The Promise of China’s Publishing Industry
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.