One of the jobs I was given by Harlequin was to see if we could open up the Chinese market for our books.
In the main centres we always got the same story: print run about 10 000. Selling price calculated on the amount of paper used. It seemed that the 23 000 Xinhua book stores could just absorb the print runs and from the appearance of many of them, there were lots of fly-blown books left lying around in the stores and plenty of unopened packages. The staff seemed moribund and disinterested.
In my perambulations round China trying to find out how the market actually worked I went to Chengdu, in the country’s far west Sichuan province, partly as a result of having read ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang. Three days walking the streets with my good Chinese friend Vincent Lo (Wen Sen Lo) we did indeed uncover what seemed to be how the book industry worked. However. this is not the main point of the story. Once we had done our homework Vincent and I decided to do some more exploration and took a taxi about 200 k’s north west of the city. We stopped in various small ‘restaurants’ and visited a Dao temple.
Later we came across a roadside stall being looked after by a teenage boy. After a brief conversation he pointed down a muddy track and suggested we talk to his family and it was there that we really did learn something.
There were three generations living in the house. The family lived upstairs, and the farm animals were accommodated downstairs, which included a water buffalo, some pigs and poultry. We were invited in for a cup of tea.
The head of the household, told us he was aged 58. He was very welcoming and intrigued by the visit, I was certainly the only non-Chinese person to have ever stepped inside his home.
The first part of the conversation was all about his own situation- he told us his ownership of the land he occupied had now been recognised (the title deeds to his property had never been burnt or destroyed, as he had been instructed to do). As a result, he had been able to dispense with the services the people who had been dumped on him as part of Mao’s collectivisation programme. There was still an obligation to pay the central authority a rent of a certain number of bags of rice every year, but since the restoration of his ownership of the property he had been able to make the land much, much more productive and was therefore able to sell his surplus rice production at good prices (possibly guaranteed by the Chinese Government). He obviously considered himself to be well-off. This was all part of the major reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping, who came to power after Mao’s death in 1976. I only realised afterwards that this was the very beginning of the massive growth experienced by China since then- what Deng has obviously understood was that he was able to release the massive unutilised capacity in the rural part of China and this was the result.
He then asked us what we were doing. When we told him we were aiming to sell books, he literally fell of his chair laughing. “Books,” he said. “Mao made us burn all the books twenty or more years ago and they have stayed burnt. There is no book store in the local village, go and have a look.” We did, and he was right.
So we wrote 800 million people out of our plan as a result of this conversation.
We finally identified our actual maximum market in China was about 120 million adult women, scattered all over the country, not 1.3 billion, as the uninformed kept referring to the then population of China.
I suppose the lesson we learnt from this was ‘Do your homework and don’t believe everything you hear’.