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Friday, May 14, 2021, 13:10
Online reading turns a novel business opportunity as digital era grows
By He Wei in Shanghai
Friday, May 14, 2021, 13:10 By He Wei in Shanghai

In this undated file photo, visitors check out the booth of China Literature, an online arm of Tencent, during a book expo in Shanghai. (CHEN YUYU / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Reading serialized novels online has become a favorite pastime for many Chinese.

According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, half of China's netizens-roughly 455 million people-have developed the habit of indulging in literary works online spanning urban romance, science fiction, fantasy and other genres.

Chinese companies are now hoping the popularity can be extended beyond their home turf.

For instance, consultancy iResearch found a particular cult following outside of China for martial art genres known as Wuxia and Xianxia in Chinese.

China Literature, the online literature arm of Tencent Holdings Ltd, is extending its reach through its foreign language platform called Webnovel.

Launched in 2017, Webnovel attracted 54 million visits last year in markets spanning Southeast Asia, North America and Europe. More than 100,000 original novels written by overseas authors have been published on the site, a lot of which carry Chinese elements.

We aim to target existing content curators, who either have written literary works in their spare time, or are themselves film and television script writers, or even who have interest in writing but have not yet started ... We hope to grow this fiction-based web app into the largest such community in North America and provide writers a reliable platform with financial rewards.

Sandra Chen, executive at Webnovel, foreign language online reading platform of Tencent's China Literature

"We initially spotted a surge in voluntary translation of our works from Chinese to English, and that indicates a huge unmet need in notably Western markets for fantasy or martial arts-themed novels," said Sandra Chen, an executive at Webnovel.

These issues propelled China Literature to do the job in-house. Webnovel began translating literary works originally in Chinese to English, from 120 to 140 novels on a yearly basis at the outset, to around 300 novels per annum nowadays.

Apart from working with translators, the company is leveraging artificial intelligence to get things done faster and cheaper.

"For instance, machines can translate around 2,000 to 3,000 words in just two to three minutes, and the cost is lower," Chen said. "The standardized AI translation procedure could lead production volume to jump several fold."

While AI might work to a certain extent, whether it can fully replace human translators is still up for debate. But more importantly, Webnovel is looking to recruit more writers to produce directly in English, a move the company perceived could mean a much bigger author pool and reader base.

ALSO READ: Online videos, digital reading big business amid self-isolation

Some 200,000 novels have been uploaded by foreign writers in the past three years, including both amateur authors and laymen keen on writing.

In Thailand, where dialects may vary, Webnovel collaborates with local reading platform Ookbee to help localize and distribute works.

But the latest such frontier is North America, where writing in English is the default. Chen said the company is looking to double the number of its North American writers to 100,000 this year.

"We aim to target existing content curators, who either have written literary works in their spare time, or are themselves film and television script writers, or even who have interest in writing but have not yet started," said Chen. "We hope to grow this fiction-based web app into the largest such community in North America and provide writers a reliable platform with financial rewards."

Webnovel's renewed ambition comes as the number of overseas readers of Chinese web fiction is forecast to grow from 32 million in 2019 to 49 million this year, according to market consultancy iResearch.

To realize such a goal, the company recently launched its writing contest-Webnovel Spirity Awards 2021-targeting North America. The competition will run throughout the year to encourage creative online literature originals in English.

Winners will receive cash prizes of up to US$20,000, as well as advertising resources to present their works on Times Square jumbo outdoor screens in New York.

English-language literature is being prioritized given the extensive coverage of readers, and the COVID-19 pandemic has also caused a surge in remote working opportunities, potentially sparking enthusiasm for writers, Chen said.

"We are also eyeing to leverage China Literature's domestic experience, which incubates original IPs and adapts them to a range of digital entertainment mediums, such as movies, TV series, animation and games," she added.

For instance, the award-winning stories from the Webnovel Spirity Awards will also have the opportunity for further commercial development such as adaptation to other entertainment production formats including film and TV dramas, in cooperation with Tencent Pictures.

READ MORE: China Literature sees Tencent boosting cross-media presence

"While a lot of the works might not correlate to China directly, you get to see a number of conspicuous Chinese elements like pandas or high-speed railways," she said. "We are proud to be engaged in a business that helps take Chinese culture overseas."

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