It was 15 years ago today…

It was 15 years ago today… well, not perhaps to the day, but certainly Earnshaw Books had its genesis in 2006 on the back of the China Economic Review, which at the time was a big operation. Since then we have published over 150 books, and have many more in the works. Earnshaw Books has established itself as arguably the biggest independent publisher of English language books in Greater China, and we have gained a solid reputation for quality and interest.
It seemed counter-intuitive at the time, in the mid-2000s, to start publishing books just as the Internet was taking over and people appeared to be turning away from written tomes in droves. But so many of the things I have done in the past few decades have been similarly counter-intuitive. It almost seems as if I do some things in order to directly and personally experience the transition from one state to another. Business magazines being another example.
The initial idea for Earnshaw Books was to do reprints of a number of wonderful books from a century or more ago, written by foreign residents of China, relating stories and impressions of the country in that era. What struck me was how relevant much of what they wrote remained today, and I wanted to remind the new crop of foreigners in China at that point—the go-go years post-WTO and pre-Beijing Olympics—that they were not pioneers, and that others had passed this way before.
The first book we published as Earnshaw Books was Carl Crow’s Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom, a splendid start to the enterprise. Like so many other books of the 1930s, Carl’s had virtually disappeared from the public sphere, and I was eager to give him another run in the sun. I will talk about some of the other early books in later posts, but this one sold really well through bookstores in Shanghai and Beijing.
It was an era of some flexibility, China was moving, it seemed, in the direction of diversity and international inclusiveness, and there was a number of book stores in the major cities that would sell books for us. There were also a lot of foreigners around who were curious about this new world of China that they had parachuted into.
We provided books on a consignment basis, which means that they pay after they make sales and have the right to return copies. Not all of the bookstores paid all the time or were willing to hand back unsold books. But it was the beginning of a trend that could have led to an entirely different arrangement for China, one in which bookstores across the country could sell Earnshaw Books books, providing a separate view on China’s modern history to the new generation of college graduates.
A fraction of them would be interested, and a fraction of that number would feel confident enough of their English to buy Carl Crow’s Foreign Devils and similar books. But given the huge numbers of anything in China, that would still have been a substantial market. But it was not to be.
In the years since, the opportunity to sell books in the China market has shrunk. The import channels, in general, will not give approval for the import and sale of such books, even though they are innocuous. The reprints we did in that phase 15 years ago were clearly about China, and none of the gatekeepers were going to actually bother to read the books to find out if there was anything sensitive in them. It was and remains easiest for them to just say no. And so the market for our books moved offshore, and the dream of selling English books to a small proportion of younger educated Chinese people was, for now, shelved. But it remains a goal for the future.

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