Tuesday March 12, 2013
Literary agents opening new chapter in China’s publishing industry
By MEI JIA
Literary agents are opening a new chapter in China’s publishing industry.
THE need for literary agents – a vital third party between publishers and writers – has become a hot topic in Chinese publishing since a February announcement by China’s first Nobel laureate in literature.
To concentrate on his writing, Mo Yan, whose real name is Guan Moye, announced that his daughter, Guan Xiaoxiao, has full rights to represent him in copyright talks and any other negotiations on cooperation. “I recognise any commitments and signing my daughter does,” Mo said.
Established Chinese writers, including Mo, are not as lucky as, say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Dan Brown, who have handy literary agents to sell their stories worldwide and save them the trouble of squabbling over contract details with publishers.
China author Chi Li, known for her realistic novels about grassroots life, says she has six assistants, including her daughter, to help with her affairs besides writing. “But none of them are real Jack-of-all-trades like literary agents,” Chi says.
Chinese publishing professionals believe a mature literary agent mechanism will boost Chinese writing and promote Chinese writers to a more global audience.
“Without the agents, the writers’ domestic copyright authorisation is sometimes a mess, as their works are often published by several different publishers. This is harmful for publishers who want to utilise their authors’ talent to the best, not to mention publishing the writers abroad,” says Liu Feng, veteran publisher and editor-in-chief of Yilin Press.
Liu has had business talks with Deborah Owen, who represents Israeli writer Amos Oz and is responsible for his works being translated into 39 languages and sold worldwide. “They joke that their cooperation is like a marriage,” Liu says, adding that good agents are good for the whole business.
Chinese publishers and writers have also tasted the power of literary agents, as in the case of Carmen Balcells and Toby Eady.
An agent for six Nobel-winning writers, Balcells finally got approval for the publication on the Chinese mainland of authorised Chinese versions of Garcia Marquez’s works after the publisher, Thinkingdom House, had previously tried all means to do so without success. The first book, Garcia Marquez’s renowned One Hundred Years Of Solitude, appeared in 2011 and has since led to a series of phenomenal successes with other books by the author.
Eady is the one who made both the Chinese publishers and officials aware of the importance of literary agents. Through his efforts, Chinese scholar Yu Dan’s Confucius From The Heart has been translated into 28 languages and has made bestseller lists in the Western world, becoming a legend in the global performance of Chinese books.
Believing a “book is about human thinking and observation of life”, Eady says in an e-mail that an agent should “have a brave and talented mind to find a writer to write a book to make people think, understand how important that personal support is to writers, and have the knowledge to organise publicity with publishers”. Additionally, an agent must be willing to take risks and spend time nurturing writers. “The Chinese have not got very much knowledge of and respect for the literary agent yet,” Eady adds.
One possible reason for that is the relatively low remuneration for writing. Generally, a literary agent takes 10% to 20% from a writer’s royalty gains.
Not all Chinese authors can afford a professional agent. “In China, as in many Asian countries, there is not a very strong demand in the domestic publishing market for the services of literary agents, except by very successful, big authors,” Jackie Huang Jiakun, chief representative of Andrew Nurnberg Associates International’s Beijing office, says.
Huang says Chinese writers do need to work with a capable literary agent if they want to publish their books abroad.
Besides foreign agencies like Nurnberg that are working in China, several local ones have been making efforts. Guo Jingming, a star writer for teens, is building a literary kingdom by representing and guiding younger writers through his Zuibook company. Guo was praised by Chen Liming, president of Beijing Genuine and Profound Culture Development Corp, who has been offering literary agent-like services to top Chinese writers including Mo and Mai Jia, known for his spy and detective novels.
Chen says that he is trying to innovate with the existing modes of literary agents in foreign countries to build a new mode that suits the Chinese market and its urge to go global. “We’d be a powerful organisation with more than 10 teams of professional agents for different types of writers and a combination of services in editing, copyright trades, production development and all,” Chen says, adding though, that a big obstacle is a lack of talent.
In this respect, Liu Feng of Yilin Press suggests government support for literary agents while this budding aspect of publishing in China becomes more mature.
To that end, Jia Huili, an official with the General Administration of Press and Publication, says that the administration is planning a project that involves top Chinese publishers representing and promoting 20 top writers from home and abroad with custom-made services. – China Daily/Asia News Network