Rights market in China

Gray Tan of Grayhawk Agency in Taipei, Taiwan

Gray Tan of Grayhawk Agency in Taipei, Taiwan, is the most successful literary agent in Asia, if not the whole world.

The renowned Frankfurt Book Fair is on again, from October 10 to 14. Although this year’s Guest of Honor is New Zealand, much attention is still paid to the Chinese market, particularly by the annual International Rights Directors Meeting, which focused on the sales of foreign rights to that country.According to Publishing Perspectives, Chinese publishers acquired rights to 15,592 foreign titles in 2011, up from just 1,664 in 1995. The general notion within the industry is that China is an extremely challenging market, yet very rewarding. Currently there are 580 state-owned publishers in China, with 70% of them based in Beijing and Shanghai. Even though one must invest a considerable amount of time and effort to break into that market, the rewards can still be astonishing if you take into consideration the huge population there that desires fresh, diverse and quality content.

Meanwhile, Gray Tan, owner of the famously successful Grayhawk Agency based in Taipei, Taiwan, urges foreign authors, publishers and agents to try the Taiwanese market first. Think of the Traditional Chinese market in Taiwan and the Simplified Chinese market in China as UK and US, Tan suggested. Both UK and US use English, but there are slight spelling differences. Similarly, while Taiwan and China have the same Chinese characters, those used in Taiwan are more complicated in structure than those used in China, that is all.

So the Taiwanese market offers ample opportunities for foreign authors, publishers and agents who want a trial run in Greater China. In Tan’s words, Taiwan is an “important reference point for Mainland Chinese publishers” because once a book is published in Taiwan, Chinese publishers can easily read it and consider purchasing the rights. More importantly, “Taiwanese publishers buy a lot of rights and are strongly influenced by international trends”, while China “has its own rules” and does not necessarily support those titles that are popular in the West.

Another reason why foreign authors, publishers and agents may prefer trying the Taiwanese market first is that they do not have to deal with censorship. According to Paid Content, Chinese publishers often delete those content that are deemed controversial or politically sensitive, which may upset or offend foreign authors. Pricing can also be an issue, as Chinese publishers often want to cut a lengthy book in half in order to sell at a cheaper price. At other times, a book may be divided into two volumes so that the Chinese publisher can sell more copies.

As for China’s booming ebook market, reading on mobile phone has become the most popular reading method in recent years. China has over one billion cell phone users and 300 million smartphone users as of March 2012. China Mobile, one of the two major telecom providers in China, is that country’s largest ebook platform.

Tan observed that foreign authors, publishers and agents may feel reluctant to sell rights to China Mobile because the company “takes a huge cut of sales — at least 50 percent and sometimes as much as 70 percent — and sells the ebooks at a 90-percent discount from the print price”. While these terms may sound bad, Tan suggested the results can still be significant because of China Mobile’s large user base. If a book becomes a bestseller on that platform, “we might be talking about six-figure U.S. revenue”. The conclusion is that if you want to work with China, you may want to dramatically modify your ebook clause to suit their needs.

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