The Last Book Seller

10 January 2017

It is snowing as I write this, a whirl of white that looks charming viewed from the snug warmth of my American home.

I am thinking of another writer in far less comfortable circumstances.

His name is Michael Gui Minhai. He was abducted well over a year ago, and is believed to be still under detention in mainland China. Gui, a Swedish citizen, was abducted under murky circumstances mainly linked to his role putting out numerous books critical to China’s leadership.

I never met Gui, nor his four other colleagues who were also abducted under similar circumstances. (They were later released.) Nonetheless, their abductions set in train my actions to give away a free version of my book, at a not inconsiderable cost to myself.

While the business of criticizing Beijing has always been somewhat hazardous, I cannot think of a time in recent history when it has been more difficult, if not to say dangerous, to do so.

President Xi Jinping has placed significant curbs on free speech since he took power in 2013. Authorities cracked down on advocacy of issues as innocuous as calls for clean air and calls to reduce sexual harassment. They have not only jailed these movement’s advocates, but in some cases their lawyers as well.

These controls have now extended to Hong Kong, traditionally a place that has enjoyed greater freedom of expression. The 2015 abduction of Gui and his colleagues has created such fear that, to quote a recent Guardian piece: “Bookshops have closed. Publishers have left. Authors have stopped writing. Books have been pulped. Printers are refusing political works. Translators have grown weary of being associated with certain topics. Readers have stopped buying.”

The last time I remember the city-state in such fear was when I lived there in 2003, when Hong Kong was gripped by a then-mysterious, lethal airborne plague. But the changes wrought by SARS are not as insidious, and will cause less long-term damage than the imposition of these building blocks of tyranny.

Book-burning is one of the hallmarks of oppression, but today’s oppressors go one step further by symbolically “burning” the producers of those books, crushing hope, thought, discussion before these things have a chance to put forth young tendrils.

This was not the scenario in 2012. I had just sold my book proposal on the one-child policy to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a major American publisher. I had reasonable expectations that my book, “One Child,” telling the story of the country’s generation-spanning, life-altering policy, would eventually reach a Chinese audience. I’d already received an offer of US$10,000 for the Chinese-language rights from Citic Publishing, a division of CITIC Group, one of the biggest state-owned companies in China.

This was a good offer, said my agent, but it came with strings attached: Citic wanted the right to alter sensitive content. This is fairly standard for China, and most authors have to compromise to some degree if they want to reach the world’s most populous readership.

As a pragmatist, I wanted my work to reach the audience it was most concerned with. If the changes didn’t gut the heart of my book, I would willingly take the offer. Other authors had found ways of getting around China censors. For example, Peter Hessler’s mainland Chinese editions made clear some deletions had been made, and outlined these changes in Hessler’s author website.

To be on the prudent side, I decided to table Citic’s offer until I had finished writing the book and could specifically discuss changes they wished to make.

I figured I would have a fallback option, and could still get my book published in Taiwan or Hong Kong if mainland Chinese publishers’ demands were too onerous.  Although these have smaller markets, and use a different form of Chinese script, books published in greater China filter back to mainland readers.  National Book Award author Evan Osnos decided to take the Taiwanese route after mainland Chinese censors demanded changes to his book that he felt would “endorse a false image”  of China’s past and present.

In the end, neither of those choices were open to me. I could not have imagined that in four years, the climate could have shifted so much that publishers even in the extended Chinese language environment would be so cowed.

Even with strong reviews in New York Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, several international editions, major media interviews and fortuitous timing—my book came out just as China switched to a nationwide two-child policy—I didn’t get a single solid offer from a China publisher.

Collectively, my agent and I approached about ten companies in Hong Kong and Taiwan.  They all said no. One Taiwanese publisher, rather mystifyingly said that while my book covered an important topic, “we have to consider market forces.” Hong Kong publishers were more explicit, pointing to the 2015 bookseller abductions as a major game-changer. “We face an uncertain future,” said one.

I could have left it well alone. Even without censorship, the obstacles to self-publishing in foreign markets are numerous, starting with translation costs. Even working with relatively inexpensively priced translators in mainland China, it would cost anywhere between US$8,000-$12,000. That’s in the ballpark of what some major literary awards pay out, so it’s no small sum for writers.

Some Chinese translators were understandably put off the project for fear of political repercussions. One initially enthusiastic candidate bowed out after consulting with friends who worked in government press and media administration, saying, “They seriously reminded me of the potential risk.”

