Rob Harris

After four years’ pitching to Chinese academic publishing houses, writer Rob Harris of rural Wairarapa has just had his first English-language textbook go to print in China. Here he explains the sometimes tortuous process of publishing in China:

My breakthrough underlines a key feature of doing business in China, which is the value of personal contacts and perseverance.

I first worked in China’s ‘Dongbei’ (Northeast), for Dalian University of Technology Press (DUTP) as an on-call proofreader in 2004. At the time, I was teaching at the nearby Dalian Maritime University and by that labyrinthine ‘ricebowl network’ that underpins a lot of China business, my name was passed around. When the call came, I would cycle over to DUTP and do two or three hours’ editing.

When I made my first book proposal some 10 years later, all of my DUTP contacts had long since disappeared. But the fact that I had some connection with the company helped a lot. My first pitch to DUTP met with a lukewarm reception, so I continued to approach other publishers.

But after about 12 months of complete silence, DUTP came back with a counter-proposal which I was happy to run with.

The book is part of a series of texts aimed at English majors and my brief was to take new graduates through the process of applying to Western companies. Luckily, a few former students have gained very prestigious jobs with diplomatic posts and Fortune 500 companies in China.

Being able to relate to the personal success stories of former students has given the text a reality that it would not otherwise have. Certainly, the approach is a long way from what I envisaged, but the ‘foot in the door’ more than pays for that.

China is the home of intellectual property theft and writers should take care. I always feel I’m treading a fine line between putting forward an outstanding publishing proposal and having it accepted, or seeing it disappear, only to reappear in slightly different form and with Chinese authorship.

A particularly interesting aspect of the writing task for me, has been the widespread use of two-dimensional barcodes. These allow students to access additional material from the DUTP website on their iPhones.

The main benefit is that it enables the publisher to keep the book price under control. It also enables teachers to tailor classes to ability, or class time available. Less able students may need the barcoded sources to fully absorb the material.

The downside to having around a third of the material accessible only online, means a potential buyer, picking up a hard copy in a bookstore, is faced with a pretty lean presentation.

When you consider that on average 14 million students annually sit the Chinese equivalent of a university entrance exam, the scale of the tertiary textbook market can be grasped. The in-bound foreign student education market is limited. The ‘in-China’ education resource market is just about infinite.

For further information, phone Rob Harris on (NZ) 027 342 0495 or email


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