The World Needs Asian Publishers
Walk into any international airport bookstore and, regardless of where you are in the world, the same types of books will be sold. There will be a book extolling the virtues of the latest American or European business tycoon. There will be several books discussing the first year of the Trump Presidency (all of which would say pretty much the same thing). There will be a book on how the technological revolution will transform some new part of our lives. There will be some books on geopolitics: the most recent conflict in the Middle East, or the dangers of a rising China. There will be another large volume about the First or Second World Wars, glorifying the actions of the Allied countries (though not, perhaps, the others who may have fought for their empires). And finally, perhaps, there will be a revisionist biography of a past American President.
Non-Western topics can be found on bookshelves, but these books will invariably be written by Western writers if they are to be bestsellers. This is not to belittle the good writing and research that goes into these works, but the authors are often visitors rather than locals.
Such an array of books offers slim pickings for those not from the Western world. Some may argue that the airport bookstore is a poor way to judge the world of literature, but it is merely the most visible representation of how little the cultural conversation deals with Asia. If you look at the “best of” book lists by mainstream publications like the Financial Times, the Economist or the New York Times, you will see how few books about Asia feature prominently. There may be a book or two by Western authors about Asia, and perhaps even one by an Asian author about a Western topic — but you rarely see a book by an Asian author writing about an Asian topic. And the blinkers on the cultural conversation extend upwards to the highest levels: the Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to only five authors in Asia, and no prize has been awarded to an Indian author since 1913.
This sadly reflects a world where the wealth of knowledge from the non-Western world largely goes unrecognized and, worse, unpublished. This is both a tragedy and significant problem for Asia and the world, given its growing prominence in world affairs, its inevitable shaping of the 21st century and its need for other sources of knowledge to balance what is written in the West. Either Western publishers should recognise this opportunity for new ideas and customers—or Asia must give birth to its own group of publishers.
Unbelievably, Asia does not have a truly international publisher focused on the Asian market as a whole. Such a publisher would not just sell Western books to Asian readers, nor sell Asian books to Westerners, but would sell Asian books to Asian readers to truly knit together a “pan-Asian” market of writers and readers.
Asia has large publishing markets. China, India and Indonesia have large reading populations; in fact, Western publishers have already launched outposts in India to publish Indian books for Indian readers. But these industries are largely local. No Asian publisher sells to a regional market, let alone a global one. In contrast, several Western publishers sell their work to a global market, including many non-native English-speaking ones.
One would think that publishers would recognise that Asia, given its massive population, would have enough English speakers to sustain a large English-language publisher. Hong Kong and Singapore are international cities that use English as their official language. English is heard in just about every other major Asian city. Nor is this necessarily a question of “East vs. West”: Australia and New Zealand are “Western” reading markets whose futures will depend as much on their Asian neighbours (and their own growing Asian populations) as they will on their Western counterparts.
English is the only language that connects Asia in its entirety. Asia’s other major languages—Chinese, Bahasa, Japanese, Hindi, Urdu, and so on—are spoken largely in their own countries and small diaspora communities. In contrast, one can find English speakers with at least some level of fluency in every Asian country. If there is to be a pan-Asian dialogue, then it will have to be—at least at this point—conducted in English.
Asia desperately needs its own publishers to balance the global conversation. The ideas and stories distributed by the leading global publishing house are mostly Western, meant for Western readers and tastes, with all of the Western distortions, prejudices and biases. Asian content is not disseminated to the same extent. In both the West and in Asia, Asian viewpoints, ideas and solutions do not get the same hearing in the public sphere as Western ones.
It is easy to understand why American and British books do so well. The United States is a massive market, which means that publishers and agents focus on what an American public would want to read. This does not have much to do with relevance, quality, or “good writing.” Given the huge volumes involved, publishers can then distribute their books internationally at little extra cost, which is why books on Western topics sit on bookstore shelves the world over. But this should be a worrying issue, given the influence of these books.
In our globalised world, with more and more diverse voices crying to be heard, this is a form of “censorship.” Alternate viewpoints are needed to flesh out any intellectual debate, be it over economics, philosophy or public policy. This is especially true today, after Western ideas and models have led to massive geopolitical and economic mistakes, and as economic power is shared across a wider group of countries. And as Western insecurities about a post-Western world take root it is critical that a larger Western audience is exposed to ideas and opinions from the rest of the world. Not simply books about the “rest”, but challenging works that reflect the world at large.
