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Asia's J.K. Rowling? Where Art Thou?

by Tanya Thomas on May 29, 2010 at 10:40 AM
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 Asia's J.K. Rowling? Where Art Thou?

Publishers and authors are looking for that little bit of magic that could see Asia produce the next J.K. Rowling.

The British writer's best-selling series about boy wizard Harry Potter found millions of readers in Asia, but no Asian author of children's books has made a similar breakthrough in the West.


With more than half the world's population, high literacy rates, increasingly affluent consumers and a rich storytelling tradition, Asia is a growth market, a publishing festival in Singapore heard this month.

But western authors continue to dominate bestseller lists in the region, and Asian writers often have to get recognised first in the United States or Europe before being appreciated back home.

"I have a feeling that the time now is quite ripe for Asian books to start moving," said Indian writer Anushka Ravishankar, who attended the Asian Festival of Children?s Content in Singapore.

"People are opening up more to multicultural experiences. It's taken longer to work the other way, but it will," she told AFP, referring to the prospect of a breakout Asian children's author who will make it big worldwide.

Asian writers have made it to international bestseller lists include India's Arundhati Roy who wrote "The God of Small Things," and Japan's Haruki Murakami, author of "Kafka on The Shore," but the region has yet to produce a world-famous children's author.

More than 400 delegates, from writers to agents and publishers, took part in the Singapore festival, which was devoted to all forms of children's content, including videogames, films and music in English and other languages.

"Concepts like Hello Kitty, Doraemon and Pokemon all have crossed borders," said Phan Ming Yen, general manager of The Arts House, an exhibition and performance centre which helped organise the festival.

He was referring to made-in-Japan fictional characters that have taken world pop culture by storm, appearing on everything from lunch boxes to videogames.

"Then the question is -- what else can we learn from other countries in Asia?"

Asians can draw inspiration from a non-western name in the New York Times list of top children's books -- Jordan's Queen Rania is the co-author of "The Sandwich Swap" with established writer Kelly DiPucchio.

But -- apart from the fact that being royalty helps sell books -- the Asian children's book industry faces several challenges, including the lack of an integrated publishing infrastructure.

"We have not been promoting them. We do not have good distribution facilities and translation possibilities," said festival director R. Ramachandran of Singapore's National Book Development Council.

The Harry Potter books published by Bloomsbury have been made into six movies, with distribution in over 200 territories and translations in 67 languages, according to Rowling?s website.

The world media market, which includes books, was estimated by market research agency Datamonitor at 755 billion US dollars in 2009.

Asia?s share of the global media market is about a quarter of this, according to organisers of the Singapore publishing festival.

Trade magazine Publisher's Weekly sees Asia as a growth market for children's books, driven largely by China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, due to its increasing production of original titles and translations.

"The huge Asian presence at the Bologna Book Fair every year attests to the region's burgeoning children's segment and its appetite for deals, imports or exports," it said in a 2009 report, citing the world's largest children's bookfair.

Nury Vittachi, the Hong Kong-based author of "The Feng Shui Detective" series, who also writes children's books, said key elements for success were missing in Asia.

"The editors, literary agents, the distributors, the illustrators, the promoters, even the writers -- all those elements in the chain have been missing," said Vittachi, whose books have been published in Europe, the United Sates and Australia.

He said ancient Asian fairy tales may need to evolve, citing the example of the box-office hit "Shrek" which turns traditional Western storybook characters on their heads.

"You see a lot of these books in Asian shops but they haven't been developed much. They're still in the shape they were 2000 years ago, but if you look at the example of Western fairytales, Shrek has moved on with parody and irony."

Ravishankar, dubbed in reviews as "the Asian Dr Seuss" for her "nonsense verse" writing style, said cross-translations have to be stepped up to promote Asian works and enlarge the market.

"We just don't have enough. We should probably be doing more translations from other languages into English and vice-versa. It's a matter of reaching that critical mass and then things will start moving," she said.

"We also need more stories about today's world and the problems that children face," said the English-language author, whose works have dealt with modern themes like conservation.

Source: AFP

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