The Lunar New Year: China’s Book Market in 2021

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

With physical bookstores’ situation in 2021 described as ‘grim,’ online book sales in China also leveled off, according to research from Beijing OpenBook.

At the City God Temple in Shanghai, January 31. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Roland Fei

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

A Tiger, Not Yet by the Tail
With best wishes to our readers who celebrate the lunar new year today (February 1), we have some insights into the Chinese book market for 2021.

These are provided by our associates at Beijing OpenBook, which also assists us with our monthly China bestsellers series. OpenBook reports that its research now encompasses more than 80 percent of China’s retail book market. Its sample of bookstores numbers at least 18,000 points of sale of more than 5 million titles for a valuation of at least US$12.24 billion. Translation of the company’s presentation has been provided to us by James Bryant’s company Jiang Boylan.

This is, as you may know, a year of the tiger. As a piece by Ada Tseng and Ahn Do at the Los Angeles Times puts it, “Are we in for a passionate, tumultuous year?” While tradition holds that a tiger year can be explosive, some who know the Chinese zodiac suggest that this year’s “water tiger” may mean less aggressive energies on the hoof. An already exhausted world can surely hope for some watery mitigation of the potential.

And we can quickly share with you high points of OpenBook’s observations, as we were able to similarly report on the Italian 2021 market appraisal from the Association of Italian Publishers (Associazione Italiana Editori, AIE) on Monday (January 31).

As world publishing continues to struggle with the impact of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, now ongoing in its third year, the Chinese market is particularly notable, of course, for the capital’s effort to stage the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Reuters Beijing reports this morning that the Pandemic Prevention and Control Office reports that the caseload at the games is within the “expected controllable range” with 200 COVID cases among airport arrivals and those in the “closed loop” bubble of the games.

And the OpenBook report on 2021 makes it clear that, like so many book publishing markets of the world, China has not yet cleared the deleterious effects of the contagion on business.

China’s Physical Bookstores’ Status: ‘Grim’

Image: Beijing OpenBook and Jiang Boylan

The country’s many thousands of brick-and-mortar bookstores, OpenBook tells us, “have not fully recovered.” And this is the case at a time when, in addition, “The growth of online bookstores has slowed down significantly,” according to OpenBook’s tracking.

The discussion provided to Publishing Perspectives tells us, “The situation of physical bookstores is grim, with a year-over-year decrease of 31.09 percent” against 2019 levels. The position of online retail appears to have shown only a very small improvement in 2021, a gain in sales there of 1 percent over the previous year’s performance.

Image: Beijing OpenBook and Jiang Boylan

All of this adds up to what OpenBook’s interpretation describes as “sluggish” action in physical book retail and “stagnant” performance in e-commerce channels.

Image: Beijing OpenBook and Jiang Boylan

In this challenging retail scenario, the research shows us, the number of new titles entering the market in 2021 and their variety, were on a par with previous years, at some 2.23 million unique ISBNs in play, 193,000 of them new last year.

Fiction’s Lead: Online Literature

As is seen in the graphic above, the growing share of the retail market in digital sales had been growing since 2012 in a remarkably regular stair-step configuration until 2021, when the comparative stall-out in growth in online bookselling became quite obvious: the large proportion of online bookstore sales, 79 percent, seems to have remained almost perfectly even in 2020 and 2021.

It was in the fiction market that China’s book business found its greatest energy in 2021, OpenBook says, coming back from what was in 2020 a bottoming-out level of -15.0 percent below levels of production in 2018. (By 2019, a -4.0-percent dip already had been recorded, so the 2020 drop was effectively of 11 more percentage points in the wrong direction.)

A rise is being detected in how many titles sell more than 100,000 units. In 2021, three titles surpassed 1 million unit sales, while in 2020 only one title had done that. In 2021, 151 books sold between 100,000 and 500,000 copies, while in the previous year, 2020, only  113 titles accomplished that.

Image: Beijing OpenBook and Jiang Boylan

The biggest takeaway here, though, is that close to 40 percent of the top-selling fiction is in books that originated as online literature. This, as our readership knows, is a long-running popular feature of many Asian reading cultures. Generally produced as serials on major platforms, online literature is probably best known in the West for Wattpad’s model of user-generated content. In many cases, of course, the attraction of making a book from a long-running and well-followed digital series is that there’s a built-in audience in place for the book edition.

Of additional note, OpenBook’s research indicates that non-Chinese work–content originating as online literature in other cultures (Korea, for example, has a strong tradition of this) was highly popular in the Chinese marketplace in 2021.

Children’s Books: Growth Rate Slowing

Image: Beijing OpenBook and Jiang Boylan

OpenBook sees the children’s book sector making only a 1-percent move up in 2021 over 2020, following a precipitous dive from 2019 levels.

New in 2021, children’s books on science surpassed kids’ literature to become the strongest sub-category in younger readers’ content.

We want to offer you the next slide because many in the international publishing business look to China as a key market into which to sell children’s content rights. The detail of this graphic, then, may be of assistance in getting a more detailed look at which topical sub-categories appear to have been more, or less, robust in 2021.

Image: Beijing OpenBook and Jiang Boylan

It’s interesting that picture books took a slight hit, but the biggest setbacks affected “young enlightenment” content and children’s self-help material (self-help is traditionally quite strong in China’s adult bestseller charts).

You also will see the bump in science literature for kids that OpenBook has flagged, along with a big rise in cartoons of 16.3 percent. In a country in which many citizens are eager to learn English, it’s not clear what’s behind the 19.4-percent step-back in children’s English content.

Something not provided by the international rights market to China, of course, holds what is by far the biggest gain in the 2021 children’s sector, “Chinese traditional culture for children.”

And not surprisingly, the youth-driven social-media formats that capitalize on short videos seem to be utilized more for children’s book content than books from other sectors. Young audiences are the target in many social-media contexts, of course, which makes the trend to youth-directed short-video content in 2021 China quite logical.

Image: Beijing OpenBook and Jiang Boylan

More China bestseller reports from Publishing Perspectives are here. More from us on industry statistics is here, and more on year-end reports and coverage is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

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.