There are many points of difference between China’s books market and that of the UK and US, but one of the starkest is digital growth.
Digital, or at the very least trade e-books, have had a much-publicised slowdown in the two biggest Anglophone books markets. In the UK, after years of double and even triple-digit percentage growth, consumer e-books sales began to falter around four years ago. In 2017, sales decreased by 7% in the UK (to an invoiced value of £191m), according to the Publishers Association. Total digital revenues—which also include academic texts and journals—fell for the third straight year, to £543m.
In the US, PubTrack Digital put 2017’s full-year unit sales of consumer e-books at 162 million units, a 10% drop in volume year on year. It was also the fourth consecutive year of decline.
Of course, the devil is in the detail. While the figures include numbers from traditional publishers, they omit figures from Amazon’s self-publishing arm—both in its direct sales and its Kindle Unlimited subscription service—as the online giant does not share this particular data. Although it does give the occasional, telling glimpse: in a letter to shareholders in April 2018, Amazon c.e.o. Jeff Bezos (right) claimed over a thousand self-published authors earned more than $100,000 in royalties in 2017. Some of its proponents suggest the indie-author sector accounts for at least a quarter of the entire e-book market in the UK and the US, but even such volumes may not plug the hole from traditional publishers’ contracting digital sales. The bottom line is that we can probably assume that in the English-speaking world’s two biggest markets, total digital sales are contracting or, at the very least, stagnating.
In China, however, digital is flying. A white paper released at the annual China Digital Reading Conference (CDRC), held in April in Hangzhou, claimed digital revenues hit ¥15.2bn (£1.7bn) in 2017, 29.2% up year on year and a sum equivalent to 20% of China’s overall circa-¥80bn books market. The digital sector—which the white paper defines as e-books, audio downloads and China’s hugely popular online serialised reading market—has had a jump of more than 20% in each of the four years that the CDRC has released its white paper.
In releasing the report, Xie Donghui, director of the digital publishing division of the recently disbanded State Press, Publication, Radio, Film & Television Bureau, said that the business infrastructure has enabled digital reading to flourish. He added: "Mainstream digital reading and publishing companies have successfully listed, and capital has flooded into the market. The digital reading market has received much attention and the industrial ecology has become more complete."
The white paper predicts a rosy future for digital reading, with revenues estimated to continue its upward trajectory and hit ¥33.5bn (£3.8bn) by 2020. It also claims the average Chinese person reads 10 e-books and 7.5 print titles per year, a fair heft higher than more official figures (more of which later).
Whether or not the digital market reaches those heights (the white paper and conference is backed by tech firms, online retailers and mobile phone companies who have, to say the least, skin in the game), a number of reports support the notion that digital will be on the up for some time. The Chinese Academy of Press and Publication’s (CAPP) 15th annual survey on the nation’s reading habits, released in April, said a whopping 73% of respondents read digitally (on mobiles, tablets or dedicated e-readers) in 2017, up from 68.2% in 2016. It is the ninth consecutive year in which the figure for digital reading has risen.
Most of this digital reading was on mobiles. Of the respondents who read digitally, 72% do so on smartphones (up from 66% in the previous year), while only 8% do so on a dedicated e-reader.
The bulk of smartphone reading was not of long-form e-books, but rather concentrated on China’s surging serialised fiction market, where self-published authors release their work in short chunks which readers can access via micropayments—often less than the equivalent of a penny. The scale of the genre is mind-boggling. Official government figures state 16.5 million new works of online literature were released through 45 major reading websites in 2017, up from 2.4 million in the previous year. China Literature, owned by the Shenzhen-based conglomerate Tencent and one of the leaders in the field, boasts 190 million account holders. (To put that in context, Amazon has some 330 million account holders worldwide.) The iReader reading app claims to have 600 million registered users, a sixth of whom are active.
The serial-reading audience is young: seven in 10 are under 40, according to the CDRC white paper, and around 60% are women. Given that demographic, it's not surprising that genre fiction rules, with fantasy, sci-fi, crime and urban workplace fiction popular. Beijing has tried to steer tastes: at the start of the year the government released a list of 24 officially recommended online serials, depicting "realistic subjects reflecting people’s everyday lives". The titles included The Fighter of Destiny, Stay at Home Mothers go Forward and The Road to Rejuvenation. The official state-run Xinhua news agency said the last "describes the tortuous course of the reform of state- owned enterprises".
Ultimately, there are reasons to be cheerful, even for Chinese bricks-and-mortar booksellers. Though the CAPP survey said that the average person in China read 7.78 books in 2017—somewhat at odds with the aforementioned, far more robust estimate of the CDRC white paper—that represents a slight rise year on year. And youths are leading the way: those under 17 read 11.57 books last year, excluding textbooks.
There is still life in the old codex, too: of all respondents, though most read digitally, the majority (52%) said print was their preferred format.