The numbers tell the story: In 1980, when China’s economic reform had just kicked off, its academic community produced no more than 85 journals. Today, that number has ballooned to more than 8,000.

According to the Blue Book of China’s STM Journals Development, STM journals account for 5,020 of those journals, of which 548 are in English and jointly published with foreign publishers such as Springer Nature, Elsevier, and Wiley. Last October, the STM Report looked at three million articles from 42,500 journals and found that 19% of them came from China—more than any other country, including the U.S. (which published 18% of the papers) and India (5%).

Modern academic publishing is relatively new to China. Its oldest university press, China Renmin University Press, was only established in 1955, followed by East China Normal University Press two years later; they were the only two in the country until economic reform. And while the first few academic journals in the West were published starting in the 1660s, the Chinese academic sector did not produce much until after 2005. Since then, however, output, especially in the STM segment, has grown in tandem with the nation’s aggressive R&D initiatives.

Throughout the years, the progress in the Chinese academic publishing segment has been tightly linked to the country’s economic reform and R&D investments. And the latter are accelerating: in 2018: China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported that more than 1.96 trillion CNY were spent on R&D—up 11.6% from the previous year—which will no doubt expand academic publishing.

But much still needs to be done to elevate the segment and its output, say insiders. And that has been the goal of several recent talks aimed at gathering local opinions and international perspectives. Last May, Tongji University and Tongji University Press organized one such forum, which focused on leveraging the strengths of academic presses’ parent universities and using new technologies to publish and disseminate first-class articles and journals. Another one in August, hosted by China National Publications Import and Export Corporation, discussed the future directions of academic publishing and how university presses and researchers should go about promoting academic dialogue and social progress nationally and globally.

Reflecting Academia and Reader Needs

Obviously, the first changes need to come from within, and, for Chinese university presses, this means finding (and expanding) their readership in the domestic market while also carving a niche for their products overseas. Now that these presses have largely been decoupled from their parent institutions to become financially independent entities—as a result of a nationwide restructuring campaign back in 2010—their fortunes (or lack thereof) depend on the ability to diversify their lists to meet market needs.

For Wang Yan, president of East China Normal University Press, “long sellers—not bestsellers—are the key to an established and successful publishing program, and these are the titles that we want to have in our catalogue.” Long sellers, she adds, “live on, get into libraries—public or private—and become a part of the essential collection. With long-seller content, we can extract parts of it to create derivative products, adapt it to fit specific markets, or transform it to fit different platforms or distribution channels. The opportunities are immense.” ECNUP’s Shanghai Maths series is one such title, evolving from a supplementary workbook back in 1993 into a bestselling series that has also been adapted for the U.K.’s school curriculum.

Wang and her team also want to fill gaps in the market. “For instance,” she says, “while we have books on mastering math, there are few publications about how famous mathematical equations were derived. This prompted us to publish titles such as Mathematics Masters, featuring lectures by Chinese mathematician Hua Luogeng.”

Meeting the demands of an evolving book market and digital-savvy consumers requires a nimble publishing operation, Wang adds. “The ability to adapt to and anticipate new demands is critical, especially in these times of instantaneous information-feeding fueled by the ubiquity of mobile devices. Being focused on our strengths and publishing what we know best will keep us on track.”

Even with long sellers, Wang wants to go beyond print. “It also should not be extended just to the digital realm. The goal, for a long-selling textbook or educational title, should be to make use of the content and create a whole ecosystem around it that puts together the author, publisher, reader, and teacher for further collaboration and interaction. The ecosystem must also be enhanced with the application of new technologies and tools such as AI, analytics, Big Data, and social media to make it even more useful and relevant. It will enable the creation of new materials—ancillaries, curated items, lectures, and audio or video content, for instance—that can enrich the repository. Then the content can be ‘hybridized’ for multiformat and multichannel dissemination for a wider reach.”

Digitizing for Wider (and Faster) Access

Digitizing content and creating hybrid products has taken on a frenetic pace, no doubt propelled by growing demand. According to the China Press and Publication Research Institute, 2018 revenues for all digital products—including animated videos, blogs, educational products, games, journals, newspapers, and music—reached 833.78 billion CNY, an increase of 17.8% from the previous year. Sales of online educational products alone accounted for 133 billion CNY.

There is no question that the internet has transformed the Chinese academic publishing scene, says Zhu Yongliang, general manager of Zhejiang Publishing & Media Company: “The availability of a massive amount of information on the internet has popularized online reading, which is fragmented but extensive, especially on mobile devices, and this is something new to the publishing industry.”

The urgency around meeting demands from the younger generation of users, who are toting mobile devices and consuming information on the go, is palpable. And for a nation boasting more than 800 million internet users, of whom 98% are mobile-based, the question is no longer whether or when to digitize content but how fast.

