So Little Time, So Many Memories: The Book Industry Tour to China

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By Barbara Theroux of Fact & Fiction in Missoula, Montana

I recently had the privilege of leading a People to People Book Industry Tour to Beijing and Xi'an, China. The trip was from September 4th through the 14th, and was to have been lead by Russ Lawrence, who had worked with People to People to determine if the book industry might be a professional area in which to expand their programs. Russ invited booksellers to travel and started to develop ideas for professional visits. At the same time Russ and his partner, Jean Matthews, had applied to serve in the Peace Corps, knowing the process of becoming a volunteer can take time. Things happen ... Russ and Jean ended up in Peru, and I ended up in China.

Nancy Olson with Tang Daiwei and Niu Derang at Han Tan Book City in Xi'an.

Our flight was scheduled for take-off at 1:50 a.m. from LAX to Hong Kong, so most of the travelers had to spend the day getting to Los Angeles in order to connect with the international flight. There had been a few e-mail exchanges, but none of the delegation had met face to face. We managed to find each other, however, make introductions, and head to the gate for boarding. Thirteen hours later we were in China!

Delays in getting to the hotel, due to health forms and lost luggage, were appeased by the fresh noodles prepared for our dinner and an early retreat to showers and comfortable beds. We hoped to be rested for orientation in the morning and our first afternoon of meetings, but several travelers were awakened at 1:30 in the morning. Seeing traffic stopped and hundreds of tanks in the streets was indeed fascinating, but what was happening?

At breakfast, we learned that rehearsals for the 60th National Day Celebration take place at midnight in Tian An Men Square, and the night before had been the Army's turn to practice.... We were in China!

The People to People movement was founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who firmly believed that direct interaction between ordinary citizens around the world can promote cultural understanding and world peace. There were 14 members in our Book Industry Delegation -- 10 listed as professionals and four guests. The delegation represented seven different bookstores from across the U.S. -- all members of ABA and most also members of a regional association. Each store has survived competition, economic downturns, and changes in reading habits of their customer base. Several people had recently sold their businesses. Several stores have local authors that receive worldwide attention -- including Chuck Palahniuk and John Grisham. While none of us was an expert, we were experienced booksellers and looked forward to our time in China, meeting their booksellers and industry leaders.

The People to People book industry delegation at Tian An Men Square.

During our trip, we visited bookstores, a book wholesale market, and a village school library -- learning more each day about the nature of bookselling and publishing in China. We also had cultural days to tour Tian An Men Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the Terra-cotta Soldiers. Along the way, we ate some wonderful food and made many new friends.

Our first professional program was a meeting with the China Private Book Industry Committee (CPBIC), one of nine professional working committees of the Books and Periodicals Distribution Association of China. This association is the only national book distribution organization in China. Its members include publishers and book dealers, bookstore owners and managers of all sizes. It was established in 1991 and currently has 5,600 members.

Mr. Xue Ye, president of Guizhou XI Xi Bookstore and director of CPIBC, was our host. Other participants included Ms. Ou Hong, editor-in-chief of China Publishing Today; Mr. Liu Suli of All Sages Bookstore; Ms. Sun Chi of Sun Cultural Promotion Company; and Mr. Jiang Yitan, an author and publisher. At Sunglory Education, informal greetings immediately launched us into questions and exchanges. We assembled around the conference table and proceeded with introductions, but right away we knew we were among friends and like-minded souls. Yang Jie, our guide and interpreter, learned right away of our shared passions, interests, and concerns.

As part of the afternoon session, Sunglory Education gave a presentation on the whole language approach to reading and showed pictures and examples of winning young reader book designs. This company does not sell books in bookstores, but distributes to schools and reading centers. They presented us with a copy of a catalog of student book design winners. The catalog is all in Chinese, but the artistry of the illustrations and the photographs of the school children needed no translation.

Mr. Xue Ye had arranged for dinner that night for all of the Chinese participants and the entire PTP delegation to be hosted by Yao Dan Quian of (the online bookseller of China). We walked from the meeting room to the restaurant still engaged in conversations. We could not have asked for a better beginning for our discussions and a start to the learning process.

Barbara Theroux with the manager of O2 Sun Bookstore in the Wudaokou district of Beijing.

Other Beijing highlights included time with Mr. Sun, manager of O2Sun Bookstore in the Wudaokou district, and Mr. Lui Suli, manager of All Sages Bookstore. These stores had different ways to market and different books to sell, but both places had much for us to explore. O2Sun is a small chain with 13 stores across China. The sunflower is part of its logo, and many of its marketing techniques seemed similar to stores in the U.S. -- signs with new releases and rules for books in the coffeehouse. Two marketing techniques of note: a blank book with a few sketches placed throughout with scenes from the different stores; and a packet of postcards with a perforated coupon for discounts on books.

All Sages Bookstore had a small, unassuming street-level entrance, but as you walked upstairs, lighted display cases gave hints of the treasures ahead. This was one of the largest inventories of academic books I had ever seen -- room after room. Our time sitting in The Thinker's Coffee Shop talking about books and bookselling with Mr. Lui Suli was far too short.

In Xi'an, we visited Han Tang Book City to meet with Mr. Tang Daiwei, CEO and general manager; Mr. Niu Derang, executive chairman; and Ms. Luo Xiuzhen, manager of the Book City store. As we waited for the doors to open, we commented on the large number of customers waiting to get in, and the two large bank machines by the doors. This store is one of 10 across China, and has over 300,000 titles on three floors of selling space.

We met in a beautiful conference room that was the size of most of our stores. There was a large section of books in English, and Chinese editions of Grisham and Palahniuk were purchased. One marketing tip was the banding of books: when the purchase was made, instead of offering a bag, the books were banded together with a self adhesive strip featuring the store logo.

Chinese booksellers are concerned about price regulation and online book sale -- much like American booksellers. However, they also have state-owned bookstores and the state in general to contend with -- all publishers are state owned, all ISBN numbers are controlled by the state. China currently has 579 publishing houses that belong to different government bureaus or universities. Presently, China does not have private publishing houses, but many publishing houses have learned the ropes of operating in a competitive market economy and have launched private "cultural companies" to handle packaging, corporate development planning, marketing, and other facets of their business. Some of the larger bookstore chains also have "cultural companies," which seem to allow private funding or financial backing toward the expansion of businesses.

Marketing issues were discussed. We were able to talk about the ABA IndieBound program and presented "Peace. Love. Books." bags containing other gifts to our Chinese counterparts.

Two observations made about our group were the number of women and the age of the delegation, so we talked about the Emerging Leaders meetings and networking opportunities at ABA.

My fellow booksellers on this adventure were: Robin Dunn of St. John's College; Nancy Olson and Sarah Goddin of Quail Ridge Books & Music; Luanne Kreutzer of St. Helens Book Shop; Joyce Moore and Allen Moore of City Lights Bookstore (NC); Mary Gay Shipley of That Bookstore in Blytheville; and Mary Ann Steele of Mary Ann's Mostly Books.

Our 10 days together were grand and full of many memories -- even the departure from Hong Kong in a typhoon with sheets of water blowing across the tarmac...