Forge a Publishing Citadel to Protect Taiwan
Building momentum out of niche interests, she is working to raise issues that help reinsert depth and breadth back into Taiwan's increasingly superficial publishing market.
Forge a Publishing Citadel to Protect TaiwanBy Yi-huan Du
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 575 )
Although few people are familiar with Acropolis Publishing House, it was this boutique publishing house that brought both Hyok Kang's This is Paradise!: My North Korean Childhood, the publisher's first title, and Thomas Piketty's global hot seller, Capital in the 21st Century, to Taiwan's readers.
Acropolis has been behind several other very different ventures. If you happened to hail from Taixi Village in Changhua County, you might find it difficult to hold back tears as you read Southerly Wind. This book, over two decades in the making, uses statistics and a hyper realistic writing style to chronicle how Taixi – a land nurtured and shaped by the river flowing by – gave rise to the infamous Formosa Plastics Sixth Naphtha Cracker facility.
If you live near the Zhuoshui River, reading the detailed account in A 300-Year History of the Zhuoshui River of the river's transformations, historic conflicts, and environmental concerns over three centuries, you will surely feel the urge to head over to the river for a look.
And, as the surviving progeny of a victim of the White Terror, in which thousands were slain by government forces, reading the last words of those killed over a half century ago and kept from the eyes of others until now in Last Wills Never Delivered, you would certainly be moved by the outpouring of feeling by the victims towards their families as well as their frustration at being unable to see their hopes and dreams come true.
These Taiwanese stories, so rarely found elsewhere on the broader market, are among the offerings presented to the world by Acropolis Publishing House.
Patience Chuang, Acropolis's editor-in-chief, is a diminutive lady with a soft voice solidified by an edge of firmness. It was she, and her firm commitment to Taiwan's stories, who singlehandedly founded Acropolis.
Chuang jokingly refers to herself as a rebel of Taiwan's publishing industry. The reason is simple: Her editorial soul can no longer find expression among Taiwan's mainstream publishing houses.
Due to price-slashing among distribution channels and the profit-centric orientation of publishers, the local book market in the new millennium has been dominated by translated titles originally written in other languages. Having been tested in other overseas markets, these books present lower risk and cost less to produce. The editor needs only commission the translation, and can save the trouble of making revisions and communicating with the author. This approach is both easy and profitable.
However, the cumulative effect of such practices has only made Taiwan's book market more superficial. How long has it been since an emerging local author was published? How long has it been since we have read Taiwan's own stories?
"Even academic books on modern Chinese history are all translations from English," notes Chuang, prompting her to wonder "do we have to get even books like those from abroad?"
Patience Chuang raises the case of South Korea's Paju Book Award, noting that "in the past few years, Taiwan has not even been able to nominate a self-produced book for the competition." She also recounts the saga of a venerable professor with decades of research on Taiwan's early economy who was interested in publishing a book.
Full of historical statistics on Taiwan's early economy, the author found no publisher willing to take the book to print, and ultimately the old professor's students could only publish it themselves as a gesture for his birthday. Chuang's anguish is palpable as she recounts these tales.
Kuo Chun-hsin, CEO of Acropolis's parent group Book Republic, recalls how Chuang, at her previous position at a large publishing firm, needed the approval of the sales department in the selection of book titles. "Everything is profit oriented," laments Kuo.
"Can we recover the capacity for dialogue between the editorial side and society, instead of looking strictly at the market?" This thought burned inside Patience Chuang's mind as she thought, "Publishers should help create and influence a society's common heritage; popularity isn't the answer for everything."
What is "society's common heritage?" Acropolis defines it as the influences that guide issues throughout society. "So people 20 years younger than us can know what kind of place they live in," Chuang offers.
Preserve the Niche, Communicate with the Popular
"Publishing and media are both similarly engaged in the business of mass communication," relates Chuang. Explaining, she adds, "Whether it comes to finance and taxes, constitutional issues, democracy or trade, how can we achieve growth without everyone's participation and discussion?" The ambition to raise issues and lead opinions she exemplifies prompts people to read things they were previously uninterested in reading or do not understand.
"If I just keep giving readers easy books, they will end up only looking for that sort of thing," Chuang states. The book A 300-Year History of the Zhuoshui River is a typical Acropolis case. An academically leaning specialized title compiled over more than 20 years, it is not going to make the best-seller list immediately upon release, like The Hunger Games. However, over time it has sold 3,000 copies, and could continue to sell another thousand copies each year into the future.
More importantly, the book established a foundation for the historical book market.
Huang Hsiu-ju, Chuang's former supervisor at The Journalist, is currently editor-in-chief of Riv Gauche Publishing House, a member of the same publishing group. She relates that Chuang insists on preserving niche tastes, never taking her focus off sticky issues. "Take pollution, for instance. Victims are often poor and have nowhere to air their voices. She chronicles these people's stories, and over time they accumulate, until one day you cannot help but pay attention to them, even if you don't want to."
Capital in the 21st Century is one further example of this. The brick-like economic tome, packed with academic jargon and mathematical models, has sold over 20,000 copies in Taiwan.
Guardian of Society
Raising issues and leading opinions may sound simple, but it is actually quite difficult in practice. If she had not been paying attention to the issue of finance and taxes over two years ago, and also previously read a work on finance and taxation from a sociological perspective by another French scholar, she would never have been able to recognize the importance of Capital in the 21st Century. Not only that, but just as the title was set to hit the U.S. market and Taiwan's publishers were waiting to see which way the wind blew, she would never have been able to take action and make a considerable investment to secure local publishing rights.
Intent on training her ability to select books, Chuang elected to work as a current affairs journalist in Kaohsiung for two-and-a-half years straight after graduating from National Taiwan University. "My supervisor was incredulous that a young person would want to go back and cover the local beat," Chuang recalls with a chuckle. "And the most difficult current affairs beat at that."
Chuang believed that the social sphere of an NTU graduate could not let her really get to know society. Two and a half years of talking face-to-face with drug dealers and thieves at the police station every day effectively took her away from the world of books.
Four years of effort have borne some fruits for Acropolis Publishing. Proceeding at her own pace, Chuang publishes no more than 15 titles each year. The volume is nothing to write home about, but every book is worthwhile, generating a reliable number of sales each year, taking Acropolis out of the red and into the black. As Huang Hsiu-ju describes it, the publishing house "keeps on living in a reasonable fashion."
At the end of the interview, Chuang recounted Acropolis Publishing House's origins. "After leaving my previous job I went on a trip to Greece, where I visited the Acropolis in Athens." Reminiscing on that germ of inspiration, she says, "The Acropolis is to Athens as the publishing industry is to Taiwan."
"The Acropolis acts as a guardian of society," Chuang says as a satisfied smile forms on her face. "When I got back, I told my friends I've come up with the name for the publishing company."
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman