All eyes on China at the Frankfurt Book Fair

The guest of honor at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair (the world's biggest trade show for book publishers) is a huge figure indeed. In fact, with a population of one billion-plus, China is just about the most enormous honoree imaginable. But headlines tracking the celebrated guest are running mixed at best.

The Frankfurt Book Fair opened today. And as notes, the Chinese delegation has "impeccable bragging rights – it invented printing first." There is a special display at the fair which tells the story of an inventor named Bi Sheng who devised the world's first moveable type system about 1,000 years ago.

But not all the fair's attendees are as dazzled by the historic implications. "China, the Unwelcome Guest" is the way Spiegel Online begins its coverage of the fair. The guest of honor, the Spiegel piece points out, is a country which ranks 167 out of 173 on the Reporters Without Borders's worldwide index of press freedom. It is also a country that bans about 600 books a year.

And yet, China represents a vast range of tantalizing possibilities. With an estimated 200 to 300 million traditional book readers and 135,000 new titles released in 2007, it's understandable that China attracts industry attention. But most interesting of all may be the country's online book readership and the teen readers who have already turned a handful of China's cellphone novelists into bestselling superstars.

"China will soon lead the world in quantity terms in online book publication," Luc Kwanten, a former US academic who has spent several years in the business of finding Chinese publishers for western books, told

Currently, the Chinese publishing industry buys more foreign books than it sells. For instance, when it comes to Germany, notes,  China imports eight times more books than it exports. But the 1,000-member Chinese delegation to the press show – including 100 authors and up to 900 officials, performers like pianist Lang Lang, and other helpers – hope to work some change in that direction. It is their job to promote Chinese culture at the fair this week.

It will be in the interest of every publisher on the globe to track how well they do.

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