Coronavirus Worklife: China’s Phoenix Publishing on Business Shifts

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

With exports boosted 20 percent thanks to COVID-19 informational titles, Phoenix is weathering delayed publication schedules and adjusted work procedures in its Nanjing headquarters.

Temperature checks at the Phoenix Group’s mega-bookstore in Nanjing. Image: PPMG

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

Evaluating ‘Significant Impact’ on Business, and Life
As we open today’s Coronavirus Worklife interview with Phoenix Publishing & Media editor-in-chief Xu Hai, we start with the context of the current state of COVID-19 statistics in China for context–something we do in reference to each of the nations in our series so that our international publishing industry readership has a sense for the situation on the ground.

China today reports 84,106 confirmed cases and 4,638 deaths, per the 3:32 a.m. ET update (0732 GMT) of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

And as Publishing Perspectives readers will remember, the Phoenix Publishing & Media Group is among China’s largest houses, ranked 12 in the 2019 Global 50 world ranking of the publishing industry, as of October.

The company owns 10 prominent publishing houses, one city newspaper, and many other business interests in China including printing, distribution, logistics operations, film and television production, real estate businesses, and financial management firms. Phoenix is also at the digital publishing with interests in e-commerce, edtech, online reading, and audiobooks. Operational revenue of more than 18.5 billion yuan was recorded for 2019 (US$2.59 billion).

The Long Holiday

Our interview on the effects the coronavirus crisis has had on Phoenix is with Xu Hai, the corporation’s editor-in-chief, who was until recently the managing director of one the imprints under Phoenix, the Jiangsu People’s Publishing House. During his transition from Jiansu, he says, he’s continuing to edit a series of titles he’s commissioned and talking with authors with whom he’s worked over the years.

Xu Hai

Phoenix has more than 8,000 employees in 20 cities of China, he says, and maintains offices in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Chile, Australia, and Singapore. Our headquarters is in Nanjing, in Jiangsu province.

“As editor-in-chief,” he says, “I’m in charge of the editorial commissions across all 10 of the Phoenix publishing houses, as well as our digital publishing brands.” He’s charged with “maximizing the impact of the publications through marketing and sales distribution.”

Xu recalls the peculiar way the outbreak of the virus coincided with national holidays.

“This year,” he says, “the Chinese New Year was on January 25 and we were supposed to go back to work after a one-week holiday. But with the outbreak of COVID-19, going back to work was postponed, firstly by a week and then almost a month.

“Around late February, people went back to work but in a strictly monitored capacity. Your temperature is tested before entering the office building, and everyone is required to wear a mask. The elevators in the office are disinfected very frequently. We all need to wash our hands frequently and keep our social distance. A normal conference room for 20 people, for example, will now only have a maximum of five.

“The official day for everyone to be back at the office was on February 25. I still remember the day clearly. I’d only been at work for five minutes when I received a call from my sister to say that my mother had been taken to the hospital. I left immediately, rushed to the hospital ,and didn’t return to work until the week after she passed away. She didn’t die from COVID-19, but in a way, but I think the way the virus disrupts everyone’s routines had something to do with it. She used to go out for her exercise several times a day but because of the virus she had stopped for safety reasons.

“So COVID-19 is having a significant impact on the world, for me both personally and professionally.”

Key Effects: Digital and Publication Schedules

Waiting for entry to work at Phoenix headquarters in Nanjing. Image: PPMG

Xu points to three key areas in which Phoenix has felt the virus’ impact on business:

  • A heavy focus on online sales because of bookstores being closed in lockdowns
  • Fewer titles published and schedules affected by the lags
  • Difficulty in communications with authors, both in China and abroad

He says the company hasn’t had to lay off anyone, and tells us that business “held up fairly well for the first quarter of the year, despite copyright exports and imports falling by 50 percent in February,” by comparison to February 2019.

“That’s because our imports have been rising by 15 percent each year,” he says, “which has helped to cushion some of the negative effects of the lockdown.

“We published a ‘COVID-19 list’ of books for adults and children on different aspects of understanding and coping with the virus, and these titles are selling well around the world.  Our COVID-19 titles have boosted our exports by 20 percent in the first quarter of this year.”

