When I travelled in mainland China in the late 80s there was a black market in currency, trading government issued currency specially printed for foreigners, which allowed one to purchase speciality items not available in the local markets, for local currency. When I first arrived I was soon instructed in the fine art of recognizing common scams, like the “recount” in which a few bills disappeared from the bottom of the pile. Now China’s markets are much more open and there is no special currency for foreigners. However, there is still a black market … in ISBN numbers!
At the heart of the state press’s power is its control of the nation’s market in International Standard Book Numbers, or ISBN’s, the bar-code-like number that identifies a book for commercial consumption. Without one, a book can’t be published in China, with the exception of party tracts and state-sanctioned religious texts…
But as in so many other sectors of China’s economy, a parallel, unofficial market in ISBN codes has mushroomed among China’s estimated 30,000 private publishers. Known as ”culture houses” or ”booksellers,” they act like packagers: finding titles, buying rights, and shopping them to state-owned publishers, who will issue an ISBN for a fee ranging from $1,250 to $2,500, then publish the book under the state imprimatur. Agreements can also include the sharing of production costs, marketing and distribution.
It’s considered an openly illegal system, tolerated to a point. Officially, the buying and selling of ISBN’s is forbidden. In a round of recent speeches aimed at culling pornography and other ”illegal publications jeopardizing social stability,” government officials vowed to crack down on culture houses, calling them ”malignant tumors that must be excised.”