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Reading on the Go
The e-book industry thrives in China
By Lu Yan | NO. 21 MAY 24, 2018

A visitor browses books on a screen at an expo of digital reading technology in Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province, on April 13 (XINHUA)

What's the best way to kill time on a more than two-hour subway commute every day? For Zhong Lili, a 27-year-old university counselor in Beijing, reading digital books on her smartphone is the best choice. According to a report released by the China Audio-Video and Digital Publishing Association in April, Zhong is one of 378 million digital readers in China, accounting for over 27.4 percent of the entire population.

"On some weekends, I could spend the entire day lying in bed reading e-books on my phone," the avid reader told Beijing Review.

She said the reason she prefers e-books is that it's more convenient for her to read on her phone than carry a hardcopy around with her. Besides, she said, many of the books she loves, consisting of mostly romantic fiction set in ancient China, do not have paperback versions.

A booming business

The association's report, published at the Fourth China Digital Reading Conference held in Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province, stated that Chinese people read an average of 10.1 e-books and 7.5 print books per person in 2017. In addition, the number of digital book writers went up by 30.2 percent to 7.84 million. It also revealed that the value of China's digital publication market was 15.2 billion yuan ($2.4 billion) last year, up 26.7 percent year on year.

In 1998, First Love, an online romantic novel written by Cai Zhiheng, became widely popular and effectively marked the beginning of China's Internet literature age. Since then, the industry has developed rapidly. A post-1980s online writer by the pen name of Tiancantudou has witnessed the evolution of the industry. He told China Central Television that a decade ago, when he published his first online book, the maximum number of subscribers for one chapter topped at 2,000, but now for his latest e-book, the total could reach 800,000.

Amid the upward trend, readers born in the 1980s and 90s were the main force, according to the report. People from 14 to 35 years old accounted for 70.9 percent of the entire digital reading population. The shares of readers aged 35 to 60 and above also saw a rise from 2016 figures.

There were distinct differences in genre choices between men and women. The report showed that men preferred digital reading based on professional life and war drama, while women were fonder of campus romance and urban fiction.

Moreover, online literature has been reproduced into different forms of media, such as cartoons, online games and TV dramas, drawing greater attention from the public. For example, in 2017, the top three cartoon series—all recreated from digital fiction—had 1.42 billion, 1.06 billion and 420 million views, respectively. In 2016, the most popular adapted cartoon series had 320 million views. Additionally, among the top 10 most viewed online TV series in 2017, six were digital adaptations.

Chinese online literature has also reached an international audience, having been translated into more than 10 languages, including English, Thai and Japanese. According to the report, the United States, Brazil and India had the most Chinese digital book readers, while the number of people reading Chinese digital books in English reached over 7 million.

Audiobooks and podcasts are taking an increasing share of the market. Listening to books has become a popular choice for people who want to make full use of fragmented time, including before bedtime or during their commute.

A survey published in April by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication found that over 20 percent of citizens have listened to audio books or podcasts, mostly via mobile apps, radio broadcasts and WeChat podcasts. According to data released in April by iiMedia Research, an Internet data analysis firm in Guangzhou, the number of podcast users is expected to reach 486 million this year.

"We are enjoying the pleasure of digital reading," Mai Jia, a well-known Chinese novelist and founder of an official book-sharing account on WeChat, said at the China Digital Reading Conference in April, adding that it has contributed greatly to literature spreading to a wider audience.

Further improvement

In the future, technological advances will continue to push the mobile reading industry forward and bring better reading experiences to users.

Currently, voice searching enables readers to find an exact podcast from countless choices and play it instantly. Instead of presenting the same contents to everyone, digital reading platforms have adopted smart recommendation systems which can provide customized products to users.

Internet and technology companies have also improved immersive reading by making interfaces simple and clean with augmented reality or virtual reality (VR) technology, allowing readers to take a break from their busy lives and submerge themselves into the e-book world.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has brought convenience to digital book writers as well. It helps them capture their writing thoughts effectively with voice-to-text processing and provides other works related to the content to give the writer more inspiration.

Sha Yuejia, Vice President of China Mobile, China's leading telecom operator, said that the 5G era is expected to further boost the development of the digital publication industry.

China will also focus more attention on copyright protection. In recent years, the National Copyright Administration has introduced several policies on regulating the network literature market and eliminating copyright infringements. It pledged to make full use of new technology, such as cloud computing and big data, to form an invisible escape-proof net leaving no piracy opportunities.

"Only if the entire industry places importance on intellectual property rights can the digital reading market maintain a sound and sustainable growth," said Xiao Li, sales and service head of Migu Digital Media.

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to luyan@bjreview.com

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