Mai Jia, China's Dan Brown, brought his spy thriller The Message to the event, where rights for more than 15 countries were sold or agreed upon within hours.
Previously, his Decoded has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in 33 languages — a hard-won success for Chinese authors, as Western publishers rarely put translated novels before their own best-sellers, according to Gray Tan, Mai Jia's literary agent.
Matching a well-written, smartly-translated story with a top publisher is the key to success in foreign markets. In short, "it's all about picking up the right book and taking it to the right people," Tan said.
His Decoded is a legend about an orphaned math genius devoted to cryptography and deciphering, while The Message features a locked-room spy game set in China in the 1940s. Wang Dewei, a Harvard professor of Chinese literature, said the story intrigues readers with a riddle to solve.
Mai Jia attributed his popularity among foreign readers mainly to his books' translation. A good translation could give a novel a "second life," he said.
Both his books were translated by Olivia Milburn, an Oxford graduate in ancient Chinese. English readers were impressed by the classic beauty and elegant taste of the language in Decoded.
"This strange, twisting tale is told in fizzy, vivid and often beautiful prose," reads an Economist review, calling it a book "everyone should read" and Milburn's translation "a treasure."
With Mai Jia's brand appeal and Milburn's strength in language, foreign publishers expect The Message to become another global hit.
Mai Jia is not the only Chinese author who benefited from good translation. Liu Cixin's sci-fi epic, The Three-Body Problem translated into English by Ken Liu, garnered the Hugo Award, known as the sci-fi Nobel Prize.
Readers gave it four-and-a-half stars on Amazon's book review page, saying Ken Liu's translation "made incredibly smooth reading as if it were the original work."
Ken Liu, a Chinese-American sci-fi writer himself, said a translator would deliver the author's thoughts and emotions accurately "only if he could hear the author's voices in his mind."
The translation itself won't necessarily make a best-seller. A touching story that resonates with global readers is a must, literary critics said.
The London Book Review called The Three-Body Problem trilogy "one of the most ambitious works of science fictions ever written." It created a brand-new world, picturing a universe far beyond the three-dimensional world and predicted catastrophic consequences of humanity's attempt to contact an alien civilization, the review said.
Chen Feng, the copyright broker behind Liu Cixin's books, was delighted to see that almost every event Liu Cixin attended was overbooked. Watching the long queue in the author's book signing event, an attendee asked: "Is he a Nobel Prize winner?"
The path to global fame is not easy. Mai Jia and Liu Cixin wrote good stories. Translators broke the language barriers. It is the literary agents who brokered the deal with foreign publishers. They are the "invisible hands" pushing Chinese authors into the global market, observers and analysts said.
Tan told Xinhua that to sell Chinese stories abroad, they are competing for the precious time and attention of foreign book editors. "To allure them, convince them, you got to be good and play by their rules," he suggested.
Drawing a clever parallel between Chinese and Western books will help publishers catch the essence quickly and situate it properly in their own cultural context, Tan said.
Meanwhile, it is critical to know the people behind the books. The publishing world is a circle of publishers, book detectives and literary agents. "Make contacts and friends, build trust and a brand, so that once you sell the books, they are in safe hands," Tan said.
Tan's idea was echoed by Chen, Liu Cixin's copyright agent. He understands the efforts top publishing houses like Tor devoted to promoting Liu's books: polish editing, reports in national papers, reviews in The Wall Street Journal, publicity events, access to major bookstores and placement in online shops.
By 2017, with more than 300,000 English copies sold, the trilogy has become a New York Times best-seller, according to the publisher. Even former US president Barack Obama and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg are among its fans.
Global readers' passion for original Chinese storytelling reflects the world's interest in a fast-growing Asian country and its culture. "You can catch the heartbeat of a nation by reading its novels," Mai Jia once said. Once foreigners are willing to sit down and listen, then it's the perfect time to tell our stories, Chen said.
Still, to translate passion into sales requires talent and perseverance. More professional translators and literary agents are needed in China, and a copyright broker mechanism needs to be nurtured in the country, Tan said.
In the end, to ensure the long-term success of Chinese stories in the global market, the real task is not selling books, but to "bridge the cultural gap between the East and the West," Tan said, and to "win the hearts and minds" of readers.
This article originally appeared on the China Daily website.