Getting Published in Shanghai
by Rashmi Jolly Dalai & Monika Lin March 2011
One of the great things about Shanghai, is that the usual rules don’t always apply. For example, if you wanted to publish your own book, you can. Sure, there may be obstacles, but generally, it can be done, and without too much fuss. Two friends, one a writer and the other an illustrator, tell us how they did it. You’ve got a book, and you’re ready to see if it can sell. For most people, this is a daunting moment as the control over your work immediately shifts to others – agents, publishers, and publicists. However, publishing in China offers a unique opportunity for publishing to be as personal as the book itself.
We started our own process by approaching Chinese publishers. As creators of “Mika the Picky Eater,” a bilingual children’s book, we believed we had both a great story and strong learning tool for Chinese children learning English and vice versa. Through connections, we contacted a few small publishers, found many were in agreement, and sent on our manuscript.
Speed bumps soon emerged. The red tape for Chinese publishers to back the works of foreigners is involved and costly, more so than non-foreigners. It includes not only going through the Chinese censorship and editing process, but also hiring a third party to handle contractual issues and sometimes finding a Chinese “co-author.” Additionally, Chinese publishers start their runs in the thousands to keep the unit cost very low. Without the incumbent language and cultural advantage, we’re limited in our ability to market to the local population and move all of those copies. Some of this can be avoided by publishing in Hong Kong and “importing” the books to China; however, this adds extra costs. As a result, the publisher is forced to be more than confident we’ll be worth the trouble, and that the book will be strong enough to sell itself.
Self-Publishing Quickly realizing the odds were against us, we decided to take the risk ourselves. Self-publishing gave us freedom to test the market for our work, adjust and edit according to the feedback, and then go back to publishers with solid arguments to distribute more broadly.
In China, self-publishing is relatively easy and inexpensive provided one understands the process. The first pitfall most self-publishers fall into is having unrealistic expectations of the timeline. It’s commonly believed bringing a book into being takes just a couple of weeks, particularly in China where everything seems immediate. But it can take six weeks to a few months.
Before even approaching a printer, a book needs to be designed, typeset, paginated, and put into a PDF format. Then it needs to go through two to three rounds of further editing/proofing by an objective editor. These rounds of editing are crucial. In self-publishing, it is easy to yield to protective feelings of your work and make mistakes that will result in a lesser quality product. Listening to the right people will keep your book from coming across as amateurish. Printing Priorities Once a manuscript is finished, the next step is choosing a printer. For an illustrated, coffee table, or highly designed book, it’s wise to get a full printed sample before committing to a printer. This way one can really see what the book looks like, and can use it to obtain accurate printing quotations. Keep in mind that digital printing is different from traditional (ink) printing in that the colors are vastly different. Choose your printer based on quality, convenience and access – not just price. We chose a printer with which Monika had already worked. While they were not the cheapest, they were reliable and located in Shanghai so we saved expenses on headaches and travel. Also, choose a modest first print run based on your estimation of initial interest; we chose 250. Keep in mind that you can always print more later.
We waited until we had the book in hand to start the process of networking and searching for placement in earnest. Marketing has the most impact when it can be followed immediately with the product. Once out, we promoted with confidence. We reached people with every theme in “Mika the Picky the Eater” – language instruction, the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables, the role of family in healthy living. We shamelessly tapped on the shoulders of our network – our childrens’ preschools, friends at The Kitchen (a cooking school that emphasizes fresh, local and organic produce), and friends at Fields China (a high-quality online grocer). We also talked liberally to strangers.
One result was a fortuitous connection that ultimately put us back in touch with Chinese publishing. Chen Weiye, owner of Garden Books, was not only receptive to our bilingual book, he also agreed to publish our next runs (in Hong Kong and import back; we pay the production costs, he provides the ISBN number and distribution) and help us distribute outside of Shanghai. He provided sound advice on the Chinese market: produce a box set, four books or more, to sell together and/or separately. The reasoning is that this makes it cheaper to print in aggregate, and is a more attractive package to the Chinese consumer. He has also repeatedly emphasized that the continued success of our books depends on our own continued efforts to sell.
As a result, our marketing efforts are expanding. We are currently working on a children’s cookbook with The Kitchen to pair with “Mika.” We are helping organize “Growing up Healthy” in Shanghai, an event on healthy eating in Shanghai to be held in April. In addition, we are working on three more bilingual titles, with “Sasha the Stubborn Sleeper” the next to be published.
Monika Lin worked as Art Director for a publishing company in Shanghai for 2.5 years before returning to the studio, teaching, and freelance design. Find her at http://www.monikalin.com.
Rashmi Jolly Dalai has been a writer, editor and teacher in both New York and Shanghai. She and her blog can be found at www.rashmijollydalai.com.