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(Read Part I, “Beijing’s Book Landscape,” here)

By Eric Setzekorn

Dozens of bookstores continue to dot Beijing but recent developments are changing the landscape for readers and publishers by forcing many smaller stores out of the market. Part of this trend is due to advances in public transportation, particularly the enlarged subway system, that make it possible to travel across town for a larger selection and lower prices, leading to a decline in neighborhood bookstores. A less positive part of the bookstore consolidation is the increasing leverage state sector bookstores such as Xinhua can exert on private booksellers using market and political forces. A mixed element in the dynamic Beijing book market is internet-related growth, which has seen the rapid expansion of online booksellers, but the flip side of the internet has been increasing illegal file sharing of e-books which some writers claim results in lost sales. Finally, consumption patterns are changing because although Amazon’s Kindle and other specialized book readers have not become big sellers in China, small LCD tablet screens that can be read on the subway or bus are increasingly popular, promoting new reading habits and tastes.

Although in contemporary China both public and private bookstores use market mechanisms — and must do so to be economically viable in the long run — systematic advantages in money and influence are seen by some to be stifling Beijing’s book market. In many ways, the commercialization of China’s publishing and distribution sectors has seen the entrenchment of government influence rather than its withering away. Xinhua Bookstores are the largest and only country-wide chain of bookstores; in 2006, the chain had over 14,000 stores, giving Xinhua tremendous economy of scale advantages to buy and sell books in bulk and make or break authors. Another key advantage for state sector bookstores, and Xinhua in particular, is their unique legal mandate to sell official school textbooks developed by the Ministry of Education, which is the most lucrative part of the Chinese book market. As if this weren’t enough, Xinhua is a holding of China Publishing Group, a state-owned corporation in the process of obtaining a 1.8 billion RMB initial listing on the Shanghai stock exchange, which will massively increase Xinhua’s access to capital for future expansion. Xinhua Bookstores’ ubiquity is matched by their bland book selection, which often includes large displays of pro-government works and never carries controversial material such as the magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu.

Xinhua’s ability to utilize its government influence was exhibited this spring with the launch of the “Book’s Fair Trade Rule,” which theoretically limits the discount online retailers can offer to 15%. Online vendors such as Dangdang and Joyo Amazon had gained tremendous market share over the past few years by offering sharp discounts and cheap shipping that appealed to many urbanites comfortable with online shopping. Part of the motivation for the rule is the argument that brick-and-mortar bookstores are becoming “show rooms” for books, where readers can browse but then return home to buy their selections at lower prices online. It is unclear, however, whether the “Fair Trade Rule” will actually take effect because it’s a joint edict from the China Publishers Association, Xinhua Bookstore Association, and the China Book Distribution Industry Association, not an official regulation of a government agency. Due to the complex organizational mandate of these three associations to license and inspect publishers, distributors, and bookstores, there is a degree of leverage they can exert but the exact boundaries of their formal power remains vaguely defined.

An opportunity for Beijing’s middle-brow book culture is the rise of e-reader devices and new forms of book consumption by white-collar readers. With many white-collar workers now commuting over an hour each way on buses and subways, small e-reader devices are becoming increasingly common. Most of these devices measure 3 by 4 inches, slightly bigger than a cell phone screen, and lack the ability to use ‘electronic ink’ displays like the Amazon Kindle or the Sony e-Reader. Available for less than 700 RMB, these devices lack wireless features and are loaded with material, normally less than 2 GB, through a USB connection. After the initial investment, the e-readers cost their owners little, as new content is widely available through illegal online downloads and file sharing. The small screen size and cramped environment where these devices are used means that readers use them leaning forward in the way a person reads the newspaper, rather than leaning back like reading a traditional book. This reading posture and the environment these readers are used in may be the reason e-reader selections of a small sample of Beijing readers I spoke to on the subway skewed towards lighter, more sensational works of the Han Han or Guo Jingming variety.

