November 1, 2012

Mo Yan: The rights fight


Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize win has, unsurprisingly, precipitated a rights scuffle, with the Wylie Agency announcing at the Frankfurt Book Fair that they now represent all of Yan’s novels. A claim that the Dijsktra Agency immediately disputed, with Sandy Dijkstra saying that:

“We were Mo Yan’s American and international agents from the beginning. Starting with his classic novel RED SORGHUM, we sold his first 6 books worldwide.” She notes that “we are very proud to have been there for him from day one, and that his ship has finally come in.”

Interestingly, Dijkstra also represents Yan’s translator, Howard Goldblatt — a measure of Goldblatt’s influence, since relatively few translators have agents, though this is rapidly changing — and I wonder if Dijkstra picked up Yan on Goldblatt’s recommendation?

There’s another agency in the mix as well: Peony Literary Agency, who sold worldwide English rights to Sandalwood Curse (soon to be published by the University of Oklahoma Press) and was in the process of selling the rights to Yan’s newest novel Frog.

Peony hasn’t made any public statements about Wylie’s grab, but then again, they just sold two books by rally car driver/singer-hearthrob/world’s-most-popular blogger Han Han to Simon & Schuster (recently the subject of a New Yorker profile, subscription only), so maybe they have bigger fish they’re in the process of frying.

But in China, it’s all much, much worse. Paper Republic reports that:

no fewer than 15 publishing houses claim to have some form of right to publish his works. Given the prevalence of non-exclusive, short-term publishing contracts in China (and publishers’ common practice of ignoring the fact that their contract has expired), it’s likely that all 15 publishers did, at one time or another, hold those rights.

One publishing company has now staked its claim to be the sole agent of Mo Yan’s domestic Chinese rights. On October 22, the Beijing Genuine & Profound Culture Development Co. (北京经典博维文化发展有限公司) held a press conference in Beijing, announcing that they’d signed a contract with Mo Yan in May of this year to agent all his Chinese works.

This is in turn disputed by Yan’s longtime publisher, Shanghai Literature and Arts Press. (Though frankly, I think “Genuine and Profound Culture Development Co.” wins the name contest.)

In an article in China Daily, Shanghai Literature & Arts Press, which has been publishing Mo since the 1980s, says that “it holds copyright for 16 of Mo’s works.”

“We got the authorization in the very early days, and it’s still valid,” Cao Yuanyong, deputy editor-in-chief of the press, told Shanghai media.

Cao said the reason two publishers claim the same titles is that Mo never promised any publisher exclusive rights.

But Genuine and Profound may have secured the most valuable set of rights, as well as the most recent: they’ve got the digital rights, and they point out that “no digital publishers or web portal is currently authorized to sell Mo Yan’s ebooks.” Which, I’m betting, doesn’t mean that they’re not out there illegally.

It’s all shaping up to be a long fight, the bulk of which will happen in China, what with standard US Nobel amnesia — but, regardless, the results should shape future Chinese-US publishing exchanges in potentially interesting ways.



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.