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.”


# 1.   

" 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. ” (Wang Lei, above)

Not surprising to learn that Shanghai Century is "careful" about what it chooses to publish; one would expect a restaurant to be careful about the food it serves, and so forth.

What interests me, however, is HOW Shanghai Century goes about choosing quality literature, and then how it packages it for consumption in a paid-for format, i.e., hard-copy. The former task is a particularly challenging task in the Chinese Internet, because any Xiao Zhang can and does put his/her classic up online, so the amount of text to sift through must be gargantuan.

Please ask Ms. Wang:

* Does her firm have any full- or part-time staff devoted to "sourcing" potential hard-copy books from online writing, i.e., an online literary scout?

* Editing blogs for publication in hard-copy form: She says that in the case of Wang Xiao-Feng's writing, "we didn’t alter or edit his writing.” Assuming that his blog was not edited before it went public, this means Shanghai Century's book edition features virtually unedited material. Does Shanghai Century truly believe that people who pay, say RMB25-75 for a book, want to read unedited copy?

Bruce Humes

Bruce Humes, February 5, 2008, 11:29p.m.

# 2.   

I'd be interested in learning how online work is filtered, too. The entire internet makes for quite a daunting slush pile.

As for Wang Xiaofeng, they apparently attempted to edit him, but he insisted on preserving the little idiosyncracies make up his blogging style - stuff like writing MSN as SMN, for example. He wrote about his experiences with editors here (from 2006).

The book went into multiple printings, so there's an audience for unedited copy (at least when what's being sold is a name rather than the text itself. I'd imagine that more editorial guidance goes into fiction, or writing by people who aren't Man of the Year-type Internet celebs).

JoelD, February 6, 2008, 11:59p.m.

# 3.   

I think by saying Shanghai Century was 'careful', she was trying to distinguish them from other publishing houses that just try to snap up whatever they think will be profitable, without considering literary merit or the publishing house's overall zeitgeist.

This whole conversation was a little frustrating, because she knew her way around an interview and gave a lot of generic answers that I could have made up myself. I do know that it's just her and one other person acting as literary scouts, though I think everyone at the publishing house keeps their ears open. On another occasion, I heard someone at Shanghai Century say that it was a real pain to go sifting through the online slush pile, and they usually waited for material to float to the top of its own accord, in one way or another.

That's a good link, Joel. Wang Lei told me that all they did was rearrange the articles into cohesive order. Wang Xiaofeng was complaining about relatively minor textual edits. The thing I was interested in was whether the book underwent any major edits for content or style, and the answer was no.

So then I asked exactly that question – why would people plunk down cash for something they could get for free online – and her answer was, "they are". Who knows? How does the New York Times survive when it gives its content away for free? It's not just a blog-book issue, but one related to a great deal of online content. I find it kind of reassuring, in a way, that there is still a considerable public willingness to pay for a more permanent version of something they could have for free, digitally.

Maybe it's the sense of ownership? Another definite trend I've seen in the course of all this is that everyone – readers, writers and publishers – take a piece of writing more seriously when it's printed on paper. The medium has a very concrete influence on the content, and I think that's an import thing to note.

Eric Abrahamsen, February 13, 2008, 2:36a.m.

# 4.   

I appreciate you getting back to me about the interview with Wang Lei. I don't blame you, the interviewer, for her mealy mouthed answers; but I'm surprised you take it upon yourself to answer in her place!

One way around that is to publish these little gems in strict Q & A fashion. That way we can see where the questions were sharp but the answers much less so (e.g., 答非所问).

It is interesting to note that the Chinese public takes hard copy more seriously than blogtalk. But in the PRC, it goes one step further: If you can be published FIRST in English, you are taken even more seriously once your Chinese original hits the shelves.

Thanks for your creative approach, Eric, and looking forward to more profiles.

Bruce Humes, February 13, 2008, 7:50a.m.

# 5.   

Internet Literature: Wang Lei, sounds interesting in this web centric world. The article coverd all the challenges behind the book publishing over internet. Good work Eric Abrahamsen!!! Keep posting.

Preethi, May 31, 2008, 3:57a.m.


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