The Lady Book Salon, a shop specializing in books for women

The Lady Book Salon, a shop specializing in books for women

One of the brighter spots for Beijing readers is the growing numbers of book-themed coffee shops and cafes, many of which have a small “library” within them or sales area attached. Particularly in Haidian, it is possible to find cafes aimed at a particular demographic niches — students or women, for example — that have small selections of books and magazines to appeal to their target audience. Another bright spot is the popularity of Japanese manga or Chinese derivatives among many younger readers. Although currently online downloads seem to be the most popular way to get the latest manga in China, throughout Taiwan and Japan many internet cafés offer magazines and manga in addition to food, creating a hybrid bookstore/internet café/restaurant where many young people spend their free time, which might soon be commercially viable in China.

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Beijing Bibliophile

By Eric Setzekorn

Part I: Beijing’s Book Landscape

One of the major advantages Beijing enjoys over other Chinese cities is a vibrant and comprehensive book culture that dates back hundreds of years. Although indistinguishable neighborhood bookshops serve the general reading needs of much of the population, a wide range of more specialized shops are patronized by particular reading groups such as academics and government officials. With the continuing economic development of Beijing and rapid changes in cultural and social dynamics due to increasing gentrification of parts of the city center, easy access to rapid transit and influence of the internet book sellers, traditional bookstores are struggling to adapt. The book landscape of Beijing is comprehensive but geographically dispersed, making shopping — particularly for those in town for a short period of time and reliant on public transportation — very difficult. This brief review is designed to highlight noteworthy bookstores and will, in Part II, briefly explore the changing market dynamics for readers in Beijing.

Beijing Book Building

Beijing Book Building

For mainstream books, the pole star of the Beijing book market is the massive Beijing Book Building, which is part of the Xinhua bookstore chain. Conveniently located at Xidan on West Changan Avenue, directly above the intersections of subway lines 4 and 1, its five stories offer over 300,000 titles spread over 16,000 square meters of floor space. The primary advantage of the store is the massive book selection cutting across all genres. As a government-run business, the Beijing Book Building has to contend with political and economic interests and includes large “Public Morality” and “Success Studies” sections, both of which encourage readers to work hard, serve their country, and trust the Party with the big issues. The basement level is the foreign language section, but this essentially means English-language books. Although the Wangfujing Foreign Languages bookstore (discussed below) might have a few more English-language non-fiction books, Beijing Book Building has far more English-language paperbacks and fiction. It’s indicative of the changing market for foreign books in Beijing that many of the shoppers in the English-language section of the store are Chinese rather than expats, and many young Chinese are reading novels such as the Twilight series in English rather than buying the translated versions. In five to ten years, Chinese students studying in America will likely bring with them reading habits and tastes largely the same as American students, both having been raised on Dora the Explorer, Harry Potter and Twilight.

The Success Studies section at Beijing Book Building

The Success Studies section at Beijing Book Building

The only serious challenger to the Beijing Book Building in terms of size is the Zhongguancun Book Building at the corner of Suzhou Street and the fourth ring road, 250 meters south of Peking University’s west gate. Zhongguancun Book Building has benefited tremendously from the changing landscape of Haidian from a district of cottonwood tree-lined campuses to gleaming hi-tech skyscrapers, and it stocks a wide variety of economic, management, and self-improvement books that appeal to a white-collar demographic. While conventional Party histories appear popular at the mainstream Beijing Book Building, Zhongguancun’s interests are more revisionist, and prominent displays of recent Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo biographies overshadow the dusty biographies of CCP leaders. Zhongguancun has a decent English-language selection that draws exchange students unwilling to travel across town, but poor service, very limited in-store seating, and a continuous music loop of Muzak versions of 1970s rock hits creates an atmosphere that discourages lingering.

For English-language material, the infamous Foreign Languages Bookstore in Wangfujing remains open but is increasingly out of place in the 21st century. Its cracked facade has been repainted, but the store has otherwise preserved its time-capsule feel of dark staircases, strange smelling bathrooms, and slippery tile. Its selection of non-fiction books is still maybe the best in town, but with increasing competition there is no longer any real reason to come here except for nostalgia.

In stark contrast to the Foreign Languages Bookstore’s un-welcoming “buy and get out” atmosphere, the Beijing Bookworm is a new business and cultural model for English-language material that encourages lingering. Located on South Sanlitun, diagonally across from The Village shopping center, it successfully attempts to fuse a bookstore, restaurant, and event room into a unified semi-public space that encourages conversations and browsing across genres. Although its prices are a little on the high side, the Bookworm provides an excellent space for medium-sized book talks, and with numerous academics and intellectuals increasingly passing through Beijing there are no shortage of speakers and discussants for its lively events.

