Home » Contracts, Non-US » The Story Behind China’s Online Literature Boom

The Story Behind China’s Online Literature Boom

31 December 2017

From the Hong Kong Free Press:

The e-book market is exploding on mainland China. According to official estimates, there were 353 million online literature readers by June 2017 and more than 90 percent of them — nearly 327 million — access literature through their mobile phones.

Although the popularity of online literature means emerging authors have an opportunity to showcase their work to a growing audience, for some writers and readers alike, this new publishing model is creating some unforeseen negative effects.

. . . .

One big indicator of this explosion in online readership has been the market value surge of China Literature, China’s biggest online literature platform and a subsidiary of IT giant Tencent. The company’s value skyrocketed in the Hong Kong stock market after its initial public offering in November.

The company has a 70 percent share in China’s online literature market, with 9.6 million online works — primarily in the fantasy, palace-fighting, tomb-raiding, conspiracy, romance genres — created by 6.4 million writers to serve an average of 192 million monthly users.

Its income not only comes from readers’ content payment, but also from copyrights on the website’s most popular works, such as “Legend of Concubine Zhen Huan”, “The Secret of the Grave Robber” and “The Journey of Flower”, which have been adapted into TV dramas.

. . . .

In China, the copyright of a hot online novel can be sold for millions of yuan because a large fiction fan base can guarantee the popularity of an adapted TV series or a movie. In fact, in recent years, China’s TV and video market have increasingly been dominated by from online novels adaptations.

. . . .

Popular writers who release their works on the China Literature platform must sign contracts with the company, stipulating copyright ownership in China Literature’s favor and listing a set of “self-censorship” guidelines that must be followed.

The contract writers are paid through a pyramid pay-for-words model which is highly exploitative as the algorithm allocates a higher pay rate per word and varies based on the popularity of the writer. In 2016, China Literature paid nearly RMB 1 billion yuan — approximately US$150 million — for 5.3 million writers in which just over one hundred top authors gained more than 1 million yuan. The average payment was less than two hundred.

At the same time, the payment system does not encourage good quality work because writers tend to churn out large number of words in order to increase their income under the pay-for-words model.

. . . .

Moreover, writing has become an interactive process with pressure from reader feedback dictating the creative writing process. To woo readers, many writers have to invent bizarre plots as well as update a few thousand characters every day, or readers cancel subscriptions. Many writers have to suspend their publications because they are unable to fulfil their former plot designs or because they can’t stand the pressure of updates.

. . . .

“As a online literature writer, I am not as capable as others. They could write up to 10,000 or even 20,000 words per day while I can only write up to 4,000 to 5,000 words. How should I punish myself.”

An industry report conducted by Hu Run Net on top 85 online literature writers summed up a number of characteristics that these Chinese online writers seem to share:

1. Average age is 37-year old;
2. The youngest writer in the top 50 is just 26-year old;
3. 65 percent of the top 85 writers are male and 35 percent female;
4. On average each writer produces 5000 words daily, although that number can reach nearly 20,000 words per day. Most of them spent over 8 hours on their work.

Link to the rest at the Hong Kong Free Press and thanks to Gina for the tip.

Contracts, Non-US

10 Comments to “The Story Behind China’s Online Literature Boom”

  1. Ever since reading Edward Tufte’s well-written and beautifully laid-out books, beginning with “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” (books that would be impossible to reproduce adequately on a Kindle), I’ve been sensitive to what he terms “chart junk”: graphs and the like that use a multiplicity of design elements to convey a few simple points.

    There has been a trend among describers to describe what needn’t be described. For example, at the end of this excerpt from the Hong Kong Free Press we are told things about “Chinese online writers,” such as that “65 percent of the top 85 writers are male and 35 percent female.”

    Why was it felt necessary to say that 35 percent of these writers are female? Did the article writer worry that a reader might suspect that only 25 percent are female and the remainder are inert rocks? Or did he suspect (this is more likely, sadly) that readers are unable to know instantly that if 65 percent of something is X that the remainder must constitute 35 percent? Did he expect there to be puzzled readers who thought to themselves, “Hmmm–65 percent of these people are men. I wonder what the others must be?”

