The cover of "Library of Heaven's Path" by Heng Sao Tian Ya. (webnovel.com/file)
Yang Hanliang is moonlighting.
By day, Yang, 35, is a physical education teacher. But as night falls, he hunches over a huge computer screen and prepares for six hours of story writing, sipping coffee to power him through the solitary shift.
“I have stayed rather low profile,” he said. “My students know me only as their trainer for jogging and basketball, but they could be on their mobile phones reading the latest chapter of one of my novels.”
Yang, better known by his avatar “HengSaoTianya”, has created a series of blockbuster titles on Qidian.com, a leading online literature site.
His virtual books, including "Library of Heaven’s Path", have attracted millions of readers and built him a fan base that is already spreading wings overseas.
The likes of Yang represent the growing tribe of independent contract writers, who are hoping to transform hardship into opportunity on the side-lines of the nation’s traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. economy.
China-based research group Hurun Report depicted the typical writer as a 37-year-old male who spends eight hours a day churning out up to 20,000 words.
They thrive largely on the premise of China’s explosive online literature market, which is projected by consultancy Frost& Sullivan to reach 13.4 billion yuan (US$2.1 billion) by 2020 with a 30 percent annual growth rate.
Unlike e-books, which are digital versions of physical books, online literature features works created online and initially distributed over the internet. Many of the authors are amateurs and write as a part-time job.
The rise of smartphones and faster internet connectivity are major drivers of online reading. Today, about 330 million Chinese people access their gadgets on a daily basis to see how events will unfold for their beloved protagonists.
The market witnessed more than two decades of consolidation before its monetization path surfaced. In 2003, Qidian rolled out the country’s first online reading payment programme, under which readers can pay to become VIPs and unlock the most up-to-date chapters.
Thanks to a merger in 2015, Qidian, together with the likes of QQ Reading and Hongxiu.com, is now under China literature’s wing, making the company the nation’s largest reading portal.
According to Frost & Sullivan, the market share of Tencent-backed China literature has exploded to a staggering 72 percent, distantly followed by smaller players that include Baidu Literature and Alibaba Literature.
“Online literature and comics are both important sources for developing intellectual property,” said Yang Chen, who oversees content creation at China literature.
“But the entry barrier is a lot lower for online literature. We have seen an influx of novel writers onto our platforms. Stiff competition spurs high-quality creations,” he said.
According to Yang, China literature currently owns about 10 million virtual books from more than 200 genres, and houses 7 million writers across its platforms.
The meteoric rise of online reading was first fuelled by changing demographics. Those born in the 1980s and after constitute the main consumers, and they are willing to pay for premium content, whether it is fantasy, heroes and martial arts, science fiction or romance, according to a report by the China Academy of Information and Communication Technology last year.
“The group have clearly exhibited greater demand for engaging content in rich media platforms, and are more receptive to trendy story lines and diversified genres of online literature, as well as other entertainment products adapted from them,” said Neil Wang, president of Frost & Sullivan China.
On the supply side, being a first-rate writer is financially rewarding and could in turn stimulate the entire ecosystem into a benign circle.
The nation’s crackdown on piracy and protection of intellectual property rights have set the stage for the pay-per-view subscription model.
Yang, the author, said with new publications, his annual income could amount to several million yuan, which would allow him to make writing his main occupation.
A bigger chunk of income derives from granting authorization or adaptation rights to novels or comic books published on its platform to filmmakers, TV producers or game developers.
The Chinese film So Young premiered in 2013 after being adapted from the college romance novel "To Our Youth That Is Fading Away".
The appetite for purchasing intellectual property is on the rise. Licensing fees per episode for web broadcasting hit adapted TV series have jumped from tens of thousands of yuan in 2012 per episode, to about 9 million yuan for one episode last year, as exhibited in the case of Fighter of the Destiny.
“Entertainment media are increasingly turning to original online literature for source material, primarily due to the existing viewer base and societal influence of such titles before adaptation,” Wang noted.
Following a listing in Hong Kong in November 2017, China literature’s share price ballooned 12.5 percent and the company reported a stark rise in operating profit from 33 million yuan in 2016 to 5.1 billion yuan in 2017.
“It is a vote of confidence in China’s online publishing industry,” said Huang Guofeng, a senior interactive entertainment analyst at Analysys, an internet service provider. “The profitability in part helped to turn around the stereotype that online literature is tainted by piracy and has a hard time reporting figures in the black.”
According to Tencent’s Yang, the online industry has extended beyond China’s borders, mainly by launching its own overseas site, and forging partnerships with foreign publishers and translation sites like Gravity Tales.
“Over 100 literary works in foreign languages are available on our home-grown site. Besides, we have partnered with local translation houses to provide Thai, Korean and Japanese versions of online novels,” he noted.
The writer Yang said he could not be more thrilled when seeing his book in English, French, and even Turkish. “I am a poor English speaker... now I see the characters I’ve written transformed into letters. It’s just amazing.”
The overseas development largely originates from the rich content offering and a growing interest to know more about Chinese culture and contemporary art, Wang said.
“But cultural uniqueness also poses a major challenge because foreign readers can struggle to understand Chinese works with local cultural elements such as Taoism,” he said.