Much has been said about China’s book industry; its potential market size powered by a fast-growing middle class, and its interest (and hunger) for translated and imported titles, has attracted the attention of many publishers from every corner of the world.
And while China’s print book market continues to grow, it is worth noting that this is the country with 913 million smartphone subscribers – more than the U.S., Brazil, and Indonesia combined, according to the latest survey from London-based Global Systems for Mobile Association. Nearly 153 million users read on mobile devices compared to the 133 million who read on PCs, per the latest report from iResearch Global Group. Such adoption of online reading and content consumption has created the unique Chinese phenomenon of Internet literature, where original works first appear online before they enter the traditional print-based publishing system.
What this means is that the Chinese e-book market is huge, and getting bigger with the fast-growing adoption of 4G LTE-enabled services and ever-cheaper mobile devices. And if there is one particular story that can attract readers – both digital and print – in China, it is that of the young wizard of Hogwarts.
Chinese readers have been fascinated with Harry Potter ever since Beijing-based People’s Literature Publishing House started translating the series in 2000 and went on to sell more than 18 million copies. The latest title, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, has already sold in excess of 500,000 copies. Aside from being the country’s first super-bestseller, the success of the Potter series had made children’s books the fastest growing segment in China’s book market. It was also credited with raising the average children’s book price from 12 yuan (around $1.75) to 18 yuan ($2.60), and for introducing YA fiction and popularizing translated titles.
So it was hardly surprising to see Massachusetts-based digital distribution company Trajectory Inc., which represents Pottermore, launching the seven Harry Potter novels in both Chinese and English digital editions four months ago. Then, on October 24, the Chinese-language edition of the Pottermore portal was launched, followed by the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child five days later.
Each launch, said Trajectory founder and CEO James Bryant, “was strictly controlled and coordinated – covering embargoes, censorship review process, and marketing programs – with each of the retailers that Pottermore selected.” Currently, those retailers include Amazon China, China Mobile, Dangdang, Douban, iReader, JD.com, Tencent, and Xiaomi. China Mobile, by the way, has 835 million subscribers, making it the world’s largest mobile phone carrier, and has been delivering e-books via its platform since 2009.
While Bryant was reluctant to disclose sales figures or membership numbers, he did point out that several Harry Potter e-titles are now on the bestseller lists. “Fantastic Beasts, which we launched on November 25, is now topping the charts on many channels, including Amazon China.”
However, accessing the vast Chinese market requires more than just having the audience wielding the right devices, or publishers providing the right content. “China is a complicated market because of the fact that the government must censor each book that is imported,” said Bryant, adding that “there is currently a three- to five-year backlog of e-books waiting for censorship review.”
Navigating the censorship in China, he added, “is quite an involved process, as is the distribution procedure. Each Chinese e-book retailer offers different marketing engagement programs, and it is necessary to understand these if a publisher wishes to sell e-books in China. In our estimate, about 70% of e-book sales are driven by promotions.” Trajectory, which has been in China for the past five years, has direct contractual relationships with all major Chinese e-book retailers in order to have better access and understanding of the marketplace.
As to China’s potential e-book market, Bryant points out that “most people in this country are studying English, and it is a market of over one billion new potential readers. Everyone reads on mobile devices, and this is the second largest book market on the planet.”
But scanning of printed books and wide distribution of those PDFs is a major challenge to e-book distribution. “We have created a program, with the support of the Chinese government, to actively remove pirated copies from websites that are offering them,” Bryant says. “At this juncture, I’m unaware of any retailer, much less a major retailer, who has sold, knowingly or otherwise, a pirated e-book or for that matter a pirated PDF from a print product.” The pirated PDFs, he adds, “were generally being offered as promotional materials for paid programs that involved small companies.”
For companies that are considering launching their e-books in China or planning an e-book presence in the vast country, Bryant says: “It is best to work with a local partner to gain efficiencies in navigating the censorship process. It is also essential to work with a local partner to gain marketing advantages and to follow up on piracy issues should the need arise.”