Last year was a great year for the Chinese retail book market. In 2014, 198,000 new books were published. Although that number has been shrinking each year since 2012, 1.3 million titles were sold in bricks-and-mortar stores in 2014—an increase over the previous year and a historic high. Additionally, more than 1.2 million titles were purchased from online booksellers. Total Chinese retail book sales exceeded 50 billion yuan. Of this, retail sales at physical bookstores amounted to approximately 34 billion yuan, while those at online booksellers amounted to around 20 billion yuan. The physical retail market ended the declines of the previous two years and achieved annual growth of 3.3%; online booksellers, meanwhile, maintained their rapid growth. Combining online and offline channels, the Chinese retail market achieved annual growth of roughly 10% in 2014. From the perspective of the global publishing industry, China still ranks among other rapidly developing countries. Last year, among the 10 markets that Nielsen monitors (Australia, Brazil, France, India, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, the U.K., the U.S., and South Africa), only five saw growth in sales of print books. The rate of growth of China’s print book market was second only to that of Brazil, and it clearly outstripped those of many English-speaking countries, including the U.S. and the U.K.
Over the past few years, as the commercial marketing of book retail has gradually matured and online booksellers have risen in prominence in China, the growth rate of physical bookstores has slowed. This was particularly true in 2012 and 2013, when retail sales in physical bookstores fell. This trend was especially visible in first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, as well as in several large-scale, privately run bookstores. Retail sales rebounded at physical bookstores in 2014, and bricks-and-mortar booksellers saw positive year-over-year growth in each quarter.
While sales at physical bookstores in China have been declining, online booksellers have been expanding rapidly. After a number of adjustments over the past few years, physical bookstores are perfecting their customer service and improving the customer experience. These developments have had a major impact on traffic and sales. OpenBook, a clearinghouse for statistics about the Chinese publishing industry, divided the stores it surveyed into the following categories, based on the cities where they’re located: first-tier-city bookstores, in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen; second-tier-city bookstores, in other large municipalities; and third-tier-city bookstores, in other key cities.
In 2014, Chinese bookstores with the strongest growth happened to be those that lost significant business to online retailers early on: bookstores in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen experienced annual growth of nearly 8%. Medium- to large-scale stores displayed similarly solid growth. In addition,
privately owned bookstores had total sales growth exceeding 1% in 2014. This is due in part to the fact that many bricks-and-mortar bookstores have stepped up efforts to perfect in-store displays, while intensifying marketing activities and developing innovative marketing methods. Increased sales are also attributed to numerous business developments, including growth in B2B channels and improved product mix and management efficiency.
With improved performance of physical booksellers in 2014 and steady gains by online retailers, China’s retail book market has become more stable, with the two channels providing more choice for consumers.
Biographies, Children’s Books Hottest Segments
Increased retail sales at physical bookstores in China last year are also reflected in annual sales growth of individual genres. Biographies saw the greatest growth, followed by children’s books. Sales of both increased by more than 10% in 2014, while fiction also approached an annual rate of 10%. Additionally, supplementary teaching materials and social science titles posted gains. The language category saw the biggest annual sales decline in 2014, while the science and technology and lifestyle segments slowed as well.
The data shows that book sales in Chinese bricks-and-mortar stores and online share commonalities as well as differences. Books about the social sciences, children’s books, and fiction all performed well in both markets—particularly the former two categories. Social science texts and children’s books made up more than 35% of sales in physical bookstores while composing more than 50% of sales of online booksellers. However, middle- and elementary-school supplemental learning materials, which made up a quarter of purchases at physical bookstores, only amounted to approximately 7% of total sales through online channels. On the other hand, themed books—including materials for civil servant exams and adult professional assessments, as well as children’s picture books and comic books—achieved only slightly higher sales among online booksellers compared to their bricks-and-mortar counterparts.
When comparing the sales of physical and online booksellers in China, it is clear that the principal needs of these two retail markets are similar; however, differences exist within individual categories. These variances are directly related to the differences and needs of customers at both physical and online bookstores. The types of books desired by relatively young online shoppers and those that benefit the most from discounted prices perform better for e-tailers than bricks-and-mortar stores. National sales trends, however, often figure more prominently in sales at physical bookstores.
The Impact of Bestsellers
Bestsellers have always had a major impact on the retail book market in China. The top 5% of bestsellers accounted for 64% of sales at physical bookstores in China in 2014; for online booksellers, that top 5% made up more than 80% of sales. Bestsellers clearly enjoy increased success among online booksellers, where site traffic and actual sales volume tend to be focused on top-selling merchandise; users rarely even browse low-ranking books displayed on websites, resulting in fewer sales among nonbestsellers.
Children’s books, literature, and academic books tend to dominate Chinese bestseller lists, and these trends are reflected in both physical and online book sales. However, sales of children’s literature and novels are typically stronger at physical bookstores, while children’s picture books and comics, management publications, and lifestyle books do better online.
Children’s books dominate both online and physical bestseller charts in China, making up more than 50 of the top 100 bestsellers in each market, so eliminating them from the analysis can be quite illuminating. Of the remaining books on the list, 43 fall under categories such as literature, self-help, academic, lifestyle, business, education, and popular science. Novels, essays, and biographies are extremely popular at both physical bookstores and online booksellers, but they perform notably better at bricks-and-mortar stores, while lifestyle and business books are purchased more frequently at online stores. Top-selling lifestyle books at physical bookstores tend to be health themed, whereas those sold at online retailers are more often related to parenting and education. Business books that sell well at physical stores are typically related to economics and finance, whereas a broader ranger of business titles sell online, including books about management, sales, and marketing. Meanwhile, academic, education, and natural science titles are represented fairly evenly in bestseller lists for both online and physical bookstores.
Generally speaking, the differences between the bestseller lists of Chinese bricks-and-mortar bookstores and online retailers reflect the different reading habits of their respective customers. However, they also reflect different publishers’ emphases and marketing tactics relating to the channels through which they offer their products.
Note: All data cited in this article are provided by Beijing OpenBook Co. Ltd.—a clearinghouse for publishing statistics—and are based on China’s book retail survey system, established in 1998.