International Cooperation is Creating Publishing Opportunities with China

Since China joined the WTO in 2001, some years after the start of the economic ‘opening up’ (改革开放) process, publishers based in the West have achieved much in developing a China presence, and in working with Chinese institutions and enterprises. Although publishing in China remains a closely regulated industry and not as open as some others, publishers, mainly from Europe and America, have succeeded in setting up offices and evolved a strong sense of the value of increasing globalisation through publication in, and acquisition from, China.

Of course, the rate of China’s progress in these years has been astounding – including in journals and book publishing. Nonetheless, the country remains keen for support, and international cooperation is still vital. For publishers in all areas, the task has been, as the opportunities multiply, to keep up with competition – as well as to understand industry dynamics better and, where they play a role, cultural differences. They now tend to have more staff working in China, although the ratio is still not as high as that for content coming out of the country.

Nationalism may present challenges in some regions of the world, but overall, we remain in an era marked by increasing international collaboration. Contacts between publishers in China and the West have increased since ‘opening up’ took off in the 1980s, as copyright has become better regarded and trade in intangibles grown. This kind of globalisation remains a dominant trend for the industry and increases the opportunities available to both Western publishers with an interest in the China market and Chinese publishers seeking broader international audiences.


Especially in science, China has made rapid strides from emerging player to one of the leaders. This comes after a difficult period in China’s history where it lost its earlier pre-eminence. In some areas of science, in addition to counting more published papers than even the US in international journals, China has also shown an acceleration in quality. So, in such areas as materials science and chemistry, for example, it heads the publishing statistics.

Meanwhile, Chinese investment in science continues to grow, and publishers in all regions watch this phenomenon with great interest, mindful of new opportunities. Despite the restrictions associated with regulation, China’s continuing investment in- and strategy for science makes a compelling case for publishers to look to increase their standing in this part of the world by capturing some of the current growth. At the same time, the appetite to help Chinese researchers develop and disseminate their findings globally has never been greater.

In terms of geopolitics, sensitivities have increased since the pandemic, and we see that the next decades will probably be marked by further jostling for position in the world between China and the US. Other countries are paying this relationship careful attention to check how they can operate to best effect. The overall direction is still one towards internationalism, however. And, since each scientific community is effectively a global village, this is set to continue. There is no such thing as Chinese chemistry or American physics. Science and research are by their very nature global, even when they draw on different national contexts for resourcing.

In a similar vein, the move towards open access (OA) journals in Europe, represented by Plan S, is likely to promote adoption around the world, since this will impact on journals that are global. The pace of change may differ from region to region, of course. While senior scientists in China, as elsewhere, support the benefits of more open research, OA is becoming more accepted. Despite initial caution among scientists around issues of quality, these have proven less evident in recent years, and many more Chinese scientists now publish in OA journals. Since the path to OA is likely to be complex, this is an area where guidance may be necessary over the next few years.

There are also local moves in China to ensure more journals that are Chinese in origin can compete globally. Some even suggest this could happen in the Chinese language only, which may come as a surprise to some who see English as the predominant language of science. The distinction is likely to become less relevant as automated translation progresses further. Companies like Springer Nature are already using AI to help in assessing language capabilities, and it is likely that AI will be used further in the language correction itself. It is easy to see how this could open international publishing for more people who are not native English speakers.

Apart from trends towards OA and language services, the scene is set in China to invest further in publishing skills, which to date have lagged behind the West. Experts are engaged in helping Chinese editors and other professionals to operate more globally and to service the incredible growth in research literature – that is the outputs of science. The two-way benefits seem likely to increase. Global publishers will achieve greater inclusion of the Chinese science community, while Chinese publishers and authors will gain broader dissemination.


Book publishers, too, have long been drawn to the vast potential China market – but, as many have discovered, reaching it is not entirely straightforward. It has become almost a truism that Chinese business is different, that personal relations and presence are key. As for journals, China-related book publishing requires people on the ground, or at the very least frequent visits. Many academic and educational presses, to take one example, OUP, do have established medium-sized offices within Greater China. And some trade publishers such as Penguin have been successful in establishing a presence.

The challenges go beyond business culture, however. Government control, including censorship and restrictions on ISBNs – only available to Chinese state publishers, put limits on creativity, especially for foreign-originated books. The overarching China National Publications Import and Export Corporation (CNPIEC) and parallel organizations play a significant role in this. More broadly, the media environment compromises the potential for foreign companies to conduct PR. Take the ubiquitous WeChat communication tool as a simple example. Even setting up an official account, where organizations can post about their activities, requires both approval and, usually, the social security number of a Chinese national. And, as is probably well known, similar Western tools, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, are all blocked within mainland China. They can be reached with a VPN, but not all Chinese readers are willing to do this.

For these reasons, many Western book publishers tend to work with agents for both direct sales and negotiation of translation rights. The advantages are reliance on existing networks and know-how. There are other possible approaches, however. Building relationships with trusted Chinese partners can result in greater success. For rights sales, for example, apart from trade-fair representation, personal visits to potential and existing clients reap rewards. Further to that, co-publishing arrangements can prove fruitful. And setting up joint ventures, if undertaken with the right partner and the longer term in mind, can offer even greater insider knowledge and influence.

In considering partnership, it is helpful to understand aspects of Chinese government strategy. Notably, the theme of ‘culture going out’ (文化走出去) has been much in evidence in recent years. This puts emphasis on two-way exchange between Chinese and foreign publishers in respect of sales and commissioning content. Government funding may even be available in certain scenarios. At the same time, careful branding oriented to the China market is key. In any context, choosing the right collaboration partner requires knowledge of the China publishing scene, the right contacts, and China-related communication – ideally including language skills.

The Future

As for the future, we identify a trend for further international cooperation. Publishers are looking to work together across boundaries to ensure best services from China to the outside world and vice versa. Western publishers are keen to develop their footprint in China and increase their market share. Meanwhile, Chinese publishers want to operate at world-class levels globally, while helping Chinese authors find international audiences. It seems an increasingly collaborative model is appropriate for the years ahead, with benefits for all concerned.

Maverick has expertise in China-related publishing and continues to strengthen its capabilities in publishing for- and acquisition of content from China. Our expert consultants have first-hand experience publishing both journals and books in the Chinese market and are happy to share their insights with you. Contact us for a free consultation.

By Paul Evans, Senior Associate and Sarah Waldram, Senior Affiliate Associate