Taking on the Chinese publishing challenge

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With its large population and growing economy, China is an attractive market but language and cultural differences present considerable challenges. Sarah Philip and Adrian Stanley of The Charlesworth Group offer advice about how publishers can make their mark in the country

During recent years, growth in the purchasing of foreign-language journals by the Chinese
has created much interest in the market by overseas scholarly publishers. This sales growth can also in part be attributed to China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and its government’s 2001 intervention to restrict pirating of publications, which previously was commonplace.

Opportunities for publishers from countries such as the UK and USA to develop new revenue streams from their existing journal content through online and print subscription sales are the main drivers for this interest. There has also been an increase in submissions of articles by Chinese authors. And the previously restricted access by the Chinese government is now giving way to funding for the acquisition of scholarly knowledge through the appropriate channels.

The main subject areas of interest to Chinese researchers are science, technology and medicine. Other popular fields include the environment, ecology and management.

Generally, making content available online in a user-friendly format is one of the most important requirements for gaining acceptance in the Chinese market, although there is also an interest in the print format of journals. For the best usage levels, online content should be hosted on a Chinese server or accessed via a dedicated high-speed bridge. This avoids some users incurring costs for accessing sites from outside China and is the most effective route to reach the end user.

Language matters

In China, English is taken as the language of science, because it is perceived by the Chinese to be international or global. Most readers and researchers are English-speaking so it is acceptable that content from foreign (e.g. UK or US) journals and publications are not translated.

However, providing the navigation and user information in the local language gives a more user-friendly interface. This is especially important where Chinese librarians take on the role of gate keepers to academic content. Their English tends not to be as good as that of the researchers, so it is important to provide them with information in Chinese to ensure they make the appropriate content available to users.

Such communication, as well as cultural issues, also present challenges for the task of selling into China. Establishing a base or some physical presence in China is a big advantage for those serious about doing business there.

Having the right connections or ‘guanxi’ and building up relationships with the right people has been key to success in this very complex market place. People who understand the market and are able to build relationships face to face are needed ‘on the ground’, providing the necessary presence and support to effectively do business. Showing a commitment to the market through such a local presence with the right personnel in place helps build the necessary trust and respect as well as having someone well placed to recognise opportunities as they arise.

Beijing is the premier location for publishing because the government and its decision-makers are based in the city. This is closely followed by Shanghai. The right connections and good relationships, especially with the relevant senior government agencies, are essential in finding out where the demand is for scholarly publishing. However, over reliance on one employee for this can be dangerous; if that person leaves so will the connections.

How to enter the market

There are different options for entering the market, each with varying levels of risk attached. The highest risk comes with direct investment. It is very difficult to establish a wholly-owned subsidiary business in China due to government restrictions. This is a particularly high-risk strategy if publishers are not fully prepared with the right experience and knowledge to do business in China. Long-term investment and commitment would be required before any potential rewards may be seen.

At the other end of the scale, sales agents can provide a low-risk presence. However, they tend to concentrate solely on sales and have a ‘one size fits all’ approach that results in lower potential rewards and less control for the publisher.

The way forward for those looking for longer term goals without massive financial investment is to access the market using a partner company such as The Charlesworth Group. A company such as ours will offer strategic marketing planning to help implement the most appropriate approach for a publisher’s needs and objectives in China.

When searching for a suitable partner, look for length of time and experience in the market, evidence of good relations and alliances with Chinese organisations such as government agencies, libraries and universities. Size and fit with your own organisation and objectives are important so that, for example, smaller organisations don’t get overshadowed by greater attention being focused on much larger clients than themselves. Find out if the company has operations in your home country as well as China, and whether communication will take place directly with China or through your regionally-based office. Don’t be afraid to ask for references to be provided from existing clients to back up what is promised.

When assessing options for entering the Chinese market and selecting a partner, visit China and the companies under consideration to see what specific benefits they can offer to your organisation. There are several guided trips run by trade organisations or by companies such as Charlesworth that have established operations in China. Such trips help publishers understand the potential opportunities available to them. Some of these trips are arranged to coincide with the annual Beijing International Book Fair.

From his experience of setting up and doing business in China, executive chairman of The Charlesworth Group, Neil Charlesworth comments, ‘I have often said that to develop sales in China by oneself, a dedicated person is required whose major interest is China.’

Authors and readers

Enrolments to Chinese colleges are increasing by 20 per cent year on year [1]. This trend, combined with the need for papers to be published in order to achieve desired qualifications in graduate education, means that there is no problem in attracting authors. As the number of students at university level increases each year, more research is carried out and more papers are written and read.

The main challenge lies with the quality of papers – many are rejected due to poor English. However, more Chinese authors will undoubtedly get published in both Chinese journals and foreign titles as the quality of papers improves. Universities and research institutes award payments for papers indexed by Thompson’s SCI. Higher payments are made for each paper published in the more prestigious international journals such as Nature or Science.

Nonetheless, the publishing system in China can be restrictive and getting published can be difficult for Chinese authors. Some of the larger international publishers have recognised this and are working more closely with authors to improve their experience of submitting manuscripts and give them assistance, with the ultimate aim of attracting the best Chinese research articles for their own journals. Based on its experience, Charlesworth has also set up editorial and publisher training courses in association with General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) in China.

Trends regarding the moves from print to electronic publishing are similar in China to elsewhere. Facilities in libraries are improving and significant investment is being made by the government. Wider access to foreign academic content is predicted to continue through increasing competition from foreign providers trying to get a slice of the market.

However publishers choose to tackle this challenge, the potential of China both for publisher revenue and original research cannot be denied.


Sarah Philp is marketing manager for The Charlesworth Group; Adrian Stanley is chief executive officer for The Charlesworth Group (USA), Inc and was previously a director in the company’s Beijing office for several years. Charlesworth China, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Charlesworth Group, offers typesetting, journal production services and marketing services from its offices in Beijing

[1] Learned Publishing Vol. 20 No. 1 January 2007 –
China opening up: Chinese university journals and research – today and tomorrow, by Adrian Stanley and Yan Shuai