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How Freemium Self-published Fiction Is Taking Over China

With 195 million readers, freemium fiction in China is transforming authors and companies into internet superstars.

Editorial by Helen Sun, Publishing Technology China

Helen Sun of Publishing Technology China

BEIJING: Here in China, nearly 195 million people are hooked on a kind of literature that is virtually unknown in the West, but that is rapidly transforming its authors and a new breed of online media companies into the publishing stars of the future. Web literature or “original fiction” as it’s called in China is a new form of serial literature which theoretically allows anyone to become a best-selling author.

The system works through a growing number of self-publishing websites that host thousands of constantly evolving, free-to-read stories posted on the sites by their authors. These websites are incredibly popular with consumers, attracting over 40% of all China’s internet users every month, who come to read web serials that can be anything from realistic novels to historical epics, comics, sci-fi and fantasy.

The ingenious part of this publishing model comes in when an individual author’s serial gathers a critical mass of readers. At this point the self-publishing site invites the author to become a VIP, and their serial moves to a different section of the site where readers can sample some chapters of their work for free, but have to pay if they want to read the latest installments.

The amount of money individual readers pay for original fiction is very low, with prices beginning at around 2-3 Yuan (about 20p or 30 cents) per 100,000 words. But with millions of people clamoring to find out what’s next in their new favorite story, it can be very lucrative enterprise for authors. A recent article in The China Daily, for example, claimed that Huang Wei, a popular original fiction writer, can earn 1 million Yuan (about £100,000 or $152,500) from writing, making him five times better paid than the average college graduate who’s most likely to be hooked on his serials.

Shanda Literature's Bambook

Selling editorial isn’t the only way to make money out of original fiction. Serials such as Summer’s Desire, My Belle Boss and Legend of Immortal have already been transformed into TV programs and even video games. This reflects both their enormous, crossover appeal and the fact Shanda Literature, China’s most popular original fiction site, is part of the country’s biggest online gaming company and therefore understands the nature and opportunities of the web better than most established publishers. For instance, Shanda’s e-reader, the Bambook, which it launched in July 2010 managed to capture more than 10% of the Chinese e-reader market in less than six months.

For publishers in the West who are worried about how they can secure e-book revenues while avoiding the piracy trap into which other media have fallen, original fiction offers an intriguing alternative model as to how to run a successful publishing business. This is a freemium fiction publishing industry funded by micropayments, where print barely exists and the product itself is constantly evolving instead of taking the form of “finished” books. It couldn’t be any more different to the western model of publishing, but the paying public here seems to like it that way.

Shanda estimates that 45% of its 70 million unique monthly visitors are willing to pay for original fiction, and that this figure will rise in line with adoption of the mobile web (The China Daily’s report says that China Mobile expects to make 1 billion Yuan from original fiction alone in 2011). At the anecdotal level, evidence suggests that individual readers don’t mind paying a relatively small amount of money to find out what happens next in their favorite stories. And as a reader of original fiction myself I know I don’t!

Helen Sun regularly writes on the subject of publishing in China at http://blog.publishingtechnology.com.

DISCUSS: Will the Freemium Fiction Publishing Model Work in the West?

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  1. Posted November 1, 2011 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    It is interesting to read how Helen describes the business model of my company, Cloudary Corporation (with the former English name as Shanda Literature). I would love to hear comments on the suggsted discussing question as well.

    One more fact I would like to share with the readers interested in the topic is: quite a lot of contents generated this way on our websites are very suitable for adaptation into Movie, TV series and games. The reason is the writers have to try hard to make the plots captivating in order to keep and grow the readership. Otherwise, the readers would drift away to other more interesting novels. As a result, my company is doing great in marketing the adaptation rights for our writers. The beauty of the model is: you can get contents at minimum cost and you can then build a complete publishing line based upon it.

  2. Posted November 1, 2011 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    In the West, many independent (‘indie’) authors are frustrated with the opposition they encounter with the traditional publishing model, and the considerable negative comments they find on Amazon forums, even helping buyers to filter out ‘indie’ publications.

    Helen: From what I can see in your article, the freemium model in China is a fantastic way for new authors to get a platform; however, they still have to compete and promote to actually get followers.

    Lisa: How do your authors get noticed by the reading public? Good luck to your company and its model.


  3. Posted November 1, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    It would be interesting if the concept took off over here in the West, not least because it would give people who self publish a viable platform from which to promote their work. Whether the audience would be as receptive is another matter, but hopefully it will be put to the test as or when someone initiates it.

  4. Posted November 1, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting model. What I’m missing is how many authors are on this platform? Does somebody police it – I mean select authors or drop them if they don’t develop a following?

    Freemium sounds like an extreme form of the 99 cents model developed by Indies on Amazon et al., most famously by Amanda Hocking, John Locke and Konrath. These authors have series (or trilogies) at a low price that is really damn close to being free (at least in the West: 99 cents cannot really scare anyone away – I know a lot of my friends who are professional writers constantly worry about offering free books but I have yet to see that reflected in sales).

