Protocol | China

China is reinventing the way the world reads

Millions of overseas fans are reading translated Chinese web novels, making them the country's most successful cultural export.

A welcome screen for the QQ Reading application, operated by China Literature Ltd., a unit of Tencent Holdings Ltd., is displayed on an Apple Inc. iPad

The QQ Reading app, operated by China Literature Ltd., also owns Webnovel.

Photo: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A weapon master reborn into the land of magic beasts; a clever internet-cafe manager who wins every esports championship; a demonic outcast given a second chance at life to win back his childhood sweetheart. These are all stories created by Chinese authors that are now being read around the world.

Having built a thriving multibillion-dollar web fiction industry at home, Chinese web novel platforms are increasingly looking to sell their stories — and the innovative way they mass-produce them — to literature lovers abroad.

And it's working. There are currently about 145 million overseas readers of Chinese web novels, according to Chinese analytics firm iResearch, making it China's most successful 21st-century cultural export to date.

Popcorn literature

The web novel industry has been steadily growing in China since 2002, with the founding of Qidian, one of the earliest and largest web novel platforms. What was the amateur, spontaneous production of Chinese web novels eventually became a profitable industry.

There are two things that make Chinese web novels distinct: the speed with which authors write, and the pricing model. Chinese web novels are supposed to be consumed while the author is writing. Every day, fans log on to the platform, find the latest chapter (usually updated on a daily basis) and pay for it. The cost is usually less than $1, but when a novel has thousands of fans and also thousands of chapters, the profits can be immense.

In China, the most popular novels can often last as long as 3 million characters. Writers publish about 3,000 to 8,000 words every day and sometimes feel the need to write more just to keep up with readers' appetites. Works, never models of brevity given the incentives, are usually the literary equivalent of a popcorn movie. In Chinese, they are called shuangwen (爽文), or stories that impart a brief dopamine high.

But they have a massive reader base, one that's willing to pay. Many of the most popular stories have been adapted into TV series or movies. In fact, the most commercially successful Chinese television shows of recent years are adapted from web novels.

And soon enough, people started to realize these web novels could have global appeal. Around 2016, fan-operated websites popped up where volunteers translated Chinese novels into English and Russian. "In the beginning, it was unthinkable. No one at the time could see that someone would willingly translate a Chinese novel with millions of characters," said Ji Yunfei, assistant professor at Sun Yat-sen University and one of the first academics to research the global reach of Chinese web novels.

Selling the fantasy

Today, amateur fan translation has been replaced by Chinese web novel platforms that own the publishing rights to millions of novels and see the potential to sell their IP worldwide.

Take the U.S. iOS App Store as an example. According to Sensor Tower, of the top five best-grossing apps in the "Books" category, three (Dreame, GoodNovel and Webnovel) have Chinese backgrounds. One Chinese publication combed through the top 50 best-grossing book apps and found that 25 of them were developed by Chinese companies.

Their secret sauce: these apps have cribbed the business model of their Chinese counterparts, in which novels can be purchased per chapter, leading to constant in-app spend. The experience is also gamified, with in-app mechanisms to gain coupons and free chapters. Some apps also cater to a specific reader community, from thriller fans to LGBTQ+ readers.

The stories found on the apps are a mix of those translated from Chinese and those written by native speakers. Over the years, translation capacity has become one of the biggest bottlenecks, with millions of Chinese novels ready to be translated yet far fewer humans to do it. Since 2019, some companies have been using AI translators to increase the capacity, but results are subpar.

Many of these mobile platforms are backed by prominent Chinese companies with global ambitions.The most prominent company is Webnovel, a subsidiary of China Literature, China's biggest web novel company, ultimately owned by Tencent. Webnovel was launched in 2017 and has been the pioneer of exporting Chinese web novels. According to the company, by the end of 2020, Webnovel had translated nearly 1,000 Chinese novels and had an annual readership of 54 million.

There's also Fictum, a web novel app targeting U.S. and Indonesian readers developed by ByteDance, and Wonderfic, which targets Spanish-speaking countries, developed by smartphone and home device maker Xiaomi.

Global social media platforms, most of them unavailable in China, have become important marketing tools for Chinese web novel companies to reach foreign readers. A 2021 survey shows that 42.7% of overseas readers were introduced to Chinese novels through ads.

Facebook is especially eager to attract Chinese advertisers. It lists Webnovel as one of its success cases and has published a white paper in Chinese on how web novel platforms can use Facebook for marketing. In January, David Chen, Facebook's industry director for the greater China region, told Chinese media that there were over 200 Chinese web novel apps promoted on Facebook in 2020.

Ads often take the form of a striking illustration plus a sensational, almost clickbait-y quote. For American readers, "the [visual] elements should prioritize a kink-ish style," one Chinese marketing agency explains in a how-to guide to the U.S. market.

Some people may find them louche. It's not hard to find people on Twitter complaining about how some of these ads verge on bestiality, pedophilia or ableism. "With the lack of editorial oversight, a lot of web novels end up with a lot more grossly problematic content," said Gabriella Buba, a Filipino writer in Texas who likes to read web novels.

Cultivating native writers

The huge success of a handful of Chinese stories has been great for the platforms, but also unpredictable and hard to replicate. Within China, the industry isn't just built on that. It's also about the thousands of B-list or amateur authors constantly pumping out new works to keep readers on the platforms.

To recreate that overseas, Chinese platforms have begun to cultivate non-Chinese writers. And the platforms have plenty of experience from the two decades of competing within China.

Many platforms have launched writing contests to attract writers. In March, Webnovel said it will award $20,000 to fiction-writing contest winners and promised to present the winning work on screens in Times Square. Its goal, the company said, is to add 50,000 authors from North America to the platform in one year.The ByteDance-owned Fictum also organized a writing contest themed "Romancing the Werewolf/Billionaire," with a $30,000 first prize.

"From selling content to selling the business model, this is a natural transition," said Ji, the assistant professor. Proven methods, like giving new writers several months of fixed salary to subsidize the early stage of slow audience growth, have been very effective at cultivating and sustaining authors.

But continued success isn't guaranteed. Amazon launched Kindle Vella in July, whose business model and novel genres closely resemble its Chinese peers. Lately, Korean novel and comics apps are another strong force in the market, with two of Korea's largest digital media companies spending large to acquire American web novel startups. With less experience in producing global cultural sensations, Chinese companies have a long way to go.

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