Publishing veteran is brimming with enthusiasm for her new move into China's schools, discovers Hamish Fletcher.

She's been in publishing for 30 years now, but Dame Wendy Pye still approaches her business with the eagerness of a child learning to read.

"Aren't you excited with me? I've been dreaming about this!" the 73-year-old exclaims about one of her latest projects.

It's not hard to share Pye's enthusiasm.

As well as helping isolated Malaysian kids learn to read, the Auckland entrepreneur is on the verge of a major push into China.

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The Sunshine Books founder recently secured a "breakthrough" deal with a Chinese publishing giant that could one day put New Zealand books into thousands of that country's schools.

Her agreement with China's Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press (FLTRP) is the first time the Asian behemoth has worked with a New Zealand company.

China's largest foreign-language publisher, FLTRP has an annual turnover of US$500 million ($706m) and partners with big names like Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill.

"It's very exciting because New Zealand now will hold its place at the table with those guys," says the Australian-born businesswoman.

"It not only shows the quality of our writing and publishing, it shows you that we can compete very successfully with quality products against the giants of the world."

The rights deal will see 99 Sunshine titles - including books by celebrated New Zealand author Margaret Mahy - go into 200 junior high schools in China from September.

"Isn't it great that in the new school year in China, books that were produced in New Zealand and written by New Zealanders and illustrated by New Zealanders will play a major part in helping children learn English in China? I think that's exciting."

Pye calls the China schools deal a "foot in the door" - albeit one that could grow to be worth millions of dollars. "First of all you get your foot in the door, you get your contract, you get your working arrangement. Now they're talking about 'what do we buy next from you?'."

The publishing house's "palatial" building in Beijing, as Pye describes it, could hardly be further from her company's humble Ellerslie office.

Wendy Pye's new venture means Chinese children will be reading books from NZ authors such as Margaret Mahy. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Wendy Pye's new venture means Chinese children will be reading books from NZ authors such as Margaret Mahy. Photo / Geoff Sloan

Pye started the business in 1985 after meeting a group of adolescent boys who couldn't read.

Since then Wendy Pye Publishing has amassed a catalogue of 2000 titles and sold more than 218 million books.

Pye herself is estimated to be worth $105m, according to the National Business Review.

She became Dame Wendy in 2012 for services to business and education and was this year named by Forbes magazine as one of Asia's top 50 "power businesswomen".

Although her company has sold books into 20 countries, Pye describes its previous presence in China as "a few experiments".

That's now changing. As well as the schools deal, Pye has also recently launched books with Penguin Random House in the country.

With China viewing English as the "language of business", the publishing opportunities in the world's second largest economy are huge.

New Zealand is battling for its place in this market, Pye says. "They want American English because they want their kids to go to an American college or they want British English because they want [their] kids to go to Oxford or Cambridge.

"We're fighting for our pie - pie, not Pye, you understand," she hastily clarifies.

While positioning her company alongside giants like Oxford University Press sounds tough enough, Pye wants to do more than just get New Zealand books into Chinese schools.

It shows you that we can compete very successfully with quality products against the giants of the world.

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"My dream is to change the psyche of China, though I'll probably be dead before I do that," she says.

"One of the great things about New Zealand education, in early years of learning we actually teach people to be quite creative - we are not a rote learning country. As a result, of the very small population we have, we have a huge amount of entrepreneurs all around the world.

"China's a major player in the world scene, but what it doesn't have is the high level of creativity in the education system. And some of the trials that have been run with our products are making people actually think outside the square. Now that's exciting," she says.

If it isn't already clear by now, Pye is brimming with excitement, so it's no surprise that's how she feels about her other big project - a joint venture in Malaysia.

That programme, due to begin in September, will sell affordable tablet computers pre-loaded with English-teaching software to families in areas with no internet connections.

After a three-month Malaysian test pilot, Pye expects to roll it out in the Philippines and Thailand next year.

The project in those countries is a three-way deal between Pye, a tablet manufacturer and Grolier Scholastic.

Pye owns the rights for it elsewhere in the world.

"We've got the ability [with this idea] to teach thousands and thousands of girls who are in the home and don't go to school," she says.

"It's going to revolutionise the teaching of English for all of those people ... imagine what you could do in Africa, imagine what you could do in India!" Not only is she excited; Pye also seems confident the venture will succeed.

"If this works ... " the publishing boss begins. "It will work," she corrects herself.

"It's fabulous, it really is."

Dame Wendy Pye


Born

: Western Australia

Lives: Auckland

Age: 73

Married: To Don Pye

Business: In publishing since 1985