To sell books to China, foreign publishers may have to play by its rules

“Times are hard,” Diane Spivey, rights and contracts director at Hachette’s Little, Brown in the UK, acknowledged in her introduction at Tuesday afternoon’s 26th annual International Rights Directors Meeting at the Frankfurt Book Fair. “To continue to grow, or even hold our own, as publishers, we are having to work harder and go farther to get the income.” Yet the changing world of foreign rights — selling books to publishers in other countries — also offers new opportunities for publishers who are willing to seek them out.

One country that can be particularly challenging, but also particularly rewarding, is China — the largest publishing industry in the world, and the focus of this year’s meeting. “This market more than pays off the time and effort if you are willing to invest in it,” said Lynnette Owen, copyright director at Pearson Education in the UK.

Wuping Zhao, VP of Shanghai Translation Publishing House, outlined the lucrative opportunities for foreign publishers who want to sell translated titles in China. There are 580 state-owned publishers in China, he said, with 70 percent of those based in Beijing and Shanghai. Rights acquired from foreign countries have increased greatly: Chinese publishers acquired rights to 15,592 foreign titles in 2011, up from just 1,664 in 1995. The increase is thanks to the market opening up slightly, as China’s General Administration of Press and Publishing no longer controls the publishing of translated titles directly. Today most publishers have translated titles on their lists, Zhao said.

Gray Tan, owner of the Grayhawk Agency in Taipei, discussed the differences between China’s two language markets — the traditional character/complex language market, which encompasses Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao, and the simplified language market of mainland China. While foreign publishers often think of selling foreign rights to mainland China, they need to consider Taiwan as well, Gray said: “Taiwanese publishers buy a lot of rights and are strongly influenced by international trends,” whereas mainland China, like Japan, “has its own rules” and books that sell well there are not necessarily the same as those that sell well in the West. That’s why Tan recommends publishers sell foreign rights to Taiwan first: It’s an “important reference point for mainland Chinese publishers,” as once a book is published in Taiwan, any publisher in mainland China can read it easily and may want to buy the rights.

When it comes to ebooks, think mobile phones

Foreign publishers may confront specific problems when they publish their titles in China as ebooks. Chinese publishers usually sell ebooks for 35 percent less than the print price, which some publishers have a problem with. Amazon (s AMZN) Kindle is still not operating in China, so the only sites selling ebooks are Dangdang and 360buy.

Tan offered brief overview of China’s mobile ebook market, which can often seem confusing to foreign publishers — but it’s worth understanding because China has over one billion cell phone users and 300 million smartphone users as of March 2012. China Mobile, one of two major telecom providers in China, is the country’s largest ebook platform. Publishers may be reluctant to sell foreign rights to China Mobile, as it takes a huge cut of sales — at least 50 percent and sometimes as much as 70 percent — and sells the ebooks at a 90 percent discount from the print price. “These terms sound really bad,” Tan said, but China Mobile has such a large user base that if a book becomes a bestseller on the platform, “we might be talking about six-figure U.S. revenue.” And, he suggested, “if your ebook clause says you can’t sell an ebook with a price under 50 percent of the print edition — you might want to modify that clause” in order to work with China Mobile.

Get ready to get “modified”

While many Chinese publishers are still reluctant to buy foreign rights, Zhao said — preferring, for example, to translate public domain titles — some books are so popular that Chinese publishers rush to bid for them. One good example is E.L. James’ blockbuster 50 Shades of Grey. A Chinese publisher bought the rights before realizing how much of its graphic content would need to be deleted in accordance with Chinese censors. As a result, the book has not been published in China yet, and it’s unclear when that will happen.

Chinese publishers often delete content they deem controversial, which can pose hurdles for publishers of the original works. Owen said that publishers should tell the Chinese publishers they are working with about any such content in advance, but the problem is that in some cases it’s impossible to predict. Pricing can also be an issue: Sometimes a Chinese publisher wants to sell a book for half the price as the original, and so they suggest cutting the book’s length in half. “We ourselves tend to produce shorter versions of our textbooks,” Owen said, and “steer” publishers to those versions.

“Modification sometimes happens,” admitted Xie Na, director of the international department at China’s Peking University Press. She suggests that publishers talk to their authors, who may be “upset or offended.” Sometimes a Chinese publisher simply wants to divide one book into two volumes, in order to sell more, and “maybe the author will have no problem with that.” When it comes to editorial changes, though — changing or deleting “some sensitive part” — “it is the fact. If we don’t change, maybe you cannot publish [the book with us].”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock / Chiyacat