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Popular German books

Silke Ballweg / gd
September 2, 2013

The Beijing International Book Fair, the largest publishing sector event in China, recently opened its doors. Germany was also represented, with Chinese readers increasingly interested in German children's books.

German books at the Beijing Book Fair (Photo: Silke Ballweg, Beijing) Peking)
Image: Silke Ballweg

The German exhibition stand attracted a lot of interest: "I take a look at the children's and advice books," says Zhang Junnan from the China Youth Publishing Group. At the 20th Beijing International Book Fair (BIBF), which ended on Sunday, September 1st, she skimmed through a German publication on gardening: "The books from Germany are always very well made. The texts are informative and the photos are good."

Several German publishing houses exhibited their books in Beijing. "China is a very important market for us," said Holger Behm from the German schoolbook publishing house Cornelsen. No other country has a bigger interest in German books than China. More than one thousand different German publications were on bookshelves last year in the People's Republic, amounting to more than 13 percent of total foreign licenses.

A booming sector

The significance of the sector became clear at the book fair: Most exhibition stands were crowded with visitors and intense talks were held everywhere. But this didn't come as a surprise: With more than US$ 10 billion in sales in 2011 alone, China's publishing sector is booming. Some 200,000 new publications are released every year.

However, the sheer scale of the market shouldn't create a false impression. Most publications consist of textbooks, for instance on math or biology. The country's book production is so large because students in China need to buy new schoolbooks every year.

A young Chinese woman taking look at German books at the Beijing Book Fair (Photo: Silke Ballweg, Beijing) Peking)
Popular in China: German children's booksImage: Silke Ballweg

China's publishing industry is special in many ways. Most importantly, there is no freedom of expression. Publications undergo a process of strict censorship. Politically sensitive topics, such as Tibet, Taiwan or Tiananmen, are taboo. Only 581 companies have the right to publish books. In comparison, Germany has some 2000 publishers – and whoever wants it, can found a publishing company.

German classics are 'difficult'

"Almost all publishers in China do everything," said Gong Yingxin from the Book Information Center, a branch office of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Unlike in Germany, where companies concentrate on specific subjects or areas, publishing houses in China offer books on a variety of topics ranging from poetry and fiction to school and children's books.

Novels and folktales only play a secondary role in the Chinese market. They amount to merely ten percent of market share. The same is true for German fiction and poetry. Even though literary heavyweights such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or Thomas Mann have been printed for years in China, their works don't find many buyers, as they are described by many as being serious, barren and difficult to read.

Visitors take a look at German books at the Beijing Book Fair (Photo: Silke Ballweg, Beijing) Peking)
There is a growing interest in German literatureImage: Silke Ballweg

Chinese publishers release mostly only the works of German authors who have already been successful in other countries, such as Günter Grass, Bernhard Schlink or Patrick Süskind.

Growing interest

However, children's and picture books from Germany have been far more successful. Chinese children aged 7 to 14 read an average of 8 books per year - twice as many as adults.

"Foreign books are simply better than the Chinese ones," said Gong Yingxin. "German books have high-quality texts and illustrations. You can barely find those in Chinese ones." Looking at a story book with many colored drawings, Gong adds: "For publishers in China it is much more appealing to buy good books from abroad than to promote Chinese writers."

But not everything read by German youths seems to be suitable for young Chinese. Strange stories, weird plots and provoking subjects such as domestic violence or alcoholism among teenagers are not welcome. The first kiss is also a taboo subject.

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