July 27, 2016
Checking in on the Hong Kong Book Fair
by Simon Reichley
Last week we did a little preview of the Hong Kong Book Fair, which opened last Wednesday, and closed yesterday.
Writing at The Guardian, Ilaria Maria Sala characterized the fair as “subdued,” citing anxiety over the disappearance of publishers, editors and managers connected to Causeway Bay Books and Mighty Current Media. According to Sala, the “heavy pall” of recent events depressed sales, and drove away certain publishers of banned or sensitive material:
…there are fewer stands selling political and “banned” books than in previous years… many customers hover nearby, but though they browse, sales do not appear so brisk.
“We have had no problem in printing or distributing our four volumes on Zhao Ziyang,” said one editor at CUHK Publishing, who asked to remain anonymous. “But the impact on the fair is very strong. The controls on travellers have been strengthened, and many who came to Hong Kong to buy books censored in mainland China have stopped buying them, as they may get into trouble at the border.”
Many stands, however, are simply no longer here.
While CUHK’s anonymous editor seemed unworried about the press’s ability to print or distribute, other participants at the fair harbored serious concerns about the island’s ability to circulate and promote literature which might…displease party leaders on the mainland.
“We now have problems at both ends of the book chain”, says Bao Pu,of New Century Press… “Printers are not willing to print politically sensitive books, throughout the Hong Kong printing industry… At the other end of the chain there are the bookstores, and most of them will no longer sell this kind of book because it is considered dangerous.”
This kind of systemic fear of reprisal is what seems most dangerous to dissident publishing in Hong Kong, and concerns about sales numbers seem petty in comparison. The BBC also reports lower overall numbers of controversial or banned books, and Kelvin Chan at the San Francisco Chronicle further documents the “white terror” gripping Hong Kong printers, publishers and booksellers in the aftermath of the Causeway Bay disappearances:
Jimmy Pang, the publisher of the small, independent press Subculture, said he saw no future for Hong Kong’s political book industry…
“It’s not just publishers, it’s a problem for the whole industry,” said Pang. “Printing companies don’t dare print them. Distributors aren’t willing to distribute them.” Many bookstores are controlled by mainland Chinese state-owned companies and refuse to stock them, he said.
However, in the face of such admittedly grim news, it must be said that other outlets have painted a significantly less gloomy picture of the fair. The South China Morning Post reports higher sales of politically sensitive materials and suggests that much of this increased interest is coming from visitors from the mainland. Of course, some other publishers are reporting lower overall sales, lower traffic, and lower per transaction sales, which they largely attribute to a slow economy. So only slightly less gloomy, on the whole.
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.