Ebooks to and from China: Trajectory, Tencent, technology

Ebooks to and from China: Trajectory, Tencent, technology

At first glance, you may think that Trajectory is on a different trajectory.

Today's news -- released first by The Bookseller this morning -- is, if nothing else, about a lot of titles. And those titles, first and foremost, are part of a distribution deal.

The Boston-based Trajectory, Inc., has inked a partnership with China's big Tencent Literature to put some 200,000 Chinese ebooks into the North and South American distribution channels where they will be offered via "Apple, Amazon, Nook, Kobo," according to Trajectory's Jim Bryant (pictured).

Tencent, one wants to assume, has a lot of readers among the 820 million "active users" it says are currently enjoying its many Internet services. Tencent Literature, Trajectory's partner -- founded in 2013 and made an independently operating division in 2014 -- is only a part of the conglomerate, which features messaging and social-media services as well as gaming and other popular attractions.

Some English-language publishers may be forgiven for hoping that Tencent's legions of consumers are all busy in Tencent's QQ Reading channel and QQ Bookstore channel and MobileQQ Reading channel. Because the new agreement also is to see Trajectory sending English-language books into the Tencent system. 

Bryant tells us: "We are currently working with a slice of academic publishers (The MIT Press), business publishers (Berrett-Koehler), trade publishers (RosettaBooks), and popular culture (Titan Comics), and importing those titles into China."

Certainly the timing is great for a US-based start-up like Trajectory: BookExpo America's (BEA) Global Market Forum at the end of May welcomes China as its Guest of Honour. Charlotte Eyre has our Bookseller story on that. BEA director Steve Rosato tells me that he's expecting several hundred delegates from China for the event, and Trajectory is featured in the International Digital Publishing Forum's (IDPF) Digital Book Conference that opens BEA, 27th and 28th May. 

And certainly when members of Novelists Inc. (NINC) gather for their fall conference at St. Pete Beach, the Trajectory-Tencent story may help them understand the importance of digital reading in any independent author's efforts at international sales. Some of the veteran NINC members -- accustomed to decades of contracts with print runs -- are concerned that getting books overseas is so daunting in physical formats. Like the proverbial Bulgarian wine, paper books just don't travel well. 

But as ebooks? They fly. Just ask Trajectory's Bryant. He tells us:

Two years ago the Chinese language catalog offered in North America and Europe was less than 10,000 [titles]. Late last year, we more than doubled that number with export partnerships that we signed with Anhui and Guangxi that placed another 10,000+ titles into global distribution. With the Tencent deal, more than half of the entire current Chinese language catalog of fiction is now available.

Isn't Trajectory the outfit we know for working on a new kind of algorithm to generate book recommendations based on text analysis, not sales? 

Yes. Same company. In January, we wrote about making the Trajectory's "natural language processing" (NLP) recommendation technology available to authors. 

The discoverability part of Trajectory's work, Bryant says, is a feature of this new import-export agreement. To the right, you see a sample of Trajectory's matches of Chinese characters for English-language titles.

All of the English-language ebooks that we will be submitting will arrive with keywords generated through our NLPE (natural language processing engine) in English and in Chinese, (and with) recommendations from within our catalog of titles that we have been asked to distribute.

Bryant says he still sees discoverability as central to publishing's challenges -- that view, if anything, is intensified by the numbers of books involve din the new Tencent partnership. He tells us:

This unprecedented volume of ebooks entering into the supply chain reminds me of advice that we have been given on how sea levels will be rising due to global warming. The growth can’t be reflected as a linear equation where the growth is constant over a period of time. The growth in the number of ebooks that are available today is astounding.

Of course, what we are witnessing today highlights the urgency to deploy discovery solutions for readers to find the books they are looking for. When there where 1,000 books on the local library shelf you could generally find something of interest to read using the Dewey Decimal system. Then just 3 years ago, there were a little over 100,000 ebooks available at Apple and Barnes and Noble and readers began to rely more on genre assignments...to find books they were looking for.

Today,  with more than a million English-language books available at many ebook retailers, we need a new solution to finding books. Trajectory's solution is simple, we enable people to find the books they are interested in based on the content of the books and we issue recommendations based on a really strong algorithmic understanding of the contents of the book.

