China Comment

Energy, Environment, and Economy

Publishing in China

Have you ever wondered how a Chinese book gets published? Books in China are once again in the spotlight, due to Google Books’ scanning of Chinese copyright owners’ works without their permission, so I decided to comparatively examine the process of copyright and book publishing in China versus in the United States.

Book Identification Numbers

Anyone can publish a book and sell it in the United States and books are not reviewed by any state agency before publication. Despite the relative ease of publishing and self-distribution, selling a book to stores (and yes, even Amazon) is a bit more complicated. Retail outlets will only order books if they have something called an ISBN number. An ISBN number may only be purchased directly in blocs of 10 for $250 (Although larger bloc purchases of 100 or 1000 are possible) (Source). However, ISBNs can also be purchased individually from a company that previously purchased a bloc of ISBN numbers. These companies then sell ISBNs piecemeal to would-be self-published authors.

Until 2003, all Chinese publishing houses were owned by the state, but the state has gradually decoupled its ownership of publishers (Jing Bartz). The Chinese publishing industry has undergone three phases of changes since 2002. The first stage pre-2002 was government control over publication and oversight of book issuance. The second stage, after WTO entry, from 2003 to 2008 was a time when the state gradually divested both control over publication and oversight degraded. The third state, from 2009 until the present day is another time of tightening or shou of oversight, but loosening (fang) of control regarding publication. (See: Peterson Institute, page 3 for a description of China’s cycles of fang/shou, loosening and tightening, throughout reform periods.)

Books in China, unlike those in the United States, are not supposed to be published and distributed at all unless they have a state-issued identification number, a 书号 (shu hao) from the GAPP (General Administration of Press and Publishing). China today uses ISBN numbers, as can be seen from the back page of any recent-published book from China. These numbers may be purchased only from several state-designated publishing houses. Before 2009, the publishing houses made extra money by buying large numbers of book numbers and then selling them to third parties who were not directly associated with government approved (or run) print houses. (Jing).

A new system went into effect in 2009. The new system issues “book numbers on a per-title basis, eliminating the surplus ISBNs that could be sold off to unlicensed cultural companies.” (Martinsen, Danwei). Apparently, the new system will increase the Government’s influence on the book publishing industry. One Chinese newspaper expresses some fear that books may only be allowed to gain book numbers after being examined and approved by officials or those influenced by officials. (Martinsen, Danwei). Still, the 2003-2008 system has apparently continued in part due to the logistics of implementing the new system–the titles just may be more closely examined by officials than before: “[E]ven under the title-based application system, many publishers are still book number dealers: their books are actually produced by other cultural companies… . For books that have poor sales projections, authors use “self-financed publications” — actually, they buy book numbers from a publisher[,]” (Martinsen, Danwei) which in practice- despite murky legality in China, is similar to the path taken by some U.S. self-published authors.

A China Youth Daily article suggests that implementation of this new system is merely a tightening step enforcing existing laws before the publishing industry becomes more open three to five years (CYD, see second paragraph and phrase beginning “2010年年底…”) after the government decouples its remaining publishing units from their attached bureaus. Still, although these new publishing units may be more vibrant and nimble economically,  that does not necessarily mean the books will not  have to be approved. Under new policies, the censorship process merely shifts back a step as the Government retreats from ownership, but not from supervision.


Copyright in China of a book lasts for 50 years past the author’s death (Article 21). The United States used to limit copyright’s extension to such a limit, but the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act— the “Mickey Mouse” law, passed in 1998, changed the law to “protect” works for up to 70 years after an author’s death.

Book Sales

“China had [about] 544 book publishing houses in 2007, turning out 248,000 varieties of books, of which 136,000 varieties being published for the first time. [NOTE: The 136,000 number is the number commonly used to compare to Britain and the US’ numbers of books released.]” (Hu Dawai’s Comments at Frankfurt Book Fair). In 2003, Britain published 120,000 titles and the United States 175,000 titles. (Beijing Review). (172,000 in the US in 2005)

China’s publishing industry as a whole sold 55 billion RMB of books in 2008 [about 8.5 billion USD.] (Jing). $24.3 billion in books were sold in 2008 in the United States, down from $25 billion in 2007. (Jing).

Appendix and Links

* PRC Copyright Law (english version; bilingual)

* Richard Lea of The Guardian gives a general overview  of Chinese Literature

* Overview of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act.

* US Book Industry Statistics, 2008.

* Religious Book Publishing in China (Interesting).

* China Statistics on Books (2004).

* China Publishing Today (chinese)

* China Books Blog.

* And of course, Danwei.

22 January, 2010 - Posted by | China Economy, China General | , , ,


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff A. Jones, Freelancing Job. Freelancing Job said: Publishing in China « China Comment […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Publishing in China « China Comment -- | 22 January, 2010

  2. Fascinating article. I knew there were limitations on publishing, but I had no idea to what extent — or, for that matter, that things have gotten worse in 2009.

    Sad, because there is such a great audience to reach in China, and all of the restrictions just make it that much difficult for writers and publishers.

    Comment by Jocelyn | 24 January, 2010

  3. The extent of the publishing limitation is terrifying.

    Comment by chinese translator | 17 January, 2011

  4. […] good posts while it lasted.  It seemed to have stalled around May of 2010 but one post about Publishing in China was quite interesting.  There was also one about how China is Aging fast and also about the […]

    Pingback by 12 China Blogs that are Dead or Haven’t Been Updated in a Long Time. | | 26 January, 2011

  5. Much appreciation for the link from M and; with luck China Comment should be able to see a few more articles in the coming months. I still keep up with China books, journal articles, and news; I just need to find/make time to continue to update with quality useful pieces.

    Comment by chinacomment | 27 January, 2011

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