Guangxi Normal University Press Group, for instance, has nearly 45,000 titles in its catalogue, and 1,000 more are added each year. Zhang Yibing, its chairman, is well aware that he and his team are sitting on a treasure trove of content waiting to be transformed, rediscovered, and monetized. With textbooks, teaching materials, and academic titles (specifically in the humanities) forming the core of GNUP’s publishing program, there are ample opportunities to reformat content to fit a new generation of learners and teachers. Then there are the group’s rare books and archival tomes spanning years of research and collection—such as the 50 volumes on the archaeological and historical findings of Dunhuang and the 283-volume Chinese Maritime Customs Service series—that can be turned into specialized databases for export to libraries and research institutions, or integrated into specific courses at local universities.

“The past couple of years have seen us working on a digital content transformation and bringing about an integrated publishing program,” Zhang says. “An ERP management system is now driving our new and more efficient production and publishing processes, while the projects we marked for digital transformation are going through that process. What we want is to create a whole digital learning ecosystem that will add value to, and blend with, our existing print products. Digitization gives us the opportunity to collect and preserve valuable historical content for future generations while affording us the capability to repurpose existing content to meet emerging market needs. The value of the content to the end user propels GNUP’s digitization efforts.”

Hua Chunrong, general manager of Tongji University Press, is also busy laying the groundwork for digitizing and hybridizing his publishing program. “While our press is predominantly print-based,” he says, “digitizing our list, creating a digital database, and making these a part of our publishing and reading ecosystem is the way forward.”

Transforming content for the digital world is easy, says Zhang Gaoli, president of China Translation & Publishing House. “Nowadays, all contracts have digital rights clearly specified, and having audio, e-book, and bilingual editions are simple given the processes, tools, and platforms that are available in the market,” he says. “What is difficult lies in the royalty payment, which can get complex in a hurry depending on factors such as volumes, bundling options, and subscription levels.”

The digital age also comes with self-publishing, observes Zhu, of Zhejiang Publishing & Media Company. “The boundary between knowledge producer and content editor is blurring, and the threshold in academic publishing is being lowered. Anyone with the right content and credentials can publish an academic article or book nowadays.”

He adds, “The questions remain: how do we harness these digital tools and new technologies to transform the Chinese academic publishing industry? How do we parlay the new opportunities emerging from China’s abundant and growing academic R&D into innovative content for both domestic and international readerships? These are the new challenges of our time.”

Leveraging New Tools and Models

A slew of new technologies—especially those that are algorithm-driven and cognition-based—is a boon to publishers eager to augment content and shorten the production process.

Zhu, of Zhejiang Publishing & Media Company, says that Big Data “makes it possible for publishers to provide knowledge-based services based on consumer needs and preferences, which is great for targeted academic publishing. There has been an exponential increase in the demand for in-depth and specialized field information and research results due to the internet. With semantic search engines, we can now analyze user preferences, usage patterns, the effectiveness of advertisement placements, and so much more. And this is making academic publishing more personalized, accurate, and immediate.”

Zhang, of Guangxi Normal University Press Group, says that, “using cognitive technologies and discoverability tools, we are working on personalizing content and increasing consumer engagement. We want to offer adaptive online courses, microlectures, virtual study tours, and other new models of learning and teaching that will take advantage of the digital era that we are in.”

Zhu, of Zhejiang Publishing & Media Company, notes that Big Data can also enhance content: “Data analytics makes research results and conclusions more accurate. For scholars, new scientific research tools based on Big Data technology have accelerated the speed at which research can be completed. Technology and the internet have also broken down the boundaries of traditional classical disciplines to enable the emergence of a large number of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research fields, which further enriches the academic publishing segment.”

Easy, fast, and secure payment methods have also expanded the market for new business models such as online courses and audio-based language-learning subscriptions, says Zhang, of China Translation & Publishing House. “With the WeChat app, for instance, the consumer can select the course or syllabus required, scan the QR code, and make a direct payment from their bank account to the content provider or creator. It eliminates third-party intervention while simplifying the whole process.”

“With these new models,” Zhang adds, “the collaboration between the content provider and publisher goes deeper, as it needs to evolve quickly with immediate content enhancements and direct-to-consumer updates to suit market demand, unlike in print products.”

These communications among collaborators and stakeholders on the publisher side have become easier with internet-enabled tools, says Zhu. “Collaborative editing platforms and data warehouses imbued with Big Data capabilities further speed up the publishing and production processes.”

