For the first in a short series of blog posts on the state of publishing in China I've been talking to Helen Sun, the head of Publishing Technology's operations in the country. She recently told me that the biggest sensation in the Chinese book world in the past few years has been something called 'web fiction'. This takes a 'freemium' approach to tackling the challenge of getting consumers to pay for online content that has been exceptionally successful, so I wanted to find out more.
JT: What is 'web fiction?
HS: It's a type of literature that nearly 195 million people in China are hooked on which is virtually unknown in the West. Here it's often called 'original fiction' as it's a new form of serial literature which theoretically allows anyone to become a best-selling author, and has turned a new breed of online media companies into publishing stars.
The system works through a growing number of self-publishing websites that host thousands of constantly evolving, free-to-read stories posted on the sites by their authors. These websites are incredibly popular with consumers, attracting over 40% of all China's internet users every month, who come to read web serials that can be anything from realistic novels to historical epics, comics, sci-fi and fantasy.
JT. So that's how it works, but explain why it's freemium.
HS: The ingenious part of this publishing model comes in when an individual author's serial gathers a critical mass of readers. At this point the self-publishing site invites the author to become a VIP, and their serial moves to a different section of the site where readers can sample some chapters of their work for free, but have to pay if they want to read the latest installments.
JT. How much do people pay for reading web literature?
HS: The amount of money individual readers pay for original fiction is very low, with prices beginning at around 2-3 Yuan (about 20p or 30 cents) per 100,000 words. But with millions of people clamouring to find out what's next in their new favourite story it can be very lucrative enterprise for authors. A recent article in The China Daily, for example, claimed that Huang Wei, a popular original fiction writer, can earn 1 million Yean (about £100,000/$152,500) from writing, making him five times better paid than the average college graduate who's most likely to be hooked on his serials.
JT: So is web literature as big a money-spinner for publishers as it is for authors?
HS: Selling editorial isn't the only way to make money out of original fiction. Serials such as Summer's Desire, My Belle Boss and Legend of Immortal have already been transformed into TV programmes and even video games. This reflects both their enormous, crossover appeal and the fact Shanda Literature, China's most popular original fiction site, is part of the country's biggest online gaming company and therefore understands the nature and opportunities of the web better than most established publishers. For instance, Shanda's e-reader, the Bambook, which it launched in July 2010 managed to capture more than 10% of the Chinese e-reader market in less than six months.
JT: Do you think publishers in the West could learn anything from original fiction?
HS: For publishers in the West,worried about how they can secure e-book revenues while avoiding the piracy trap into which other media have fallen, original fiction offers an intriguing alternative model as to how to run a successful publishing business. This is a freemium fiction publishing industry funded by micropayments, where print barely exists and the product itself is constantly evolving instead of taking the form of 'finished' books. It couldn't be any more different to the western model of publishing, but the paying public here seems to like it that way.
Shanda estimates that 45% of its 70 million unique monthly visitors are willing to pay for original fiction, and that this figure will rise in line with adoption of the mobile web (The China Daily's report says that China Mobile expects to make 1 billion yuan from original fiction alone in 2011). At the anecdotal level, evidence suggests that individual readers don't mind paying a relatively small amount of money to find out what happens next in their favourite stories. And as a reader of original fiction myself I know I don't!
Do you have any experience of reading original fiction or other similar publishing projects? If so I'd love to know more, so please tell all in the comment box below.