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Chinese Web Novels Are Rewriting The Entertainment Business
Zeng Yuan

BEIJING — It seems not so long ago that people were still looking at online literature with disdain. But no one can deny that, at the very least, it is a very real business opportunity.

Last year, Choose the Day, a very popular Chinese online novel, was adapted into a webgame by Giant Interactive, a Chinese developer and operator of online video games. The same story was also adapted by digital giant Tencent into an animated film and has spawned various peripheral products.

In total, this online novel has so far generated tens of millions dollars worth of revenue. As of today, it's estimated that China has an online literature market of up to seven billion RMB ($1.1 billion), and will only grow bigger as mobile access expands.

The success story of Choose the Day is not an isolated case. Empresses in the Palace, a TV series based on the Internet novel of the same name and has swept through China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, is another good example. It is expected to make its debut in the U.S. later this year and will be aired on the HBO cable network – the first ever Chinese TV series to be aired on a major American TV channel.

Written by Liuyanzi, one of China's most popular young novelists, Empresses in the Palace — also known as The Legend of Zhen Huan — depicts power-hungry infighting in the Qing emperor's harem and imperial court. Even for more conservative and older readers, Liuyanzi's fiction is much more exciting than the official Qing history.

Netflix, an American company, produced and broadcast last December a television drama series based on Marco Polo, a story which is largely based in China during the Middle Ages. It is particularly vexing for Chinese audiences to see Americans telling their history. However, the upcoming push-back by those delicate but malicious ladies of the court against the American-led Mongol armies will surely help Chinese people restore some pride in the face of America's "cultural aggression."

The birthplace of China's internet literature is Jinjiang Literature City, a paid-for literature website that began as a small Bulletin Board System (BBS). Today the website generates 60 million visits daily. Four hundred thousand authors and 650,000 novels are registered with it, meaning that on average an item is published each minute and a chapter is updated every three seconds on its website.

The number of clicks is the only criteria for online literature. The eReading by silent readers, probably somewhere in a subway, in a basement or in a villa, contributes to the potentially massive flow of popular online works of literature, and this has revolutionized the business models of editors and publishers in the old world.

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of all for readers is that not only can they search for books that they want to read thanks to the real-time popularity rankings, they may also change a writer's writing direction, by a simple click and payment.

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