Chinese book market rises due to govt subsidies, innovative models
Published: Dec 28, 2022 09:24 PM
Customers read and enjoy drinks at a bookstore cafe in Shanghai. File photos: IC Copies of Dead End, the last book in The Three-Body Problem trilogy

Copies of Dead End, the last book in The Three-Body Problem trilogy File photo: IC

Customers read and enjoy drinks at a bookstore cafe in Shanghai. File photos: IC Copies of Dead End, the last book in The Three-Body Problem trilogy

Customers read and enjoy drinks at a bookstore cafe in Shanghai. File photo: IC

Editor's Note:

As we are about to bid farewell to the year 2022, a year where we lived through happiness and accomplishments although life was accompanied by a pandemic, the Global Times staff of life and culture will share our observations on the cultural life of the whole year to offer a platform to remember what the country has accomplished in the cultural sector and the cultural life that we, the ordinary people, have enjoyed, and to help everyone get ready to embrace the New Year with hope and strength.

The year 2022 has challenged a lot of brick and mortar bookstores, but also forced them to enter a new era by reforming and creating flashy and innovative activities. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how Chinese readers interact with their local bookstores, but has also negatively impacted the very individualistic atmosphere for a community of bibliophiles who constantly read and think about literature. Seeking a new path toward the future is the biggest priority for today's brick and mortar bookstores.

Break from tradition

On December 21, the 2022 China Bookstore Conference was successfully held online by the Books and Periodicals Distribution Association of China. 

According to the results of the "National Physical Bookstore Operations Survey" released during the conference, things were not looking up for physical bookstores in 2022: In the first half of 2022, the revenue of 41.65 percent of bookstores was below 100,000 yuan ($14,367), while 9.56 percent had no income; 54.53 percent of bookstore owners said they were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, while only 6.94 percent of owners said cash flow had not been affected. 

Many bookstores found themselves losing money and hadn't turned a profit for a long time.

Additionally, the monthly index of physical stores in 2022 failed to exceed the same period in 2021.

To increase support for physical bookstores, a total of 434 million yuan in support was provided by various local governments. For instance, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Press and Publication on December 22 announced that 317 physical bookstores had received subsidies in 2022.

DC Books, a bookstore based in Beijing's Xicheng district that has gained a following online, was one of the many bookstores that received aid. Zhuang Ning, the store's manager, told the Global Times that besides the subsidy, DC Books was able to do well in 2022 by innovating book sales and delivery services.

"Many bookstores are actively exploring new business models to stay open," she said.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, many physical bookstores have already expanded beyond traditional book sales to become a mix of cultural and creative store, coffee shop, exhibition gallery and even shared office space.

Zuo Shu, another hit bookstore in Beijing, has attracted a lot of customers by selling new books with slight defects at low prices.

The new model has slowly earned the store the label "a Beijing bookstore that sells books with slight defects for 45 percent off." 

"We say they have slight defects, but actually the books all come with a plastic cover, which is almost the same as a new book," Liu Song, the bookstore manager told the Global Times, adding that selling these special books was a desperate move made to survive a gloomy situation. 

"Physical bookstores need to keep coming up with new means to bring in better cooperative partners," Liu said.

On September 25, the Xinhua Bookstore opened its first pet-themed bookstore in Beijing, introducing a new cross-sector cooperation model.

With the optimization of COVID-19 response in China, the upcoming 2023 is set to be a major opportunity for many independent bookstores to engage with Chinese readers via in-person events.

"There will be a good bookstore event in 2023, but everything is based on mature and prepared brands and teams," said Zhuang, pointing out that in the past many people would compare physical bookstores with online bookstores, or paper books with e-books, but now the lines are blurring. 

"I think that the function of physical bookstores as a third space for many urban residents will become a priority after the pandemic ends."

Seeking potential opportunities 

The three-year COVID-19 pandemic has also given birth to a new situation that sees the film, television and radio industry giving a boost to the Chinese book market.

Open Book, a national data analysis institution that tracks retail sales data in the Chinese book market, shows that the first book in Chinese writer Liu Cixin's hit fiction trilogy The Three-Body Problem topped sales for fiction books in November. The achievement was mainly thanks to the news of the animated adaptation Three Body, which debuted on Chinese streaming platform Bilibili Saturday.

In recent years, film, television and radio productions have effectively driven sales of related books. Two upcoming TV adaptations of Liu's works, respectively produced by Tencent Video and Netflix, set for release in 2023 may also bring sales of the book to a new high. 

Radio dramas have also become a new favorite among young Chinese. A successful adaptation of a radio drama can help promote the sales of paper books, according to an Open Book report.