The rise of the agent model in Chinese publishing
by Dustin Kurtz
With China’s domestic book market booming, and spurred by the rabid demand for the work of Nobel laureate Mo Yan, the nation’s publishing industry has set its sights on a broader readership in international markets. Their latest strides in that direction, according to a recent article in China Daily, have meant a widening role for that hallmark of a western-style book industry: the literary agent.
As Mei Jia reports, the discussion may have been set off by Mo Yan’s decision in late February to allow his daughter to represent his interests in all rights discussions. You’ll remember that rights to Mo’s work have been hotly disputed in China and abroad, with multiple publishers in China claiming license for the same books. There’s no word yet whether his daughter will be working for commission, or what the reaction might be from the Wylie Agency which, as Michael Orthofer points out, still lists Mo as among their clients.
China Daily goes on to quote a few agents, largely working for larger international firms, who have worked to crack the Chinese market
“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 very successful big authors,” Jackie Huang Jiakun, chief representative of Andrew Nurnberg Associates International’s Beijing office, told China Daily on Friday.
Their methods, at least as portrayed in the article, play perfectly to tropes of the Chinese business ethos: first, disparage the agentless as minor or provincial, as seen above. Second, make their lack an issue of national pride. Again, from China Daily:
Chinese publishing professionals believe the lack of a mature literary agent mechanism has pushed writers to employ relatives as trustworthy middlemen.
Third, get a swift injection of cash from the state:
Jia Huili, an official with the General Administration of Press and Publication, said that the administration is planning and pushing ahead with a project that involves top Chinese publishers to represent and promote 20 top writers from home and abroad with custom-made services.
If a rush among Chinese authors to sign with agents gives these authors and books a wider reach in international markets, that’s surely a good thing, even if the first books we see are only likely bestsellers. Particularly if the alternative is an author’s daughter: heirs of world-class authors have a bad track record in these things. I’m looking at you Mr. Joyce. But if, as might be construed from the article, this is just something of a land grab on the part of large international agencies, the world might be better off if China stuck to a simpler, messier model.
Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.