As if we needed more proof that globalization is for real, I recently learned that late last year, quietly and without fanfare, the Florida-based self-help publisher HCI made a deal with a Chinese publisher to release up to 164 versions of its Chicken Soup for the Fill-in-the-Blank Soul in China.
The books, which will be chosen from the 100-plus titles now published in dozens of countries and languages, will be available in Chinese, in English and, for some editions, in a combination of the two.
While officials for HCI and for Anhui Publishing Group declined to disclose the financial terms, both suggested it may be the largest U.S.-Chinese book-licensing deal so far made with the “new” China. (Anhui has similar deals with other American publishers, such as Penguin, for example, but they’re not this big and they are usually for children’s books.) And as Tom Sand, HCI senior v-p/publishing, pointed out, its success is dependent on volume. At a cover price that’s the equivalent of $2.50 or $3—and with a traditional escalating royalty agreement based on that relatively low price—HCI and Anhui will have to sell a lot of books to see profits. But clearly, they believe there’s a market for their madness: this deal came about because Anhui had already “proved itself” to HCI by selling hundreds of thousands of copies of the Chicken Soup books in English in China over the past five years.
The principals—HCI execs and the Palm Beach, Fla.—based Anhui representative, Mahya Zhang—are obviously optimistic, and for HCI at least, a good showing in China might be the best way to capitalize on a franchise that has begun to tap out here: over the years, in the U.S. HCI has sold over 84 million copies of its millions of Chicken Soup books, but the titles no longer routinely top the bestseller lists. So what better way to grow a brand than to ship it to Asia? Still, though, there is some risk: the very touchy-feely Westernness of these books may be an odd fit for a culture based on thousands of years of sophisticated art and literature. Do millions of Chinese really care about, say, Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul?
But then, Chinese bookstores are loaded with anthologies of aphorisms and fables, which is what these schmaltzy tales of love, loss, conflict and redemption often are. Add to that the appeal of their very Westernness. “I think the Chicken Soup stories are true portrayals of American life,” Sand said, pointing out that thanks to the new openness—not to mention TV—the Chinese are extremely interested in all things American. (“So, your life is just like Sex and the City?” a Chinese journalist asked me on first meeting in Beijing last year.) Besides, the prose in these books is famously simple, and you can see how the bilingual versions could serve as a kind of language-learning aid. Even if there are likely to be some translation issues, Zhang is adamant about one thing: the titles won’t change.
“In China, chicken soup is a staple of the health culture,” she said. “Just like in the U.S.”
So you can forget about a book called Won Ton Soup for the Chinese Food Lover’s Soul.
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