Book Publishing Regulations in China [ISBN, Copyright, & More]

The Chinese market stands as a critical player in the global book industry, with a predicted revenue of $13.82 billion in 2024. This impressive figure is hardly surprising, given that an average reader in China consumes over eight books per year.

With literature being an integral part of Chinese culture, international book authors are understandably curious about how to start publishing their works in the local market.

Read along as we discuss the book publishing regulations in China, the process of acquiring a local ISBN number, and other censorship rules in this article.


Understanding Book Censorship Regulations in China

Throughout history, the distribution of information in China has always been governed by strict censorship laws. It’s a process that has been around since the Qin dynasty to maintain social stability, cultural norms, and political ideology.

The strictness in the publication and distribution of books can be attributed to several factors, including content control and the desire to promote domestic literature and ideas aligned with the nation’s values.

The government exercises this control through pre-publication censorship, requiring all books to undergo a review and pass all the requirements before acquiring publishing approval.


Chinese event-goers at the Beijing Book Fair

Chinese event-goers at the Beijing Book Fair (Source: China Daily)


Like the rest of the world, some readers in Mainland China like to access their favorite book titles online. With its digital distribution channel, marketing your book in the Chinese market also faces the challenges of the Great Firewall policy.

It’s a digital system that limits access to foreign websites, including global bookstores and other publisher channels. So, unless the book is specifically localized for Chinese audiences, it won’t appear in local search engines like Baidu.

Besides the publishing process, local advertising laws also impact how a publisher or an author sells books in China. They must adhere to strict regulations that prohibit specific terms and sensitive topics. Not complying with this regulation can get your promotional content banned in the country’s digital ecosystem.


Booth at Beijing Book Fair

Booth at Beijing Book Fair (Source: Xinhua)


What are some banned book topics in Mainland China?

Publishers should note that not all book categories can be approved and registered locally. It’s part of a broader effort to regulate media and information, ensuring alignment with the general policies implemented by the CPC.


As a result, specific topics are heavily censored across physical and digital book mediums. Here are some examples of books that are typically restricted:

  • Publications that include criticism of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and government policies
  • Content that could incite social unrest or disrupt social order
  • Material deemed to undermine national unity, sovereignty, or territorial integrity
  • Books with elements of pornography and extreme violence
  • Religious book content without approval from the Chinese government


This banned topic list is not set in stone. As a foreign publisher, it’s important to respect and stay updated on the country’s evolving political climate, social stability concerns, and the government’s changing priorities.If possible, consult with local experts to ensure consistent compliance with content regulations and avoid penalties in the long run.


Does China use ISBN?

Yes, publishers and authors use the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) to register and identify literary materials in the Chinese Market. It’s commonly called “Shu Hao,” which means “Book Numbers.

China’s central government typically distributes the approval number for each book title. It’s a 13-digit code, with numbers specifically assigned to identify the material’s publication group, publisher name, book serial, and check.


ISBN book code


Your local ISBN is a major factor in how your book will be published, distributed, and managed in libraries. It also comes in handy when buying and selling publications.

In the local business scene, the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) application is not a requirement exclusive to physical books. It’s also an identification number for virtual publications and audio-visual products like video games.


How do I get an ISBN in China?

You can get a local ISBN in China by contacting a domestic publishing house. Once you submit your manuscript for their approval, the next steps will depend on your book’s genre. As mentioned, a publication covering sensitive topics such as history, ideologies, religion, or similar subjects will undergo a more rigorous review process.

It doesn’t matter if your book has already acquired an approval number from the global ISBN system. If you intend to cater to local audiences, the material must have a CSBN (China Standard Book Number).

Domestic publishers typically do not accept books in languages other than Chinese. Only translated foreign materials that pass the standard review are acceptable for official publication.


Image by jcomp on Freepik


Book Publishing License vs. ISBN in China

For global publishers and independent authors, knowing the differences between an International Standard Book Number and a publishing license is important. While ISBN presents itself as a material identifier, it doesn’t automatically allow you to sell or print books in China.

You can apply for an official license through the National Copyright Administration (NCA) (国家版权局). This application will require you to meet specific criteria, which might vary depending on the organization. Generally, the requirements include:

  • Company Name: Your business name must be unique and registered with Chinese characters only.
  • Legal Representative: The person representing your company must possess a PRC (People’s Republic of China) national identity card.

