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Serial Pleasure: China's online reading craze is challenging Kindle

Chinese e-books provide an interactive reading experience, where readers and writers can discuss and co-develop the plot

Published: Aug 23, 2017 05:15:07 AM IST
Updated: Aug 21, 2017 05:02:10 PM IST

Serial Pleasure: China's online reading craze is challenging Kindle
“I go to Chinese online literature for imagination, fun and freedom.”
Image: Zhang Peng / Lightrocket via Getty Images

To Yuwei Pan, a regular fix of Chinese novels on her smartphone makes her daily commute a pleasure. But these aren’t just normal stories. Chinese e-books are often serialised; readers wait for the latest chapters of a story, much like viewers catch up with the newest episodes of Game of Thrones.

They also provide an interactive reading experience, where readers and writers can discuss and co-develop the plot. “I turn to Kindle for serious books, but I go to Chinese online literature for imagination, fun and freedom,” Pan says.

The 21-year-old student is one of more than 330 million readers of Chinese online literature. Mostly under 30, they favour genres like fantasy, wuxia (stories about heroes and martial arts), science fiction, mystery and romance. And it’s only going to get bigger—the market has grown by more than 20 percent annually since 2012 to $1.3 billion, according to the publicity department of the Beijing Municipal Committee.

China Literature, Tencent’s subsidiary and the country’s largest online publishing company, recently filed to go public in Hong Kong, aiming to raise as much as $800 million for potential acquisitions and mobile service expansion, Reuters reported. “If the attempt succeeds, it will demonstrate investors’ confidence in the online publishing industry,” says Huang Guofeng, a senior interactive entertainment analyst at Analysys, an internet big-data service provider. “It will turn around the bad impression—people used to believe that online literature was full of piracy and couldn’t generate any profit.”

In their application for an IPO, China Literature disclosed revenue of $384 million, up by 59.1 percent from 2015—a rate of growth more than double that of Amazon, which has its own e-book platform, the Kindle Store.

The two giants of the online publishing business both have advantages in certain areas. According to its company reports, China Literature has more books than the Kindle Store (8.4 million versus 6.9 million) but fewer writers (5.3 million versus 14 million). The Chinese company enjoys a readership of 175.3 million, while the total number of Amazon account holders is just over 300 million (Amazon does not share figures for the number of Kindle Store users). China Literature launched its first e-reader in June at a price similar to the Kindle Paperwhite. However, less than 500 devices have been sold, according to Tmall.com, China’s B2C online retail site. Most people use their own smartphone.

Unlike the Kindle Store, which is essentially a platform selling digital versions of mainstream paper books, China Literature has “everything in the virtual sphere”, says Shao Yanjun, an associate professor at Peking University’s Chinese department. “It is the habitat of pure internet culture, where writers create content online. Platforms publish novels online—fans gather, read and share stories online.”

The interactive experience of China Literature is another main differentiator—most of its content is serialised, which means writers will often publish work chapter by chapter, sometimes altering plotlines based on suggestions from users. And it’s the discussion forum, which sits alongside the main story, that Pan enjoys most. She remembers a time when many fellow readers wanted two main characters in a novel to become romantically involved. Eventually the author wrote this into the plot. “Serialised works banish the sense of loneliness,” Pan says. “When reading on Kindle, you are facing a single terminal. When reading Chinese online novels, you are engaging with a community.”

China Literature has 8.4 million books compared to Kindle Store’s 6.9 million

For many, Chinese online literature facilitates freedom of writing and reading. “It is the simplified version of grassroots democracy,” says Shao. “Its legitimacy originates from the realisation of people’s desire.” Bearing this in mind, it won’t be surprising to discover that a typical story line on China Literature would be similar to the Twilight tale—an apparent nobody, like Bella Swan, achieves an enviable life at the end.

But China’s rigorous censorship of the media means this freedom only goes so far—a fact that is not lost on publishers. “China Literature has a developed content control system,” says Analysys’s Huang. “In order to get works promoted and contracted, writers will self-censor.”

The industry is nevertheless vibrant and promising because its nature lies within the “safe zone”, according to Huang. Not only is the text easier to review compared with, for example, ­live-streaming services—which have been heavily blasted by the government this year—but also online literature tends to stay away from controversial subjects.

Chinese online literature has been popular for a while, but only recently has it become profitable. In the IPO filing, China Literature posted its first net profit of $4.49 million in 2016. It all began in 2003 when Qidian.com, a brand under China Literature’s wing today, rolled out the country’s first online-reading payment scheme. Under the system, readers can pay to become VIPs and unlock the most up-to-date chapters. With the profit, China Literature distributes considerable contribution fees to its writers, amounting to $147 million in 2016, as stated in the IPO document. This no doubt improves the quality of writing, says Shao.

Chinese online fantasies are also going global. The overseas market has mushroomed since 2015, led primarily by two translated sites, Wuxia World and Gravity Tales. The number of monthly active users on these sites has climbed to 4 million. Readers are from more than 100 countries, with North Americans accounting for one third of that number, Shao wrote in a ­recent paper.

Says Shao: “America has Hollywood. Japan has animation. Korea has TV drama. In the future, China will have online literature.” 

(This story appears in the 01 September, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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