The Bookworms of China - a promising story for publishing


BEIJING — The traditional publishing industry’s prospects may be bleak overall, but there is a promising story to be found in an unexpected place, in a country plagued by censorship and bureaucracy: China.
Last week at the Beijing International Book Fair, the largest gathering in the event’s 19-year history, the mood in the cavernous exhibition center was buoyant, despite the barren decor and a lack of good coffee. The Chinese publishing industry is in an “expansive mode” explained Seth Russo, the director of international sales at Simon & Schuster. It is now the world’s largest in terms of volume, with 7.7 billion books published in 2011, up by 7.5 percent from 2010.
Driving sales is a literate population that emphasizes education and self-improvement. Censorship has become less draconian since Mao’s time and publishing has become more commercial. As a result, readers of Chinese books today have more choice of genre, voice and subject matter than they have had at any time in the last 60 years.

During the Cultural Revolution, schools and universities were shut down and books were banned. Writers under Mao could be executed, imprisoned or ostracized for political incorrectness. (Sometimes they still are.) But such suffering became part of China’s creative legacy in the 70’s, thanks to “scar literature,” a popular genre that describes the horrors of the era.
In other words, if hardline Communism stalled Chinese literature, it did not stamp it out. “Unlike many developing countries, China has a long tradition of education and reading, culture and literature,” Jo Lusby, head of Penguin China, told me in Beijing this week. The Chinese consumer’s interest in books needed only to be revived, not created.

Mirroring a society more concerned with personal pleasure and personal woes than political movements, contemporary Chinese writing focuses on individual feelings. The racecar driver and bad-boy blogger Han Han is making millions off his novels, including his debut “Triple Door,” a scathing satire on school life, which sold over two million copies.
Genre fiction is exploding. In bookstores, crime stories and romantic fiction rub alongside wuxia, adventure stories of chivalrous martial heroes, and so-called “officialdom” fiction, tales of political intrigue that double as how-to guides for aspiring officials. (Mind you, the latter genre tends to tread carefully, often focusing on local stories of corruption rather than daring to incriminate party higher-ups.)
Popular nonfiction books include self-help tracts on how to get rich or find love. Publishers at the fair last week also described a growing children’s book market propelled by the one-child policy: Chinese parents are eager to pour their resources into their single offspring. And English-language books — from novels to learning aids — are in demand among those who want to improve their language skills.

Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency