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Mark Sommerset reports on the TIBE fellowship

By February 12, 2013No Comments

Mark Sommerset writes:

Made in Taiwan

For many these words conjure mountains of cheaply produced toys, house wares and electronics – the sort that Taiwan became infamous for during the 80s and 90s. As part of my fellowship at the Taipei book fair I was delighted to see how much things have changed and, more specifically, the beautifully crafted children’s books they are producing over there.

This misconception was the first of several to be ‘righted’ for me during my fellowship at the Taipei International Book Exhibition. Taiwan is a big market of 23 million people, and China is huge beyond comprehension, but that doesn’t necessarily mean big print runs or massive sales. As far as I could understand, reading picture books to children is not part of traditional Chinese culture. Education is king and of the stories that are printed for littlies most are of cultural significance or come with moral lessons. Publishers now face a great challenge and opportunity as they set about re-educating the Chinese public on the joys and benefits of reading and sharing a wider range of books with their children.

A cultural shift would open up huge possibilities in the children’s book market, which any publisher in the shrinking markets of the Western world would relish. (By way of example, Guess How Much I Love You recently sold its one-millionth copy in China and perhaps signals a changing attitude towards books for the very young.)

Translated titles account for up to 80% of some Chinese publishers' lists

People in the international publishing arena have warned me of the problems with counterfeiting in China and the difficulties involved in extracting accurate figures and money from the region. While counterfeit books are still a concern for these markets, it became clear that a very large number of publishing houses are much more professional and accountable in their practices than one might otherwise have believed. I was fortunate in my visit to meet several fantastic agents and concluded in the end it would be a good idea to have representation by someone ‘on the ground’ rather than try and do it all ourselves from here: not for fear of being ripped-off, but more as a matter of convenience and ease. Many of the Chinese publishers I met with spoke only limited English so the idea of a having a middle man, fluent in both languages and with a far greater understanding of the Taiwanese and Chinese markets than I could ever hope to achieve, seemed to make sense.

The other fellows, from UK, Turkey, Spain, Korea and France also provided very interesting insights to their own publishing territories and reiterated the notion that big markets don’t necessarily translate into big sales. I was amazed to learn from Alain Serres of publishing house Rue Du Monde in France that three quarters of the French public never visit a bookstore! And from my new Turkish agent friend, Nermin Mollaoglu of the Kalem Agency, that picture books seldom sell beyond their initial print run of two to three thousand units – that’s in a country of 73 million people!

In South Korea, I learnt from publisher Derrick Kim that the market is almost entirely dominated by edu-comics and big brands like Thomas, Beatrix Potter and Hello Kitty. Edu-comics are graphic magazines (often in the manga story-telling style) in which content is largely connected to and derived from the school curriculum, usually science. Annual sales are in excess of $US50 million. Derrick also said that, according to figures based on sales from the largest book chain in Korea (Kyobo), new or emerging picture book authors sold (on average) just 140 copies per title last year via the Kyobo chain. Kyobo accounts for nearly 10 per cent of retail book sales in South Korea, so by extrapolation we find a new picture book from a less than famous author might only sell 1400 copies. Fourteen hundred copies in a country of 50 million people! Interestingly Derrick Kim also noted that the YA market in Korea is almost non-existent (except for the likes of books that come to popularity via blockbuster movies such as the Twilight series) as young adults have little time for anything other than study!

So it was a fascinating trip – lots of lovely people and successful in that many promising connections were made and a number of misconceptions dispelled. While in some ways the experience painted a somewhat tough picture regarding the international publishing scene, it pays to remember that up to 80 per cent of some publishers’ lists in the China and Taiwanese markets are comprised of titles translated from foreign languages – primarily English. So while these markets present a challenge to sign, sell and export to, the fact is they remain huge and the potential for growing sales – beyond anything we could dream of in our well-established New Zealand publishing scene – is there.

Mark Sommerset, Dreamboat Books
Mark Sommerset (right) with Taiwan's best-known author/illustrator, Jimmy Liao
A small part of TIBE's main exhibition hall