There is certainly a vibrant debate inside the West about its future role and the impact of its actions based on its current dominance. But the most widely-spread criticisms of Western doctrine are, again for the most part, written by Westerners. I would posit that a criticism of America’s foreign policy written by an observer from China, India, or the Middle East would be just as valuable, if not more so, to the debate over intervention. It might even become a global best-seller. But these are rare due to the publishing world’s perhaps unwitting censorship.
More prominent Asian voices would be good for Asia. Asians need role models as they develop new businesses, public policies and systems of government. Asia needs new insights based on local research into its own history by its own writers, academics, business leaders and researchers. What is desperately needed to build a body of knowledge is a publisher that has a focus on the recent history of Asia, particularly on the colonial era. Most history books about the region were and are written by Western historians. Imagine a “re-writing” of the history as seen through the eyes of Asians, much like Shashi Tharoor’s recent book on the British colonisation of India, Inglorious Empire.
However, only Western narratives are easy to find: some positive, some negative, but all rooted in a very different context. It is currently easier for someone in Indonesia to learn what worked and did not work in the United States than what worked and did not work in the Philippines, a country far closer to the Indonesian context. When will a book about, say, Jack Ma’s success be more widespread in Asia than one about Steve Jobs? Or, when will a high-quality biography of Chinese President Xi Jinping or Indonesian President Joko Widodo sell as much as a similar biography about Barack Obama or Donald Trump?
There are huge numbers of Asian writers who currently have little chance of getting their work published globally. It is understood that writing is a tough business, regardless of where you live, and that even in more mature markets there are thousands of writers who are unlikely to see success. But I think we can agree that a good writer based in Ho Chi Minh City or Jakarta with a unique point of view will have a harder time getting published than a writer in Cleveland, Manchester or Sydney. American agents, by and large, do not represent many non-American writers, and have little interests consumed by their own narrow interests and circle of authors. Which agent or publisher will writers in Asia call if they are mostly concentrated in the US or Europe? This is an almost intolerable tyranny if you are a non-Western writer. Asian publishers are the only ones who can change this.
An international-standard publisher based out of Asia would need to do the following three things.
First, it would need to sell directly to Asian populations, and tailor their marketing decisions based on what the region’s growing population of English speakers actually want to read.
Second, it would need to search for new and insightful works in Asia and present them to a global audience: not just works in English, but also works in local languages that deserve translation. There have been several books that have been translated to both commercial and/or critical success, with Marie Kondo’s self-help books as an example of the former, and Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian as examples of the latter.
Finally, it would need to act as the middleman between Asian authors and Asian readers. Acting as this hub would create a truly “pan-Asian” market with its own regional dynamics and end decades of the global dominance of Western publishers and agents. Asian authors would no longer need to define success as “making it big” in the West (a ridiculous idea if one thinks about it), as they could succeed with Asian customers, a much larger audience.
It would be remiss to ignore past attempts to sell to a “pan-Asian” market. Several publications were guided by the vision of an English-speaking market that stretches from Seoul to Sydney. Some, like the Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek, are no longer with us. Others continue in a form much-reduced from their original vision. While these weren’t publishers per se, they were also targeting an Asia-wide population of English-speakers.
Some have since argued that this means that a “pan-Asian” market of English-speakers does not exist: that, ultimately, people in Singapore care more about what happens in New York or London than what happens in Hong Kong, Tokyo or Kuala Lumpur. This may have been true in the past, but times have most certainly changed today, or will in the near future.
First, the links connecting Asian countries are far tighter than they used to be. ASEAN (with an expected population of one billion in 2050) integration and China’s rise have encouraged cheaper and faster connections, which will only get tighter as Asian growth continues.
The internet is another major change. Now that books no longer need to be physically shipped, writing can be marketed and sold across international borders more easily. The digital infrastructure connecting Asia may still be in its infancy, but it will likely be built quickly. The wide adoption of smartphones also means that the ability to read e-books is more universal.