New marketing channels and broadcasting networks can also influence a book’s sales numbers. In 2017, Zhang and his team at China Translation & Publishing House launched Freshman Readings in English—aimed at English-language students at the National Southwestern Associated University—with a first printing of 3,000 copies priced at 78 CNY. Between a series of CCTV documentaries celebrating the university’s 80th anniversary and the book’s popularity on social media networks, sales grew to nearly 100,000 copies. The revised edition with audio, priced at 99 CNY, has already sold 80,000 copies.

And companies must be able to keep up with a rapidly evolving social media landscape: platforms such as Dangdang and JD, which were recently very popular, are fast becoming outdated, observes Zhang. “That is the speed at which things are moving.”

Other technological questions are on the horizon. With 5G (fifth-generation wireless networks, which are much faster than their predecessors) catching on in China, Hua, of Tongji University Press, sees a need for the industry to evolve to keep pace. “This is going be a big challenge. Information exchanges will happen at a phenomenal speed with 5G, and this will revolutionize all industries, including publishing and book retailing. How will TJUP and other university presses adapt to this? How will our industry change in the near future by taking advantage of 5G? How will 5G affect content dissemination, and how will readers utilize 5G in their search for content? These are some of the questions that all of us will need to ask of ourselves and be prepared to answer.”

Tackling the Talent Crunch

Zhu, of Zhejiang Publishing & Media Company, also points out that the Chinese academic publishing industry “needs to cultivate more qualified and professional talents that can grasp and utilize new digital tools effectively while leveraging on our country’s R&D results and major scientific and technological breakthroughs.” Hua, of Tongji University Press, agrees that the shifts in publishing and bookselling require a new type of talent. “But staff with global views and marketing experience are usually hard to come by. Add the need for a good understanding of digital and print publications, and the ways to merge them to appeal to today’s tech-savvy and sophisticated readers, and the talent search gets complicated.”

Finding employees with translation and localization skills, too, can pose a challenge. “Translation is hard; literary translations and those involving colloquial Chinese are even harder,” says Zhang, of China Translation & Publishing House, who has been in the business for 28 years. “Things related to culture are the most difficult to translate, and if tweaks have to be made, then the story may get watered down and the reader will miss the original flavor and voice.”

But, Zhang adds, “there are limited translation resources and talents within the publishing industry. While big companies such as Alibaba or Huawei have offices all over the world and access to a much bigger pool of talent, Chinese publishing companies are nowhere near that size or scope. Investments in our book industry are predominantly localized or onshore, and this does not afford us the opportunity to tap the international talent pool. Time and bigger resources are needed to address this issue.”

For now, efforts are slowly and steadily being made to cultivate a Chinese talent pool that understands the hybrid print-digital publishing ecosystem. For instance, last September GNUP’s parent university, Guangxi Normal University, launched an app, Duxiu School, to teach digital publishing. It now has more than 200,000 registered users and an average of 12,000 active users per month.

Penetrating Overseas Markets

Chinese academic publishers are exploring new ways to get their products into foreign markets. According to Hua, of Tongji University Press, language remains a major barrier to getting more articles and works by Chinese scholars published in international journals or distributed in overseas markets. “This,” he explains, “is one of the reasons we started our original English publishing program back in 2017. We want to share our R&D results and local experiences with relevant international academics and industries, and one effective way of accomplishing this is to publish directly in English.” The publisher has thus far achieved its overseas penetration through direct exports of its original English titles and copublishing deals with multinational publishers.

“But,” Hua explains, “‘going out’ [exporting existing products to overseas markets] is just the first step. The whole idea now is about ‘going into’ different markets with content that bundles together content written by Chinese scholars that reflects local experiences with content reflecting international perspectives. These new materials, mostly market-driven content, are geared towards a global readership, and through this, Tongji University and our press will be able to spread our scholarship abroad.” The university, which is known for industry and brand collaborations (including with BASF on sustainable construction and rural vitalization, Merck on stem cell research, and Porsche in automotive studies), has followed a similar strategy by publishing English-language journals, including She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation and Underground Space with Elsevier, and Built Heritage and Pollution Control with Springer Nature.

For Wang, of East China Normal University Press, products such as Shanghai Maths and 5-Minute Maths Mastery, which are being adapted for overseas markets, signify the next step in its foreign-market strategy. “Exporting the rights is one thing,” she says. “Having the content adapted for use in schools and collaborating closely with the country’s education ministry is another. Going into overseas markets validates our content as useful, influential, and credible. And it goes a long way in establishing our brand and products.”

In the following pages, PW talks with five major academic players to learn more about their publishing activities, visits two academic bookstores, looks at how urbanization is propelling R&D programs and the Chinese academic publishing segment, and checks out some of the new titles coming out from the five publishers.

Note: Exchange rate at time of printing is 100 CNY = $14.11.

Read the full report.

This feature is published with the support of the publishers covered in these articles.