Gu Zhen, 33, editor at Shanghai Translation Publishing House, joined his colleagues recently at the studio that had been set up for selling books on the livestreaming platform of online shopping website jd.com.
The livestreaming lasts about three hours, covering the 103 books the publishing house has published this year. Gu's part started from 6:30 pm and ended at 8 pm.
He mainly introduced books he edited and was familiar with, including the translation versions of new volumes of Judge Dee Mysteries series by Robert van Gulik, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 by Philip Larkin, and Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
When he left, there were about 2,100 people watching.
"Many people watch the livestreaming not only to know about the books but for the coupons," Gu says.
The coupons allow people to buy books cheaper online with a discount of 50 percent or even higher, in addition to the perennial discounts that the online shopping platforms of jd.com and dangdang.com offer.
"It's one of the problems that publishers have been facing in the last decade due to the everlasting discounts online," says Shen Yu, 35, a former editor in Shanghai who worked in the industry for 10 years.
According to statistics by Beijing Openbook, a publishing industry consulting company, released at the 28th Beijing Book Fair, discounts offered by online shopping platforms have kept climbing, from 40 percent in 2020 to 43 percent in the first eight months of 2021, even higher than the 41 percent of 2019.
"For book buyers in China, it's natural to expect high discounts, not only on the special days of shopping carnivals, but almost every day as online platforms often need to create new reasons to attract consumers, like school season at the start of September. The prices are so low that publishers can only see very small profits, and as a result publishers are forced to improve book prices," Shen says.
On average, a book's price in the mainland has grown from 15.9 yuan ($2.46) in 2000 to 48 yuan in 2020, according to Beijing Openbook.
In the last two decades, sales in China's publishing industry have been growing by more than 10 percent, according to Beijing Openbook. The sales of the first half year grew by more than 11 percent compared to that of 2020, however, compared with the first six months in 2019, the figure only rose by a little over 1 percent.
"It means that the demand in the market has changed. It is not high growth anymore," said Yang Lei, vice-president of Beijing Openbook, at the book fair.
"The growth is driven by the rising book price, rather than copies sold," he said.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the general reading atmosphere has changed, says Gu.
"It's hard to promote new writers, especially in the category of fiction. It takes time to learn about new writers, so readers are reluctant to do that," he says.
Statistics verified the change. Despite the stable growth of books sold every year, the number of new books has been declining in recent years, Yang said.
In 2020, there were a little over 170,000 new book titles sold in the market, accounting for about 7.9 percent of the total 2.14 million. In the first eight months in 2021, the proportion of new book titles dropped to 6.3 percent, according to Beijing Openbook.
"Every publisher has a similar structure of products, the best, the worst and the middle. It's impossible for us to give every book the first print run of five to six thousand copies and an overprint of three thousand copies like before, because the books in the middle are more susceptible to the market change," he said.
Publishers like STPH and Social Sciences Academic Press set up readers' clubs on WeChat. When there are new books coming out, they issue forecasts in the WeChat groups as well as other online platforms such as WeChat official accounts and Weibo, the Chinese counterpart of Twitter, especially for the special binding editions, so that they will know how many copies they need to make, Shen says.
The marketing of Moby Dick adopted such a creative approach to create exquisitely decorated editions, Gu says, that it was sold at a higher price together with cultural creative products.
"But it's a marketing approach that has been copied by many other publishers," he says.
Taking a look at the bestsellers in the first half of the year in the mainland, one can find that they are often publicized on short-video platforms by key opinion leaders (KOLs) or are books by established writers like Yu Hua, the author of To Live and The Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, or Mai Jia, the writer of Decode and The Message.
One of the bestsellers for this year is the Chinese translation of Counseling for Toads: A Psychological Adventure, with more than 2 million sold, mainly through TikTok, Gu says.
Wang Fang, one of the KOLs in the section of education and books, registered her TikTok account in 2020 and in six months she sold 15 million copies. At the Beijing Book Fair in April, the revenues gained from her livestreaming on TikTok surpassed 8 million yuan.
According to the research report on the development of China's internet audio and video industry released in June, the number of internet audio and video users in China hit 944 million as of December last year, a yearly increase of 43.21 million, covering 95.4 percent of all internet users in the country.
The numbers of users on short video and livestreaming reached 873 million and 617 million, accounting for 88.3 percent and 62.4 percent of all internet users.
As a result, publishers are working hard on publicizing products on online platforms that usually combine the functions of livestreaming and short-video posting.
On April 22, the day before World Reading Day, jd.com, a traditional online shopping platform, officially launched the livestreaming section for books to compete with the similarly traditional tmall.com and dangdang.com, and the rising Tik-Tok and Kuaishou.
Joined by well-known writers Yang Hongying and Zhi An, publishers such as Children's Fun Publishing, New Star Press and Tomorrow Publishing House took part in the 12-hour livestreaming, which increased sales by more than 650 percent, according to a report by China Publishing & Media Journal. This type of activity is held on a monthly basis.
Besides, in the first half year of 2021, jd.com organized livestreaming training for sellers every month and more than 100 publishers participated each time to learn how to improve their sales through livestreaming, according to the report.
Apart from distribution, the new marketing environment has also made editors' work more complicated and demanding.
In the past, the main work of a book editor was to improve content, and help designers and marketing team better understand the book's style and selling points.
Editors used to do their jobs anonymously, but now they need to face readers directly in livestreaming.
Besides, editors need to prepare a lot of marketing content, and consider how to improve the look of books so that they can be better presented in publicity shots.
In the past, if it is a good book, it will sell well ultimately with its reputation, but now in such an old marketing way, books cannot reach readers very quickly, Gu says.
"Five years ago, I couldn't imagine that we are now selling books on TikTok and Little Red Book. Time has changed beyond our expectation. For me, the first thing for publishers is to survive. We can't resist the current prevailing online platforms, rather, we need to study them," he says.
"But we need to find a way that can best match the disposition of our publisher," he says.
"However, I still believe that the books themselves must be of good quality. If the books that I edit will be read not only in the first few months after being published, but after one or two years, if they can stand the test of time, they are successful and valuable even if they are not bestsellers," he says.
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Published : October 03, 2021