On Bookselling in China - A Postcard from Beijing

Johanna Vondeling Posted by Johanna Vondeling, President and Publisher, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Johanna Vondeling, Berrett-Koehler's President and Publisher, joined the company in 2004.  Previously, she served as BK's Vice President for International Sales and Business Development.


In my role as Berrett-Koehler's VP for International Sales and Business Development, I recently attended the 20th Annual Beijing International Book Fair, wher....

In my role as Berrett-Koehler's VP for International Sales and Business Development, I recently attended the 20th Annual Beijing International Book Fair, where I met with BK partners and local publishers. Here’s a report on what I learned about the book and e-book markets in the world’s most populous country.

The Fair

More than 2,260 publishers from 76 countries attended the Fair this year. The annual event was previously held in downtown Beijing, but three years ago it moved to a newly-constructed facility on the outskirts of the city—necessitating a lengthy and unpopular bus ride for local publishers and attendees alike. Unsurprisingly, Chinese publishers dominated. The few Western publishers who had large exhibits were those who have strong academic and/or technical publishing programs, such as McGraw-Hill, Sage, Elsevier, The University of Chicago Press, and Cambridge University Press.

What’s Selling in China

When the book market first opened up to titles published by non-Chinese houses, the most popular subjects were scientific and technical works and business and management titles. The market has evolved, and the Chinese now prefer business and management books by local business experts, who have a better sense of how day-to-day business works in China. Readers still look outside China—and to Americans in particularfor “big idea” books and “new ideas about society” books, like BK’s “The Business Solution to Poverty.” Overall, sales of business books are on the decline; they’re still 30% of the overall market, but they are down 26% over the past year. Leadership and management are still holding strong as general categories, and finance remains a healthy category. Increasingly popular subjects include: parenting, self-help, effective speaking and communication, health, personal psychology, family, and anything about China itself. Definitely not-hot subjects include sustainability and books directed at older generations. US humor does not travel well to China.

Government Involvement in Publishing

Most publishers in China—including all of the largest publishers--are owned by the state. The few “independent” publishers primarily focus on publishing local authors. Last year, the Chinese government passed new legislation that limits the number of foreign titles that any publisher can release (publishers can “buy” no more than one foreign title for each local title they publish); the intent here is to protect and grow the Chinese publishing industry. As a result, local publishers are buying fewer rights to foreign titles overall, and average advances have dropped from $1,000 to $500 or less per title.

BK’s Chinese Rights Agents

Our stellar agents in China, Andrew Nurnberg Associates, graciously made room for me in their booth at the Fair, which had six tables with staff in non-stop meetings with publishers throughout the day. ANA in China have 10 people on staff, six of whom are devoted exclusively to sales. Rights agents like ANA are operating in a challenging environment, largely due to new government regulations described above. Savvy agents are compensating for this shortfall by aggressively pursuing contract renewals, which the government doesn’t count as new titles. New editions also don’t count as new titles.

ANA arranged for me to meet with 10 publishers, and I pitched our recent releases and Winter, 2014 books to them. That was fun and revealing. (Thankfully for me, most spoke at least fair English or came in pairs with a translator.) Especially hot titles included “Quiet Influence,” “How to Change Minds,” “It’s the Way You Say It,” and the forthcoming “Peer to Peer Leadership.”

E-Books in China

E-books are just starting to take off in China. I heard estimates that they’re at 3-5% of the market. The biggest e-book players at present are Dangdang, Jingdong, and Amazon—reports vary on who has the largest share of the market. The market is rather cutthroat at the moment, as platforms joust with each other for market share. US prices for English-language e-books are far too expensive for the average Chinese reader, and some publishers drop their prices in China by significant amounts, while e-commerce platforms themselves sometimes sell below cost in an effort to outbid their competition. Many publishers remain concerned about piracy of e-books in China. Some publishers who “price to market” in China customize their e-books for the Chinese market, in an effort to limit the damage created when pirates leak their low-cost e-books outside the country.

English-language Print Sales in China

Despite the best efforts of our English-language print-book distributors in China—McGraw-Hill Asia BK’s English-language sales in China have always been a tough sell, both because of the limited (if growing) number of English-language speakers and because the prices of our imported print editions are out of reach for most Chinese readers. A representative from one e-commerce platform showed me statistics that indicated there are 10 million English-language speakers in China, and 300 million English-language learners. This might sound like big numbers to a Westerner, but in the grand scheme of China, that’s a drop in the bucket. As with e-books, the largest market potential with English-language titles in China likely lies with lower-priced local editionsalso customized, to limit piracy and export to other territories.

Personal Observations

I’d never visited China before and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I found that, while the air Beijing is indeed heavily polluted, everyone I encountered was gracious and kind—the Chinese really know how to set out a welcome mat. The Forbidden City is truly spectacular, and the food is divine. I look forward to returning.