Publishers Look to China for the Next Bestseller

When penguin paid $100,000 for the worldwide rights to the English translation of Jiang Rong's bestseller Wolf Totem in 2005, it set a record as China's most expensive overseas book deal. The tale of a Beijing student sent to work as a shepherd in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution went on to bag the first Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007. It has officially sold more than 2 million copies in China—and many more bootlegged ones—making it the country's second biggest seller after Mao Zedong's Little Red Book. Internationally, the novel is China's best performing translated fiction. But even worldwide sales "in the six figures," according to Penguin, are relatively modest compared with international bestsellers like Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, which has sold more than 10 million copies to date.

In recent years, China has increasingly flaunted its soft power, winning notice for its bold contemporary art and epic films featuring flying swordsmen. But when it comes to literature, the country is still struggling to make its mark. In 2008, 275,000 titles were published in China and 6.9 billion books printed, generating sales of €7.5 billion. But only a few dozen of those will likely ever be translated.

At the recent Frankfurt Book Fair, where China was invited as the guest of honor, the country set out to change that. More than 60 Chinese publishers set up stalls, and Beijing arranged for 100 books to be translated into English and German for the event. Foreign publishers reportedly snapped up the rights to about 1,300 books, ranging from historical epics to literary fiction. "Everybody is looking for The Kite Runner of China, the mass-market novel from an unusual country that really hits the big time," says Jo Lusby, general manager of Penguin China, "It doesn't mean that the books that are not The Kite Runner are failures. Wolf Totem has sold in more than 24 languages and has been a profitable proposition for us. It's just that the Chinese literature currently coming out is very literary—it's not mass market."

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Chinese literature developed in isolation, with its own traditions and narratives. Living in a communist bubble, writers had to toe the party line, embracing socialist realism and revolutionary romanticism. They didn't begin to experiment with style and form until foreign works began to appear in translation after the Cultural Revolution. In the past 10 years, some Chinese novels, often featuring stories about the dark corners of Chinese society—such as the sex-and-drug chronicles Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui and Mian Mian's Candy—have achieved international recognition, but by and large, contemporary Chinese literature remains unknown outside the country.

Part of the problem is that many Western readers, especially English speakers, are reluctant to buy works in translation, however good. It doesn't help that they are often written by unfamiliar authors. "It makes it hard to promote the book, give interviews, and get invited to book fairs," says Marysia Juszczakiewicz, head of Peony Literary Agency, which represents Su Tong's 2009 Man Asian prize winner Boat to Redemption, which will be published by Transworld UK in February. A few Chinese novels—including Mo Yan's Red Sorghum and Yu Hua's To Live—have benefited from being turned into films; Wolf Totem is now slated to be adapted by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Penguin recently announced plans to translate between five and eight books a year, starting with The Civil Servant's Notebook by Wang Xiaofang, one of China's most popular authors of political fiction (known in China as "officialdom writing"). Set in the inner circle of a crooked provincial government, Wang's novel depicts politics, corruption, and intrigue in a dirty race for mayor. Wang should know what he's writing about; he was the private secretary of Ma Xiaodong, the vice mayor of Shenyang who was executed for corruption in 2001.

Instead of trying to push such acquisitions in the West, Penguin is taking a new marketing tack: looking first to the Asia-Pacific region, in the hopes that the cultural divide will be narrower. "We're finding more books that we know we can sell [in English] in Asia, which the U.S. or European markets might not have an appetite for," says Lusby.

The British publisher is not the only one eyeing China more closely. France's Hachette Livre recently set up a joint venture with Phoenix Publishing and Media to publish Chinese books in French (and vice versa). And next summer the U.K.'s Constable & Robinson plans to publish Death of Ding Village by the controversial novelist Yan Lianke, who tackles the AIDS blood-contamination scandal in Henan province in the early 1990s. With other international publishers taking a closer look, perhaps 2010 will turn out to be China's year of the book after all.

Publishers Look to China for the Next Bestseller | Culture