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'Unpredictable' censors

Gabriel DomínguezOctober 29, 2013

Despite strict censorship, Western authors are - for financial and intellectual reasons - increasingly looking to have a shot at the fast-growing book market in China, says publishing expert Edward Nawotka.

Book and a pair of glasses (Photo:Calado)
Image: Calado/Fotolia

DW: What process do publications by Western authors undergo before being released in China?

Edward Nawotka: Since all International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN) in China must be purchased from the government, this itself serves as a de facto form of censorship, as the government can simply deny the sale of an ISBN to prevent publication. Of course, any publisher who is willing to take on a Western author knows that the work is likely to be looked at even more closely than would a typical Chinese book.

Thus, the first line of "censorship" is in the acquisitions process. The second-line is the self-censorship that editors impose on themselves. There are also other forms of censorship that affect Westerners such as the Chinese printing houses refusing to work with a Western publisher to produce a book that might be deemed objectionable to the state.

Are some Western authors resorting to self-censorship in order to publish in China?

Naturally, but rather than self-consciously censor themselves, writers are just as likely to follow in the path of Hollywood, which has consciously incorporated Chinese characters and settings into blockbuster movies to flatter Chinese audiences. Increasingly, there are more and more Western journalists who spend longer spans of time working and living in China and producing books that, while not exactly flattering to China, demonstrate a more nuanced and, thus in the eyes of the Chinese, appropriate portraits of what is a very complex, large and fast-changing civilization.

Edward Nawotka Edward Nawotka, editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives in New York. Photo: Publishing Perspectives
Nawotka: 'The Chinese justify censorship by saying that they are prioritizing books that advance their culture'Image: Publishing Perspectives

What sort of books are mostly censored and why?

China maintains very strict censorship controls on its media, but the scene is evolving - albeit slowly - and publishers and writers are forced to operate in a gray area, where things that are tolerated one day are considered illegal the next. Beijing is known for its unpredictability, which is its main weapon. This leaves many authors in an untenable position, as they are unlikely to know exactly what will be censored.

Talk to publishers in China and they will admit at least some tolerance for free-speech, provided it remains on the very fringes of society. The hammer of censorship is guaranteed to come down if and when something threatens to influence the mainstream population. The censors look at anything to do with politics, sex, drugs, history, Tibet or Taiwan, as well as the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square protests, for example - anything that has the potential to be controversial or else might besmirch the reputation of China.

How do the Chinese justify the censorship of books?

The Chinese justify censorship by saying that they are prioritizing books that advance their culture, which they believe they are serving better by keeping out or redacting books that have the potential to be hazardous to what they see as the moral and intellectual integrity of the Chinese people. Mo Yan, the Nobel-Prize winner, said at one point that he believed censorship was "necessary."

What types of Western books are popular in China?

Many Western authors enjoy a significant readership in China. Academic and education titles, particularly in science, technology and medicine are widely used. On the general trade side, business books are especially popular, as are rags-to-riches type stories.

Books that are somewhat critical of the West or otherwise reflect the classical Western literary tradition are also particularly popular. There are several literary agents who work hard to get a wider variety of Western books into China and, for example, The Bookworm, an English-language bookstore in Beijing, with branches in Chengdu and Suzhou, runs an annual literary festival that brings in a variety of Western writers and perspectives.

How profitable has the Chinese market become for Western authors?

One factor to consider is that while the audience in China may be vast, the economics of the book business are significantly different. The fees for rights purchases are typically much lower than in the United States or Europe. In addition, book prices are often lower, which leads to lower royalties for authors. Another factor that shouldn't be discounted is piracy - whether in print or digital - which cuts into the sales of books Western authors.

#31380132 Education books in library Fotolia/falcn
'The hammer of censorship is guaranteed to come down if and when something threatens to influence the mainstream population'Image: Fotolia/falcn

The priority of Chinese publishers is to cater to demand of the vast mass market, which is still likely to be reticent to express a strong desire for Western works, even if we would like to think it is latent - which, frankly, it might not be. After all, China is a proud nation that wants to be seen as on equal, if not higher, cultural footing than the West.

Edward Nawotka is the editor-in-chief of the New York-based trade magazine Publishing Perspectives, an online journal of news and opinion on international book publishing.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.