Calling all hot shots
ASIAN WRITERS FACE many obstacles to getting their work to English-language readers. With few outlets for their writing and publishers ill-equipped to handle material written in one of the many Asian languages, there's too much focus on a handful of established names, leaving little room for newcomers.
Enter a venture capitalist and a film-making lawyer who say it's only a matter of time before Asia's emerging writers burst onto the international scene, and are taking steps to ensure this not only happens, but that they make some money along the way.
The first step for lawyer and filmmaker Duncan Jepson and his business partner, banker Ilyas Khan, is to find a literary agent - someone who can help them identify and nurture writing talent. They're looking for a native-English speaker with Putonghua - someone who's passionate about and understands books. 'If we just wanted a business manager, this would be easy,' says Jepson, who wants to recruit someone by the end of the year. The pair have a prominent London literary agency ready to act on their recommendations, ensuring at the least a foot in the door of the major English-language publishers.
Then, they need the writers.
'I know there's a lot of talent out there, and there are plenty of people in the west who want to read interesting Asian authors,' says Jepson. Bringing the two together is simply a matter of overcoming some 'considerable obstacles'.
Jepson, regional legal counsel at ING Investment Management ('a fairly nine-to-five existence'), produces feature films on the side - Perth, Rice Rhapsody and Return to Pontianak - as well as documentaries for the Discovery Channel.
Jepson and Khan have been friends since their schooldays and share a cultural background of being half-English and half-Asian, although Jepson is from Yorkshire and Khan is from Lancashire. Jepson says Khan rang from London with the idea for Creative Works, a literary agency in Hong Kong. 'He gets the ideas and finds the money; I make them happen.'
The focus isn't necessarily China, where there's growing competition in the search for talent. 'Our idea is to start promoting talent, not just focus on what's the most profitable,' says Jepson. 'We believe there has to be something more to it than just business. We'd like to be in a position to nurture talent. If there's an Asian J.K. Rowling out there, please call.'
A major problem Creative Works will encounter is not only the absence of a literary tradition in much of Asia, but that 'very few people can earn a living as a writer in Asia', says Nury Vittachi, editor of the Hong Kong literary journal Dim Sum, which is close to a tie-up with Jepson and Khan.
Vittachi says Asia, which accounts for 63 per cent of the world's population, 'produces a negligible percentage of the world's literature'.
'The law of averages means the next John Grisham is going to be Asian, but how can we find that writer?' he says. 'Dim Sum gets loads of writing from around the world - our remit is it must be Asia-related and Asia-focused - and we have a good chance of finding the writers, but up to now our worry has been to make the magazine work financially.'
The involvement of Creative Works will help. To cast a wider net, it's working out a financial deal with Dim Sum, which Jepson views as 'a useful publication to air the work of young writers and encourage writers, generally, as they mature'.
Vittachi says that, apart from the legwork and translation involved in trying to identify emerging writers, the best-seller lists offer a good starting point.
Penguin Books recently bought the English-language rights to Jiang Rong's best-selling The Wolf Totem for US$1 million, paying 10 per cent up front. Whether The Wolf Totem will work in the west is a big question. Zhou Hailun, general manager of the Beijing branch of Penguin Group China, says that, despite ideological and aesthetic differences between the east and the west, 'Chinese values are quite marketable'.
Dim Sum publisher Peter Gordon, owner of online book seller Paddyfield, says there's no guarantee that more Chinese authors can make the jump to the international market. 'Japan has a vibrant publishing industry and a large number of very successful writers,' he says. 'How-ever, very few works get translated, and this may be because, on average, what appeals to the Japanese reader doesn't appeal so much outside.'
Gordon says the potential of the mainland book market is hardly a secret. 'Every large international publisher I talk to sees the potential in China as a source of writers as well as a market for books, and is looking to tap it,' he says. 'The potential from China is likely to be so great as to swamp everything else.'