One of the unique aspects of Beijing’s book scene is the presence of high-level government and military bookstores scattered throughout the city. To name a few, the National Defense University, Academy of Military Science, and Central Party School are all located in northwest Haidian near the Summer Palace, each with its own publishing house. These bookstores are an untouched gem for anyone interested in understanding the mentality and opinions of those at the center of China’s government and party institutions. In just one example of the research possibilities of this material, the National Defense University Press publishes many of the dissertations of its students, all senior military officers, which in plain Chinese explain what they feel is important, what policies they favor, and why. It’s unfortunate that these windows into Chinese power are not more utilized, because many of the claims that China’s government — particularly its military — is not transparent could be demolished with one backpack full of books. Although these specialized bookstores accept foreigners, don’t expect a warm welcome, in part because some areas of the store contain “neibu,” or internal material, which is often sensitive and not available for open distribution. When I shopped in a military bookstore, one salesperson stood in the door to the neibu section to block my entry in case I wandered into that area, while another followed me around in case I needed “help.”

All Sages bookstore

All Sages bookstore

For academic and literary works, the renowned All Sages bookstore on Chengfu Lu in Haidian between Qinghua University’s South Gate and Peking University’s East Gate is the outstanding bookstore in Beijing. With a massive selection of academic works on every conceivable subject, All Sages is the place to go when filling your book-shopping list. What really distinguishes All Sages from its competition is a very balanced selection that includes many works from Taiwanese and Hong Kong writers. All Sages is also perhaps the only bookstore in Beijing to employ highly knowledgeable and skilled staff. While picking up books for a Chinese friend in the US, the All Sages staff member not only took me to the appropriate section without using the computer inventory, but also suggested other related areas with relevant material. Not only is the bookstore fantastic and the shopping experience relaxed, but All Sages has an excellent café on the second floor which hosts frequent events and book talks; keep an eye out for intellectual celebrities like Wang Hui while you’re there.

The other outstanding academic bookstore in Beijing is San Wei, located 200 meters west of the Xidan subway stop on the south side of the street. San Wei’s humble two-story building is dwarfed by the massive banks and corporate headquarters on Chang’an Avenue, and while its selection is small it offers a convenient space for lectures and events. The small selection San Wei carries, much of it from its own independent press, pushes the envelope of what is available in Beijing, and many of its talks, such as a legal discussion of public interest litigation, also skirt the boundaries of propriety in politically sensitive Beijing.

Coming far behind All Sages and San Wei in the academic bookstore sphere, Forest Song bookstore is located 100 meters east of the Peking University south gate. Forest Song offers a decent selection but not much character, and the character it has isn’t very good. Located in a converted air defense shelter, Forest Song has claustrophobia-inducing low ceilings and a selection that seems skewed towards CASS (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) reports that include the word ‘empire’ in their titles. There is one small table where patrons can sit and read books discussing the fall of the USSR, American hegemony, and the perils of democracy, but it’s not the kind of bookstore where I want to linger.

For highly specialized academic reading, Haidian Book City is not one main store but a hive of dozens of individual shops that specialize in every conceivable subject, which makes Haidian Book City ideal for finding specific titles within one field but makes browsing across topics difficult. Located opposite the Zhongguancun Book Building on Suzhou Street, 200 meters south of Peking University’s west gate, Haidian Book City’s decentralized structure destroys any atmosphere of calm and reflection, and the sensory overload is probably too much for non-native level speakers.

Check back tomorrow for Part II, “Market Change and New Technology.”

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Daniel Bell and his son Julien teaching in Beijing

Daniel Bell and his son, Julien, teaching together in Beijing

By Daniel A. Bell

China, as everybody knows, is not a politically free country. There are constraints on political activity and many social critics fall afoul of the system. The foreign press often reports on those cases, leading to the impression that it’s impossible to do any good outside of official channels. What is less well known, however, is that some areas of social life that were once politically taboo – such as the plight of migrant workers and environmental concerns – are now openly discussed in the Chinese media. There are also a growing number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that do good work in those areas.

