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.
International publishers looking to enter China have reason to be enthusiastic. Last year 48 titles sold over one million copies each. Among bestsellers for 2011 were a collection of speeches by former Prime Minister Zhu Rongji — it topped the list — and a modern sequel by Liu Xinwu to the 18th century “Dream of the Red Chamber,” one of China’s so-called four great classical novels.
But the success stories aren’t limited to Chinese books. “Steve Jobs,” Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple’s founder, sold more than 50,000 hardcopies here — in English. Last year’s bestsellers also included Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
This evolution in China’s publishing industry reflects the general liberalization of the country’s economy. When the raison d’être of Chinese books was moral worthiness (and propaganda), state publishers had little impetus to produce books that responded to market demand. Today, though these turgid giants still monopolize distribution, innovative private publishers are forcing them to up their game or miss out.
There are challenges, of course. As in the West, online retailers are squeezing independent bookstores and digitization is hurting sales of printed books; more distinctively local is the problem of piracy. And while international publishing houses are eager to enter this market, local writers and publishers complain that because of red tape the number of books published in China is still well below par for a country this size.
There is also censorship and political pressure. No guidebook of forbidden topics, no glossary of forbidden words, exists. And if some taboos are predictable (“1989”), others are random or absurd. Forced to go by instinct — and so risk overstepping the mark — writers, publishers and booksellers routinely self-censor. (Thus the most daring Chinese writing is to be found online, where censors have less reach. Readers are flocking to literature sites such as Rongshuxia.com and Qidian.com; in 2011, those attracted over 100 million visitors every month.)
At one point during the Beijing book fair last week, some exhibitors were locked out of the center on a concrete car park for over an hour. No explanation was given, but it later emerged that a Communist Party official was being given a tour. Even over this burgeoning industry, the hand of the Chinese state still hovers menacingly.