The Digital Update: 5.12 Million New Users

An event streamed live: a new focus for marketing. Image: PPMG

That move to digital consumption in the marketplace, Xu says, is especially evident in education, as has been seen in many other world markets.

‘Peppa Pig Teaches You How To Speak English,’ a multimedia set. Image: PPMG

“COVID-19 has accelerated learning online ever since the closure of schools in January, with a swift and comprehensive transition to online classes and livestreaming for home learning. Educational publishing is one of our two most important business units—the other being mass market publishing—and digital education brands is a key growth area for us.

“We have a professional online education platform called Xue Ke Wang that follows the national curriculum and specializes in providing educational solutions for digital learning for primary and secondary schools in China.

“During the pandemic, from the end of January to the end of April, the platform made all subscription services free to all schools with online learning and mock exam preparation services. The free teaching content was downloaded 149 million times during that three-month period. The total number of online school collaborations has also grown to 24,278—with 5.12 million new registered users by the end of April.

“Learning English continues to be an important area for us.  Parents and families are turning to online and multimedia titles, and our multimedia set ‘Peppa Pig Teaches You How To Speak English’ is now a bestseller, complete with bilingual picture books, games, animations, songs, and language flashcards. For consumer publishing, our other main business area, our growth strategy has focused on developing our Phoenix Book app, a mass market mobile reading app that offers audiobooks and short courses by subscription.

“Given the transition from physical bookstores to online sales,” Xu says, “we’re also going to launch a new e-commerce platform dedicated to online bookselling. Distribution has always been a strong business unit for Phoenix and this platform will sell not only books published by Phoenix, but also all books published in China.

“We’ve been testing the logistics,” he says, “and I’m excited to say that it’s going to be launched in July.”

Marketing When Online Sales Jump 30 Percent

A staff meeting at Phoneix offices, colleagues distanced for safety. Image: PPMG

“The pandemic has posed some serious challenges and it’s forced us to rely more on online marketing and sales,” Xu says. “During the first quarter in 2020 our online sales grew 30 percent in comparison to the same period last year.

“Online marketing through live streaming has simply become an essential skill for publishers in China.”Xu Hai, Phoenix Publishing & Media

“In China, livestreaming for e-commerce platforms has revolutionized sales and marketing across all categories,” he says, “publishing being no exception.

“When I gave a lecture that was livestreamed,” he says with a laugh, “I found myself referred to as an online influencer.”

As it turns out, Xu is an accomplished speaker, being a lecturer at Nanjing University. “During the peak the pandemic here,” he says, “I was invited by the university and Tencent’s streaming platform Bilibili to speak about ‘Publishing under COVID-19.’ The audience was made up of both university students and the general public. During the talk, and in response to a question from the audience, I recommended various books by historians on global pandemics.

“Those books’ sales,” Xu says, “immediately rocketed!”

As it happens, the Phoenix Group owns a mega-bookstore set up much like a department store—the Phoenix 24-hour Bookstore in Nanjing. “In the two-and-a-half months of the worst of the pandemic,” Xu says, “the bookstore hosted 19 livestreamed events, on average twice a week. Every program lasts between an hour to 90 minutes with direct access to online purchases during the event.

“Online marketing through live streaming,” he says, “has simply become an essential skill for publishers in China.”

Changes Ahead: Consumers’ Reading Habits

A big seller among consumers of classics in the pandemic: ‘Little Women.’ Image: PPMG

Like many publishing leaders in various world markets, Xu says he’s watching for lasting changes in how the readership approaches and uses content.

“Facing the virus makes us think about the relationship between man and nature. I couldn’t agree more with the ancient Chinese philosophy that ‘Heaven and Man are united as one.’”Xu Hai, Phoenix Publishing & Media

“The whole experience of COVID-19,” he says, “has affected people’s values, behaviors, and lifestyles, which I think will lead to changes in people’s reading habits.

“Books that reflect the relationship between humans and nature and environmental issues have become much more popular.  Titles that look at how people have coped in times of disease, such as Camus’ “The Plague,” have sold well.

