20 Sept 2016
Asia Continues to Stand Firm as the Last Bastion of the Printed Word
While Europe and the US has seen the widespread uptake of e-books, readers in Asia are still showing a remarkable loyalty to the printed word in all of its many guises, at least according to exhibitors at this year's HKTDC Hong Kong Book Fair.
If one thing became clear at this year's HKTDC Hong Kong Book Fair, it's that conventional books are still very much the order of the day in Asia, with ever-increasing numbers of non-fiction titles from the West now being translated into Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Cantonese... At the same time, children's English language story books have taken on a new lease of life with parents clearly prioritising them over more formal text books.
With more than a million visitors, the very existence of the Book Fair is a testament to the enduring appeal of the printed word to both Hong Kong and mainland consumers in particular. With other markets around the world increasingly favouring e-books, the sheer volume of discounted hardbacks and paperbacks hauled away from the event showed just where the loyalties of local readers lie.
Overall, it was clear that translated non-fiction western works are increasingly in demand across China. Similarly, the appetite for English language children's fiction is clearly on the rise in Asia, with parents turning away from formal educational texts in favour of material more likely to hold the attention of young readers. This seems to be one-way traffic, however, with western publishers proving notably less enthusiastic when it comes to translating Asian material.
There were record crowds at this the 27th edition of the Hong Kong Book Fair, with close to 1.02 million visitors passing through its turnstiles over the course of the week-long event. Once again, many members of the public used the annual fair as an opportunity to purchase books at a considerable discount. In this respect, educational titles and study aids were as, popular as ever, but so too were contemporary fiction and more literary titles.
As the event drew to a close, young children and their parents flocked to both educational textbooks and study aids as well as boxed sets by popular international authors. Teenagers, understandably, were more drawn to young adult novels, but also, perhaps less predictably, to classic works of literature.
While many attended largely to take advantage of the discounted prices, there was a considerable contingent also drawn by the variety of seminars, readings and cultural events on offer, with both local and international authors participating. According to the organisers, more than 300,000 people attended at least one of the 360 cultural events running alongside the show proper.
With 2016 marking the 400th anniversary of the deaths of both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, it was inevitable that these twin milestones would be marked at this year's event. For Spain's Consulate General for Hong Kong and Macau, the anniversary of Cervantes' death presented a unique opportunity to host a series of related cultural activities. For many, the highlight of these was the publication of Quixotica and the Man of La Mancha: Cervantes 400 Years Later, a poetry collection by award-winning and emerging poets from Hong Kong and East Asia.
Marking the Hong Kong launch of the collection, Avelino Busto Cornejo, the Spanish Vice-consul, said: "The publication of this book of poetry and the accompanying literary conference are hugely important. They are a reflection of the considerable influence Cervantes' work has had across Hong Kong and East Asia.
"This is a book that shows just how much Don Quixote continues to inspire and illuminate readers across both the oceans and the centuries. Similarly, throughout the literary conference, writers and editors have shared the inspiration they have taken from Don Quixote, as well as assessing its impact on wider Asian society."
As with the majority of international exhibitors in attendance, the Spanish Consulate used the event to help promote its domestic literature to the wider book-buying public. More than 30 other countries – including Chile, Germany, Indonesia and Portugal – were equally keen to stress the merit and appeal of their own literary canons.
Explaining his own country's passion for sharing its literature, Busto Cornejo said: "We are delighted to be able to introduce Spanish literature and culture to Asian book lovers. They have great passion for new literary treasures, even if they don't yet have a great understanding of Spanish literature.
"Through these activities, we hope people will get a greater understanding of Spain's culture and literature. In the case of Cervantes and Don Quixote, the abiding themes are pragmatism, vision, real worlds and dreams, hope and fatalism, idealism and materialism. All of these resonate with contemporary Hong Kong, given its complex social, political and economic situation."
Spain aside, the number of translated books – from west to east and, to a lesser extent, east to west – continued to grow. Specifically addressing the current state of the mainland market, Marysia Juszczakiewicz, Founder of the Hong Kong-based Peony Literary Agency, said: "Having been closed to the West for so long, China now has a big appetite for buying foreign copyright. There is a real thirst for knowledge across the mainland, so we sell a lot of books published by the British Library and the Bodleian Library.
"We also sold simplified Chinese rights to Lean in 15 by Joe Wicks, a diet/health/fitness book, a genre that mainland publishers had previously shown little interest in. Overall, China is now starting to follow international trends. As a sign of this, many of the mainland publishers who attend international book fairs now employ multilingual rights staff. Ten years ago, that was much more of a rarity."
While there is a diversity of western titles now being published in China, Juszczakiewicz also sees signs that western publishers are interested in books from Asia, but remain wary. She said: "There is a lot of interest in Asia from foreign publishers, but sales tend to be low. This means that publishers tend to be more risk averse when buying Asian content."
Juszczakiewicz, however, recently sold the translation rights to Betraying Big Brother – Leta Hong Fincher's history of the rise of feminism in modern China – to a western publisher.
Despite the predominance of print, e-books and e-learning resources once again had a substantial presence at the Fair, with many of the children in attendance only too keen to interact with the variety of e-learning tools and games on show. This, though, belied the fact that Asia is less digitally-inclined when it comes to reading matter than many other regions.
Highlighting this, Jo Lusby, Managing Director of Penguin Random House North Asia, said: "While we see consumers across the region behaving as digital natives, their loyalty to paper books has been far greater than we have seen in the US or UK. Overall, e-books do not have the same level of market penetration as they do in many other places."
Lusby has overall responsibility for mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan and sees the North Asia region growing strongly. Focussing on the local variations, she said: "Each of these key markets are affected by very different factors, while also having individual tastes, but we still see similar themes emerging across the region.
"Literary fiction tends to go in and out of fashion across the region in general – something local wins a big prize and people begin to read literature again. When the economy is poor, people often turn more to escapism and commercial writing.
"One category that is growing across the whole region, however, is children's literature. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for us. We have had to make our content better suited to families and give them a new way of bringing the English language into their homes."
On the mainland, Penguin works with a number of local publishers on the production of bilingual and Mandarin books for the Chinese market. In the case adult books, these tend to focus on the classics, as well as on business and select non-fiction and fiction titles, most notably the Hogarth Shakespeare Series.
By contrast, children's titles include such western icons as Peppa Pig, Peter Rabbit and the Ladybird Key Words series. In English, Penguin China's titles include a range of internationally-distributed fiction and non-fiction titles, as well as the Penguin Specials series.
Lusby said: "These are the books that we feel reflect current events or historic anniversaries. These can be published much more quickly than long form writing and can also serve as a beautiful introduction to a fiction writer. The Chinese novella is a very strong and popular format, with the Specials proving a great way to introduce new Chinese writers to readers in the English language."
The HKTDC Hong Kong Book Fair was held from 20-26 July at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Some 640 exhibitors from 35 countries and regions took part in the event, which attracted more than a million visitors.
Melanie Hoare, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong