International Publishing Report: Beijing International Book Fair

Various members of AAUP have gone to the Beijing International Book Fair in the past, but as far as I know a representative of AAUP had never gone, and we have certainly never had an official presence. Last year the Board set attendance at the Fair as a priority for AAUP in order to learn about this new and rapidly growing market. Thanks to the generosity of the American Collective and Baker & Taylor, AAUP was offered free booth space at the Fair this year, and so I went.

This was the 19th BIBF. The Fair, running August 29-September 2, was located in the China International Exposition Center, a complex of four interconnected pavilions on a ring road northeast of the city center; shuttle buses from the hotel ran back and forth in the morning and late afternoon. The American Collective stand was in Hall 2, where many of the foreign publishers had their booths. Most of the publishers exhibiting in the other three halls were from China. I did not get figures for either visitors or exhibitors, but I estimate that the Fair is roughly the size of BEA; it is certainly nowhere near Frankfurt. There was one “university press” aisle, with stands for Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Chicago, Princeton, and California, staffed by their Chinese agents. Oxford and Cambridge had separate stands of their own. Some other AAUP members with journals programs, like Duke, had their journals on display in a large collective exhibit for librarians.

Although English is not widely spoken in China, there is a growing library market for English-language publications, fueled, interestingly enough, by a government program to raise the international status and profile of research being done in China. One of the first steps in this program is building up the library collections of research literature published in the west, so that Chinese researchers have access to it. I was told that the initial funding for this program, which has just started, is $10 billion over five years, although not all of that is earmarked for library acquisitions budgets.

For a Westerner, though, doing business in China has legal and cultural characteristics of its own. By Chinese law, foreign companies can’t sell directly to customers in China, but must work through a Chinese agent. This simplifies matters in one sense: instead of making deals with a hundred different libraries, a publisher only has to deal with two or three agents. However the agents are also in business for themselves, like jobbers in the US, which puts pressure on margins.

Establishing relationships with agents, I was told by several Americans and Brits who had been doing business in China for years, also has cultural requirements of its own. In the West we think of establishing a business relationship as a negotiation: each party comes to the table with something it wants, and then the parties negotiate an agreement, often a contract, based on terms they each find acceptable. In China, there’s a much greater emphasis placed on personal trust, trust that is built up in stages over meals, sharing stories about family, and so forth. Nothing much seems to happen until that trust is established—and then, I was told, the actual business negotiation happens very quickly.

To simplify this process I am expecting a proposal under which AAUP members would be able to sell to Chinese libraries using an existing network of Chinese agents. More as I get it.

Business aside, Beijing is a fascinating city that reflects the enormous changes taking place in China today. One consequence of the very rapid economic growth of the last 15 years has been an enormous increase in the number of privately-owned cars on the street. Beijing used to be a city in which the peoples’ transportation, when it wasn’t buses or subways, was bicycles. No more. Now it’s cars, and they’ve been multiplying so rapidly that Beijing and several other cities have established lottery systems for the right to purchase of new car registrations. Most hours of the day in central Beijing traffic moves at a snail’s pace. And yet—one afternoon going back to my hotel, my cab inched its slow way past the showroom for a combined Aston-Martin/Lamborghini dealership, and I was told by a British rep who lives in Chichester, where the Rolls Royce plant is located, that the company now sells more cars in China, primarily Beijing and Shanghai, than in the rest of the world combined. I don’t think it’s Mao’s China anymore.

Peter Givler
Executive Director, AAUP