China's publishers struggle to overcome book piracy

World Some 40 per cent of books sold in China are counterfeit and there are 500 million unauthorised books produced a year.

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Beijing // Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem, a fictional, philosophical account of life in the 1970s in the remote border area between China and Mongolia, is one of the great publishing success stories in China. It strikes a chord in an emerging nation with its description of the struggle between traditional mores and encroaching modernity. The film rights sold for millions of yuan, the esteemed French director Jean-Jacques Annaud will make a film version of it, and more than 2.5 million copies of the book were sold in China.

A great success, but Wolf Totem is also one of the most heavily pirated books in Chinese history. About an astonishing 17 million pirated copies of Wolf Totem are believed to be in circulation, and the book is just one of hundreds of best-sellers which are counterfeited and sold on the streets and in shops all over China. The book black market is a multi-billion yuan business but one which is difficult to quantify in financial terms. By some estimates, 40 per

cent of books sold in China are counterfeit and there are 500 million unauthorised books produced a year. "The financial crisis hasn't had such a big impact on our sales - between November and April we shipped over 100 million books, and sales are seeing double-digit growth rates year-on-year," said Shao Tian, the deputy general manager of the books section of the Jieli publishing house. "But piracy has affected our business. I can't give you an exact number of how much we've lost as it's difficult to estimate," added Mr Shao. "Piracy is an infringement of the rights of our authors, our publishing house and our readers. Some readers buy very cheap books which appear to be published by us, but they don't know the books are pirated," he said. "The pirated books' quality is always bad, it can't be guaranteed. So

these readers think we publish bad quality books, which isn't true. Therefore piracy has a bad impact on our company," said Mr Shao. It is an old problem in China. Back in the 1920s, the author Lu Xun fought a running battle with pirates, and inserted special anti-counterfeit labels in his books. It can also affect very reputable companies. In March 2007, China's version of Amazon,, was forced to apologise after Han Zhongliang, the president of the Chunfeng Literature Publishing House, threatened to sue the online bookstore after it found 12 books with the Chunfeng imprint of whom only two had actually been published by them.

The pirate book business shares many of the characteristics of the fake CD or clothing business. There are varying degrees of quality, and printing plants are often located in out-of-the-way places to make them difficult for law enforcement officials to track them down. Occasionally, the printing presses operate with the agreement of local authorities, who take advantage of the revenue stream, according to

Intellectual Property Rights lawyers. With modern printing technology, there is no reason why a pirated version of a book should not be of similar quality to the original. For a 400-page book, with relatively few illustrations and diagrams, it only takes a couple of hours to scan in and make up the plates. With an average printing plant able to 5,000 books in short order, a good-quality version can hit the streets within two days of the original.

And not always in the original. In the weeks before the release of each new Harry Potter book, the streets are full of knock-offs that have nothing to do with the JK Rowling franchise, where he is known as "Hali Bote". Some of these are pretty imaginative, Harry Potter and the Monkey King manages to combine the modern wizard with the ancient Chinese legendary warrior. Harry Potter and the Chinese Empire sounds a bit more challenging.

School books are a big part of the pirated literature business. The big sellers are English language text books needed for college entrance, accountancy and civil service exams and computer science literatures. Depending on the quality of the pirated copies, a fake book can often be sold as "real", at full price or at a small discount, although some cheap and cheerful editions, particularly when it comes to school textbooks, sell at 70-80 per cent of the list prices. A recent report by the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper found that the pirate book business has a higher rate of return than the arms industry. One former pirate joked in the report that the return on selling a pirated textbook wholesale is higher than that on an F-22 Raptor, the world's most advanced fighter aircraft.

Competition is also fierce, as China's free enterprise market translates into more sellers entering the market. At one stage, a National Law Exam textbook could be worth 15 yuan (Dh8), but a greater number of printers means that a set is worth around seven or eight yuan (Dh 3.75/4.30). Generally, politically sensitive material, especially if it is critical of the government, is less likely to be pirated, certainly not commercially. Authorities are quick to clamp down on anyone who appears to be widely disseminating political tracts, such as the memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, which dealt with the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Foreign booksellers are losing out on revenues too. The US has complained about China to the World Trade Organisation, and the WTO recently ruled against China's system of importing and distributing books, saying it breaks international trade rules and should be revised. The General Administration of Press and Publications regularly announces inititiatives to try and stem the black market, but it is a difficult task.

This October, China will be the featured country at the Frankfurt Book Fair and the country's efforts to stamp out piracy are likely to be hotly discussed. In one great anecdote, the writer Nanpai Sanshu, who wrote the Tomb Raider series, had dinner with his publisher Shen Haobo then walked back to the Mo Tie Culture building, outside which was a pirate bookstall. One of the titles on sale was Tomb Raider, and Nanpai Sanshu sighed and told the pirate bookseller who he was. The seller paused for a while, then smiled, pulled out a collected Tomb Raider book and said: "Can you sign this one for me?"