One such NGO in Beijing is called Xiezuozhe 协作者 (Facilitator) which came into being in the spring of 2003, when the SARS crisis hit Beijing. Today, it focuses mainly on the plight of migrant workers in large Chinese cities. Its methods are transparent and non-confrontational and it aims to be a constructive force for social change. The NGO gets funding from Chinese philanthropists and large Western companies, and a couple of years ago I joined my wife – a Chinese national who works for one of their donors – on an outing in a poor district in the outskirts of Beijing. I was impressed by what I saw – highly intelligent and sensitive young people clearly moved by the plight of migrant workers, listening to the workers and their children with respect and no hint of condescension, and thinking of practical ways of ameliorating their situation. So when I heard that they might be looking for English teachers to help with lessons for the children of migrant workers in the small lanes (hutong) of central Beijing, I jumped at the opportunity. My 14-year-old son Julien was also willing to help, and we volunteered as a father-son team.

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We were delighted to come across a piece by Friend of the Blog Michael Meyer (called “About That Book Advance…“) in last week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review section. We figured, based on the author’s track record as a writer (and the insightfulness of his comments when talking about his work), that this piece would be lively and offer some illumination on an interesting topic and that it might also have some China tidbits. Well, it was not just illuminating (explaining how tough it can be for an author to live on what sounds at first like a very good advance, once the agent’s cut and self-employment taxes come into play) but also entertaining (a favorite part: how in literary circles advance amounts are sometimes “coyly described like cigarette brands — the ‘mid-fives,’ the ‘low sixes,’ the ‘mild sevens'”).

But as for China tidbits… there were only two. We learned how much of an advance Meyer got for his book, The Last Days of Old Beijing (as in the spirit of disclosure he tells us precisely: $50,000), and even better we learned that his book will be coming out in paperback next month (take note all those in book groups, as it would work nicely in that setting). What kind of advance, you may be wondering, did we receive for China in 2008? Rather than tell you a number, let’s just say it was in the “barely fours”–so barely that with just a dollar taken away, it would have been a three figure advance (albeit one of the “mighty threes”). Of course, Rowman & Littlefield basically doubled their up-front lay-out by giving each of our contributors a free copy.

After reading the piece, some of us had two thoughts. First, that academics trying their hand at writing for general audiences are lucky to have day jobs to cover the bills. And, second, that it would be nice if the New York Times Sunday Book Review section editors liked Meyer’s essay as much as we did, in which case they might commission a sequel, in this case demystifying the high amounts paid for translation rights. A good starting point might be that famous $100,000 reportedly offered to bring out the English language version of a certain Cry of the Wild with Chinese characteristics, boy meet wolf tale that was criticized and celebrated by different China Beat contributors last year (and incidentally inadvertently helped China Beat earn its first mention in the New York Times’ excellent “Paper Cuts” book blog).

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As an addendum, we wanted to mention this upcoming event with Michael Meyer in New York:

The Last Days of Old Beijing – A Conversation with Author Michael Meyer
May 7th 6:30 – 8:00 pm New York Asia Society and Museum, Auditorium, 725 Park Avenue, New York
Cost: $7 students and members, $10 nonmembers

A longtime Beijing resident, Michael Meyer has, for the past two years, lived as no other Westerner – in a shared courtyard home in Beijing’s oldest neighborhood, Dazhalan, on one of its famed hutong (lanes). As Meyer describes in his book, residents’ bonds are rapidly being torn by forced evictions as century-old houses and ways of life are increasingly destroyed to make way for shopping malls, the capital’s first Wal-Mart, high-rise buildings, and widened streets for cars replacing bicycles.

Meyer will be joined in conversation with Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society. Click on the above link for more information.

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A group of China Beat contributors will be in Beijing this weekend for the Beijing Forum and other events. Jeff Wasserstrom, Ken Pomeranz, Susan Brownell, and Yong Chen will all be speaking at the Forum, which is an annual event that brings together scholars from around the world.

In addition, Jeff Wasserstrom will be making a presentation to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China on “Tales of Two Cities: Public Participation in Urban Politics in Beijing and Shanghai” at 10 a.m. on Monday, November 10. Admission for non-members is 50 RMB. More details are available here (look on the right-hand side for upcoming events).

Ken Pomeranz will be giving a talk at Tsinghua University on Monday, November 10 at 7:20 p.m. at the 图书馆报告厅 (details available here).

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