I've asked Bryant where the still-young Trajectory NLP-analysis programme is being used to generate recommendations for readers. As it turns out, the answer is in China:

We are currently providing Amazon China and JD.Com with a selection of the translated keywords...Currently only Amazon has the ability to ingest keywords that we are providing with the standard metadata. We are in ongoing discussion with Apple, Nook, Kobo and all of the major library and school distributors.

JD.com, the Jingdong Mall, is a major Beijing-based online retailer. 

Do all roads lead to it? 

The Trajectory-Tencent deal gives us a chance to look at some of the challenges the publishing industry faces in considering the Chinese market, both as a source of new material in an already crowded books marketplace and as a potential stage for sales of non-Chinese content. 

For example, there are real distinctions in how sales concepts are structured. 

  • In an informational pamphlet from Tencent Literature, we find an illustration of channels that reveals an interesting point: Tencent Literature has major consumer-reader divisions between a "Men's Channel" and a "Women's Channel," something we'd hardly expect to see in the West.
  • Those men's and women's channels are positioned as part of what the company classifies as "network literature" -- digital -- rather than "traditional publishing," which is a channel that includes some of the bestsellers that Bryant tells us are part of the Trajectory-Tencent arrangement.

And beyond such cultural sales-approach differences, there is more to consider.

Close relationship a key

County Cork's Gareth Cuddy, founder and c.e.o. of the ebook distribution company ePubDirect, is familiar with efforts in publishing and China. About a year ago, he wrote Ebook Strategy for Publishers: China for Digital Book World (DBW), on the heels of a trade trip that featured "more than a dozen meetings in three cities" and research before and after.

Cuddy writes that he sees China as still in its early days in the "ebook lifecyle," by comparison, say, to the US or UK markets. "The Chinese market is very much in the early adopter and maybe even innovator stage," he writes. 

What's more, government review and approval is required of incoming titles, he writes, and payments by retailers must be made initially to an importer, and in Chinese currency, the yuan. The importer then pays the publisher involved. 

All of this points to the need, Cuddy says, for a close relationship with an importer for a publisher. Being familiar with the Trajectory approach, he compliments the company on what he says are good "long-standing relationships from previous ventures...I think having someone on the ground, as he [Bryant] has, is critical."

Cuddy sees the largest potential impact of an agreement like that between Trajectory and Tencent as lying on the chance to move English-language content into China. The English market there, he says, may be somewhat underserved at this point. He particularly sees, he says, children's books, self-help, and business books as good prospective market sectors in China, while cautioning -- as he did in his DBW piece -- that e-reading is still in its early phases in China.

And if anything, Trajectory, it would seem, is doing just what Cuddy recommends at DBW when he writes:

Is now the time to venture into China? In my opinion, the answer to that question is a resounding yes!

Establishing the sort of presence that Bryant has achieved for Trajectory is a key, and Trajectory is positioning itself as the kind of "distributor or aggregator more experienced in international markets" that Cuddy recommends in that article for publishers to consider.

A common respect for data

One more element of Tencent Literature's reputed culture stands out in the company's literature, and might be a sign of natural affinity with Trajectory.

On a page of its pamphlet, the Chinese company talks of making a "precise push" of content the user desires. 

"Who are you?" it asks. "Which kinds of books do you prefer to read?"

The material -- created before the Trajectory deal and supplied to us without comment by Bryant -- puts a stated premium on "employing Tencent big data technology to analyze user data to position hot writers, locating high-quality IP."

This is closely aligned, in spirit, at least, with what Trajectory is working on in terms of its NLP recommendations effort. 

It's not hard to imagine Trajectory and Tencent's key folks hitting it off in part for this apparent shared interest in and respect for data-driven discoverability.

And time will tell whether this is the discovery of a profitable new partnership for both parties. Working with that it describes as more than "230,000 digital endpoints including every relevant ebook retailer, library distributor, school distributor and alternative digital sales channel from a single onboarding point," Trajectory's Bryant sees a large field ripe for a large catalog. As he says in his prepared statement:

Never before have so many Chinese language titles become available outside of China. Tencent Literature’s portfolio of star authors, representing one of the most popular current catalogs of Chinese eBooks, will now be accessible to the rest of the world.

Main image - Shutterstock: Zhang Kan