HarperCollins has paid US$60,000 to buy the English copyright of the Chinese novel "Zu Jie" ("Concession" ×a??), a noir suspense novel set in the 1930s in Shanghai's former French concession.
The novel by Shanghai author Xiao Bai sold only moderately well in China, but it has the elements that appeal to Western readers.
It's a complicated tale of love, espionage and assassination. The characters include a Chinese-French photographer with a White Russian lover who also sells weapons, and a mysterious Chinese woman he meets on a ship from Hong Kong to Shanghai.
Titled "French Concession," it is scheduled to be published in 2015.
The Italian translation has already been published by Sellerio Editore, while copyrights in French, Dutch and German have also been sold.
This is a rare case of a sizeable overseas book deal for Chinese fiction, considering that copyrights of works by well-established writers such as Bi Feiyu, Wang Anyi and Mo Yan (before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year) were usually sold for US$2,000-US$5,000.
The book was not pitched as a bestseller in China or the work of a big-name writer, but as a tale that appeals to Western tastes.
The deal is only surpassed in value by "Wolf Totem," for which Penguin paid US$100,000 in 2006. A bestseller in China, it is about the experience of a young man and a wolf in the grasslands of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976). The book sold more than two million copies in Chinese and won the first Man Asian Literary Prize.
"Zu Jie" was not a Chinese bestseller, according to Chen Jie, rights manager at Shanghai 99 Readers Culture Co Ltd, the book's Chinese publisher who facilitated the deal.
"It's better to make recommendations based on what Western readers might like rather than trying to sell bestselling Chinese authors or books to the West," Chen tells Shanghai Daily.
Before "Zu Jie" was published in 2011, Xiao Bai had written one other novel and a few essays.
"The story is set in 1930s Shanghai, a time period where foreigners played a major role. The protagonists are of international backgrounds - there are foreigners, half Chinese, and Chinese with overseas experience - potentially interesting and easier for foreign readers who often don't know much about China," Chen says.
And it is suspense, a genre that isn't very popular in China but sells solidly in the West, Chen says. It is also very well-structured and well-written.
"That's why we put in a lot of effort recommending it to foreign publishers from the very beginning," she says.
Both the book's American editor Terry Karten and Italian editor Mattia Carratello tell Shanghai Daily that they are impressed by the book as literary noir fiction with a story well-told.
"I was impressed with the story and the way it is told, the narrative pacing and rhythm, the setting, the characters, and the historical detail. I couldn't think of another 'literary noir' novel set in Shanghai at this particular time," says Karten, executive editor of HarperCollins Publishers.
"What I look for in international fiction is really not much different from what I look for in American fiction. I'm excited by something fresh and original, something unlike anything else I've read. I love a good story, interesting characters, a landscape or setting with which I'm unfamiliar," he adds.
Breaking through to Western publishers "is extremely difficult," Chen says, adding that major publishing houses often only accept recommendations from scouting agencies they have worked with for a long time.
In the case of "Zu Jie," the Chinese company's many years of collaboration with foreign publishers helped, as did its hiring of foreign copyright managers.
"Western publishing is a completely different world and has its own rules and circle. It took us all these years, attending international book fairs around the world, making acquaintances with foreign publishers and scout agencies, and establishing our own portfolio and reputation - to just start getting there," Chen says.
It recently sold copyright to a Spanish publisher of a book of illustrations that is yet to be published in China. Chen says Spanish readers will appreciate the content.
All these efforts helped 99 Readers promote "Zu Jie" to Western publishers, most of whom don't read Chinese and are not familiar with Chinese authors and books.
The book's Italian publisher Sellerio Editore, the first Western publisher to get involved, is keen on promoting contemporary Chinese works in Italy. The publisher works with readers and translators from the Department of Chinese Literature of the University of Venice to address language and cultural issues.
The company recently published "Massage" by Bi Feiyu and will soon release "Running Across Zhongguancun Street" by Xu Zechen.
"The novel ("Zu Jie") is selling very well in Italy and the critical reaction is excellent," says Carratello. "We feel it will sell for a long time and open new ground for Italian readers to trust us about Chinese literature."
American editor Karten, a literary fiction editor whose list includes international authors, also believes good Chinese novels open doors.
"I think readers will come to Chinese novels of quality and originality, books that offer something new, something that Western literature does not," she says.
The Italian edition was key to the size of the deal for "Zu Jie." Chen says a few publishers who read the Italian version bid for the rights and drove the price beyond expectations.
"I don't read Chinese," executive editor Karten says. "I managed to get a copy of the Italian translation and it was this version that inspired me to make an offer for it."
Often times, translations don't do well in the English-language market.
Many Chinese novels were first published in Europe, especially in France or Germany, before the English publishers read the books in French or German and picked up the deal.
The Chinese government and publishers have worked for years to increase the level of cultural exchange, including books.
When Penguin's US$100,000 deal for "Wolf Totem" was announced in 2005, many in the publishing industry considered it exceptionally significant and hoped it would lead to more deals and better overseas promotion of contemporary Chinese novels.
That did not happen.
Although many non-fiction books about China, often written by non-Chinese, have done well in the West, Chinese novels have had difficulty.
Publishers and critics attribute this to lack of good translations, huge cultural differences that often require long footnotes that interrupt the reader, and general lack of interest from Western publishers.
Chinese novels are often translated and published in the West by publishers specializing in translated foreign literature and academic works, and their aim is not to make big money.
Mo Yan's winning of Nobel Prize for Literature greatly promoted sales of his novels in the West and drew attention to Chinese writers, but overall, overseas publication of Chinese novels is halting.
"I believe Chinese books, and especially Chinese literary fiction, can and will sell well in Italy and all over the world," Carratello concludes.
"It will take time. We publishers have a responsibility to publish the very best, to translate well and to cultivate our readers."