Even if I had the book translated, there would be no easy way of distributing or selling a printed book to a mainland Chinese audience. Some innovative folks in China are putting out digital content and getting paid directly via micropayment systems such as Tencent and Weixin, but these depended on having a bank account in China, which I no longer had. Besides, I also worried about the repercussions to those who bought my book in this way. This was not just an imagined risk. Lam Wing-kee, one of the kidnapped booksellers, said he was released only after he promised to turn over the list of readers who had bought books from him.

It seemed to me that the best way to ensure a wide distribution, and to protect readers, was to do it digitally, and to do it for free. But I wanted to explore the idea of covering some of the costs of a Chinese edition. This experiment might encourage other writers to try crowd-funding methods to reach readers walled off by censors, or to offset high translation and distribution costs. I didn’t want all this effort to be a one-off. I wanted to spark change.

It turned out to be more difficult than I envisioned. I had to learn about self-publishing, file formatting, crowd-funding platforms, and all of it took time, time that I could have spent more profitably pursuing new writing projects. In addition, to help cover the project’s upfront costs, I went on the speaking circuit, squirreling away every speaker fee, every honorarium towards my China book project.

Of course, I had moments of doubt. A respected source in publishing strongly discouraged me, saying, “Don’t do this. Nobody values anything they get for free.”

But for every moment of doubt there were moments when I remembered the stories I had painstakingly documented. There was an ex-official haunted by how he hunted a woman until she stood neck-deep in a pond, pleading for her unborn child. A hospice director who kept a copious diary on how people died. A young man with a secret, who became one of China’s most famous Little Emperors. They spoke honestly, and at some risk to themselves, about how the one-child policy shaped their lives. Their observations and experiences deserve to be part of the conversation about China’s past and future.

Last November, I put out a free digital download of my book in simplified Chinese. It has been only little over a month, but I have already raised more than a quarter of my modest funding goals through crowd funding sites GoFundMe, Patreon, and direct donations.  

Interestingly, this has spawned renewed interest to publish hard copies of my book from some Chinese-language publishers. I don’t know if they will come to fruition but I appreciate the spirit in which these offers appear to have been motivated.  One Taiwanese publisher wrote her offer was prompted by “a veteran reporter here (who) told me he knew you could not have any publishers in Chinese. He thought that is too shame for us.”

Inspiring writers and publishers is not enough. There must be more institutional support to help writers and truth-tellers. In particular, more funding for translation costs. There are few regular avenues for these, and those that exist, like the PEN/Heim translation fund, are woefully inadequate to meet market costs, at just $2,000-$4,000 per grant.

Take, for example, the example of Tan Hecheng, a Chinese journalist, who this month published the English edition of his book, The Killing Wind, the riveting and deeply researched account of the mass killings that took place in a southern China county during the Cultural Revolution. The book's  translators were paid $30,000 for the project, payment that did not fully cover translation of the book’s half-million Chinese characters, said translator Stacy Mosher. (Translation from Chinese-English is more expensive than the other way around.) Book advances from Killing Wind’s English publisher, Oxford University Press, weren’t enough, and had to be augmented by funding from Open Society.

Tan spent decades researching the story, which documented the widespread and systematic killing of hundreds of people deemed class enemies— landowners, for example-- under Mao’s diktats.

His doggedness effectively blighted his career at a state-run publication. His employers declined to publish his initial findings. The feisty Tan, quoted in New York Review of Books, said, “I can tell people what they want to hear, and I can write an article in the way you want it. But I have a minimum moral standard: I can’t turn black into white.” He decided, “This is it. One way or another I will publish this.”

Tan could not get a publisher in mainland China, but Killing Wind’s Chinese language edition was published in Hong Kong in 2011. It’s likely it would not be published there today.

With barriers such as these, Tan is unlikely to make much money from his book. Neither will I. But we recognize there is incalculable value to putting out true stories, overlooked stories. This is one of our strongest defenses against tyranny. We must be free to read, if we are to be free to think. Any measures to hamper this freedom must be countered, for censorship is an encroaching menace whose meat and drink is fear and apathy.

Some of us may be in warm rooms, but we are not immune from the coming cold. We can all do something. We must all do something.

Mei Fong is a Pulitzer-prize winning former journalist and New America fellow. Contributions to support her Chinese-language book project can be made at