March 10, 2015

Is a Chinese book giant “indirectly murdering the whole publishing industry”?


The Causeway Bay location of Eslite, a competitor chain of Sino United, opened in Hong Kong in 2012. Image via Wikipedia.

The Causeway Bay location of Eslite, a competitor chain of Sino United, opened in Hong Kong in 2012. Image via Wikipedia.

Since MobyLives last covered the Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong, which ended in December, the Chinese government has been criticized for their overreach in suppressing and censoring authors and educators. Now, a Chinese publishing conglomerate is facing accusations of censorship.

The South China Morning Post reported that Sino United Publishing, a major Chinese book distributor (and also publisher and retailer) was accused of intentionally sabotaging one of their Hong Kong client publishers.

Up Publications had hundreds of books returned by Beijing-friendly Sino United Publishing through its subsidiaries Joint Publishing, Chung Hwa Book and Commercial Press, which operate 51 stores across the city.

“Twenty books – even new publications – which amount to hundreds of copies have been returned by Sino United over the past few months,” Up Publications’ editor-in-chief, Carmen Kwong Wing-suen, told the Post. “Our distributer told us that some bookstore staff said we should not have stood at the front line of Occupy Central.”

Kwong compares Sino United’s actions to “indirectly murdering the whole publishing industry”, and notes that rather than only returning titles that relate to Occupy Central, the returns consisted of titles from across UP’s entire list, including pet and dining books as well as many new releases returned well in advance of their standard date.

Sino United responded that bookstores make the decision of what to stock depending on what will sell, which sounds pretty suspicious. Not just because a recent Up title, Hong Kong Nationalism, started rapidly selling after getting publicly criticized by Leung Chun-Ying, Hong Kong’s head of government. It’s also difficult to believe in the publisher/bookstore conglomerate’s adherence to neutral market capitalism when it’s been accused of cranking out anti-Occupy books to undercut titles like Up’s—not to mention that time it immediately stopped carrying the books of prominent Communist Party member Bo Xilai after he was booted out of office.

Sino United runs over 50 bookstores in Hong Kong, operating under the watchful eye of Beijing, and often gives pro-Occupy books poor placement; indie bookstores, meanwhile do a reliably brisk trade in pro-Occupy titles. One indie, People’s Recreation Community, stocks a wide range of books banned on the mainland, and Taiwan-based bookstore chain Eslite is also continuing to horn in on the action, planning to open their second huge Hong Kong outlet next year.

So here’s to a diverse Hong Kong book marketplace, because reading this story makes me wonder if having a vertically integrated bookselling monopsony in the United States would encourage anticompetitive retaliatory behavior against publishers who don’t toe the line. I guess we’ll never know.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.