Internet Literature: Wang Lei
By Eric Abrahamsen, published
Wang Lei (王蕾) has been working in the editorial department of the Shanghai Century Publishing House since January of 2003. Shanghai Century has involved itself in internet-related books since 2003, and Wang’s responsibilities include planning and editing internet-related publishing projects.
Shanghai Century Publishing first became associated with internet publishing in 2003, when it put out 毕业那天我们一起失恋 (roughly, Our Hearts Were Broken the Day We Graduated), a book which was originally posted in installments on the internet. “That was the first year that the internet really became a publishing phenomenon,” recalls Wang Lei. “We had been watching the internet for quite a while before that, but that was the first book that was published and marketed as ‘internet literature’. It did quite well, selling 300,000 copies, much better than we had expected.”
In 2005 Shanghai Century expanded into books derived from blogs run by well-known personalities. The flagship publication was Wang Xiaofeng’s 不许联想 (bùxǔliánxiǎng), taken from his blog of the same name. Wang, a music critic for Sanlian Life Weekly magazine, has become a minor celebrity for his daring, acerbic social commentary. “We helped him pick certain articles and group them accordingly, but other than that we didn’t alter or edit his writing,” says Wang Lei. She believes that readers will treat the experience of reading the book differently than the experience of reading the blog online, and says the publishing house is “satisfied” with sales of this and other blog-derived books.
Most recently, Shanghai Century has begun cooperation with the Heilan literary website (see this earlier interview). In 2007 Shanghai Century published five works of fiction taken from the Heilan site, and will begin sponsoring the website’s yearly literary competition with a prize purse of 10,000 yuan.
Challenges and Opportunities
Asked about a traditional publishing house’s relationship to the internet, Wang Lei is quite positive. “Internet literature simply hasn’t developed to the point of being a threat to publishers,” she says. “I’m not sure it ever will. Those who buy books will always buy books. Furthermore, all this material online is getting more and more people reading, and that can only be good for the book business. In 2007 the number of books sold in China increased by 10% – business is not going badly.”
“Traditional publishing houses might not understand or accept the internet,” she continues, “but it can provide many opportunities.” Wang Lei views sites such as Heilan as an excellent source of material, and believes that the online literature movement as a whole has created vast new resources for publishing houses. “Part of the motivation for our relationship with Heilan is that it allows us to develop new writers; to watch them, encourage them, and when the time is right, publish them.”
“The internet is also an important tool for marketing,” says Wang Lei. “We work very closely with online booksellers, in particular: Dangdang, Zhuoyue (Amazon’s China arm), and so on.”
The Importance of Brand
“Obviously there’s no shortage of poor-quality genre fiction on the internet,” says Wang Lei. “We have to be very careful about picking and choosing what we want to have associated with our name. Some publishing businesses associated with the internet are simply there for profit: publish whatever got the highest click-rates on the sites, and hope the paper book sells, as well. We have a very clear idea about the quality of writing that Shanghai Century is putting out, and so we’re careful about what we pick to publish.”
“What it comes down to,” she continues, “is that we don’t publish material as internet material, simply because it came from the internet. The internet literature fad is more or less over. We pick books because they fit with our publishing persona; we work with Heilan because we feel they have good quality material, that’s all.”
As for the future, Shanghai Century will continue as before, with the possible addition of digital publishing. “Right now we have some digital-only editions of textbooks and professional manuals. It’s likely that that business will expand, though it will be done by another branch of our parent conglomerate; I don’t think we’ll be moving in that direction.”