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Fantasy & Ebooks: Big in China!

ChineseFantasy (Medium)When you think of China it’s likely that images of dragons, spirits, magic, combat, swords and alternative states of consciousness come to mind; all the ingredients of a successful fantasy novel. This is likely to contrast heavily with the second image you’re likely to get, the birthing place of the majority of our affordable electronics – including digital ereaders, such as Amazon’s Kindle.

Well, if we take a moment to check out the Chinese book industry – and hey, who doesn’t from time to time, right? – we see that fantasy totally dominated the market this year – arguably like no where else on Earth. Just as Arthurian/Medieval fantasy is very popular in English speaking countries, fantasy that draws upon Chinese heritage is very popular in China; so, books about Martial Arts, the after life and dragons were the focus of the vast majority.

Getting into specifics, the top earner in the print market was Jiang Nan who is well known for his Harry Potter like series, Dragon Raja. The first book in this series famously sold 300,000 copies within 30 days of release and this year the books have earned the author over £2.5million/$4.2million in royalties alone. Mo Yan, one of China’s most well-known writers and winner of the 2012 Novel Prize in Literature, was a very close second with royalties totaling up to a nice £2.4million/$4million. And securing the gold, silver & bronze for fantasy was children’s book author – who writes almost fairy-tale like stories – Zheng Yuanjie, with £1.8million/$3million. Guo Jingming – who has had three of his four novels sell over a million copies each – and Han Han – who made his name as a teenage blogger – were seventh and eighth in the list.

Tang-CoverPerhaps more interesting than knowing who made the most money through print sales though is to hear that Tang Jia San Shao of Beijing took home more than all of these authors through his novel, which were only available digitally. In total Tang Jia San Shao collected a staggering £2.6million/$4.4million for his digital work in 2013. His incredibly popular books tell the story of a Chinese 12th grader who is accepted by an American university. Once in the US, he learns about his dragon blood and is trained to kill the powerful beasts. In addition to their mythical and magical focus, they also encompass martial arts.

Even more impressive than fantasy’s prevalence in print (5 of the top 10), is that 16 of the top 20 online writers in China were fantasy authors. Michel Hocks, director of London University’s SOAS China Institute, thinks that: “fantasy novels are [successful online in China] because there are fewer restrictions imposed on them by authorities and the publishing process is much easier compared to print.”

TangWhilst I agree with that, another thing to consider is how online writing differs in China when compared to the English speaking world. Over here an author writes a book and posts it up online for an RRP of about £7.99 or $14.99. In China books tend to be written in a serial nature – similar to how Dickens wrote in the Victorian time. Our friend, Tang Jia San Shao, explains: “Most of our novels are serial, which means we can view Internet user comments while we work. Based on various opinions, we make adjustments as we go. Therefore, we maintain a healthy communication with our readers. We know what they like to read.”

In a revelation that may shock some of you, there is also very little emphasis on quality. With China’s 190million readers desperate to have the next installment of a series released, it is not uncommon for Internet writers to complete a series of novels – often several million words worth – within a few months. So, what about Tang jia San Shao? How much do you think he writes on average? Surely his position affords him a bit more of a leisurely pace? Nope: “From February 2004 to today, I’ve kept updating my novel on the website, without stopping a single day. It’s the 106th month now. Everyday 7,000-8,000 words. The total is 26.9 million words.”

That sounds a lot, but because of how the online market works in China (there is an almost unlimited supply that, as we’ve seen, does not require quality in order to succeed), Chinese online writers in the majority make less than 1 US cent per 1,000 words from paying readers. Therefore to make writing a viable means of making a living these kinds of numbers are essential. That said, once an authors career picks up, the royalties they earn are quickly dwarfed by other opportunities such as positions editing, rights to print editions, movies, dramas, games or even toys. Guo Jingming, for example, who we mentioned earlier as having sold over 1,000,000 copies of 3 of his 4 books has made it clear that less than 20% of his total yearly income is a result of his books’ royalties.

I’ve heard it said that the online trend for Chinese fiction is similar to the western taste for fast food: it might not be of the best quality, but it’s fast, cheap, enjoyable, readily available & consumable and therefore has become an integral part of young people’s lives. I prefer to consider it a bit more positively though and go with Tang’s articulate way of putting it that, in China, “novels are the cheapest entertainment for one’s spirit.”

Now… if only we could get George R.R. Martin to take a leaf out of the Chinese authors’ book…? 😀

This article was originally posted on December 7, 2013.

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7 Comments

  1. Xen says:

    That’s Chinese discipline for you!
    Right now we have a Chinese student at our house. She told me of a fantasy book she was reading about dragons. It sounded very interesting but it’s only in Chinese. It’d be nice if they started translating some of their books.

  2. G R Matthews says:

    Shameless self-plug BUT you could try – ‘The Stone Road’ by G R Matthews on Kindle now. I started a small discussion about non-European settings on the thread here: http://fantasy-faction.com/forum/advertising-your-novels/the-stone-road/ .

    I do think that folks are less willing to give a non-European setting less of shot than those based in the, sometimes, very comfortable genre staple of middle ages Europe.

    Having said that, there are lot of great authors out there that take the leap and set their stories elsewhere, drawing you into a new world.

  3. Of course Dickens, Thackeray and so many others wrote serially in English, and made a ragin’ fortune doing so. I expect the model would still work in the Western world. But I’m still focusing more on quality in my work — I want it to outlast me. ;->

    • JC Crumpton says:

      The works of Dickens have outlasted their author. Perhaps a return to serial novels is the way of the future?

  4. Jaedia says:

    Very interesting! I’d love to read more fantasy with Chinese mythology, culture, and history as a basis.

    And re: the online serialisation. We do have that in the West with fanfiction and websites such as Wattpad which allow you to publish your work serially and receive comments. Sounds the same as China’s model except I’m fairly sure Wattpad is free.

  5. The Japanese comic market also churns out huge amount of stories that are completely forgettable. They are printed in phone book sized magazines made from cheap recycling paper and pass through lots of hands before they are simply thrown away.
    90% of everything is crap. It’s the same in every market everywhere. However, with a huge mass of publications, there will always be a few gems that are amazing, and those are the ones that are the most successful in the long run.

    There are also a lot of fantasy movies being made in China. Many of them are quite cheap, like american sword & sorcery movies from the 80s, but that’s still better than getting nothing.

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