- Language Tips
The need for literary agents - a vital third party between publishers and writers - has become a hot topic in Chinese publishing since a February announcement by the country's first Nobel laureate in literature.
To concentrate on his writing, Mo Yan, whose real name is Guan Moye, announced in mid-February that his daughter Guan Xiaoxiao has full rights to represent him in copyright talks and any other negotiations on cooperation.
"I recognize any commitments and signing my daughter does," Mo said.
Established Chinese writers, including Mo, are not as lucky as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Dan Brown, who have handy literary agents around to sell their stories worldwide and save them the trouble of squabbling over contract details with publishers.
Chi Li, known for her realistic novels on grassroots life, said she has six assistants, including her daughter, to help with her affairs besides writing.
"But none of them are real jack-of-all-trades like literary agents," Chi told Chinese media.
Chinese publishing professionals believe the lack of a mature literary agent mechanism has pushed writers to employ relatives as trustworthy middlemen.
Though there are already scattered efforts, the rise of a new profession will boost Chinese writing and promote Chinese writers to a more global audience, they said.
"Without the agents, the writers' domestic copyright authorization is sometimes a mess, as their works are often published by several different publishers, which is harmful for publishers to utilize their talent to the best," Liu Feng, veteran publisher and editor-in-chief of Yilin Press, told China Daily, "not to speak of publishing the writers abroad".
Liu has had business talks with Deborah Owen, who represents Israeli writer Amos Oz and has sold Oz's works into 39 languages.
"They joke that their cooperation is like a marriage," Liu said, adding that good agents are good for the whole business.
Chinese publishers and writers have also tasted the power of literary agents as in the case of Carmen Balcells and Toby Eady.
An agent for six Nobel-winning writers, Balcells has finally approved the publication of authorized Chinese versions of Garcia Marquez on the Chinese mainland after the publisher Thinkingdom House tried all means. The first book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, appeared in 2011 and has since led to a series of phenomenal successes.
Eady is the one who made both the Chinese publishers and officials aware of the importance of literary agents. Through his channels, Chinese scholar Yu Dan's Confucius from the Heart has been translated into 28 languages and has made bestseller lists in the Western world, becoming a legend in the global performance of Chinese books.
Believing a "book is about human thinking and observation of life", Eady told China Daily on Friday in an e-mail that an agent should "have a brave and talented mind to find a writer to write a book to make people think, understand how important that the personal supports to the writers are, and has a knowledge to organize the publicity with publishers", besides a willingness to take time and take risks.
"The Chinese have not got very much knowledge and respect to the literary agent yet," Eady added.
One possible reason for that is the relatively low payment for writing. Generally, a literary agent takes 10 to 20 percent from a writer's royalty gains. Not all Chinese authors can afford a professional agent.
"In China, as in many Asian countries, there is not a very strong demand in the domestic publishing market for the services of literary agents, except very successful big authors," Jackie Huang Jiakun, chief representative of Andrew Nurnberg Associates International's Beijing office, told China Daily on Friday.
Huang said Chinese writers do need to choose to work with a capable literary agent when they want to go abroad to publish books.
Besides foreign agencies working in China like Nurnberg, several local ones have been making efforts.
Guo Jingming, a star writer for teens, is building a literary kingdom by representing and guiding younger writers with his Zuibook company.
Guo was praised by Chen Liming, president of Beijing Genuine and Profound Culture Development Corp, who has been offering literary agent-like services to top Chinese writers including Mo and Mai Jia, known for his spy and detective novels.
Chen told China Daily on Friday that he is trying to innovate with the existing modes of literary agents in foreign countries to build a new one that suits the Chinese market, and its urge to go global.
"We'd be a powerful organization with more than 10 teams of professional agents for different types of writers with a combination of services in editing, copyright trades, production development and all," Chen said, "just as the VIP sections in the big banks".
Chen said a big block in front of him is the lack of talent.
In this respect, Yilin's Liu suggests government support in the budding period of literary agents.
To that end, Jia Huili, an official with the General Administration of Press and Publication, said that the administration is planning and pushing ahead with a project that involves top Chinese publishers to represent and promote 20 top writers from home and abroad with custom-made services.
(China Daily 03/02/2013 page1)