Smartphones may be killing print in China, but they’re revolutionizing literature. Last year, 333 million Chinese read fiction written for their phones and other devices, according to government data. Some is written by hobbyists and some by professionals. Increasingly, though, it’s hard to tell the difference, as China’s “online literature” morphs into a $1.3 billion industry.
Investors have taken note. On Wednesday, China Literature Ltd., the country’s biggestonline publisher, will go public in Hong Kong, with a market value expected to exceed $6 billion. Its success should put the rest of the publishing industry on notice that the future of the book is being written in China — and it looks nothing like the past.
For decades, China’s publishing industry was dominated by government-owned companies that steered clear of subject matter that might cause controversy. Politics was just the most obvious topic. But sex, romance and violence — the stuff of so much popular entertainment — were also generally discouraged. Good books still managed to get published, but formal and informal restrictions severely inhibited creative expression.
Then the internet offered a back channel. In the late 1990s, authors began posting serialized novels to online forums and bulletin boards. It was an informal and largely uncensored way to publish, and some of the early books — especially romances — became sensations. Among other factors turning these early serials into hits were the online forums themselves. They were the social media of their time, and parallel commentaries and discussions organically sprung up around this new literature, becoming as much a part of the experience of reading as the story itself. In many cases, these commentaries influenced how the authors wrote, and thereby drew in even more readers eager to be a part of the story-making process.