New and old literature on the Web and on paper in China

Writing literature online has a substantial tradition in China, going back to the 1990s, and the most famous site was certainly (or „Under the Banyan Tree„), and a report in China Daily recounted already in 2004:

 „According to Lu Jinbo, chief editor of the website, it used to receive two or three articles a day in its first days, but today gets more than 5,000 submissions every day.Here

Lu stopped working with the website already a few years ago, and re-invented himself as an entrepreneur. His ambitions and his vision had Chinese format though, as he didn’t set up shop in some garage or backyard, but formed a joint venture with Bertelsmann. This joint venture is gone now, just as Bertelsmann decided to end most of its China publishing operations altogether (which seems odd as so many exciting things seem to happen right now in Chinese publishing).

Anyhow, Lu did it again, but this time his partner for his new joint venture called Wan Rong is Liaoning, the publishing group gone public recently. It seems funny that Lu, who in his slim and unpretending allure has everything both from  a nerd and a young writer (or even poet), stays with the printed book while, as we sat at a booth at the Beijing International Book Fair in Tianjin a couple of days ago, he told me some of the most extraordinary stories about what is going on online right now.

There are over 10 writers who made more than a million RMB (or 100.000 Euros) in 2007 just by writing online novels, and they seem to be completely disinterested in turning those things into paper books, as they consider books just uncool and, from an economical stand point, void of interest.

A great deal of it is „fantasy fiction“, and the sheer length of those texts, with up to 7 million words, would give any traditional book publisher a hard time in the first place.

The currently most popular website for literature online seems to be  with some 10 million registered users who pay for their registration. The business model is simple: Either you buy access on a subscription basis, or you get access to half of the book free of charge, but if you want to find out if and how this ghoul or some other bad spirit is dealt with after all his bad (or even good) deeds, you need to contribute on average 3 Chinese cents (or 0,003 Euros) per 1000 characters, which makes, if multiplied by the many words and the many users, a lot of sense economically.

I asked Lu if piracy was an issue, and he shook his head.

While this, looked at from a Western perspective, may seem to be just another of those many weird, yet colourful Chinese boom stories, there is perhaps more in it at a closer look.

I asked several  Chinese publishers and book people if in all those mushrooming pieces of Chinese  „Young Adult Fiction“, of fantasy or whatever style and format of literature one could find one or the other author who may be of interest for a readership in the West. And the answer was short and univocal: Sure!

One problem seems to be that the few large Western publishing groups who set up their own offices in Beijing only pick up very few ‚big books‘ – like Penguin’s Jo Lusby did so successfully with „Wolf Totem“ by Jiang Rong, published in the UK, US and France this year, selling some 70.000 copies in English, and due for release in Germany by Goldmann in 2009, well timed for China being the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair next fall.

But virtually all those smaller, independent publishers who ordinarily are the ones to explore new cultures and find new authors for all of us curious readers so far rely mostly on local subagents. And those subagents seem to go for what they consider safer bets (and bigger deals!). Those discoveries that only a daring editor may be keen to make are left out so far. So there is really room for improvement and for thrilling surprises in the years ahead.

To go from Beijing to Tianjin for the fair, I took the bus, paid 70 RBM (or 7 Euros) and could sleep on board for 2 good hours. To go back, Chinese friends bought me tickets for the brand new ‚bullet train‘ that started only for the Olympic games. We rode at 333 (!) Km per hour  and were back in the capital in 30 minutes, paying 68 RMB ( or 6,80 Euros, or the price of ca. 2 books). A giant poster at the new Tianjin train station waved us good bye as we took off:


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