Because Taiwan is an island, subject to China’s denial of its independence, it passes over many that Taiwan is a rich, deep society with 23.7 million people and a diaspora of millions more. There is something here that can draw in virtually anyone in the world. Yet, due in part to political circumstances, a great mass of people know almost nothing about Taiwan and its history.

This is largely due to the limited amount of good English writing on Taiwan. Michael Cannings, the cofounder of Camphor Press, not only saw an opportunity in this disconnect, but felt a moral responsibility for bringing Taiwan to the world through book publishing.

“After years bemoaning the dearth of English-language titles, the time came to stop complaining and do something about it,” Cannings said.

Cannings once thought of Taiwan as nothing other than a place elsewhere. He first came to Tainan in 2002, after graduating from the University of Oxford with a degree in philosophy and German literature. He was searching for time and space to discern what he really wanted to do while teaching English to keep the lights on. By Cannings’s admission, his life was mostly removed from Taiwanese society. He would have ended up teaching English in China were it not for the onerous restrictions on speech in the classroom.

But Cannings had a burning curiosity about his surroundings, soon becoming aware of the vast gap between his world and the world that is experienced in Chinese. Noticing that Taiwan has an active literature reading public, more than his home in the United Kingdom, further piqued his interest in entering this world.

Establishing Camphor Press was not yet on the horizon. The gears only started to turn when he took a “window-dressing” job at a shady cable television company, hired simply because his boss wanted to have a native English speaker on staff for appearances’ sake. Largely left to his own devices, he used the time to learn the basics of coding for the web, something that would later prove useful for preparing ebooks.

Though Cannings said it was not quite a “bullshit job,” it was still “an odd situation, but a happy one.” It afforded him a regular salary and eight hours a day in front of a computer.

Around the same time, in the mid-2000s, Cannings encountered a travel book by John Grant Ross, a longtime resident and writer. They began a correspondence, and kindled a friendship that thrives on their political differences — Cannings is on the left, while Ross is conservative — yet shared appreciation for books and Taiwan.


Photo Credit: Camphor Press

It was through discussions between the two that the idea for starting a publishing company came about. Cannings would take on most of the administrative responsibilities, while Ross would handle acquisitions and development. They brought on a third hand, Mark Swofford, for copy editing, and formally broke ground as a company in February 2014.

Regional Aspirations

The “concern,” as Cannings called Camphor and other publishing houses, has seen a good amount of success over the last six years. They are particularly proud of publishing their first print book in 2016, T.C. Locke’s (also known as T.C. Lin) Barbarian at the Gate, the autobiography of an American who became a Taiwanese citizen, and was conscripted into the Republic of China military.

In 2017, Camphor acquired the back catalog of a press called Eastbridge, which boasted of titles by the Nobel Prize Laureate Pearl S. Buck, a number of academic books, and the English translation of one of the best-selling books in the Korean language, Everlasting Empire.

This book is a showpiece in Camphor’s ambitions to expand to other countries in East Asia, as many of the same reasons for Taiwan’s relative isolation from the English-speaking literary world apply to East Asia at large. This, too, comes from a recognition that the market is still too small for exclusively Taiwan-related materials. Their best selling book, however, is an evergreen subject for Taiwan, The China Invasion Threat by Ian Easton.

Cannings expressed a desire to broaden the diversity of authors, saying that Camphor would benefit from broader representation across society. To this end, Camphor Press is seeking to publish more translations and encouraging submissions from a wider range of writers.

The success of Camphor is borne out in Cannings’s decision to start working full time on the project this year. The publishing house has 36 books planned for the coming year, with Cannings working from his home in the U.K., and Ross and Swofford from theirs in Taiwan.

Choosing the name “Camphor” for their press was, at root, aspirational. In the 19th century, camphor was one of Taiwan’s main exports, used in smokeless gunpowder, and for preserving and seasoning food. “Camphor permeated society,” Cannings said, “and not just in Taiwan.”

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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