally buys one book for every five bought in Taiwan.

Another American product that should have done well is IDG's Dummies series, but the first translation bombed. Now one of the country's most notable young publishers, Rex How, is relaunching it.

President of Taiwan's prestigious Commercial Press, founded a century ago in Shanghai, How also has his own affiliated imprint, Locus. His team there has made a totally new design: a book size especially suitable for the Taiwan market, a different logo, and a new Chinese translation of the word "dummies," which is sometimes a problem for the series abroad. "We call it the Genius Class series," says How. "There are two meanings of 'genius' in Chinese, one is literally a genius and the other is very much a 'dummy.' "

How's Locus list, just two years old, has broken publishing records already. With just 70 titles total, it won nine places on Eslite Bookstore's top 100 sellers in 1998. Two translations from Commercial Press made the list as well: Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh and Geography of Time by Robert Levine.

Another major rights buyer in Taiwan is the petite dynamo Joyce Yen at China Times. She is likely to become an even bigger player when China Times becomes the first Taiwan publisher to become a public company, next January. This means something quite different in Taiwan than in the U.S., where selling stock can just be a means of pulling in money when you don't otherwise have it. The Taiwan securities market is under a much tighter rein, according to Yen.

"We would not have been able to do this if we had not been making record-breaking profits for the past three years," Yen says. "We had to be the most assets-rich house in the country."

Now, China Times will have a sizable amount of outside capital and a superior position for rapid expansion beyond its core business of consumer publishing for Taiwan. Along with this, however, China Times will become the only "transparent" publisher in a country in which most houses are still very secretive about their annual sales volumes.

Yen is usually right on top of things. China Times made Don't Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson a bestseller in Taiwan before any other foreign market. It hit the charts in November 1997 and is still there. Even Yen is sometimes surprised by her successes.

"What was unexpected this year is the stellar performances of a string of up-market, high-brow titles, such as The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by Harvard's David Landes and Guns, Germs and Steel by UCLA molecular biologist Jared Diamond," says Yen.

While harboring some reservations about the Mainland market, because of the piracy problems that persist, Joyce Yen works with various partners there for many of her translations, but she is most proud of what she can do for a book in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

"Hong Kong is a core market of ours," she says. China times is doing biographies of major political figures in the People's Republic, which couldn't sell in China, and it had great success, of course, with East and West by the last British governor Chris Patten.

Among the fastest-growing young publishing houses is the Cité group, just two years old. Managing director S.P. Su now handles seven imprints and two overseas sales operations, in Malaysia (something rare among Taiwan publishers) and Hong Kong. Overseas sales accounted for 10% of the total last year for the group, which has had 50% growth over the last two years.

Owl, the reference book division, includes titles from DK, Cambridge and Larousse. With 95% of the list translations, for all ages, it is expanding out into literature, art and academic titles. Marco Polo Press, the imprint for travel books, is 100% translations. Like the rest of the Taiwan players, Su is now optimistic and looks to the U.S. for most of his translations.

However, some big international titles from the U.S. fail in Taiwan, most notably romances and murder mysteries. The blame g s to Taiwan's own. romance writer Chiung Yao, who is known throughout the Chinese-speaking world for her prolific list of books, all with TV and film spinoffs. Now in her sixties, Yao is still prolific, and Crown Culture Corporation is her sole publisher and media producer.

In translations, Crown chooses Milan Kundera (including his latest, Identity), Umberto Eco, Peter Mayle and Laura Esquivel. They are introducing Patrick Suskind and all of the works of Bill Bryson this year, according to rights director Emily Chuang.

The Problems of Negotiating Foreign Rights in Chinese
Japanese publishers are the number one source for foreign titles in Taiwan. They recorded 5540 deals in 1997, but half of them were for comics. According to Philip Chen at the Bardon Chinese Media Agency, though, Japan represents a third of the rights business now, and sales are increasing, especially in fashion and computer games titles.
The very bestselling translated author in Taiwan is the Japanese novelist Murakami Haruki. China Times has all of his books, five of which were among the 10 to China Times' credit on the Eslite Bookstore's top 100 sellers. "He is practically an industry here in Taiwan," says rights director Joyce Yen. "I think he is more popular here than in Japan."

Why is there not more cooperation between China and Taiwan? Big Apple, Bardon and now Andrew Cribb, the former U.S. arm of Bardon, who now runs Arts & Licensing International from his Brooklyn, N.Y. base, have tried for years to bridge the gap and sell rights into both markets. Politically, however, it remains difficult.

The lack of players from the PRC at TIBE99 was a typical gesture of official ill will. Having only a biennial international fair of its own, Beijing announced that Taiwan could not have an international fair, since it is not a "nation" but only a small island that is part of China. Visas were not issued to the publishers of China, so they could not attend, even though rights agreements with Taiwan partners form the largest segment of the industry.

Business flourishes in spite of official politics, however. The traditional Chinese characters used in Taiwan are readily converted by computer to the simplified characters used in the PRC, often with just light editing. So publishers on both sides are happy to share the translation costs, usually in more economical China, for a foreign work.

Many Taiwan publishers have fruitful relationships with their counterparts in China. While rights deals in China still tend to earn far less money for U.S. publishers than those in Taiwan, the tendency now is to make two contracts, one for each set of characters, then work together on translations.

Big Apple in Taiwan even has a formal relationship now with the Beijing International Copyright Agency. But many houses in China, all still Government owned and operated, do not like working through Taiwan agents. They prefer working directly with their overseas counterparts. Because of the complications of language and finance in China, their most successful efforts to date have been with Taiwan.

A new rights fair in Shanghai was launched last month to encourage better direct trade between Chinese publishers and their foreign counterparts. The 1999 Shanghai Book Copyright Exchange Salon may indeed help increase the demand. But until China is a richer book market, most of the world's publishers will prefer to leave details in the hands of their agents, subagents or publishing partners in Taiwan.

Seeing the need for better communications, more players are entering the field. Two Chinese-born women in the San Francisco Bay Area have focused on bringing U.S. publishers together with their Chinese counterparts: Leying Jiang at Gateway International Publishing and Ning Tao at Tao Media International.

Evelyn Lee of Amer-Asia Books in Tucson, Ariz., started teaching English in China more than a decade ago, after a career in publishing. In the last five years she has developed a service helping Chinese publishers find the rights holders and buy the rights for books they want. TIBE99 was her first, and the three main things that impressed her were the efficiency and maturity of the publishers, and the number of players.

"The Taiwan publishers move fast and pay quickly. They pay by credit card, certainly a change from dealing with the PRC and the complications of getting money out of the country." She is also impressed that Taiwan publishers know what books they want.

In the PRC, says Lee, publishers still have more trouble working abroad. "Western publishers still are not clear about them, and often the language or cultural business practices prohibit successful deals. Ad then there is the negative politics in the news."

Some people think China is a long way from being a major market for translated books, and some would disagree, but everyone concurs that China requires patience. Joanne Wang, until recently international sales director for Watson-Guptill, managed to win 80 contracts for her company in China in one year. She recently decided to go on her own, focusing exclusively on the Chinese-language rights business and she spoke at this year's BEA on the subject.

Here is her advice: "First have faith in the Chinese language markets," she says, meaning the best is yet to come. "Second, be flexible.'' She finds that the books that are selling into China are practical books, how-to books, such as computer books, architecture, interior design and instructional books-as well as biographies of successful politicians and historical figures.

Not many publishers like giving reprint rights, but in China, with prices still so low and distribution still so difficult, that may be the only way.

The Children's Book Market in Taiwan