In 2005, when Penguin opened their first China office, there were no other foreign trade publishers in the country. Books had never been branded, good literary translators were scarce, and the government maintained a tight control on the publishing industry. This was unfamiliar territory for a Western publisher, and those seeking to get a foothold would need a careful and unconventional approach.
Jo Lusby was Penguin’s appointed scout, employed initially for a scoping mission and later to run the Penguin China office. Lusby’s first move was to publish the Chinese bestseller, Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong in English, a book that went on to win the Man Asia Literary Prize and earn Penguin China a reputation both within China and internationally.
Since then, Lusby has made Penguin China an integral part of China’s publishing industry, building the relationships and making the investments necessary to make joint-publishing with China viable. While last week’s post looked at the globalisation of Chinese literature, this week’s looks at the globalisation of its publishing industry, in an interview with a pioneer.
Christen Cornell: When did the Penguin set up the China office, and what was your mission statement at the time?
Jo Lusby: I started working in Beijing March 2005 but the office was formerly established in August. It was actually a nice situation in that they didn’t have a strategy in place when I was hired. The job was to set up something in China, a legal company that could just look at what we could be doing in the area. It was definitely the best way to do it because I think any strategy written about of London would have probably failed.
CC: And were there any other international publishers in China at the time?
JL: We were the first of the trade publishers. Harper and Random set up the year after us, and Hachette set up last year. So we were just one year ahead of them. The educational publishers were all here and established already, and very big, so the job really overall was to see in what ways could we be using and developing the Penguin brand in China. That was my overall job. And very quickly we realised we would be doing three things.
We would be buying books from China: and that was the first piece of work I did was to buy a book, was to buy Wolf Totem. We didn’t know at the time that this was actually such a closely held government priority. It’s a big concern of the Central Government now, getting stuff out of China, but that hadn’t really taken off when we started. Translating a Chinese title was much more a gestural move of courtesy on our part, to show we’re not only here to publish our own books, but also to take on new and interesting Chinese books as well. It was the same model that had been used to set up the Penguin India office.
CC: I’ve always wondered if Penguin had used the same model in India.
JL: Yes we had. In India what happened was the original head of the company signed up – I think it was something like six authors, one of whom was Vikram Seth – and essentially ended up launching Indian literature in the English language for Western markets. This was very much a model that had worked for Penguin in the past.
So my three objectives were to: buy some books that we could take out into English; look at ways of developing our English language book imports into China; and look at Chinese language publishing partnerships.
CC: Has the balance of importance between those three objectives changed over time?
JL: In terms of importance, no. They are all equally important to us I would say. I think in revenue terms we earn more money from our English language imports. In the long term we expect to earn more money from Chinese language publishing.
The third area, taking Chinese literature into English, is extremely high profile; it does take up a lot of our time and it does generate quite a lot of income for us. It’s much easier to talk about, and is much quicker in terms of getting it turned around. But in terms of the mix of what we do, the primary gain is the books we are doing in China, in Chinese and English. So that’s selling our big important books from around the world into China in the two different languages: English and Chinese. The translation work, although it is still very important to us, we definitely need time to grow.
CC: And I guess in order to do that translation work you have to invest a lot of resources. You have to build up a network of translators, which is what you’ve been doing through the Chinese English Literary Translation Course.
JL: Right, exactly. The translation workshop exists for a few reasons.
It was partly a government relations exercise, in fact its origins were with this. We were under a lot of pressure from the Chinese government to take books out of Chinese into English, and to pull our weight on that front. However they were not very nuanced in how they approached the subject, particularly in the first year or two of the project, so it was a bit of a blunt instrument for a while. They were just pushing us to take more and more books into English.
Our line was that we didn’t offer vanity publishing services for the Chinese government. We would only take books that we believed were commercially viable, for two reasons: one was that we were a business and we need to make money; and two being that there’s actually no point in taking books that don’t work commercially because in the end all it would do is damage the reputation of Chinese writing. Some of this stuff is unreadable, and it represents a very different kind of writing that’s going on.
So we were very firm, and I think almost alone among foreign publishers; but we were very firm in not taking books that we didn’t believe were commercial for the sake of government relations. What we then started doing was looking at ways that we could do our part and contribute to this for the development of Chinese fiction outside of China, while sticking to our own moral line.
In the course of this conversation with ourselves we met a woman called Kate Griffin from the Arts Council of England who was very keen to support literary translators working into English. She had a project and some funding to support publication in the UK of Chinese works into English. And so she already knew very well the British Centre for Literary Translation, and their translation course at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich. She talked to us about how that works and we realised that this is the perfect model for China.
Apart from it being a government relations exercise the other thing that we became aware of through buying Wolf Totem was that … Well, we used Howard Goldblatt to translate that book, and he is of course the preeminent translator of contemporary Chinese literature into English, but there is only one of him. And I was very conscious of my colleagues in America who were extremely nervous about using translators that didn’t have prominence, didn’t have a proven published background. So we became aware that there was an extremely small and shallow pool of translators that we were trying to recruit from. And in order to do anything, and for the sake of the long-term viability of Chinese translation, what was really needed was investment in the early stage development of translation skills. So we just became very proud to do it, and it became something we were extremely happy to support.
