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People: Jo Lusby of Penguin Group

Heading up Penguin in China

Interview and story by Jenny Niven

When Danwei recently caught up with Jo Lusby, she was just beginning to settle down after a hectic China tour with the ex-governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten. These days, however, such things — four cities in five days in a book tour which Patten described as ‘more exhausting than my election campaign’ — hardly faze Jo. High up in her bright, book-strewn SOHO office, stepping over an enormous box filled with gifts presented to Lord Patten on his latest China visit, Jo is relaxed, funny and obviously delighted with her latest publishing coup.

This year Jo took up the post of China representative of Penguin Group, one of the world’s largest publishing houses, and one with their sights firmly set on the prizes of the Chinese market. Her job is to generate traffic both ways, sourcing Chinese material for the international market, and introducing China to both classics and new titles from the Penguin portfolio. So far, things have been going remarkably well. The very first title Jo scooped for translation from Chinese to English, Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, caused a publishing sensation when Penguin announced a record $100,000 US for it’s translation rights. That sum has long since been re-couped by Penguin in international translation rights sales; many months in advance of the book itself actually appearing in print. Although Jo describes this feat as merely an ‘early lesson in the extremely inexact science of publishing’, she admits it did her standing in her new post little harm in the eyes of her international superiors.

Despite these early successes, Penguin is Jo’s first book publishing post. She arrived in China in Nanjing in 1997, where she spent her first year teaching English to ‘surprisingly well-informed’ PLA students in the southern capital. A stint as an editor on a Financial Times-backed economic database followed, opening doors to the prospects of publishing in China. Unwilling to do things by halves, Jo set up her own English language magazine in Nanjing, which although had a relatively short print run, suffered no financial losses and alerted Beijing magazine City Edition to what Jo was up to. A few weeks later, she found herself being introduced to the Beijing staff as their new editor.

Jo stayed at the magazine for five years, overseeing its transition from City Edition to City Weekend, watching as the city’s English language publications gradually transformed from local village rags to major city listings and entertainment magazines. ‘That period was the best introduction to publishing you could have’, she enthuses, recalling her arrival at City Weekend on the cusp of its maturation into a more commercialized venture. ‘The magazine then was both idealistic and ideological. Expatriate life was small and villagey, and the magazines reflected that.’ As the lives of the city’s international community changed, however, so did the magazine market.

Despite the pleasure Jo obviously takes in recalling that particular era, there’s little of the ‘days of yore’ expat about her — no misty eyed laments of the destruction of well-loved hutongs, no grim foreboding about how much culture is being lost. The key to that, if you follow Jo’s lead, is to be energetically involved in the culture that clearly does exist around you.

‘It’s so exciting to be involved in an industry where there are so few rules of engagement’, she says of the changes in China’s publishing market. ‘We very rarely have meetings with Chinese publishers where people say ‘We don’t do things that way’, because as yet there really aren’t that many templates.’

This sense of freedom is clearly a source of strength both for Jo and for Penguin’s entry into what could potentially be an enormous Chinese market.

Many high profile Penguin authors are on the books for Chinese translations and launches in the coming year, and the appetite in international markets for Chinese texts is clearly growing. The enormous sum paid for Wolf Totem, and the instant clamouring for its translation into other foreign languages is more than an indication of heightened interest in work from China. Although Penguin has no specific quotas or plans to market masses of books — ‘we plan to do a small number of books, but do them extremely well’, says Jo — her appointment is more than likely to pave the way for similar moves from other publishing giants.

Jo’s own aspirations for publishing at first glance don’t seem too lofty — to be able to legally publish Chinese literature in China. However, the myriad of issues currently restricting printed matter on the Mainland (currently no foreign companies can publish Chinese language material here) mean for the time being this remains a project for the future. Jo also professes to have no literary dreams of her own: ‘I must be the only person in publishing who doesn’t have a manuscript under the mattress.’ A moment later though, she reflects: ‘Although having seen some of the some we get, I do sometimes think ‘I could do better than that…’

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