Taiwan's publishing industry needs South East Asia

by on Monday, 07 February 2011 Comments
The future of the Taiwanese cultural creative industry lies not in the East or the North, nor does it lie in the West. It lies in South East Asia.


South East Asia as Taiwan’s economic and trade partner

Since the beginning of 2010 the Taiwanese government has been busy trying to sign the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China and therefore hoping to enter the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) market via this agreement. This shows the close connections between South East Asia and Taiwan as economic and trade partners and how important the market is to Taiwan’s economic development.

As a matter of fact, South East Asia is a very important trade partner for Taiwan. ASEAN+1 (including China and Hong Kong) accounts for more than 50% of Taiwan’s total exports and is the third largest export market for Taiwan.

However, except for the Taiwanese businessmen in South East Asia and a few (if any) scholars and researchers who study the economy and culture there, Taiwanese society does not actually know much about South East Asia.

Taiwan is a country firmly based in the Asian community and South East Asia is a neighbour that has very close economic, trading and cultural connections with us. There are 400 thousand foreign workers and more than 30 thousand foreign spouses in Taiwan - most are from South East Asia. They are part of our everyday lives and yet it is hard to imagine that we know so little about them. Taiwan should treat South East Asia as a very important region.

No interaction of publishing industries between the two regions


The publishing industry is an exception to the burgeoning trade mentioned above; there is almost no interaction between the publishing industries of Taiwan and South East Asia.


I did some research on the four million books published in the Taiwan market every year - known for its focus on foreign translated texts - and found two interesting facts:

  1. Most books about South East Asia are travel-related; there are seldom any books about politics, the economy, society or culture.
  2. Although most revenue in Taiwanese publishing comes from foreign translated texts, there is only a pitifully small number of books that are translated from South East Asian languages - maybe a few from Thailand.

The first thought about South East Asia that comes to mind for an average Taiwanese person is foreign workers and spouses. It is possibly because those demographics take up too much of the Taiwanese society’s imagination. We think countries in South East Asia are “poor”, “uncivilised” and “inferior” to us; plus the Taiwanese society is accustomed to getting information from Europe, America, Japan and so on, often overlooking the huge potential of the cultural consumption market in South East Asia.

Would Taiwan rather be a comprador for the European, American and Japanese cultural consumption markets?


The most profitable merchandise for current Taiwanese publishers to sell is bought from European, American and Japanese publishing houses through copyright agents: rights on translating foreign best sellers into traditional Chinese.

To some extents, the Taiwanese publishing industry is doing what the electronics industry in Taiwan is doing - Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM). What is different between the two industries is that the products manufactured by the electronics industry are sold to electronic users worldwide. However, the products that are manufactured by the publishing industry are sold only to those who read Traditional Chinese, that is Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, and some Singaporean and Malaysian readers.

Although most countries in the world politically recognise “one China”, when it comes to copyrights for books they are determined to separate China and Taiwan into two different markets. Taiwanese publishers can only buy the rights to translate books into Traditional Chinese and sell them to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau - a market of only 30 million people. The Taiwanese publishing industry can only stare at the Chinese market (where there are only Simplified Chinese readers) with a population of over one billion, and do nothing.

I believe that the main reason why the Taiwanese publishing industry has been doing OEM is that many Taiwanese “social/ cultural elites” who have studied in Europe, America and Japa, recognise the cultures of these countries as the cultures to look up to. They demonstrate something of a “colonial mentality”, feeling that Taiwan’s culture is inferior to these larger cultural hegemons. We never looked to countries who are “similar” or “inferior” to us, instead, we only saw those who are “better” than us, thereby making Taiwan one of the most important markets for the European, American and Japanese publishing export industries.

The possibility of changing the target market


Looking at Taiwan from a different angle - putting Taiwan next to the South East Asian countries instead of Europe, America and Japan- one would find that Taiwan is actually a “model student” of the South East Asian community. The lifestyle of Taiwan is the ideal that countries in South East Asia aspire to. For South East Asia, Taiwan is no longer a country that falls behind in its cultural development. I believe that Taiwan’s economic achievements, democracy, lifestyle and pop culture are what the ten countries in South East Asia are eager to learn from and come in to contact with.

South East Asian countries have a huge population of 600 million people and are about to enter into the middle-class society (with an annual earning of about US $3,000). It is a market with huge potential in cultural consumption.

I believe that for Taiwan to overcome the reduction of consumption power in books caused by economic downturns and to prosper its publishing industry, it should encourage local writing talents to plan ahead by exporting their works to South East Asia.

