Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
As I come to the end of a very busy and productive Beijing International Book Fair (BIBF), there have been many lessons to reflect on in what has been a fascinating week. As part of IPR License’s full launch in China, through our partnership with the Charlesworth Group, I had expected a challenge of stressing to publishers the opportunities of licensing out of China in addition to buying into the domestic market.
As it’s turned out, I would have been preaching to the converted, and my preconception was wrong. While we have seen for a long time strong business for international publishers licensing works to Chinese publishers, there is already a drive for more licensing out in the opposite direction. In fact, many Chinese publishers named it as one of their key current priorities.
Aided by a push by the Chinese government for increased exports, whether for physical products or in this case intellectual property, publishers are looking for new routes to have their works translated into different languages overseas. They are aware of the challenges in building up this part of their business but also of the untapped potential that exists.
When I have thought of our publishing businesses acquiring new work, I had not really considered buying from China, probably assuming, wrongly, that the books would be specific for the local market and culture. From seeing publishers’ catalogues and lists this week, I quickly became aware that we have been missing out.
Whether in adult fiction, children’s, biography, travel, education, science or health, there are many titles with real international appeal. The range has been much wider than I had been anticipating and if it wasn’t for the logistics of taking them home I would probably have bought an extra suitcase to fill with new books for personal reading.
So if the quality and international appeal is there, why is this market still untapped, why aren’t we talking about more books originally published in China? The success of one of the world’s top current writers, Haruki Murakami, from Japan helps illustrate that its neighbours have traditionally enjoyed greater success in exporting their best authors, so why not from this vast and unique country?
One is misconception or a little laziness in thinking from international companies. Such is the obsession with creating business in China, the inaccurate belief that vast quantities of easily available gold sit beyond the huge wall of privacy, we think too easily in terms of business in and not from China.
The second concern, and the first one with some foundation, is the matter of translation. It quickly becomes clear that the language here is so different from Western languages that you would imagine it more challenging and resource-consuming to arrange top-level translation that you would, say, from Spanish, French or German.
This is a concern very much shared by Chinese publishers and several have said to me they would need to arrange their own translations first as putting up a sample in Mandarin would instantly cut the work off from the majority of potential buyers. The larger publishers were generally prepared for this with a range of translated marketing information and excerpts for interested buyers. But for most smaller publishers the time and expense this involves makes it unfeasible.
However, the issue of translation comes too easily as an excuse for it to be acceptable and I believe for the more committed and imaginative there would be ways to deal with this concern. I am not sure whether translation grants are as available for Chinese works, but the availability of translators is certainly not in doubt, as anyone spending any time at BIBF would see. With how digitally connected the world now is, it is just a matter of thinking more imaginatively to uncover a wealth of potential translators available for international publishers.
And considering the quality of translation here further, there may well even be an opportunity for the Chinese publishers themselves to have their own translation services. There must be possibilities for joint-venture or co-operations with local translation services, maybe even giving them a cut of licensing revenues to reduce the burden of overhead costs, enabling pre-translated work, of appeal to international publishers and also giving further sale options for the Chinese companies.
So, in summary, it has been an excellent week – the concept of the online licensing platform has been fully embraced and there are exciting times ahead in China for IPR License. But that future won’t just involve more books licensed into the country. It is clear that there are a wealth of fantastic works, many produced with international markets in mind, just waiting for overseas publishers to successfully license and take them into the wider world.
Tom Chalmers is Managing Director of IPR License. Feel free to contact him and pass on any comments or questions at @Tom_Chalmers