If you don’t have these requirements or you’re not familiar with the process, it’s best to work with a local agency or publisher to avoid the risk of a failed application.


Can You Establish a Publishing Company in China?

Unfortunately, a foreign individual can’t establish a Chinese publishing company. According to the Catalog for Guiding Foreign Investment in Industries, the book publication industry belongs under the “forbidden” category.

The country’s publishing sector is also not open to foreign investments. Before a local publisher can release a publication written by a non-Chinese individual, it must undergo a thorough evaluation process conducted by the local governing departments.


How Does Book Copyright Work in China?

When it comes to any kind of publication, China’s copyright law provisions automatically safeguard the original work upon its creation. It includes publications developed and created outside the country, like a book from an international writer or a global publishing press.

Generally, individuals or entities who publish the material have economic and moral copyrights to the book in the eyes of the Chinese government.


Image by Markus Winkler on Unsplash


Economic rights allow authors to control how their work is used and to make money from it. Meanwhile, moral rights include the following:

  • The right to decide when to publicize the work for the first time
  • The right to be recognized as the author(s)
  • The right to make changes to the work
  • The right to protect the work from changes that could harm the author’s reputation.

To safeguard an original creation, you can register it with the Copyright Protection Center of China. This application helps to protect the work against unauthorized use.


Tips To Avoid Censorships in the Chinese Book Market

●     Book Translation

If you’re looking to publish your book in China, the first step is to ensure your manuscript is polished and tailored for the local audience. It’s worth noting that most local consumers prefer Simplified Chinese.

So, if your book is in Traditional Chinese, we suggest converting it before proceeding to the next steps of your publication. This process might mean translating the book yourself or hiring a professional.

Translation services may vary in cost. However, your budget constraints are not a reason to use free apps to convert your book manuscript. Remember, the Chinese consumer market has a literacy rate of over 96.36%. They wouldn’t patronize works that are of poor quality.

Moreover, the subject and style of your book are important. Typically, non-fiction is more popular with local publishers than fiction. Well-received topics include travel, international culture, business, and health and wellness.


Connect with your target audience in China


●     Content Localization

Successfully publishing in China involves more than just material translation. Like how a brand should localize, you should consider crafting a title in Chinese. Sticking with the original might imply something else when translated into the local language and might fail to resonate with local readers.

It will also help if you prepare a summary of your book in the domestic language to give publishers a clear idea of its theme.

Even if your manuscript is already in Chinese, having a professional editor go through it is crucial. They’ll be more familiar with the local nuances and regional slang that you may have missed during the translation of the book.


●     Collaboration with Local Authors or Publishers

An excellent way to future-proof your books from the ever-changing local regulations is to keep in touch with the community of authors and publishing companies in China. Collaborating with them will also expose your work to a broader audience.

Building a professional network will never go wrong in a business landscape as digitalized as China. You can easily conduct your search through local social media platforms and forums.

With the country’s 1.03 billion online user base, you’re likely one click away from finding fellow authors and industry experts in these channels.


Quick Q&A

What types of publications must have an ISBN in China?

In China, an ISBN code is mandatory for different kinds of publications to ensure they are officially cataloged and can be legally distributed. It includes all forms of printed books, whether fiction or non-fiction, academic texts, and professional reference materials.

Educational materials, including textbooks and supplementary learning resources, also require an ISBN. Magazines and periodicals, while often under a different categorization, may need an ISBN or an equivalent serial number for distribution and sale.


Your Trusted Book Marketing Partner in China!

As the second biggest book market in the world, it’s only natural for China to impose stringent regulations to safeguard the welfare of its local consumers. From obtaining a local ISBN to being well aware of the banned topics and your copyright claims, all these requirements may appear overwhelming.

Lucky for you, Sekkei Digital Group has enough industry experience to help your brand navigate this intricate business landscape. Our dedicated team can help you rediscover your brand position in the industry.


Sekkei Digital Group Services


We offer comprehensive services to empower your marketing strategies. From creating ad campaigns to leveraging the power of local search engines and social media platforms, we provide the digital solutions you need to thrive in China. Contact us today to learn more!


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