The Chinese book market, perhaps long disregarded by Western publishers, is nowadays one of the most advanced markets in terms of digital sales. Chinese readers have begun to move away from traditional bricks-and-mortar stores, encouraged by new technologies. Online recommendation has become such an important mechanism that more and more publishers consider WeChat – China’s premier messaging and social media platform – the most efficient way to sell books. And it is not the only innovative payment method shaping new book consumption: completely automated stores appeared in 2018 in both Shangai and Beijing.
Could this be the future of bookselling worldwide?
Shopping online has become very popular in China thanks to smartphone adoption, a flourishing economy, and fast-growing urbanisation. This has resulted in an educated middle class, eager to learn more and read more. In 2017 online sales for books accounted for 45% of total industry turnover , and this figure continues to grow.
Besides the favourite online bookstores like Taobao, JD, and Dangdang, WeChat (which now offers to its users everything that Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Amazon, Apple Pay, etc. offer in Europe) has become an indispensable promotional and sales channel for publishers. As well as allowing readers to follow celebrities, influencers, and brands, transfer money to peers or even pay bills, this ecosystem is a powerful recommendation tool and provides daily book selections, real-time reading, and sharing.
In the meantime, literary criticism and specialised magazines have seen their influence decrease as readers favour peer recommendations and celebrity endorsement, particularly on WeChat, where communities appear. Unlike Instagrammers in the West, Asian influencers also use their leverage to sell books directly to readers via an embedded payment method. Some notorious accounts might even achieve sales of tens of thousands of copies in less than one hour through group purchases, especially for children books. How can we explain this success? Monica, a young mother of two, points out that “children are really encouraged to read after class. Purchasing books on Wechat is not only cheaper and easier for parents, but they can also benefit from direct sales among friends or buy from webshops owned by teachers who know exactly what children need to read.”
These partnerships have become very lucrative as Allen Yang from Beijing Baby Cube Brand Management Co, Ltd, explains: “WeChat has been developing rapidly in the past years, and we think it is the most efficient way to sell books. In our case, these influencers are education professionals with an impressive number of followers who trust them and are willing to buy whatever they recommend. You need to know your audience and who they listen to”. Surprisingly, books sold via these promotional operations are more likely to be hardcover, as the higher price guarantees a higher commission rate.
But this is not WeChat’s only impact on the landscape of bookselling. Brick-and-mortar stores are evolving, and more than 20 staffless bookshops operate in Beijing using face recognition technologies and robot cashiers. These user-friendly bookshops, comparable to Amazon Go in the US, use Wechat account information, requested before entering, for payment . Based on client’s purchasing history, robots can offer specific and humanised book suggestions to customers.
So what lessons can we learn from this world where new technologies have become an essential part of book retail?
Many book professionals in the West might find this vision frightening. The digital revolution has had a profound effect on the Chinese book chain, putting traditional actors like booksellers and literary reviewers under threat. Depending mainly on social media sales channels could also be tricky. Operating on a logic of constant promotion, these platforms often encourage new book sales and could lead to a lack of long-tail effect and long-term sales. Similarly, staffless bookshops could lead to a lack of diversity, tending to offer only bestsellers to their clients. Maintaining a multi-channel commercial approach, especially in a social media landscape where new platforms and habits can be easily adopted, becomes a necessity.
In the meantime, if selling books on a large scale without bookshops is possible, what does it mean for publishers? Without these historical partners, publishing houses have to be more creative to find new collaborations. More than ever, social media skills and increased online marketing efforts have become absolutely necessary to leverage sales in the absence of a long-term third-party. And lots of Chinese publishers manage to make the most of this situation by developing more customer-orientated and immediate promotional operations.
Understanding the audience, taking into consideration readers’ new habits and needs are now the main challenge, but it is also a massive opportunity for marketing teams to get to know their audience better. Chinese publishing houses are continually evolving, focusing on their readers, looking for new trends, as the question which drives publishers around the world remains the same: How do we make people care about books? To catch the attention of distracted clients, they develop now new kind of digital marketing assets, as metadata and covers are no longer enough. With the success of short-video apps like Tik Tok, traditional ad banners might be less effective than more visually impacting forms of advertising like audio and video clips. After all, the ability to tell new stories in the most impactful way, to understand generations different than your own and to grip the audience’s attention are the core skills of every publisher, aren’t they?
In the meantime, Snapchat has just launched in-app stores for US Snap influencers. Is this the start of the next stage of the international book revolution? Only time will tell.
Stéphanie Michaux is a digital publishing professional passionate about innovation who works in London, Brussels, Paris and Amsterdam. You can find her on Twitter @stephmichaux.