Making Online Literature Pay Big in China


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A scene from Douluo Dalu, an online game based on Zhang Wei’s digital novel of the same name.

Credit
Shenzhen Diyibo Net Technology Co. Ltd.

Zhang Wei, China’s top-earning online novelist, is not modest about his success. “I love writing, and I’m gifted,” Mr. Zhang, 35, said in a recent interview.

The numbers back him up. In 2015, Mr. Zhang, better known by his pen name, Tang Jia San Shao, earned 110 million renminbi, about $16.8 million at the time, according to China Daily. Much of his fortune was made from selling his so-called IPs, a buzzword in China referring to intellectual properties or original content that is often adapted into movies, television shows and games. It’s a strategy that in recent years has become a major source of revenue for China’s online literature websites and writers. Mr. Zhang’s earnings would put him on par with best-selling authors like Stephen King and George R. R. Martin.

Mr. Zhang’s works typically fall within the fantasy genre. “Douluo Dalu,” one of his most popular works, is the story of a martial artist who tumbles into an eerie new world called Duoluo Dalu. The story is being turned into a movie, a television show and a video game. In the interview, Mr. Zhang talked about the difference between online literature and traditional publishing, the advantage of an established fan base for lucrative spinoffs and his dream of creating a Disney-style empire.

How did you first start writing online literature?

I first started writing in February 2004, when I was 23. I was working as a website engineer at the time. Before that, I also worked for CCTV.com. I wanted to write a fantasy novel about magic and light because there weren’t many novels at the time that talked about this theme. That became my first novel, “Child of Light.”

What was online literature in China like at the time?

Online literature was still in its early stage of development. Most people who were writing online back then were writing for fun. But a lot of writers didn’t finish their novels, so it was difficult to follow the stories. As a reader, I didn’t like reading these incomplete novels. So when I started to write, I updated my stories every day. That way, I made sure that my readers could get something new every day.

How much do you write each time?

When I started, I could only write 2,000 to 3,000 [Chinese] characters a day. Now I typically write about 7,000 to 8,000 characters a day. On my most productive days, I can write 15,000 to 16,000 characters.

What are the main differences between online literature and traditional publishing?

With online literature, you can publish your installments as soon as you finish them and discuss them with readers very quickly. This is the biggest difference between online literature and traditional publishing. It’s not like writing a book, where you have to write all the chapters before you publish. With online writing, you only need a few thousand characters to start off your book and to show your readers what you’re writing. That’s how online literature sustains itself.

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Zhang Wei, also known by his pen name, Tang Jia San Shao.

Credit
Mei Yuangui

Do you take into account feedback from your readers when you’re writing?

Obviously readers have their own opinions. Their feedback doesn’t change my content because I plan my novels before I write them. Usually, by the time they read the latest installment, I’m already working on future ones.

Why do you think some readers favor online novels over print books?

There’s a feeling of excitement when you read daily updates. Also online literature is really a form of popular literature. It’s more accessible to readers. It’s also one of the cheapest forms of entertainment. Usually it costs just a few cents to read a thousand words.

Is there greater freedom writing online compared with traditional media?

I don’t think so. Whatever we write, we have to adhere to the relevant laws and regulations.

We’re seeing more companies buying the rights from online authors and adapting their stories into movies, television shows and games. Why is that?

The big IPs come with millions of readers, so they offer a built-in fan base, which often translates into high box-office returns. IPs can also be made into series, which makes the content more cohesive. That way, you can maximize your profit from the IP, and it also amplifies the IP’s overall influence.

How much do you make from online novels?

The income from subscribers to online literature makes up only about 2 to 3 percent of my total income. Most of my income comes from the print publication of my books and IP products.

How does online literature differ in China and the United States?

As far as I know, China’s model — in which fans read daily updates of online novels — has not been replicated in any other country. In other countries, online literature usually means digitizing physical books so that people can buy them and read them on their cellphone.

What is the future of online literature in China?

IP and content production will play a more dominant role in the industry. For example, I am currently looking for a powerful partner to develop all of my IPs so that when one format, like a movie or a TV series, becomes popular, the other formats will also become popular. This is the best model for writers. My goal is to make a big franchise like Disney. Disney has a lot of characters whose popularity is reinforced through movies and cartoons.

What do you see as the key to success in the industry?

A lot of people ask me how I’ve become so successful in the industry. I only do one thing, which is to give my readers new work every day. I’ve done this every day for the last 12 years. This is actually very difficult to achieve. I love writing, and I’m gifted. As far as I know, nobody is as good as I am. Talent and enthusiasm are the keys to my success. I haven’t been writing all this time because of the money. From the beginning, it was never about the money.

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