November 28, 2012

In China, mobile phones may prove a boon for literature


There has been a great deal of attention paid to China, publishing and copyright this past year, and now, some reporters and publishers on the ground are offering a more nuanced view.

This deluge of bad PR even prompted China to fight back. As Ben Blanchard in the Chicago Tribune reportedTian Lipu, head of China’s State Intellectual Property Office, was vocal and highly critical of the West’s perception of China’s copyright problem. Particularly as the United States has, year after year, put China and Russia on its list of countries with the worst records on fighting intellectual property theft. Tian said, “China is the world’s largest payer for patent rights, for trademark rights, for royalties, and one of the largest for buying real software …We pay the most. People rarely talk about this, but it really is a fact.”

This issue, combined with the swift move to digital, is a big concern for China-based publishers. Gabrielle Coyne, CEO of Penguin Group’s Asia-Pacific division said in an interview with the China Economic Review that,

 “There is a sense that this is a real moment for the survival of publishing in China … there seems to be so much uncertainty about digital in China … When we first started the monitoring process about 18 months ago, the figures were pretty staggering … but digital piracy is not growing here and there’s a real understanding that the consumer is prepared to pay, and they understand the rights of others broadly speaking. I don’t think [piracy] will ever be completely eliminated from markets such as China. But it’s heartening that the government understands the importance of it.”

While copyright concerns are some of the most persistent issues affecting publishing in China, there are other interesting developments. Peter Osnos has a more positive view of the Chinese publishing industry in The Atlantic, exploring the ways in which new technology has brought about new opportunities. He particularly notes that the rising popularity of mobile devices has had a huge impact on the way people read.

Clifford Coonan, the Irish Times correspondent in Beijing, in a thorough takeout reported that “almost half of Chinese adults read books in different forms and about 25 percent of readers — some 220 million people read electronic media. Of these, almost 120 million people use their mobile phone to read. And almost 25 million people only use their cellphones to read books.”

Alongside the sheer numbers, this growth has had an impact on literary form.

“Coonan quotes Zhang Yiwu, a respected literature professor at Peking University, who said “the appearance of mobile phone literature may revive the declining mid-sized novel and poem in China.” Coonan notes that the concept came from Japan, but for Chinese readers it has the advantage of avoiding censorship, which remains a factor in traditional book formats. “Tens of thousands of writers publish their works for free online,” he writes, “to be downloaded by readers on to their phones.””

It’s highly possible that Chinese publishers will manage to be nimbler than their United States counterparts, and adapt format and genres to fit the way Chinese people want to read, and hopefully, pay for.



Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.