We should be talking about online literature more. In an age that is dominated by digital content, the book industry in Western countries (e.g. Australia, UK and the US) still treats online literature as a threat and eBooks as an unavoidable chore as opposed to an opportunity. It feels like taking a digital first approach, or even investing in digital, is wilfully pushed aside by large publishing houses. Our focus is stubbornly fixed in the traditional spaces of discover content, edit and market content and publish content, with little room for variance. But what if we didn’t view digital publishing as the antithesis of books? What if publishers embrace online literature as part of the overarching industry? If we look outside of the Western literary world and fix our gaze on China, we see that there is already a successful working model of a different kind of publishing.
In China, the presence of digital literature is ubiquitous. It is used by a staggering number of the population. You will find that most people, especially the younger generation, consume online-only books on a regular and voracious basis. The profitability of the enterprise is quite astonishing. Let’s take a look at China’s most popular platform for online literature: QiDian.com, a subsidiary of China Literature and owned by Tencent. This website is dedicated to publishing original content (mostly genre fiction) with a low barrier entry for authors and an engagement level among readers reserved in the West only for the likes of Harry Potter. We can see this through some of QiDian’s statistics over the past few years:
- QiDian.com reaches over 175.3 million users.
- Its revenue for 2016 was $543 million AUD, growth of 59.1% over 2015. The digital publishing industry as a whole has been growing by 20% annually in China since 2012.
- Over 8.4 million books are available on the QiDian platform.
- Over $209 million AUD of profits are distributed to authors.
- In 2016, the site’s most popular author earned over 110 million RMB ($23 million AUD). His most popular book has garnered over 60 million clicks.
- Popular authors often get publishing deals from traditional publishing houses and movie deals.
However, what’s interesting about QiDian as a platform isn’t just its staggering numbers and impressive growth, it is also in the way that content is accessed, consumed and published. QiDian takes a mobile-first distribution method where content is accessed first and foremost by users on apps, catering to their audience of mobile savvy users; 95.1% of the internet-using population in China accesses the web via mobile. QiDian also distributes their content in a serialised manner—each story only updates a certain number of chapters per week—and is accessed through a paywall. Readers pay to access new chapters. While this might seem steep, each chapter is only about $0.02-$0.05 RMB (0.0042-0.010 $AUD) as the site charges per 1000 characters, costing readers almost nothing to access and read. However, once you take into account the number of clicks a popular author can attract on their works, it all adds up to a hefty profit for both the publishing company and the creators.
The ways in which readers engage with online literature is also very different to how readers would engage with a traditional book. Online readers consume web novels at a much faster rate, and this speed is facilitated by quick access through mobile. This creates an environment hungry for long form content, as users take time out of their day to consume online books. Secondly, readers of web novels are highly engaged, with users more likely to comment on chapters, share thoughts and debate the merits of plot and characters as they read, creating a community of fans. With serialised chapters and a publishing model that depends upon reader participation and engagement, author and reader are in a much more interactive relationship than the traditional form of communication. The author-reader relationship becomes more collaborative and personal as comments on one chapter can influence the trajectory of future chapters. When this environment works in a healthy manner, it mandates a certain level of respect between both the fans of stories and their creators.
This publishing format is vastly different to how the Western book industry operates, but it appears to work and thrive in Asian countries. Due to the ease of access and the affordability, online literature has become a common and widely consumed media in China. Online Chinese novels have even begun to garner international attention. QiDian has had unofficial translation sites pop up over the years, created and maintained by fans dedicated to translating the popular works. The traffic for these sites sits at around 20 million per month and includes international readers, desperate for every update from translators. Recognising the demand for English translations, China Literature released Webnovel.com in 2017, their own official translation site for QiDian books. Users of Webnovel.com can support authors and translators through Patreon, much like the fan-run sites that came before it. Only one year old, the site already receives close to 6 million visitors per month.
Nothing like QiDian currently exists in the Western world, not to its specificity and certainly not to the same scale. In a similar arena, we have sites like Kindle Direct Publishing and Patreon, which operates on a voluntary subscription service from fans to creators. There are also platforms like Archiveofourown.org and Fanfiction.net that have a similar engagement rate to QiDian; however, these platforms are not monetised due to the fan nature of the works published on them. So, would a serialised literature platform like QiDian work in the West? It appears that all the separate components currently exist, but haven’t been put together yet.
Having a platform like QiDian at its mass scale would bring longform reading to a much wider audience than ever before. The high engagement rate, the reading community created around these publications and the capability for profit means that this publishing format should definitely be to explore. We should move away from hailing online publishing as the doom of the book industry and think of it as the profitable sister that allows for more physical books to be produced.
Online stories are thriving and that’s not going to change anytime soon. While different methods of publishing may be evolving and how people consume content may be shifting, it doesn’t change the fact that stories in Asian countries are being shared at a rate that’s unprecedented. The online world isn’t going to slow down. So perhaps it’s time for the Western publishing industry to catch up.
Cherry Cai currently works in digital marketing and believes wholeheartedly in the power of the web to change the world for good… eventually. In her spare time, she likes to eat, read and advocate for the right for someone to be a dog person AND a cat person. Both are great. Cherry is working with Grattan Street Press this semester.