CC: This is straying from the traditional job of the publisher, isn’t it?
JL: It is and it isn’t. The traditional role of the publisher is ultimately to find the people to be able to do what you want to do, and China’s a non-traditional market. As I say, it was partly for PR reasons, and you can’t underestimate the amount of government good will we got out of this, because ultimately they now see us as a supportive player. It cost us a bit of time, but it didn’t cost us very much money.
Penguin actually held the same course in Abu Dhabi recently, in Arabic. We have a new Penguin office in Abu Dhabi for Arabia, and again we decided this was a good approach. It’s a good way for us to get to know people, get to work within literature, a good way to get to know authors. In a way it’s a non-traditional thing for a publisher to do but in a way it’s entirely in our skill set.
And now, partly as a result of the translation course, we are able to publish our own list of between five and eight books a year – books in English, from and about China. Most of these books are Chinese literature in translation, and small numbers are books about China written in English. Participants from the translation course have been signed up to translate two of them so far [The Civil Servant's Notebook by Wang Xiaofang, which will be translated by Eric Abrahamsen, and Blood Crimes by He Jiahong]. So this really is also putting us in the forefront of the minds of the writers and the translators. It actually gives us extremely good access to future works, and the translators of those works.
CC: Do you find you have much competition when you’re trying to buy translation rights from China or are you usually at the head of the queue?
JL: Typically I find most of the books that we end up buying are un-agented, mainly because China is not a traditionally agented market. So typically I think if the book is agented we’re not necessarily at the front of the queue. But I’d say if the author manages the rights themselves then we’re very much at the front of the queue.
CC: And are you personally still looking for the books? I know you were the one who found Wolf Totem but do you still scout for the books?
JL: Yes I do. We’re working on five or six books at the moment all of which I bought for the company. I still look very aggressively. I’ve got a whole stack of [laughs] … a pile of four books that I stupidly asked for last week that I’m interested in doing for the classics. I’ve got a nice, really cool idea that I’d quite like to do something on, but now I’ve got a whole load of big hefty old things to try to get through.
CC: Do you already do Chinese classics into English?
JL: We do. We have a lot. But since we started the guys in classics in London asked us, if there was one classic that we haven’t done from China what should we do? And I said Lu Xun. They had already been thinking about Lu Xun but didn’t really know whether or not it was an absolute ‘must do or else’ situation, and then they got Julia Lovell to do it. It’s taking quite a long while to get the translation in because it’s such a big work.
CC: I’d like to talk a bit about reading habits in China, which I guess come from purchasing habits. What are the genres that are the bestsellers in China? Are they the same as in Western markets?
JL: They’re similar. But there’s a big difference between the Chinese language and foreign language markets here. I would say in the Chinese language market you see a lot of the typical publishing of developing nations: a lot of books that allow you to become a better person, a richer person, a more successful person. Those books tend to do extremely well. We do very very well with business books in Chinese. Chinese literature is a bigger market however than foreign literature in translation.
But the big shift recently has been in book prices and formats. People are now willing to pay more for a good book if you like, for a hardback book. Typically in the West, a book will come out in hardback and then a year later in paperback, but in China it’s the other way round. It comes out in paperback and then if it does well, it comes out in hardback in a high-end edition. And that’s a very new thing.
CC: Do you think that the growth of the middle class in China will mean a growth in the number of readers, and so a growth in the publishing market?
JL: Yes and no. Actually book reading has been a very established part of Chinese culture and tradition for a very, very long time. It’s more that books are only recently being promoted as a lifestyle choice. That ‘reading this book says this about me.’ That’s a very new thing.
Books just haven’t been branded in China. But with a lot of the branding exercises we do around the Black Classics we’re beginning to see these types of things happen now with Chinese readers. In the past, book publishing was just a state enterprise of the state department, and they look like, to be honest, books that were published by the state: with no pictures on the jacket, no strong branding of one publishing house or another publishing house, no strong author branding particularly. You would never see a bus stop ad’ for a book or an author for example. They are not branded as consumer objects. But that’s just beginning to happen now.
So I mean the way books are being published is changing, I think. Actually, the number of books being published, if anything, is falling, but the books are being sold for more money, and the actual finances of book publishing are definitely growing. So you can earn more money from publishing now than you could before, but I think the actual number of books being published is going down.
It’s partly about having nice formats, good print values, production values, being brave to price your product slightly higher than the market, not being afraid to be criticised on price. It’s easy to make the race to the bottom on price but all you end up doing is making less money.
CC: Just lastly, do you feel that there’s more of a hunger in China for knowledge about the West than vice versa? Based on book sales and translations.
JL: I don’t think it’s as easy to summarise it as that. I just think it’s … I think the English language is a very dominant language and I think other languages tend to look to the English language, much more than the English language looks to others. French publishing sees far more books published from English into French than French into English. So I think it’s the tyranny of the English language more than anything else, more than being specifically China.