In the summer of 2019, American publishers started noticing that their books — everything from children’s picture books to historical biographies — weren’t making it to the shelves in China. The Chinese government, which strictly controls the publishing industry, has not explicitly banned American authors, but a dozen writers, agents, literary scouts, and publishers who work in both the Chinese and American publishing industries say that, for more than a year now, the Chinese government has delayed or denied most American authors from publishing their books in China — a change that has hurt publishers in both countries.
“This whole year has been really fraught,” says Kelly Farber, a literary scout who works to match American authors with international publishers, adding that the publishing slowdown as a result of Covid-19 compounded the existing issues for American authors. “The combination of those two things has cratered what was, in the past few years, a really strong business and market for American authors.”
The Chinese book industry has grown rapidly over the last decade. Book sales inside China reached about $15 billion last year, which is second only to book sales in the United States, according to data from OpenBook Data, a research firm focused on the Chinese publishing industry. While those sales are dominated by Chinese books — among China’s top 15 fiction books in August, only three were foreign titles — the appetite for foreign books has also grown over the past decade.
“China has a vast, educated, and reading public, so for publishing, it’s quite a natural market to turn to,” Christie Henry, the director of Princeton University Press, said. In 2018, according to data from Wuping Zhao, deputy chief editor of the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, there were more than 16,000 new international book rights sold to China, mostly from the United States, Japan, England, France and Germany.
The process by which international books get published in China is similar to other global markets, except for the government’s involvement. Chinese publishers make bids to buy the book rights, which usually range anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000. The winning publishing house then pays the author an advance, translates the book, and submits it to China’s strict content review process. China’s General Administration of Press and Publication screens the book and removes passages it deems politically sensitive before issuing it an ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, which sets it up for retail sales. Every book in the world has an ISBN, and every country has its own agency authorized to give out ISBNs. But in China, the government closely controls the process.
James Tager, the deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America, a nonprofit that works to protect free expression worldwide, says it’s up to the authors who publish in China to weigh the pros and cons of this state control. Often, it is hard to predict what will be censored, says Tager, though it is clear that in the past few years, subjects that were once deemed acceptable are now thought to be too political. “But ultimately, it is the author’s ethical choice to evaluate whether the censored version of their book is essentially a compromise worth making.”
There are more than 580 state-run publishers in China, and more than 10,000 small, independent publishers. In recent years, the most popular American books in China have been nonfiction titles, often those about popular science or business. Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, for example, was a smash hit. “Chinese business people and entrepreneurs want to learn from Americans on how to do business, and get inspiration from them,” says Peng Lun, the founder of Archipel Press, an independent Chinese publisher. American children’s books are also widely popular and profitable in China.
While American fiction is less popular, some titles have managed to gain a significant foothold in the Chinese market. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, for example, was first published in China in 2006 and continues to rank in the top 10 on the English-language bestseller list from OpenBook Data.
It’s only when people talk to people, or read about other people that you understand other people. Books are the most important part of this.Robert Baensch, editor of The Publishing Industry in China
But beginning in 2019, according to publishing professionals in both countries, as geopolitical tensions reached a fever pitch, the Chinese government started refusing to issue ISBNs to most American books. And since the Chinese government only issues ISBNs after Chinese publishers buy the book rights, many Chinese publishers had already shelled out money for books they couldn’t bring to market. “A lot of [Chinese] publishers are really hurting because they are sitting there with sunk costs,” says Eric Abrahamsen, a publishing consultant, translator, and editor with extensive experience working in China. “They’ve got these rights on their hands, but the government says, ‘No, hang on to it for a year, we’ll keep you updated.’”
Many people in the American and Chinese publishing industries — most of whom denied speaking on the record about ISBN delays — say that buying rights to American books is now a risky bet for Chinese publishers. Some Chinese publishers are focusing instead on European authors. Archipel’s Peng Lun, for example, says he is still acquiring American novels, but he recently published Normal People, a popular Irish novel by Sally Rooney, and plans to seek out other European or Latin American titles. The publishing landscape is very unclear, he says, “All we can do is wait.”
Some publishers had hoped that January’s trade deal would have eased the restrictions, but the regulatory hold-ups persist nine months later. Now, publishers are looking to the U.S. presidential election as the next inflection point. “So much of it is tied to poor relations between our two leaders right now,” Henry says. “I think perhaps it’s something that would change if U.S. leadership changed.”
Adding to the burden are tariffs the Trump administration has levied on goods produced in China. Because China’s printing industry is affordable, many American books are printed there and sent to the United States for retail distribution. But those books — with the exception of bibles and children’s books — are now subjected to tariffs. “Especially for smaller publishers, these tariffs are a further burden they have to contend with,” says Lui Simpson, the senior vice president for global policy at the Association of American Publishers. “It is impacting the manner in which publishers do business and some publishers are reexamining their printing relationship with China.”
Some worry that the publishing freeze will not only impact bottom lines in both countries, but also damage already frayed lines of communication. “If America sells skis, or bicycles, or cars to China, that’s a material thing that has no relationship to our culture,” says Robert Baensch, a longtime publishing executive and editor of The Publishing Industry in China, a reference book. “It’s only when people talk to people, or read about other people that you understand other people. Books are the most important part of this.”
Katrina Northrop is a journalist based in New York. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Providence Journal, and SupChina. @NorthropKatrina