Michele Hutchison, Editor De Arbeiderspers
Preparing for Beijing
The Chinese publishers I have met during the course of my career, the few who have made it to London, Frankfurt or Amsterdam, have all come across as pleasant, shy and polite people. They have invariably brought gifts: chopstick sets, handmade paper notebooks, fans, good luck hangers. At the end of the meeting they take your picture. There is a good chance you’ll never see them today.
The Dutch delegation – David facing Goliath – seems to be growing larger by the day.
Thinking back to those the chopstick sets yesterday afternoon, it occurred to me a copy of our rights guide (albeit in Chinese) wouldn’t really cut it as a gift. But what would? The nearest tourist shop sold souvenirs relating to sex and drugs, definitely inappropriate, miniature wooden clogs and magnets. Hmm. A regular gift shop sold a variety of small gadgets, all of which had MADE IN CHINA on the label. I moved on to the most Dutch shop I could think of, the HEMA, and ended up in the children’s party department. No, no, no. Though Querido have it easy, presumably a bagful of Jip & Janneke merchandising will go down a treat.
In terms of concrete stuff, I’m not sure what the Netherlands has to offer China that isn’t illegal to import, foodstuff and bulbs, sexy magnets, bongs or clogs. Meanwhile China is responsible for more than half of the world’s clothing and shoe production, immense quantities of paper, and zillions of plastic toys. And that’s what everyone I’ve talked to about China these past weeks has mentioned: scale. The population of Beijing is 30 million. A two-week tourist trip to the city doesn’t even make a dent on what there is to see there.
The Chinese publishers I met in the past seemed to think more in terms of Europe - European science, European thought, European literature - than being specifically interested in the Netherlands (or England, or Germany…). The titles they have bought from us have reflected this: witness the hotly fought contest for Bram Kemper’s Painting, Power & Patronage, a book on the Italian Renaissance published in English in 1992. Three publishers offered!
Putting together the rights guide involved setting aside everything learned in Frankfurt. Forget hype, rights sales, bestsellerdom, forget typically Dutch landscapes. Think academic authority, science, culture, think knowledge base, content and classical literature. While we have nothing concrete to offer the Chinese, our thought and traditions have some value. This value is not necessarily financial though. My experience of selling books to the Chinese has taught me that to expect advances from 500 to 1,000 euros, print runs of a couple of thousand copies and no royalties or royalty statements. This puts it on a par with countries like the Czech Republic. At present we’re talking author management not profit.
So what are my expectations for Beijing? The Dutch delegation - David facing Goliath - seems to be growing larger by the day. The architecturally ambitious white pavilion for the Country of Honour dares to take on Chinese dimensions of scale. We’ll be dwarfed, sitting under our individual white clouds. Super luxurious though it will be, the hotel will be miles away from the fair and the view from our bus will be of endless high rises, traffic and smog. The Chinese publishers will come and go, nodding and smiling politely, and we’ll come home with suitcases and suitcases full of chopsticks, fans and good luck hangers. I’ll report back from the fair and let you know if I’m right.