China’s Book Market: A 2019 Update From the OpenBook Beijing Conference

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

As online retailers captured some 70 percent of sales in the Chinese book market, researchers say 2019 saw a downturn of almost 7 percent in the publication of new titles.

Chinese book market data presented at OpenBook Reading X conference

At the 2020 OpenBook ‘Reading X’ Conference in Beijing. Image: OpenBook Beijing

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

Book Prices Up, Bookstores’ Share Down
The annual OpenBook ‘Reading X’ Conference held earlier this month in Beijing was themed “Exploring the Future of the Book and Publishing Market,” and placed its emphasis on how technological advances such as artificial intelligence and the rollout of fifth generation wireless technology for digital cellular networks (5G) may relate to the publishing industry.

As usual, the key interest for our purposes is quantitative information offered by speakers at the conference that help offer some insights into the Chinese book market.

The top-line data points this year:

In 2019, OpenBook reports that the Chinese book market reached a 14.4-percent rate of growth over the previous year.

Based on units sold at list price—that is to say, excluding discounted pricing—OpenBook’s valuation of the market as a whole for 2019 comes in at 102.27 billion yuan (US14.9 billion).

Image: OpenBook Beijing

Of course, 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.

Online Sales Double Those of Physical Bookstores

As in many other world book markets, the move from traditional bookstores to online retail continued and sped up a bit.

Online bookselling in 2019, OpenBook reports, accounted for some 24.9 percent of sales, which represents a small increase over 2018, reaching 71.51 billion yuan (US$10.4 billion). By contrast, the research indicates that a decline of 4.24 percent was experienced by physical bookstores, sales from them coming in at 30.76 yuan  (US$4.5 billion).

Image: OpenBook Beijing

Trends: Fewer New Titles, Book Prices Rising

Among key trends, OpenBook reports that it saw a reduction in the number of new titles produced in 2019.

The overall output of Chinese-published titles was tracked by the company at 194,000, which represents a decrease in new releases of 6.7 percent from the previous year.

The company’s assessment of what this means for the Chinese book market has to do with a shift in publishers’ focus, from high quantity to higher quality and support of for a fewer number of titles—a concept that seems to be finding greater traction in some parts of the West’s markets, as well, particularly as rights sales gain in importance for revenue alongside consumer sales.

Image: OpenBook Beijing

The OpenBook Conference audience was also updated on the company’s tracking of book prices in China.

Those prices continued to rise in 2019, OpenBook says, and at a “steady rate” from previous years. The median price of a book went up from 40 yuan in 2018 (US$5.83) to 45 yuan (US$6.56) in 2019.

Image: OpenBook Beijing

A Key Factor: Discounting Online

OpenBook reports that in 2019, discounting in online book retail continued to accelerate, average discounts ranging from 38 to 41 percent. Those discounts, they note, are made by publishers, not by the sales platforms.

By comparison, discounts offered in physical bookstores appear to have averaged only 11 percent, and this, of course, is seen as a driver behind the growing shift in commerce from terrestrial bookstores to online outlets.

An interesting viewpoint is offered in terms of where some of the main discounts are being observed.

  • Self-help books, for example, which are very popular with Chinese consumers—as readers of our China bestseller stories know—are sold at some of the deepest discounts in the Chinese book market, up to 60 percent off list price.
  • By comparison, children’s books, academic books, and cultural titles tend to be discounted between 40 and 50 percent.
  • Natural science books, along with a broad mix of literature, study aids, biography, language books, medical titles, and business books are discounted at 30 to 40 percent.
  • And engineering and technology titles, including computer and law books, tend to receive smaller discounts, around 30 percent.

Image: OpenBook Beijing

As you may recall, the balanced tipped in favor of online book sales in 2016 in China, more titles being sold through Internet retail than in physical bookstores.

In 2019, OpenBook says, online bookstore channels had captured 70 percent of the total market’s retail, the emphasis being in bestsellers and long-running favored titles, of course.

Speakers and Topics

Xiaohui Feng, manager of OpenBook Beijing’s research division, leads the 2019 report at this month’s OpenBook ‘Reading X’ Conference. Image: Beijing Openbook

Some of the conference’s key publishing-sector speakers and their talking points included:

  • Shulin Wu, deputy director general of the Publishers Association of China, on the views of the organization
  • Min Wang, president of Anhui Publishing Group, on the group’s strategy of enhancing quality over quantity
  • Jianzhong Xu, chief editor of Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press on the company’s specialization in education products and international operations in at least 11 non-Chinese markets
  • Jiawei Gu, co-founder and CEO of Ling, a technology company focused on AI technology in educational products, on Luka, an AI development in illustration and comic books
  • Hongbin Zhai, president of Guomai Cultural, on challenges in the current industry conditions—reaching target readers, lack of data support, and branding and IP
  • Zhiying Zhou, founder of MXR Software Technology, specializing in augmented reality (AR)  and methods of knowledge dissemination
  • Hong Chen, general manager of Beijing Duyu Culture and Technology, data and algorithmic support in marketing and distribution
  • Lei Yang, vice-president of Beijing OpenBook, on the use and interpretation of data to boost productivity—the research firm plans to bring in new analysis relative to where data interpretation and usage is evaluating performance

In our upcoming report on December’s bestsellers in the Chinese market, we’ll have new updates and insights from OpenBook on some of the best-performing titles of 2019.

More from Publishing Perspectives on OpenBook is here and on the Chinese market is here. OpenBook’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.