Internet Literature: Lu Jinbo
By Eric Abrahamsen, published February 23, 2008, 3:50p.m.
Lu Jinbo (路金波) is one of the major publishers associated with internet literature and the new generation of youth writing. He began his career as a writer, under the pen-name Li Xunhuan (李寻欢), and along with Annie Baby (安妮宝贝) and Ning Caishen (宁财神) was one of the "three chariots" (三辆马车) of Rongshuxia.
By 2002 he began thinking of leaving writing behind, and moved to the Rongshu Culture Company, which became a part of Bertelsmann in that year. Since then he has become something of a minor celebrity in the publishing world, publishing the flashiest writes, giving the biggest advances, and generally breaking all the rules. The biggest names on his list are Wang Shuo, Han Han, Guo Jingming and Annie Baby, though he has a hand in plenty of other profitable publishing ventures. For further background, see Danwei's translation of an interview with him.
Internet Literature as Concept
Lu Jinbo, under the name Li Xunhuan, was one of the earliest writers to gain recognition on the internet. This was in the late 90s, before internet literature became something of a fad. "It was just a social activity back then," he recalls. "Some of us wrote about sports, some wrote little stories, some posted pictures; we were just entertaining ourselves." The concept of internet literature became fashionable around 2000, and for the next two years was all the rage. "But by 2002 it had become passe. Many of the first wave of internet writers stopped writing online and went to work at newspapers and magazines."
Following the swelling and bursting of the internet-literature bubble, Lu Jinbo decided that his interests lay more in business than in literature, and that he'd rather be publishing the writing rather than producing it.
The Rongshu Culture Company
Rongshu, where he works now, is not a publishing house in the legal sense, but once the publishing numbers (刊号, kānhào) have been bought, the entire publication process – from editing, printing and distribution – is under their control. The company as a whole is heavily invested in the internet. "About 50% of our content comes from the internet or internet-related writers," says Lu, "compared to about 10-20% for traditional publishers. When it comes to publicity, as well, the internet is an extremely important tool – an advertisement on Sina, for instance, is far more effective than on in a newspaper. Part of that has to do with our target audiences. The majority of them are young, under the age of 30, and those readers pay very little attention to traditional media. Almost everything they do involves the internet."
The Books and Their Readers
Lu identifies two main groups of readers in China today: those born after 1978 or thereabouts, and those who are already retired. "The people in the middle are too busy with other things – work, playing the stock market, disposing of their leisure time – to want to read. We don't spent much time worrying about them." Rongshu is therefore aiming at a few distinct markets. For the under-20 set, there are reams and reams of romance and young adult fiction. Rongshu is savvy in its marketing, creating online tie-ins for new books, and packaging them with stickers or even music CDs as added enticements. Readers in their twenties tend to gravitate towards celebrity writers like Han Han, Guo Jingming, Annie Baby and Wang Shuo. Finally Rongshu publishes humanities-related books that might appeal to retired readers – Yu Dan (于丹) or Yi Zhongtian (易中天), for example, writing books about Confucianism or Chinese history and culture for popular consumption.
Rongshu has made a few ventures into blog-related book publishing, most notably a book based on Muzimei's blog (an online 'sex diary'), which was recalled and destroyed by the government in 2003. Since then they've mostly steered clear of blog-related books, and Lu even recalls telling Han Han not to publish materials from his own very popular blog, since it would "weaken his brand".
Rongshu's publishing strategy is far more tightly targeted to readers than most publishing houses, but Lu doesn't see much difficulty in maintaining this model as Chinese society continues to change. "As far as keeping up with younger readers go," he says, "we've got plenty of people in their early twenties on staff here, and I'm not so old myself! Plus, the nature of genre fiction changes little if at all. Some adjustments will have to be made as people now in their late twenties enter their thirties; there will be a new class of people with more leisure time, and a habit of reading. Women who stay at home, for instance – many have college educations and more spending money. They will start wanting new kinds of material.
"But overall, tastes will stay mostly the same. China now isn't changing like it has been over the past few decades – the differences between 1975, 1985 and 1995 were huge. Those days are mostly over; social changes will start coming more slowly."
In some ways Rongshu operates more like a new-economy sales firm than a publishing house. Asked if he saw his role more as catering to or guiding the tastes of readers, Lu responded without hesitation that they were simply catering to readers, and Rongshu takes very little into consideration besides how well a book sells.
This attitude extends to the editing of their published material: "We do very little editing in the sense of negotiating with an author over a book's contents. China doesn't really have a tradition of editing like you do in the west, where publishers might spend six months working on a book. We get it out the door in a couple of weeks. Our principle is that the author is responsible for what he or she has written."
So the sales are the thing; how does Rongshu target its product? "Basically we look at their style, their image, and think about what their potential readership is. We encourage writers to adopt an identity and style, and then stick to it. The readers know what they're getting in that case, and the writer establishes a brand. The worst is when a writer wanders all over the place and writes in many different styles; readers don't have a clear sense of who they are. A big part of our job is determining a writer's identity, simplifying and strengthening that identity, and then getting them to stick to it." Thus Han Han has become the rebellious youth, and Annie Baby is forever sexy and mysterious.
Asked if there were any inherent conflicts between the book as product and the book as work of art, Lu hesitated a bit before answering, "I think a good example here is Annie Baby – she sells exceptionally well, and yet is still considered a highbrow writer. She gets a lot of critical praise."
In terms of the near future, Lu sees two main areas of change coming up. One is new modes of distribution. "New technologies are coming into play. I don't have much faith in digital-reader devices, but the cell phone is going to be an increasingly important tool. There are some gaps, currently – there needs to be a better bridge between content providers and end users. This is something we're thinking about quite a bit. China is currently in transition between 2G and 3G phones, and that will make a big difference. You can look at Japan and see where China's going."
The other is in terms of finding material to publish. "The amount of material online is going to keep growing by leaps and bounds, and we're going to have to come up with new ways of finding content." Asked whether he employs teams of readers to comb the internet, Lu indicates that that wasn't quite what he meant. "We don't go hunting for writing, we go hunting for writers. Like I said, we look for someone with a striking image, and then we simplify and strengthen that image. Once we've got their image established, it hardly matters what they write."