The lockdown also seems to have prompted readers to seek out poetry and classic literature titles,” he says. “I’m pleased to say that some of our titles, like contemporary poet Gu Cheng and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women are among our top sellers while Straw House by Chinese children’s literature laureate Cao Wenxuan, now ranks among OpenBook’s bestsellers in the first quarter of 2020.

“Facing the virus, sometimes we feel helpless,” Xu says, “and we need to find ways of coping with it. Most importantly, it makes us think about the relationship between man and nature. I couldn’t agree more with the ancient Chinese philosophy that ‘Heaven and Man are united as one.’  There’s currently a lot of interest in philosophy; the English edition of our Chinese bestseller Traditional Chinese Culture by Xu Xiaoyue looks into how past beliefs are shaping modern China. China has experienced huge changes in the last 100 years and is now at a cultural crossroads.

“We’re all equal—and equally vulnerable—before the virus, and it’s so hard to limit the spread of this disease, regardless of who you are and where you come from.

“In a way,” Xu says, “it has become more meaningful to be a publisher at this time, because publishing has always been closely linked to cultural dissemination, heritage, and interest in man and his destiny. After the epidemic, I believe we’ll be more aware of the value and significance of publishing.”

On the Rise: International Networking

A check at the desk on an employee’s health app. Image: PPMG

“Our networks with our peers in China and overseas,” Xu says, “have been important for supporting one another throughout this difficult period. I’ve been in close contact with other publishers in China through WeChat.  I also feel closer to our market in some ways. For example, I received great feedback to my online lecture on COVID-19 and publishing, both in terms of instant messages received during the livestreaming, and also afterwards.

“The epidemic has influenced  people’s values, behaviors and lifestyles, and that will inevitably lead to major changes in people’s reading habits.”Xu Hai, Phoenix Publishing & Media

“We’ve also been encouraged by communication with our international colleagues.  From the president of the Hachette Group and the director of the London Book Fair to the vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, we’ve had best wishes coming in by email, much appreciated.”

Especially with such a large workforce, Xu says, he’s grateful that no positive coronavirus tests have been made among staffers. “not even for the 20 or so people we have from Wuhan. They’d returned to Wuhan for Chinese New Year in January when the city went under lockdown and didn’t return to Nanjing until April.

“Of course, Phoenix also owns a newspaper and some of our colleagues went to Wuhan to report on the situation for the whole of the lockdown period.

“In the first week in May,” Xu says, “they made a presentation to the whole of the Phoenix Group about some of the behind-the-scenes stories from Wuhan. It was very moving. I’d say that doctors and nurses are heroes, but so are the news reporters who are risking their lives to let us know what’s happening.”

And like many in publishing who talk frequently of the loss of in-person communication in the pandemic, Xu says, “I always enjoyed daily meetings with my colleagues in person, whether to discuss the editorial subjects with editors, authors and designers, or to look at the commercial side of the operation such as international rights.

“During the peak of the COVID-19 lockdowns, we all had to work remotely from home. Despite all the wonderful online video conference facilities (we use WeChat Group call and Tencent Conference for more than 10 people), I still find it’s difficult to communicate without face-to-face interaction. It’s just not the same–you can’t engage with people without seeing their subtle body language.”

But in the long run, Xu says, he thinks that reading trends among the industry’s consumers will be more deeply affected than Phoenix Publishing & Media.

“The epidemic has influenced  people’s values, behaviors and lifestyles, and that will inevitably lead to major changes in people’s reading habits. Books that reflect the relationship between humans and nature and environmental issues have become much more popular. I also envisage that many more authors will write about living with COVID-19, so as publishers we need to consider how books of all types can touch on the subject, including both biographical and literary works. We may need to look at our position in world publishing with a broader vision that we’ve had in the past.”

Overall, Xu Hai says, “Other industries have been more more impacted by this crisis than publishing. Here in China, all our cinemas have been closed since January.

“And I have no doubt that the pandemic will have a long-lasting effecdt on our psychological well-being.”

Phoenix Publishing & Media Group headquarters in Nanjing. Image: PPMG


More from Publishing Perspectives on China and its market is here. Our China Bestsellers series of reports is here. And more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

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 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.