    What is interesting is the idea to start charging once the series has caught on – again this is a parallel to the loss leader idea: charge 99 cents for your first book in the series (or make it free) then raise the price for all the subsequent books. Except here it’s tougher: prices don’t get raised until and before you have an actual following. Very clever at marketing, our Chinese friends!

    As to the other aspect – the idea that you read in installments – well, that’s an old idea isn’t it? Used to be done in the 19th century in the newspapers. Again, what exactly is an “installment”? To what extent is it self-standing? I imagine much depends on the ending, whether it’s an effective cliff-hanger or not. But then, if as a reader you fall in love with the protagonist and want to know what happens to him/her next in another episode, you don’t need a cliff hanger, do you? And you’re right back to the Western concept of a “series”. So I think we’re getting into semantics here and I’ll stick to my original reading of the freemium idea: it’s very close to what we call “series” priced at 99 cents for the initial book (or episode)…

  5. Thilal (from Sri Lanka)
    Posted November 1, 2011 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    I would like to know how we could promote freemium in Sri Lanka. Is the content in English of Chinese? Could someone send me more info? Thanks

  6. Posted November 2, 2011 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Thanks for all your interest in our model.

    There are a lot of questions here. I will answer one by one. Somehow, it is already after working hours in Beijing, 6:45 pm now, I am afraid I am not able to give answers to all of your questions. I will answer James’ question today and others’ tomorrow and during the following days.

    1. How do your authors get noticed by the reading public?

    They write while also read the works by other writers. They comment on each other’s works. In the comments, they invite other writers to come and read his/her work to give comments. So it is a very active online community with millions of people there reading, writing and commenting. To get the attention of the public, your works must be interesting. You must be active in the online communities to develop your funs. Your life is in your own hands. To be noticed by others, you must make yourself noticed by others by communicating with them.

    Our editors also act like the “star detectives”. They browse all the online communities. Once they have noticed any good works, they help to promote the works. There are various ways of promotion.

    For the real superior ones, we sign the contracts with the writers for the full rights. We market their copyrights into print books, movie, TV programs, games, etc. The writers reaching this level become a public figure.

  7. Posted November 2, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    “In the West, many independent (‘indie’) authors are frustrated with the opposition they encounter with the traditional publishing model, and the considerable negative comments they find on Amazon forums, even helping buyers to filter out ‘indie’ publications.” (James, above)

    Congratulations to “Publishing Perspectives” on running this very informative article, and to its author Helen Sun.

    That said, let’s not fool ourselves. The traditional publishing model in the West has indeed frustrated many, many good authors. But Cloudary is a China media business like any other, and therefore doubtless uses software and human eyeballs to censor its content. It would be foolish to assume that it allows writers to upload any and all sorts of writing, particularly writing which focuses on sensitive social and political issues; if it did so, it would risk being closed down by the government.

    I look forward to more in-depth coverage of how Cloudary censors its content, and what this means for the creation and distribution of new Chinese writing. Cloudary’s practices are very important to “independent” Chinese writers — it and its affiliates claim to own something like 90 percent of “Freemium” content and their platforms in the Chinese-speaking world.

    Bruce Humes
    Ethnic ChinaLit

  8. Posted November 3, 2011 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    Shaun, thank you for the comment. Maybe I should suggest to my management that they should give the model a try in some Western country. :)

    Hi Claude, you raised quite a few good questions. Let me try to answer :)

    1. how many authors are on this platform?
    The information I have got is as follows: by the end of June 2011, 1.4 million writers have been writing on our platforms. They have created 5.4 million titles. Some 58 million Chinese characters are uploaded to the websites for the updated reading everyday on an average by the writers. You can take one Chinese character as one word.

    2. Does somebody police it – I mean select authors or drop them if they don’t develop a following?
    No. It is an open platform. Somehow, there are titles that the authors stopped writing by themselves for whatever reason. We even have a term for this kind of works: an eunuch title. Interesting term, isn’t it? :)

    3. The difference between 99 cents model and our model.

    a. For 99 cents, it is small but it is still the reader’s money. It is a risk on the reader’s side to spend the 99 cents if they are not sure whether this is the title they want to read. If a reader tries 100 titles and find half of the titles are not what he expects, he loses almost 50 bucks. As to our model, we charge per read at the rate of 3 Chinese cents per page, which you can think is more or less equivalent to 1000 words. If a reader finds a title is not what he would like to read, his loss is only 3 cents.

    b. On the writer’s part: You can only sell at 99 cents when you have finished the complete book. While in our model, you can start to sell any time when you have attracted a large enough readership. And you don’t have to finish as long as you keep the readers. That is why a lot of our popular titles easily last for millions of words.

    c. The daily updating of the works on our platforms helps to build a close writer-reader relationship. The readers of our authors on the platforms are called “funs” instead of “readers” of the authors. This gives the writers a lot of encouragement and also nurtures a kind of commitment from the writers to their readers.

    4. Increase the price later. This does not happen to us. We keep the beginning of all titles free to let the works tested by the market. Once we start to charge, we don’t increase the price. That is why we can attract so many readers.

    Now I have to leave. More answers to Claude’s question would come next Tuesday, if I can find the time :) I will be away for 4 days.



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