Publishing for China’s Millions

Quality Christian books are being legally published in China, despite the obstacles. Only state-run publishers in the world’s largest nation of 1.3 billion are granted ISBN numbers by the government. So Christian and other private publishers must negotiate for, or buy, unused numbers from the state publishers.

Even with an ISBN number, publication is not assured since content must be approved by government censors. Christian publishers say books having the best chance of getting approval and an ISBN number are: (1) marriage and family titles; (2) biographies; and (3) and church history (though not Chinese church history).

ZDL, one of half a dozen main Christian publishers in China, has a goal of developing national authors. But so far, most published Christian books in China are translations. These include classics by C.S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and John Calvin, plus contemporary works by Philip Yancey, Gary Chapman, Rick Warren, and others.

(There are two kinds of groups are publishing books about Christianity: (1) academics, who publish Christian classics to help Chinese leaders understand the Western mind and worldview; and (2) Christians who want to nurture the church and draw readers toward personal faith.)

Thanks to the Beijing-based distribution company Baojiayin, readers across China may order from hundreds of legally-published Christian books through the company’s print and online catalogues. Recently, Baojiayin also received permission to sell Bibles and books published by the Three Self Church that until previously could only be obtained at one of the registered churches.

Some of China’s larger house churches are publishing magazines. These typically do three things: (1) provide a training ground for new writers; (2) address timely issues from a biblical perspective; and/or (3) foster interaction with readers. Because these magazine are not registered with the government, they are usually given away and do not accept paid advertising.

In China’s volatile political environment, volunteers know their magazines could be shut down at any moment—just as nearly two hundred Chinese church leaders were denied permission to travel to Capetown for the Lausanne conference. Yet they go forward from their sense of calling and service to the church.

Any long-range Christian publishing strategy in China will need to embrace the new digital technologies: an estimated twenty-five million Chinese read books only on their mobile cell phones.

John Maust is president of Media Associates International (MAI), a publishing training ministry based near Chicago. He previously served as a missionary journalist with Latin America Mission, and as assistant news editor at Christianity Today magazine.