While George Zhu, founder of CN Times Books, the newly launched U.S. subsidiary of Beijing Mediatime Books, is impressed by the “professionalism” of U.S. publishing, he’s also surprised by American inefficiency. “It’s very slow to publish a book in the U.S.,” Zhu said, speaking through his translator, Stanford Shao, who is also his executive assistant. “The average time to publish a book in China is three months. The shortest time is one week, and a year is the longest,” he said, clearly amused by the reporter’s surprised reaction. “Only two seasons in the U.S.? It’s much more efficient in China.”
Following the release of the new publisher’s first U.S.-produced books, PW spoke with Zhu, CNTB’s American publisher Paul Harrington, and sales and marketing manager Paul Myatovich at the offices of CN Times Books in midtown Manhattan. Zhu said BMB, one of the largest trade publishers in China, produces approximately 300 titles annually, and its list consists mostly of general trade books, along with some academic titles. About a third of the publisher’s books are licensed from outside of China. BMB (and the four smaller presses it owns) employs about 200 people in China, while CNTB has a staff of eight in New York, with two employees in China who handle rights. Founded in October 2012, CNTB released about a dozen titles this year, and it hopes to publish as many as 40 in 2014. Its first title, China Threat: The Challenges, Myths and Realities of China’s Rise by Lionel Vairon, was published in August.
Zhu was candid about the role of government oversight in Chinese publishing, and he spoke of his ambitious plans in the U.S. He emphasized that private publishing is a very small part of the Chinese media landscape, and the government “does not allow it to grow too quickly.” The state, he said, takes most of publishers’ profits; privately held companies must purchase their ISBN’s from the state for a fee of 10,000 yuan ($1,600) each. He acknowledged that the Chinese government also “examines all the content you publish,” and if a book is critical of the government, or if the censors don’t like it for some other reason, “they will create problems—usually close your company.”
Zhu also said that there are “a few” private agents in China, most of whom license foreign books, adding that authors can submit manuscripts directly to Chinese publishers. Legally licensed books from foreign publishers are popular in China, and BMB’s list includes a large number of American titles. But if the government objects to something in a foreign title—Zhu pantomimed a cutting motion—it too can be altered. BMB’s American titles include Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir, Known and Unknown; Terry Richardson’s Lady Gaga photo book; and The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. BMB contracts spell out the fact that books may be altered to meet government standards, according to Zhu, and he said that most publishers don’t complain; they tend to view censorship as a cost of doing business in the growing Chinese market. Zhu also explained that there are private distribution firms in China that are “open to everybody,” though they don’t distribute textbooks, since textbook publishers are state-owned.
Zhu became interested in publishing while in college, where he studied political philosophy and Western culture. He founded BMB in 2008, the year the Chinese government legalized private publishing, though he began publishing books in the 1990s. Zhu started with 20,000 yuan ($3,300) and used a prepaid subscription model that allowed him to raise the money in advance that he needed to print and distribute books directly to buyers. Before publishing became legal, Zhu said, the government shut down his ventures several times, but he would start again each time under a new name. By 2011, he said, BMB was an established house generating annual revenue of about 250 million yuan ($41 million).
Zhu is looking to the U.S. market because BMB has “almost come to the ceiling of growth” that the Chinese government will allow private publishers, he explained. In addition, “China and the U.S. are the two biggest markets, and there are a lot of opportunities both ways—to publish in the U.S. and bring those books to China,” he said. Zhu noted that while the Chinese government supports private Chinese publishers operating in the U.S., it monitors the content that they publish here as well. Though he added that for overseas publishers, the rules are “a little loose”: “If a book published in the U.S. is 70% favorable [to the government], and maybe a little bad, it’s okay.”
CNTB, he said, does not receive any financial assistance from the Chinese government (although Chinese publishers can apply for up to $50,000 in translation subsidies a year ). Harrington noted that Zhu ”wears two hats,”— he lives in Long Island, N.Y., but travels to China about six times a year and runs both BMB and its American subsidiary. His biggest problem in the U.S.? He doesn’t speak English, so “every decision must go through several translated e-mails,” he said, acknowledging that “it’s inefficient.”
Zhu said CN Times Books will publish travel books aimed at Americans who want to visit China, as well as some fiction, history, politics, and current events titles. The company will also release works by “important Chinese political figures.” Zhu said he’s considering offering distribution services to other Chinese publishers to help them get into the U.S. market though he said the details are still to be determined.
Zhu said he eventually plans to publish American authors in the U.S. and bring those authors’ books to China. “There is a huge gap between the Chinese way of thinking and the U.S. way of thinking,” he said, adding, “We can narrow that gap.” Zhu said contemporary Chinese society has three progressive components: entrepreneurs, academics, and some government officials. These groups are working to “push” China toward political and social reforms, and, he was quick to add, “I am one [of the reformers].”
Zhu explained that in his view, China should emulate the U.S. use of “soft power,” referring to the fact that “the U.S. uses thinking and publishing to maintain its power in the world.” He acknowledged that “it’s difficult to sell Chinese books in the U.S.,” but added, “if we can increase sales and increase [cross-cultural] communication, we can reduce friction [between the two countries].”