Book publishing contracts in China and the UK


In China, they have a vast readership and book sales dwarf those of other countries, it is easier (not easy, just easier) to make a living from books than elsewhere in the world. Now I’ve had several book contracts in China, and on in the UK, here’s the key terms and a comparison of what was offered:

Contract China 1 China 2 UK
Advance (预付版税) RMB 50,000 RMB 50,000 0
Royalties (paid annually)


No royalties, a 10% of the retail price was paid on each print run before the books were sold – this is exceptionally generous in the book world. 10% 4%-5%

This is very low, but for such small print runs the publisher is only making a couple % profit after costs.

Projected print run One reprint, around 25,000 copies sold to date Projected 10,000 copies / year 1,000 copies total
Publishing rights (territory and time period) China, 5 years.

For publishing rights sold elsewhere, the publisher splits any sales 50/50 with me the author. If I make the sale to a foreign publisher, the China publisher does not get a cut.

Exclusive world-wide publishing rights (全球多语种版权), 10 years.

As you can see from the numbers, no China-published author wants to be published abroad for the money. It makes next to nothing. However, the prestige of being published in a foreign language, in particular English, can help the author’s career in other ways, and is most definitely worth it.

I’ve had one contract with a publisher that went really well. Now I’m on my second contract with a different publisher, so I’ve made some notes about what you should look out for. Please note these contracts are with Chinese publishers, so I’ve included Chinese terms:

Book format
Size, number of pages, whether it’s paperback or hardback etc. This is important because you need to make sure the contract only covers rights to this work, and that that you won’t be left out of ebook etc sales.

Publishing rights (专有使用权)
The publisher is only buying the right to publish the book for a specified period of time, in a specified language, to be sold in a specified country or region. Make sure this is all clear, and that you’ll be paid if the book is published in any additional languages or regions. This is usually done through selling the rights to a foreign publisher, and the payment is split 50/50 between publisher and author.

When will the book be published?
Probably two or three years, one year is exceptionally fast. Book publishing is glacially slow. The other thing is that things like publishing abroad, in other languages, in other formats, can happen years after the book has been published. It’s a very odd business, like planting fruit trees that take years to bear fruit.

The contract should have the deadline when you (the author) have to hand over the manuscript. The publisher should then state the book will be published within six months of receiving the manuscript. If this is not possible, a future publishing date can be discussed. If this publishing date is missed a second time the author has the right to annul the contract. In my case the publisher delayed by 18 months, but I didn’t have a better option so stayed with them – I’m glad I did, I ended up with a better looking book and much higher sales than I otherwise would have. But it’s a gamble.

Royalties (版税)
Here’s what I was offered so far:

First contract
10% of retail price X number of books printed, to be paid within 60 days of the book being published. Reprints were the same deal, and this was after tax. Plus five free copies, further copies can be purchased at wholesale price (22% off).

Second contract
8% of retail price for the first 10,000, 9% for the second 10,000 and 10% after that. Half of this money was to be paid up front (an advance), within 30 days of the contract being signed, the other half to be paid within 3 months of the book being published. Note the initial payment was based on an estimated retail price, the second payment based on the actual retail price. And most important of all, this amount was before tax, a very different deal from the first contract. I also got five free copies of the book, and further copied could be bought direct from the publisher at 50% off.

Other stuff
In China the contracts I’ve seen all had a big section about how the author is liable for any libel, illegal content, or ‘divulging of state secrets’. This is followed by a section where you have to swear the work is your own, and if it’s plagiarised you (the fake author) are fully responsible. These seem to be standard cut and paste items.

Publishing a China related book in the UK
As mentioned, book sales in China are huge. But in the UK they are not, I understand that to top the best seller lists you need 5,000 books a week, which is for the chosen few. Selling 5,000 books total is already highly successful (in any country). But China themed books in the UK belong to a fringe interest, and you are doing well to sell a few hundred, hence the vastly different publishing contracts detailed above.

So, with sales of only a few hundred copies, how does an independent publisher stay in business? They have to do the editing, layout, promotion, printing – it seems an impossible exercise. The reality is that they rely on financial support (资助) from various organisations, and usually the Chinese government (these books are, after all, promoting China abroad). In reality this amounts to compensation for the translation costs, and many publishers are competing for a small amount of funding (资金).

This ‘translation fee’ is usually set at around RMB 5-600 / 1,000 words (USD 0.07, GBP 0.06 / word). For a comparison, in Chinese the translation fee standard hovers around a desultory RMB 100 / 1,000 words (USD 0.01, GBP 0.01 /word), where as in Europe and America commercial Chinese translation is about RMB 800 / 1,000 words (USD 0.12, GBP 0.09 / word). Of this ‘translation fee’ (I’m putting it in quotes because it goes on a range of costs), about 15% will be held by the Chinese publisher, the rest given to the small, foreign independent publisher. Without this money, they wouldn’t be able to publish.

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