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Anna Porter: Canadians enjoyed strong presence at BEA, despite significant Chinese delegation

Canadians usually make up the second largest contingent at BookExpo America, according to Steven Rosato, event coordinator for Reed Exhibitions, the company that organizes the annual book tradeshow. But for this year’s BEA, which wrapped up on May 29, China usurped Canada’s number-two position. As guest of honour, 500 Chinese book professionals, including poets, novelists, historians, publishers, and media, attended the New York City fair, promoting 10,000 titles.

China is the second largest book market in the world, with total annual revenues of approximately $20.3 billion U.S., and, according to the Guardian, an enviable growth rate of about 10 per cent a year.

Still, Canadians managed to have a significant presence at New York’s Javits Center. Kim Thúy’s novel Man (Random House Canada), which was selected for Barnes & Noble’s Discover program, Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva (HarperCollins Canada), and Patrick deWitt’s forthcoming novel Undermajordomo Minor (House of Anansi Press) were among the most talked about books of the fair. The cover for Avenue of Mysteries (Knopf Canada), by honorary Canadian John Irving, decorated my press pass.

Simon & Schuster Canada CEO Kevin Hanson, looking as fit and cheerful as the first time we met some 20 years ago, talked about the extraordinary pre-publication success of Kevin Sands’ debut middle-grade novel, The Blackthorn Key. It garnered a high six-figure advance (Hanson won’t name the exact amount ) from S&S U.S., after a vigorous contest among American publishers. A big banner near the show’s entrance announced the September publication of Erin Bow’s YA novel The Scorpion Rules, also from S&S.

Anansi decided not to attend this year, but rights manager Gillian Fizet spent a week in New York prior to BEA, closing a deal with my old friend Thomas Dunne at St. Martin’s Press for Nina Berkout’s debut novel The Gallery of Lost Species. Fizet also expects to sell Lynn Crosbie’s recent much-discussed Kurt Cobain fan novel, Where Did You Sleep Last Night.

Over at the vast China section, Liu Ghohui, editor-in-chief of People’s Literature Publishing House, was disappointed by Anansi’s absence. Anansi published the North American English-language translation of Ai Mi’s 2012 novel Under the Hawthorn Tree, a Heather’s Pick at Indigo Books & Music. The novel has sold about 300,000 copies in China, though with the shortage of interpreters, it was hard to be sure of the numbers.

There were droves of visitors to Arsenal Pulp Press’s booth, most of them interested in the graphic novels Castro – a perfect choice for the graphic-novel–loving Chinese – and Suite Française.

Random House Canada kids’ imprint Tundra Books brought along Mélanie Watt – author of the Scaredy Squirrel book series beloved by my grandkids – who was signing copies of her new book, The Bug in the Vacuum. There were line-ups for her signing on the first day of the fair.

Literary agents John Pearce and Chris Casuccio sent me notes about the pre-BEA blockbuster, Whitney & Bobbi Kristina: The Deadly Price of Fame, by Montreal investigative journalist Ian Halperin, whose 2009 book about Michael Jackson was a number-one New York Times bestseller. Pearce’s press release promises a “heartbreaking” book about one of America’s most loved performers. Jennifer Bergstrom, vice-president and publisher of S&S’s Gallery Books imprint, announced the June 9 publication date with great fanfare.

Groundwood Books’ founder Patsy Aldana introduced me to Li Xuequian, president of CCPPG, China’s largest children’s books publisher with annual sales of about 30 million books. Aldana has been working with CCPPG for two years, buying books from African, Latin American, and English-language publishers, and pushing Chinese books to the world market. On the last day of BEA, Aldana arranged a meeting for Li’s senior people with the New York Public Library’s Chinese-language buyer.

During the first two days of the fair, the Chinese delegation put on a magnificent show of speeches, announcements, and tea ceremonies, leading with the multi-language publication of President Xi Jinping’s door-stopper, The Governance of China, a children’s book on Marx and a series of new releases of Chinese classics. Given the scale of its history and its single-minded pursuit of a uniquely Chinese mix of repression and capitalism, it is hard to resist the conclusion that historian Liu Mingfu, author of The Chinese Dream, is right: we are at the dawn of the “post-American era.”

Anna Porter was co-founder of Key Porter Books and former president of the Council of the Association of Canadian Publishers. Her most recent book is Buying a Better World: George Soros and Billionaire Philanthropy (Dundurn Press).