China’s OpenBook ‘Reading X’ Conference: New Year, New Models

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Taking the long view on a vast marketplace, this year’s Reading X conference from OpenBook in Beijing focused on reader engagement and content development.

At the 2019 Reading X conference in Beijing. Image: OpenBook

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Value-Added Strategies
Held in Beijing on Wednesday (January 9), the 2019 edition of the annual OpenBook conference called “Reading X” was intended to raise a flag of cheering potential, reflecting what organizers describe as “unlimited possibility in reading books” in the Internet era.

“As content providers and service providers, traditional publishers and distributors are looking for new business models or adapting digital technologies to implement value-added strategies,” conference presenters tell Publishing Perspectives.

“Taking X as an unknown number in a function, it represents unlimited possibility in reading books,” in terms of formats and consumer habits: a range of options and challenges that Western trade publishers know well.

OpenBook is familiar to Publishing Perspectives readers for the series of monthly China bestseller lists and market interpretation it provides. The company is a privately owned, industry data research firm based in Beijing and established in 1998. OpenBook serves a function like that of Nielsen in the UK and NPD in the States, providing point-of-sale data and statistics on the Chinese publishing industry.

As in our partnership with OpenBook’s staffers supplying data and contextualization for those bestseller reports, we have information on several key points of last week’s conference focus in Beijing.

Market Growth Rate: Mild Deceleration

At the 2019 Reading X conference in Beijing. Image: OpenBook

At this year’s iteration of the conference, key speakers included:

  • Zhonghua Zhou, vice president of China Machine Press
  • Shulin Wu, deputy director general of the Publishers Association of China
  • Min Wang, president of Anhui Publishing Group
  • Cong Wang, general manager of JingDong
  • Xuemei Lai, ceneral manager of China Publishing Group Digital Media
  • Haobo Shen, founder of Beijing XIRON Publishing
  • Rong Zhang, senior vice president of YueWen Group
  • James Bryant, CEO of Trajectory and president of OpenBook’s international division
  • Xiaohui Feng, manager of research, Beijing OpenBook
  • Lei Yang, vice president of OpenBook

Jiang Yanping

Attendees of The Markets conference at the Frankfurter Buchmesse in October will remember the presentation from OpenBook CEO Jiang Yanping. In her talk, Jiang indicated that in the first half of 2018, OpenBook had tracked the release of some 96,900 new titles. This was down slightly (2.16 percent) from new-title release volumes in 2017, reflecting a trend the company has seen over recent years’ reports.

In 2017 overall, OpenBook cited a total 204,000 new trade books released in China—and in 2018, it was announced at last week’s conference, that number is 156,000. This is why OpenBook’s messaging on the size and dynamics of the Chinese market talks of a slowing in growth, but no loss of position as a power player on the international stage because of the market’s vast reach.

And as Jiang described it, the publishers of China’s market have become sharply focused on developing new direct relationships between themselves and readers, using apps that feature their authors; their own retail outlets, both online and physical; and online education platforms to offer associated content and access to authors.

Developing Properties: XIRON

Haobo Shen, the founder of China’s XIRON Publishing Company, speaks at the 2019 Reading X conference in Beijing. Image: OpenBook

At last week’s Reading X conference, XIRON’S Haobo Shen picked up on this topic of reader engagement, speaking of creating a “whole industry chain” in China that runs from content creation (book development) to comics and film production (see our article on film adaptation from Friday).

It’s interesting to note that Haobo spoke of public domain work being useful for such development in many cases. Western publishers may also see the potential of public domain works as annual releases of content into the public domain have just resumed in the States after a a 20-year legislative hiatus.

Haobo maintains that good content is in short supply for an entertainment industry the size of China’s, making the publishing industry’s output attractive for development.

OpenBook’s data suggests that in 2018, there were as many as 1.78 million titles on sale in China, and much of XIRON’s focus, Haobo says, lies in film tie-ins and graphic development of leading books.

The Social Factor: WeChat Reading

Rong Zhang of the YueWen Group talks about WeChat Reading in China at the 2019 Reading X conference. Image: OpenBook

With more than 5 million daily active users, the YueWen Group’s WeChat Reading app has an aggregate base of registered consumers numbering 180 million.

Rong Zhang’s message to the Reading X conference was that a key to his company’s success is a parsing of user interest into myriad demographically driven reading platform brands.

Each medium under the WeChat umbrella, then, may be facing a distinct segment of the overall base, but it’s doing two key things that seem to have the most promise, Rong said: displaying friends’ reading lists and commentary about book discoveries (much as Goodreads does, for example) and ranking readers by hours spent reading, for display to friends on the system–friendly competition stimulates reading habits.

Promoting books through reader activity—for example, having users display photos of their books in WeChat groups—also helps to drive discoverability, Rong said, and to generate personalized community for users on the system.

Business in China: ‘Competitive, Cooperative’

James Bryant speaks at the 2018 Reading X conference in Beijing. Image: OpenBook

James Bryant, familiar to many in the States for his work with the international ebook distribution company Trajectory in Marblehead, Massachusetts near Boston, has taken a role with OpenBook as its president for international business development.

In speaking to the Reading X conference last week, he echoed Rong’s stress on discoverability of titles and overall ability to attract consumer attention in a crowded entertainment marketplace.

“As overall book sales are slowing globally,” Bryant told the conference, “new models of distribution are emerging, many involving subscription programs that give consumers access to vast digital libraries of music, film, ebooks, and audiobooks for small recurring fees.”

Bryant tells Publishing Perspectives that the Chinese market is undergoing a kind of counterpoint development to that of markets in the West, with physical bookstores building traffic through innovative promotions while online retail capitalizes on extremely fast delivery of books and other products.

User loyalty in digital formats is being cultivated, he says, by online book clubs that specialize in revealing the reading patterns—and even comments on books made in the digital space—by business partners and acquaintances.

In a culture in which the “9-9-6” average sees the Chinese workforce on the job from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days per week, fast growth in publishing, Bryant says, signals a kind of commerce-driven renaissance.

“Many companies,” Bryant tells Publishing Perspectives, “are offering their employees a free bus ride home if they work until 7 p.m., and free dinner for employees who stay to 8 p.m., and a free taxi for those who stay past 9 p.m.,  and fruit and more meals for those who make it to 10 p.m.

“In practice, most people in tech work even longer,” he says. “Everyone I know in publishing here in Beijing is generally available 7-11-7 via WeChat,” meaning 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days per week.

“The official work time is 9-6-5 [9 a.m. to 6 p.m., five days per week], including a one hour break.

“Whereas the European Renaissance was created against the backdrop of Christianity,” Bryant says, “the Chinese renaissance is being well funded with targeted government programs to further the development of sciences and the arts as reflected here in the unprecedented growth in publishing industry over the past 20 years.”

Strong company management has been a key driver, he says, as has the economic dynamic, of course.

The Chinese market, Bryant says, is “simultaneously intensely competitive and politely cooperative.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on OpenBook is here and on the Chinese market is here.
Trajectory’s Rainy Liu contributed informational support for this article.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.