China’s Book Market in 2022: An 11.77-Percent Decline

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Overall book sales in China decreased in 2022, but online sales driven by TikTok and other short-video platforms are growing rapidly.

At Longqing Gorge in Yanqing, January 31, during the Lunar New Year’s lantern festival. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Luchunyu

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

See also: Our monthly China bestsellers series, in association with OpenBook

2022: A Hard Year in China
As anticipated, of course, the mainland Chinese book market, tracked and researched by Beijing OpenBook, saw a substantial decline during a tough 2022. If anything, the pressure is on the new Year of the Rabbit, as Lunar New Year celebrants hope for better times.

Year over year, book sales in the overall market in China declined 11.77 percent—something brightly contrasted by short-video e-commerce (TikTok and other platforms) jumping a prodigious 42.86 percent in the same period. So while sales on the whole were suffering, a relatively new channel for digital book retail was ballooning.

Our readers need no reminder, of course, that by early October, as Xi Jinping secured his third term in office, tens of millions of people were reported confined in lockdowns in as many as 60 cities and towns.

‘Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out’ by Mo Yan

BBC News reporting by Stephen McDonell in Beijing pointed to youth unemployment at 18.7 percent, down from something even higher, at near 20 percent. Public health analysis indicates that perhaps the single most crippling point was a weakness in China’s self-produced COVID-19 vaccines.

The dismantling of the “zero COVID” policy wouldn’t be fully apparent until early December, following strident protests in November. So it’s not surprising that in such a year of harsh lockdowns, public fury, and a sudden abandonment of policy, sales from physical bookstore channels decreased by 37.22 percent year-over-year. Economics were going the wrong way, even in online business. Platform e-commerce decreased by 16.06 percent over 2021 figures, and other e-commerce channels sank by 2.43 percent.

Some 40 percent of sales revenue was being generated on digital retail platforms, even amid the challenges, our OpenBook associates say, while those short-video e-commerce activities blew right past the staggered physical-store channels.

What Sold, What Didn’t

Several bestsellers in China in 2022, from left: ‘Head of Bodhi’ by Cao Dewang; ‘To Live’ (2021 edition) by Yu Hua; ‘Destiny’ by Cai Chongda; ‘A Lifelong Journey’ by Yu Minhong; and ‘Cao Cao’ (three volumes) by Yi Zhongtian

Literature and biography were up in 2022’s Chinese market. The sector suffering the most was the study-aid category, down by more than 2 percent over 2021. Literature gained 1.82 percent over the previous year.

‘The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo’ by Lin Yutang

Children’s books remained the largest part of the picture. Some staying power in biography is credited to sales of bestsellers including The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo and the autobiography Heart of Bodhi by Cao Dewang.

OpenBook’s research has produced an unequivocal determination: “The main driving force of the literary market comes from the Internet, including the popularity of ‘online literature’ and online discussions and comments about related books, as well as in fiction highlighted on live-broadcast programs,” such as The Last Quarter of the Moon, To Live (2021 Edition), and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out.

Online influencers who appear on streaming shows are also having impact: “It could be seen that some new literary works have achieved good results through the recommendation of the head anchors, as in the cases of Destiny by Cai Chongda and Cao Cao (3 volumes) by Yi Zhongtian.

Short-Video Retail, and More

In those sales-moving short-video channels, new releases were dominant. A total 43 new books accounted for more than 50 percent of the sales in short-video digital retail. In fact, there’s a correlation between the short-video channels and success in books written by social-media influencers, as well as books that young parents sought out for educational purposes.

‘The Last Quarter of the Moon’ by Chi Zijian

Generally online, sales of children’s books accounted for more than 30 percent of the whole, followed by social sciences at 20 percent or better. In those lagging physical store sales, social science and the weakened study-aid sector accounted for 65 percent of that brick-and-mortar category’s sales.

Those who follow our China Bestsellers coverage will know that international works in translation carry a big chunk of the Chinese market. But in 2022, the popularity of domestic works seemed to increase, with literary works making particular gains. “The proportion of domestic books in a number of titles has increased,” our associates say, “from 23.9 percent to 24.5 percent, and the sales share of domestic books has increased from 23.7 percent to 30.1 percent.”

In domestic book categories, there were more varieties offered in literature, children’s books, academic culture, and economics and management in 2022, coming to more than 6,000 new titles in that aggregate.

Our monthly China bestseller reports from Publishing Perspectives are here, and more on the Chinese book publishing market is here.  More from us on the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic–which of course has had much to do with China’s book business in 2022–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.