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China's booming book market

4 September 2006

The Beijing International Book Fair, running from 30 August to 2 September, has provided a fascinating window on a booming book market. China is the largest publisher of books, magazines and newspapers in the world. Its book trade is at last opening up to foreign publishers, presenting significant opportunities which mirror those available in other industries. This vast market is of particular interest to international publishers because of the thirst to learn and read in English, and to adopt Western culture and patterns of consumption.

Last year China exported 8 million books worth £20 million but imported 14 million books at a cost of $150 million. But this is only the beginning as far as the potential of this huge market is concerned.

The Fair has attracted 639 international publishers. This year there were more than 1200 overseas exhibitors compared with 1,000 in 2005. Visitor figures to this increasingly internationally-focused rights fair were 150,000.

Publishing in China is still quite difficult and foreign publishers are looking for creative alternatives to low earning reprint licences as a means of selling into the country. Foreign publishers are not allowed to operate directly in this market. Book prices are set by the government on the basis of the number of pages, with no consideration for format, market or number of copies likely to be sold. This means that a highly illustrated 500-page large format title would be expected to retail at the same price as a popular novel of the same page extent, and ignores the very different production costs involved. Publishers are required to pay market rates for materials and expected to make a profit, but obviously this is difficult when they have no control of pricing.

International publishers are extremely keen to get into the market and to get a share of the fruits of China's booming economy. Reversing this round, HarperCollins has just launched an initiative to take Chinese authors to an international audience and in October the publisher will launch a free online English/Chinese dictionary at

Penguin has joined forces with Chongqing Publishing Group to launch Penguin Classics in Mandarin. The first ten classics of Western literature will be launched in November. John Makinson, Penguin Group CEO, said that: 'In the same way that Allen Lane did 60 years ago (in England), we are bringing great literature to the Chinese market at an affordable price.'

Authors everywhere can rejoice that the vast Chinese market is at last opening up to foreign writers. The booming demand for English, coupled with rapidly increasing consumer purchasing power, will bolster the sales of English-language books in this huge market.