asia specific FOR MOST OF its 19 years, the Beijing International Book Fair has been much like China's other trade expos: heavy on the bunting, light on deals. The typical exhibition atmosphere, in which wares are openly displayed for customers to peruse at will, contrasts with the traditional nature of publishing in China: secretive, strangled by politics, woefully inefficient. But this year's fair, which ended on Monday, provides a clue to how China's publishing industry may look in years to come, as it begins the transition from government domination to free market. On the first day of the fair, Penguin China general manager Jo Lusby is pessimistic about its significance. 'No one buys much here,' she says. 'At a place like the Frankfurt Book Fair, people negotiate and make deals in advance. By the time they get to the fair, they're signing contracts. That doesn't happen here. This is just a shopfront.' But Lusby's scepticism is belied by her presence. Penguin opened a permanent office in Beijing during the spring, as part of a long-term plan to increase its presence in the mainland market. At a press conference earlier in the week, the publisher announced its purchase of the rights to Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem, which has sold more than a million copies in China in the past 18 months. Lusby's discontent, it turns out, has less to do with the fair than with the Chinese publishers in attendance. 'Most of the people here don't know the business,' she says. 'They're here to fill a quota, and think that if they pay a high price for the rights to a book, that should be enough. They don't understand that we're looking for the right publishers, who know what a book's worth, and are willing to spend time and money on translation and marketing.' As she speaks, her colleagues are surrounded by Chinese publishers inquiring about books seemingly plucked at random from Penguin's shelves. For Penguin, the fair is a chance to initiate long-term relationships with publishers. Few books will be bought or sold. Those that Penguin hopes to sell (for instance, Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef and a Chinese edition of the Rough Guide) will be subject to intensive negotiation before contracts are signed. 'Finding people to buy rights is easy,' Lusby says. 'Finding the right people is considerably more difficult.' Lusby's colleague, Adrian Greenwood, has similar concerns. As international sales manager for Asia, he's responsible for selling English editions into the mainland. A recent relaxation of World Trade Organisation rules has allowed publishers to work more directly with distributors, and he says his greatest difficulties now involve timid, inexperienced booksellers. 'The biggest hurdle is convincing distributors and bookstores to take a risk, make an investment and do some marketing,' he says. But while China's official publishing houses play catch-up, there are signs of change. As the fair goes on it becomes apparent that more independent players are emerging. On the third floor, far from Penguin's crowded booth, Shi Tao sits in a corner of the stand allocated to Chongqing Publishing Group, representing his own company, Alpha Books. Shi started the company in 1998, after 10 years working and studying in the US. Alpha Books is one of a host of small booksellers that have begun to bridge the gap between China's stultified state presses and a skyrocketing demand for new, fashionable publications. Officially licensed as book-sellers or distributors, companies such as Alpha Books can take advantage of legal grey areas to work as de facto publishers. Although many such companies are willing to make use of the grey areas, Shi eventually found himself hampered by a lack of official permits. Last year, he became a subsidiary of Chongqing Publishing, and the relationship has so far been fortuitous. 'They provide us with the proper permits and other resources, and interfere very little in what we do,' he says. 'We got lucky.' Shi's experience in publishing abroad has given him an advantage over many of his compatriots, in that he knows the business thoroughly, and has a keen appreciation for what can and can't be accomplished at the fair. 'I won't buy much here,' he says. 'I buy all my books at the foreign fairs - Frankfurt, London, New York. Other Chinese publishers buy here because they can't go abroad.' Shi says he'll use the opportunity to get to know some foreign publishers, and initiate negotiations that may take months to conclude. On his list are two books by Italian writer Alessandro Baricco, and four by Ismail Kadare, the Albanian winner of the first Booker International Prize. 'I want to be the first to introduce him into China,' he says. Shi also appreciates the growing significance of the fair. 'Last year, I sold the rights to two books and that was a pleasant surprise. This year, I expect to sell about half of these,' he says, indicating his catalogue of more than 30 books. For the time being, semi-independent companies such as Alpha Books may be responsible for much of the boom in business between Chinese and foreign publishing houses. But as local publishers grow more accustomed to the international environment, events like the book fair will continue to grow in significance. By the end of the fair, Lusby is pleasantly surprised. 'We've made far greater progress with both the sale of rights and the sale of books than we expected,' she says. 'Our rights managers in London have decided they need to come to China more often.' Greenwood also acknowledges big improvements. 'Compared with 2003, the knowledge is light years ahead,' he says. 'Back then, negotiations rarely got past stage one. 'This time around, I came with more realistic expectations. I'm quite pleased. There's much more understanding of the business, and a much better attitude on the part of Chinese publishers. That in itself is worth the trip.'