    To my mind, it would have been enough to write “65 percent of the top 85 writers are male” or even that “55 of the top 85 writers are male” or, flipping things around, “35 percent of the top 85 writers are female” or “30 of the top 85 writers are female.”

    /rant off/

  2. Traditionally, China has been the most literate society on the planet. Rank in the civil service was primarily determined by writing ability. I’ve forgotten the exact numbers and dates, but until sometime in the late 18th or early 19th C, the number of books published in China per year exceeded the total cumulative number of books published in Europe. Marco Polo commented that even the beggars in the street could read some.

    China was in decline for most of the 19th and 20th Centuries, but they are evidently catching up fast. However, my impression is that authorship was never considered a legitimate way of earning a living. Going back to Confucius, imperial service was the only honorable calling. Trade of any kind could be lucrative, but not honorable. Literature, such as popular novels, were gobbled up, but writing was a pastime, not a means of livelihood. Only the printers were paid.

    Classical Chinese novels read much more like romance, mystery, or suspense genre than what we would call high literature. Lots of romance, swords, and sorcery with an overlay of strict Confucian morality to keep the imperial censors happy. Many martial arts movies have plots straight from classic novels. The language ranges from absurdly ornate court language to rock-em-sock-em. Erotica was banned, but flourished.

    The pay-by-the-word scheme is interesting. When translating computer screens to and from Chines, we used to have to allow several times more screen real estate for English because Chinese characters are so much more compact than phonetic script. And English is one of the more compact European languages.

    When I have dabbled in translating Chinese novels to English, the text easily doubled in size. Chinese literature tends to be allusive– a few characters can allude to a story that takes pages to put into English. You would think it would go the same way for English allusions, but practically, English is alway longer, at least in my experience, which is barely enough to give me an idea of the issues. In high literature, it can take paragraphs to translate a single 10 word sentence. Colloquial Chinese is far less dense and I imagine that is what most books are written in today.

    • “Classical Chinese novels read much more like romance, mystery, or suspense genre than what we would call high literature”

      I’ve never much liked the term “high literature” though I guess it is a useful name for a lot of what drew praise in the 20th century. However, I would contend that most classic (not high) English and European literature also reads like – or rather is – romance, mystery, and suspense and has been so since the time of novels like Tirant lo Blanch (1490). Maybe Chinese and English tastes are not so different?

      • High literature was poor word choice. Classical and colloquial Chinese could be compared to Latin versus French. Chinese novels are written in colloquial Chinese, although the Chinese in a 14th Century novel is rather different from the Chinese being written today.

        Classical Chinese was probably never a spoken language. It is terse and often unintelligible without seeing the written characters.
        Classical Chinese was reserved for imperial documents, histories, poetry, and generally weighty subjects. It is almost as if you need a PhD to read and write Classical Chinese. That’s what I meant by “high literature.” I think I may be using it in an anthropological way.

        Traditional China was much different than the West. I’ve studied it some and the more I study and the older I get, the stranger it seems. I quit formally studying Chinese in the mid 1970s and traditional China just seems stranger today. How the current rise of China will come out, I have no clue.

        • I highly recommend Rob Gifford’s 2007 book to everyone, “China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power.” From the Amazon product page description (I bought the Kindle version for about $5):

          “Route 312 is the Chinese Route 66. It flows three thousand miles from east to west, passing through the factory towns of the coastal areas, through the rural heart of China, then up into the Gobi Desert, where it merges with the Old Silk Road. The highway witnesses every part of the social and economic revolution that is turning China upside down.

          In this utterly surprising and deeply personal book, acclaimed National Public Radio reporter Rob Gifford, a fluent Mandarin speaker, takes the dramatic journey along Route 312 from its start in the boomtown of Shanghai to its end on the border with Kazakhstan. Gifford reveals the rich mosaic of modern Chinese life in all its contradictions, as he poses the crucial questions that all of us are asking about China: Will it really be the next global superpower? Is it as solid and as powerful as it looks from the outside? And who are the ordinary Chinese people, to whom the twenty-first century is supposed to belong?”

  3. How do I sign up for this place? I want to get in on the ground floor!

  4. more than 90 percent of them — nearly 327 million — access literature through their mobile phones.

    Almost identical to the entire population of the United States. (328 Million in 2018, per WP)

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.