Talking to the Banyan Tree
By Eric Abrahamsen, published
Following up on the announcement a few weeks ago of the re-opening of the Banyan Tree, China's first influential literary website, this is a short Q&A with Wang Xiaoshan and Yang Yong, Editor in Chief and Managing Editor, respectively, of the new Banyan Tree, the most recent acquisition of Shanda Literature Limited, which is in turn a part of Shanda Interactive Entertainment Limited, an online gaming, literature and music empire that has an eye on most of the prime digital real estate in China. The Banyan Tree, which first opened in 1997, has languished over the past four or five years, but Shanda is intent on breathing new life into the old brand.
Why did Shanda buy the Banyan Tree, instead of just starting a new literary website?
Wang Xiaoshan: I think they were looking at the Banyan Tree's brand. That site started 12… 13 years ago now, Christmas of 1997. Back then it was a personal website, but as it grew it fostered a lot of great authors and scriptwriters. So even though it's traded hands several times in the past few years, it's brand and its image is still there. This way, it's big news from the very beginning.
Yang Yong: A lot of literary youth still have an emotional attachment to the site, as well.
WX: Every day, more old users return to the new site. Of course, the most famous ones, Annie Baby or Ning Caishen, probably won't come back. But others, like Chen Cun, have come back and are working as moderators.
YY: The night of December 24, just before we were about to go live, a whole bunch of old users were just waiting for the site to open. By a little past midnight our servers couldn't handle the traffic, and our IT people had to stay up all night keeping it running.
In what ways does the new Banyan Tree uphold the personality of the old Banyan tree?
WX: Serious literature, realist literature, writing that is new and smart. Most other literary websites are a little too… Lord of the Rings. We're still pure literary fiction.
As editors, what can you do to guide or control the style of the site?
WX: Well, if someone writes another Lord of the Rings, we can simply not recommend it. If you look at the front page of the site, it's all features and recommendations, including editors' recommendations.
YY: We allow anyone to post anything on the site, there's no barrier to entry, but in order to get noticed and read, you'll have to attract the attention of the editors. We pick works that appeal to our tastes, so that's how we control the character of the site. Of course, readers can also recommend other readers' works, as well. There are features sections, collections sections, lists of most-read and most-commented works, all that.
What sort of users are you hoping will register?
WX: Urban youth, male and female; people with a love for literature. I'd say an age group from teenagers to 30-somethings; people past 30 don't usually like these kinds of sites.
Do you have any channels for traditional publishing?
WX: This is one of our main strengths. Our primary job here is copyright handling. Shanda itself owns two publishing companies, which is an advantage, but if those companies aren't appropriate then we'll sell the rights to other publishing houses.
YY: We aim to be an open platform for marketing rights. That includes our competitions – in the past the Banyan Tree has put on three big literary competitions, now we're starting the fourth.
WX: It's the Fourth Original Literature Competition… sorry, the Fourth Original Literature Exhibition. You can't call it a competition, if you call it a competition you have to go through the Central Propaganda Department, so it's an "exhibition". It was announced January 4th, and it will close in June. The grand prize is 320,000 yuan, and there are a couple of smaller prizes, 5,000 yuan.
YY: We'll have a panel of judges, but the final results will incorporate both the judges' opinions and readers' votes. The winners will have a chance to get published, but that will be independent of the cash prizes.
Will the Banyan Tree, like other literary websites, charge to read literature?
WX: We aren't presently considering charging readers to read the works. It will be open for now, while we try to make it the best we can, and will think about all that later.
Part of the reason the Banyan Tree was so popular in its day was that it was so hard to get published by traditional means. Now, when there are more publication options open to writers, do you think that will affect the quality of writers you can attract?
WX: Could be… that definitely could be. But actually things haven't changed all that much in the past ten years, it's still pretty hard to get published through traditional means. Also, we're a good way of reaching those traditional publishers – writers can start on our site, and then get picked up by a publishing house. Writers always want as many people as possible to read their work, right?
YY: And it's still got the same advantages that it did ten years ago. It's non-governmental, its edited by individuals. I used to post fiction on the Banyan Tree. When I was writing in 2000, there was no better place, either for me or other literary enthusiasts of my generation, to post fiction. Not only because we had no other choice, but also because of the character of the place. Ten years later there are a lot more websites where you can write fiction, but I would still pick the Banyan Tree.
WX: We're aimed at the traditional publishers right from the start. We're not like other literary websites where people write these endless fantasy epics, that would take up a whole shelf on a bookcase if you published them. The works on our site are aimed at traditional publishing right from the start: there are short stories, essays, and full novels that are an appropriate length for a published book.
So you're not thinking about cell-phone literature, that sort of thing?
WX: We're thinking about it, but that would be a separate thing.
How do you see the Banyan Tree developing in the future?
WX: First we just want to do a good job with what we've got on hand. Revive and rebuild the brand… then we'll think about the future. I think most people would have a hard time thinking of a way to make a lot of money off literary fiction!
YY: We've got pretty high hopes for the copyright trade part of our business, representing Banyan Tree authors to publishing houses.
WX: Right, but even there most of the money goes back to the writers. I think our main goal is fostering a group of excellent writers. That will be the foundation, and we'll worry about making money later.