However, Taiwan’s efforts in trying to sell book copyrights to South East Asia are far from enough, especially when comparing to the number of book exhibitions we have attended in Frankfurt or Tokyo and how proactive we have been in buying book copyrights from Europe, America and Japan.

Taiwanese publishers have not even tried to sell books written by Taiwanese local writers to the large market of Simplified Chinese readers in Singapore and Malaysia, let along selling books to countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and so on.

Some might say that Taiwan lacks people with relevant abilities to develop these markets. However, the almost 4,000 foreign spouses in Taiwan and their children (who are also bilingual, being able to speak the native language of their foreign father/mother) can be the best interpreters for Taiwan to export our culture to South East Asia. The question is: have we paid enough attention to these childrens’ education and their futures? Has Taiwan fully utilised their talents?

During the 70s and 80s, Taiwanese pop culture - music and film - owned a large market share in South East Asia. For Taiwan to once again export its culture to this region is not a brand new approach.

If Taiwanese publishers can change their way of thinking - become exporters of book copyrights instead of being importers - South East Asia will be the best place for Taiwan to export its culture to, and the most important market for Taiwan to invest its cultural creative products in.

Cultural consumption between countries has a food chain-like relationship that is unfair: it is easier for “culturally superior countries” to sell their cultural products to “culturally inferior countries” rather than the other way around. Imagine a book written and its copyright is owned by an Taiwanese publisher: will it be easier to sell its copyright to the ten countries in South East Asia, or countries like America, Britain, Germany, France or Japan?

We cannot do without South East Asia


Taiwan has been trying to develop its cultural creative industry for ten years. For the publishing industry to try and expand its market we cannot rely only on cultural OEM, but must produce and export our own products.

For Taiwan to successfully export its cultural-related products overseas, Europe, America and Japan certainly must not be our current major targets. We should not be overly optimistic about the Chinese market because although there is a population of over one billion people in China, there is only an estimated one hundred million cultural consumers there. It doesn’t look like the number of the cultural consuming population is going to increase anytime soon. In China, the initial number of copies printed for a book is about eight to ten thousand, only about four to five times the number printed in Taiwan. Even for books that sell well in China, the number of copies printed has never reached the one million mark. The Chinese market alone cannot be the future of the Taiwanese publishing industry; the South East Asian market needs to come into the picture too. Taiwan must consider the market which is most likely to import our books on a consistent basis.

If we are willing to change our minds, we can utilise Taiwan’s advantage in South East Asia by investing in the relatively cultural inferior and friendlier South East Asian market. For example, the Taiwanese publishing union and/or associations should regularly attend book exhibitions in ASEAN countries, or form publishing teams to regularly promote Taiwanese books to ASEAN publishers.

The government should participate by encouraging Taiwanese publishers to sell copyrights of Taiwanese books to South East Asia by subsidising their promotion program. Take Holland for example, the Dutch government subsidises all expenses required for translations into foreign languages of all books written by its citizens.

Most importantly, the Taiwanese government should help Taiwanese publishers to build a channel of distribution of Taiwanese books to South East Asia so all good Taiwanese books can be sold to countries in South East Asia via copyright agents. In the future, this channel of distribution will be similar to the ones Europe, America and Japan currently have with Taiwan. Taiwanese publications will be able to enter into the South East Asian market, which has a population of six hundred million people, making the Taiwanese publishing industry one of the world elite.

The combined population of the ten countries in South East Asia (even if there is only a population of 60 million cultural consumers), plus the 40 million people in South Korea, would be equivalent to the size of the Chinese market. As long as Taiwan carefully manages its book copyright trading and promotes its local books, we will be able to expand the scale of our publishing industry.

Let’s look at the “light novels” as an example- a style of novel which has became very popular in Taiwan in recent years. A new light novel written by a well-known Taiwanese author would be able to go international, increasing its potential for sales more than before (not just the two or three thousand copies in Taiwan, but tens of thousands of copies in South East Asia). If the novel becomes really popular, it can even be made into comics, a TV series, movies, video games and so on- a business with unlimited potential.

Rather than for Taiwan to go and fight for a share of the declining and unpredictable European, American and Japanese markets, making thin margins on doing publishing OEM, we should invest in distributing our own local copyrights to South East Asia. This is where the future of the Taiwanese publishing industry lies.

Translated from Chinese by Jason Chen. Photo by ruben i

Qian-Ren Wang (王乾任)


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