| Global Times | 2012-7-1 19:50:02
By Zhang Zihan
They are among the most popular writers in China, but very few of their works line bookstore shelves as hardcover or paperback copies. Genres of their stories range from fantasy, sci-fi, romance and adventure, while their readers span all ages. But few online authors ply their craft for fame and it's definitely the wrong career to pursue to make a quick fortune.
"Most online authors make nothing from their writing," said Qingguang Chuci, who specializes in urban fantasy. The 32-year-old, who has already written three books comprising 6 million characters, described online literature as "a profession with China's greatest payment inequality." Authors at the top can rake in millions of yuan for their works, while those at the bottom struggle to pocket anything.
Online literature is one of the fastest growing industries in China. According to the Blue Book of Chinese Literature 2012 released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Literature, there are more than 30,000 professional online writers in the country - more than triple the number of members at the China Writers Association. A recent report from the China Internet Network Information Center found more than 203 million Chinese people read online literature.
Authors are paid based on the popularity of their books, which appear on websites of online publishers. Most stories are affordably priced at around 2-3 fen per 1,000 characters, meaning a novel of 40,000 characters will set readers back less than 1 yuan ($0.15). One of the reasons the prices are so low is that advertising provides a sizeable portion of revenue for these websites.
Readers pay a fee to subscribe to these websites and access stories. Fees vary depending on websites and the authors who are contracted to them. Many books are available for free, although new books can only be accessed by members.
Pyramid of competition
For the best authors, profits are almost limitless. NetEase Cloud Reading, one of the most popular online publishers, announced on June 11 at a press conference that it would pay Wen Rui'an, a famous wuxia novelist, 2,000 yuan per 1,000 characters for his latest collection of stories in upcoming book Xiadao Xiangfeng. Wen's payment rate far eclipses the industry standard of between 15 and 60 yuan per 1,000 characters.
Then, of course, there is the vast majority of struggling authors who don't receive anything.
"Around 90 percent of online authors get paid nothing. Their books are free to read online," Qingguang Chuci told Metro Beijing. "The other 10 percent are writers signed to online publishers. They usually already have popular works to their names, such as Tangjia Sanshao and Tiancan Tudou. An exclusive group of writers like this are at the top of the pyramid."
Zhang Yulong, editor of online publisher hjsm.tom.com, shares Qingguang Chuci's "pyramid" theory of the industry. Zhang added that the basic payment of a contracted author is 1,200 yuan per month, with this figure increasing to around 4,000 yuan for more established writers.
"These authors have to write 300,000 characters before they can apply for a contract. Once selected, they must write 12,000 characters daily to get their monthly payment," Zhang said, adding perhaps the greatest understatement by conceding "it's a tough job."
Qingguang Chuci said the greatest struggle for writers is climbing out from the bottom. "I remember my first book had more than 100,000 characters, but I could only sell it for 100 yuan," he recalled.
Pursuing a passion
While the financial rewards might be low for those starting at the bottom, becoming an online author can be an act of pursuing one's destiny for some budding writers.
Liu Houwu, a 36-year-old sales manager, began writing a year ago. At first, he only wanted to write "a better story" than those he had read online, although today he has two books comprising 3.6 million characters and a contract with an online publisher to his credit. But not everything has gone according to plan for the fantasy author.
"It was not until I started writing online that I realized the cruelty of this industry," Liu told Metro Beijing. "I love telling stories and I hoped they would be appreciated by readers. However, our readers don't want a pure story. Instead, reading online literature is just a means for them to kill time."
Liu said after realizing the demands of readers, he changed his style of prose to include exciting plots. "I have many rivals in this business and competition is fierce," said the author, who makes around 6,000 yuan per month with his stories. "I love writing and am ready to face all the challenges," he added, revealing he was considering quitting his job to pursue writing full-time.
Lin Zi, a 22-year-old writer and recent college graduate, was offered a contract as an author around the same time as Liu. "I got into online literature during my junior year at college, but soon discovered it couldn't satisfy me. That's when I started writing myself," said Lin.
Lin has written five books, which have raked in 30,000 yuan. While many of her peers in the industry can only dream of making so much, Lin downplays writing as merely a "part-time job."
"I won't pursue this as a profession. I have a job as an engineer and I have enough money. My income from writing is just a subsidy," said Lin. "I love writing and sharing my stories, but my own priorities come first."
Plagued by a creative vacuum
With imposing daily character quotas facing many contracted online writers, one of the main concerns is that the industry focuses too much on quantity and not enough on quality. Qingguang Chuci said most writers are young and lack life experience, making it difficult for them to tell stories with much authority.
"Since they cannot make money by producing quality stories, their only focus is on producing quantity," he said. "They certainly can make a living by doing this, but it's not sustainable for them or the industry."
Huang Wenning, director of operations with the online literature department of Everight Book, pointed out homogenization of stories was "an unavoidable fate" for the industry. "Since online literature became a business, it's been inevitable people would profit from it. It shouldn't come as a surprise then that once authors attained popularity, rival authors would copy their story ideas," Huang told Metro Beijing.
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