WHAT WAS ONCE dismissed as a waste of time has suddenly become a major event in the Asian publishing calendar. So much so that the Beijing International Book Fair, which finished on Monday, is now being compared with that of Frankfurt - the world's biggest forum for publishers to network and strike deals. 'This is like a Chinese Frankfurt,' says Edward Summerson, managing director of Asia Publishers Services, a Hong Kong-based company that represents dozens of international publishers, including Thames and Hudson and Lonely Planet. 'It's getting increasingly multi-faceted, and it's largely driven by rights exchanges.' 'It was a dramatic improvement over the last fair,' says Luc Kwanten, executive director of Big Apple Tuttle-Mori Agency, a Taipei and Shanghai-based agency that specialises in making deals between foreign and local publishers and representing Chinese authors, such as novelist Hong Ying. 'It was positive and upbeat, and I think they're finally getting the knack of running an international book fair. We had appointments every half an hour, like in Frankfurt.' Of the 980 exhibitors at the fair, 530 were foreign firms - many of which represented several publishers. The cost of stands has been among the complaints in previous years, but publishers didn't seem so concerned this time around. 'We feel the money was properly spent,' says Kwanten. Copyright deals to reprint or translate foreign and Chinese books are the lifeblood of a fair. Without them, it can degenerate into a book sale for retailers and readers. Many agree that such deals are now an increasingly important part of business in Beijing. Much of the trade is indirect - negotiations begun in Beijing may not be converted into deals for months. But recent figures show there's good growth. According to the National Copyright Administration of China, 1,664 foreign titles were bought by Chinese publishers in 1995. In 2002, that number had grown to 10,235. Even small publishers such as Shenyang-based Volumes had two agents at the fair, armed with catalogues distributed to exhibitors beforehand, identifying targets. 'Usually, we might buy about 10 titles from every fair,' says Volumes editor Margaret Wang. 'So far, we've bought two.' That's more than she'd expected to sign so early in the fair. As with many mainland publishers, Wang was primarily interested in foreign titles about business and management and biographies. Among Volumes' recent acquisitions are biographies of Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton. Literature is trickier, Wang says. 'It's dangerous for us to import foreign literature because Chinese people might think it's boring,' she says. 'But in business and management, foreigners are more advanced and our leaders want to know how foreigners do things, so it's much safer for us to buy these rights.' Yet despite the buzz, there remain restrictions from the government's continuing control of the publishing industry. Lu Gang of the copyright division of the People's Education Press - ranked first among the mainland's top 50 publishers - says his house bought the rights to only 20 foreign books this year. It specialises in primary and secondary school texts. 'We're a socialist country and there's lots of content we can't import,' he says. 'The content of books we buy for schools is thoroughly checked by the Education Ministry.' Each year, the People's Education Press sells about 10 titles overseas, mostly to Taiwan and Hong Kong, but also further afield. 'Most are Chinese language textbooks,' Lu says. The government and publishing officials would like China's copyright exports increase. To help, this year for the first time the China National Publications Import & Export Corporation (CNPIEC) set up a stand offering Chinese titles for foreign sale. CNPIEC was the main organiser of the fair. Although no figures are yet available, the head of CNPIEC's copyright department, Kong Yan, says the group is pleased with its involvement and will repeat it at next year's fair. Inbound rights deals far exceed exports - to the tune of 10 to one. 'It's out of balance,' says Kong. Publishers say China lags the west in most research areas and its literature is hampered by censorship. 'We're going through a phase where the fundamental controls are still in place, like the need to get a licence to import (foreign) books,' says Summerson. 'But at the same time, things are getting more liberal in terms of the kind of books you're allowed to bring in.' There was evidence of that just a few exhibits away, at a stand owned by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association from Arizona. It says it represents more than 200 Christian publishers worldwide. Although it's still a tightly controlled field in the mainland, religious books are an increasingly common sight in bookshops. Stand attendant Winnie Tse says that, although the association is permitted to import dozens of titles for exhibition, titles focusing on practical, self-help issues - such as how to have a successful marriage or raise happy children - are most welcome. For small British academic publisher Edward Elgar, the Beijing fair has become a must. Sales in China have increased by up to 400 per cent in the past six years, says sales manager Hilary Quinn. The company, which focuses on economics and environmental textbooks, sold 100 copies - at about US$100 each - to a university at the fair. 'If I hadn't come here I wouldn't have made that sale,' says Quinn. A government grant to university libraries, set up in the late 1990s and worth US$3 million a year, has helped boost purchases, she says. But many publishers say China's book market is still under-developed. A key issue is a dearth of bookshops. According to Xin Guangwei of the government's General Administration of Press and Publication, China urgently needs more outlets, especially in smaller towns. A legacy of state control of the industry, bookshops are concentrated in big cities at 100,000-square-metre stores. 'Chain bookstores have just opened in the Chinese mainland,' Xin wrote in Publishing in China: An Essential Guide, which was launched at the fair. 'There is [an] urgent need of big chain bookstores such as America's Barnes & Noble and the Borders Group to increase distribution.' By early next year, World Trade Organisation rules will come into force requiring an opening of book distribution. Foreign chains must have a Chinese joint-venture partner and only the biggest are expected to enter the market. China's market for books is growing fast, spurred by a rising economy and an increasingly well-educated population. In 1979, the mainland published fewer than 15,000 titles, against a per capita GDP of US$130. By 2002, that figure had grown to 170,000 titles with a per capita GDP of US$960. 'The market has really opened up and there's a great sense of potential,' said Nicola Everitt, director of AccessAsia Media Services. But the mainland market is still a mixed creature. Publishers need a niche, says Summerson. And others point to the relatively poor showing from US publishers, which were reportedly disappointed after attending the fair last year. 'Last year, I met lots of interested Chinese publishers, but I never heard anything back from them,' says Marc Benger of Japan-based United Nations University Press. One publisher took away a sample book about democracy, but didn't publish it - legally. 'I later heard that a couple of chapters had been published somewhere,' without UNU's permission, Benger says. 'Many promises are made at the fair but out of 10, one may turn into a deal,' says Kwanten. He's optimistic it will become Asia's most successful book fair - but for now will remain a regional forum. 'We're not like other businesses,' says Everitt, who has been coming to the fair since 1993. 'But now I sense people are ready to do something, and they're saying, 'I need a partner. I need an office. Are we going to come back every year?' The answer is yes. They'll come back.'