The population of English speakers is now broader. In 2013, the British Council estimated that 1.75 billion people currently speak English at a useful level, and predicted that the number would swell to two billion by 2020. An analyst at Australia’s Centre for Independent Studies estimated that there were 800 million English speakers in Asia alone. Before the turn of the century, English-speakers in Asian countries were either Anglo-American expatriates or a local elite that had gone to Western schools and graduate institutions. Better local education in Asia has led to a growing population who use English as a functional second language, even if they have never travelled to a Western country.
Even the expatriate population has changed. Now, expatriates include people from elsewhere in Asia, or from Latin America, Russia and Europe—not just people from the United States, Britain and Australia. English may be their lingua franca, but they are less connected to the intellectual mainstream coming out of America and Britain. Nor are they that interested in the mainstream: they crave narratives that speak to their experiences in the region. Even the “Anglo-Saxon” expats are different—they have grown up in an age where Asia has always been an exciting area of the world, and their home countries seem out of touch: Brexit and Trump’s “America First” policies.
Finally, Asia is more confident. As late as the early 2000s, the argument that Western ideas were not the best option would not have gotten much of a fair hearing in Asian cities. But since then, the West’s missteps, such as the catastrophic Iraq War, the Global Financial Crisis, Brexit, Trump’s America, and the misbehaviour of its iconic brands has meant that Asian ideas and models are treated more seriously as a potentially better model for the region and the world.
It is worth mentioning that some publishers are making steps towards treating Asia more seriously as a market. One such publisher is Penguin and its Penguin China imprint. Launched in 2005, Penguin China is an attempt by the British publisher to engage China more seriously. It distributes its own books in English, and works with local partners to translate books into Chinese. It also searches the Chinese literary scene for books that it thinks deserve wider attention.
Penguin China is largely focused on connecting its own Western market with the Chinese market, rather than connecting Asian markets to each other. But Penguin is, at least, a publisher that is actively thinking about China, as both a market—with different tastes than Americans and Europeans—and as a source of interesting works.
An Asian publisher could launch in phases. The first phase would capitalise on existing links between Asia and the West. This would mean publishing interesting and compelling Asian works for a global audience. It would also mean looking amongst the body of Western writing to find the pieces that would succeed in Asia, and perhaps commissioning work from qualified Asian and Western writers on topics that go underwritten and underreported in the Western mainstream publishing scene.
This would not require much in the way of “infrastructure”, as the links between Asia and the West largely exist already. It would also serve the immediate intellectual goal of having an Asian publisher: giving Asian ideas and stories a fair shot in the international marketplace. In the media sphere, Al Jazeera International puts a different spin on important global issues, yet is treated by most Western media organisations as a serious news outlet.
With this in place, a publisher can then work to foster a true “pan-Asian” market in publishing by acting as a distribution hub for Asian books. A regional e-commerce platform, selling Asian writing to an Asian audience, could act as the lynchpin of this market. Currently, the major e-commerce platforms for English publishing are based in the United States. The dominance of American e-commerce platforms in publishing means that US platforms get a cut even if books never pass through the United States. This idea is even more strange when e-books are concerned—why should an American platform be involved as the middleman between Asian authors and readers when no physical copy is involved? This platform could be created in partnership with an emerging Asian tech company, or created entirely from scratch.
Building a regional e-commerce platform—along with the infrastructure that goes with it—could help change the business calculus involved in marketing and selling books in Asia. No longer will part of the profits from publishing a successful book be withdrawn in the United States; instead, it will stay within Asia.
If this works, it would help create a model for how publishing could succeed in the 21st Century, especially outside of the West. The traditional model of publishing has been challenged by the internet’s erosion of the profit gained from both physical and electronic books. Having a publisher develop a successful model in the “pan-Asian” market—more disparate, diverse, and disconnected—would present even greater challenges, but determining a path forward for publishing in the digital age will be useful for not just Asia, but the more mature markets in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Building a pan-Asian publisher will be challenging. Some have tried before, at a time when the market may not have quite yet been ready. But perhaps the time for a “pan-Asian” market in publishing has come—or, perhaps, will come soon. A publisher based here in Asia will be well-placed to help drive the conversation about Asia’s future, as it tries to understand its own path in the 21st Century.
Hong Kong January 2018
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