A passenger reads one of the placed books. Photo: Courtesy of The Fair
Cordelia Oxley places books on the Beijing Subway on Saturday. Photo: Courtesy of The Fair
A large-scale Chinese book-sharing event that has drawn both criticism and praise from literature lovers has expanded to other major Chinese cities, including Tianjin, Qingdao in East China's Shandong Province and Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong Province.
First launched on November 15 in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in Guangdong Province, the Mobook campaign is a book-sharing event inspired by a similar campaign in the UK that saw Harry Potter actress Emma Watson hide books throughout the London Underground.
Organized by The Fair, a Beijing-based content production company dedicated to promoting reading in China, the campaign became a hotly debated topic on social media in China.
According to The Fair, online discussion about the event mainly revolved around two topics: Whether a promotional campaign can truly foster a culture of reading in subways in China, and the argument that Chinese people don't like to read anything that cannot be found on a smartphone.
To help improve the campaign and further adapt it to the demands of Chinese readers, The Fair invited Cordelia Oxley - the head of Books on the Underground, the organizer behind the original UK campaign, to come and share her organization's experiences with book-sharing at a forum held in Beijing on Saturday.
Similar reading circumstances
Talking about the challenges of carrying out their version of the campaign in the London Underground, Oxley pointed out that, like the Mobook event, they too ran into some unexpected challenges.
"At first, cleaners took the books and we had to have conversations with them on the day," Oxley said.
"Another one is some people might think that we left our books [behind on accident] and so they chased us down to the platforms, saying 'You dropped your book.'"
Oxley explained that as more people have come to hear about the campaign "that happens less and less."
She noted that collaboration with publishers and celebrities has played a significant role in raising the campaign's brand recognition.
At the forum, Oxley also mentioned that she took part in a Mobook event earlier that morning, hiding books throughout Beijing's subway system.
Recalling the experience, she said that compared to the Underground, Beijing subways are cleaner and the passengers more curious.
Luo Yihang, the forum's host, asked Oxley what she thought of critics of the Mobook event who have said that book-sharing will not be able to succeed in China since, unlike the UK, people here are not nostalgic about print books and strong 4G connections means they are more willing to read digital content on their phones rather than a print book while in a subway car.
Oxley responded by saying she felt that the chances for success in the two countries are the same because people who find the print books in the subway are not limited to reading them during their commute, but also have the option to take the books home to read.
What to do next
To help The Fair track books they have left in the subways, they have attached QR codes to the cover of each book. When a reader picks up one of the books, they have the option to scan this code, which then relays the location where they found the book.
According to The Fair representatives, as of Saturday they have hidden more than 21,000 books in subways across China and 5,343 people have scanned the provided QR codes.
Since it's possible that some people who have picked up the books didn't scan the QR code, the real number of people participating in the campaign may actually be higher, The Fair representatives said, adding that even if that is not the case, they are happy with the numbers they are seeing so far.
"Before the event we thought if we could get 1,000 people to join in the event, then that would make it all worthwhile. In the end though, we got more than 5,000," Zhang Wei, co-founder of The Fair, said at the forum.
"Although we have run into many problems, we still feel we have accomplished something. At least we've made the lives of the more than 5,000 people a little different," Zhang noted.
Actually The Fair is not the first organization to hold this type of event in China. In late 2011, the National Library of China held a similar promotional event with the Beijing subway's Line 4. The event caught the attention of the media at the time, but any interest in the event later died off when the library failed to make it a persistent, long-lasting event.
"We have long been thinking about how to provide reading services to the public now that fewer people are heading to libraries," Liao Yongxia, deputy director of Social Education Department of the National Library of China, said at the conference.
According to Liao, public libraries have become isolated from the public in recent years, which has made it difficult to make their resources available to them. However, The Fair has provided a successful example that shows that reading services can be brought to the people.
"We are attempting to collaborate with express delivery companies, so that readers can order books online, have them delivered to their homes or work and then be able to return them free of charge after they finish,"Liao explained.
"As for traditional libraries, we can use them to hold more book-sharing conferences and to create more opportunities for readers and writers to communicate. These new services may work better to promote reading."