Penguin spreads its wings in China

Jo Lusby
Opinion - Publishing Tuesday, 19th October 2010

Jo Lusby reports on Penguin's first five years in China Amanda : China must be very interesting? Elyot : Very big, China. Amanda : And Japan? Elyot : Very small. In the 80 years since Noel Coward wrote his play Private Lives , China is still mostly described in terms of its huge size. When Penguin arrived in China in 2005, certainly the scale of the market was a significant part of its appeal: China was not only the world's most populous nation, it was also highly literate, mobile and online. As we celebrate our fifth anniversary, this is clearly still the case. But size alone was not sufficient reason for us to set up business in a non-English speaking market. A highly restricted environment, it had rules preventing our publishing of books in Chinese and distributing books in English. Yet, as we mark our fifth anniversary here, we feel there is much to celebrate - and many reasons for optimism and growth into the next five years.

A few things took us by surprise when we started work in 2005. The first was the strength of awareness of the bird brand that preceded our arrival. Following the obligatory exchange of business cards at the start of meetings, local partners and customers would sit and absent-mindedly stroke the orange logo as we talked. With surprising frequency, Chinese bibliophiles would talk about our return to China, reminiscing about the time post-1949 when imports were barred and foreign books with the iconic Penguin jackets were quietly passed from friend to friend. A first edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover was brought to the launch of the Classics in Chinese by a proud booklover.
When we began to talk to author Jiang Rong about acquiring the foreign language rights to his bestselling novel Wolf Totem, he admitted that the moment he heard our name the book was ours, having smuggled a case of Penguin classics to Inner Mongolia in the 1970s. His novel went on to be sold in 26 languages and win the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize.
The second thing we had not expected to find was the space available for us to operate in. Granted, we were not given ISBNs or the right to distribute, but around the edges of those restrictions lay plenty of opportunity. We were welcome - indeed, actively encouraged - to work with Chinese partners to publish and sell our books to readers in China, bringing the best practices of creative business to this changing market.
The strength of the Penguin brand and an appetite for new publishing approaches therefore informed our work from day one. Over the intervening five years, we have concentrated on building knowledge of Penguin in a nation of new readers by placing the brand in the hands of readers both of English and Chinese. We spent more time listening than talking in order to understand what people wanted to read, and how they wanted to read it.
We discovered that, while there are excellent publishers of the Classics in China, there was no one consumer brand that resonated strongly in readers' minds. In 2007, we launched the iconic black Classics in Chinese, a project that we subsequently extended to Korea and Brazil, and will see 10 more titles published in early 2011 in partnership with 99 Readers.
We found a significant readership of young parents, keen to give the very best start to their (only) child, and placed our range of children's publishing, both in Chinese and English, at the heart of what we do.
We broadened sales of our English titles, not only targeting expats and international tourists, but also Chinese readers of English who were keen to buy nicely bound imported titles with appealing jackets and written in the author's original words. We created a community for these readers, now a 5,000-strong group called the Penguin Feathers. They meet online, posting and tweeting about the advance copies of new Penguin titles we send out to lucky members or the author events we invite them to. They also meet offline, at Penguin literary salons held in cities across China.
We made all our UK titles available as ebooks to readers in China through our partnership with Founder Apabi, and are the only international publisher to offer its full list.
The sense in China's publishing market today is of being ready to take a big step forward. Digital is, of course, a major part of that, and was at the forefront of all conversations at the recent Beijing International Book Fair. In China, as in the US and other markets, it seems that 2010 will be remembered as the year of the digital tipping point, although as with elsewhere, this prospect is met with anxious enthusiasm. More broadly, for Penguin China, we feel that it is time to grow into new areas that are opened up to us with the gradual relaxation of regulations: taking more of an active role in our publishing partnerships, working more directly to see books reach the hands of readers and acquiring more titles to publish in English about this fascinating country. China is certainly very big, as Noel Coward rightly said, but the appeal of that size is not simply a massive population, but rather in the range of opportunities that unfolds before us.
Jo Lusby is General Manager, Penguin China.
Photo: Penguin China celebrates its fifth anniversary. Penguin CEO John Makinson is on the left; Jo Lusby is third from left, back row.
This article first appeared in BookBrunch and Publishers Weekly's FRANKFURT FAIR DEALER