China’s Book Industry in 2023: Back in the Black

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The Chinese book market in 2023 went from negative to positive in its growth metrics, thanks in part to a rise in short-video promotion.

Short-video social-media platforms have risen to become the second-largest driver to book buying in China, according to research on what turned out to be a resurging 2023 market. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Yiu Cheung

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

China’s Market: A Post-Pandemic Resurgence in 2023
Today (March 28), we have an exclusive report, an assessment of key features of the Chinese book publishing market in 2023.

We’d like to thank CEO Jiang Yanping and her associates at Beijing OpenBook for making it possible for us to bring you this complementary information to our monthly, closely followed China Bestsellers series, the data for which is also part of our partnership with OpenBook. Jiang, in fact, spoke at London Book Fair on March 13, describing China’s market turnaround in a session that included China Science Publishing and Media’s Chen Liang and Bijing Yanshan Press’ Sun Wei.

OpenBook’s research indicates that in 2023, China’s retail book market growth increased 4.72 percent, with the important point there being that this year-over-year growth rate turned from negative to positive. Many factors, including late-pandemic COVID-19 effects, had helped to slow the Chinese market’s return to positive growth until 2023, so last year marked China’s resurgence after years of struggle during the health crisis.

Several key points:

  • In 2023, the market valuation—as measured in sales revenue at list price—came to 91.2 billion yuan (US$12.6 billion).
  • The total number of active titles, as gauged by ISBNs in the overall retail market, reached 2.37 million, an increase of 1.55 percent.
  • More than 180,000 new titles were published in the Chinese market in 2023, as tracked by OpenBook, representing an increase of 7.3 percent over 2022.
Short-Video Platforms: A Burgeoning Channel

In terms of consumer engagement, short-video e-commerce platforms have become enormously influential on the Chinese market, and in a comparatively short space of time.

This of course has resonance in Western markets, where TikTok’s BookTok presence has been at times remarkably robust—even as some markets have encountered national governments’ resistance amid allegations of Chinese surveillance capacity and tendencies. What’s highlighted there is the company’s ultimate ownership by the privately owned but Beijing-based tech corporation ByteDance, Ltd. 

Will Oremus at the Washington Post on Wednesday (March 27), wrote about the “Protecting Americans From Foreign Adversary-Controlled Applications Act,” which was passed in the lower House of Representatives on March 1 and awaits action in the upper house, the Senate. “The bill makes clear,’ Oremus writes, “that TikTok and parent company ByteDance are its primary targets, mentioning both by name. It requires that either ByteDance sell TikTok within 180 days or the app effectively will be banned from the United States.”

In China, where TikTok’s counterpart is called Douyin, sales-channel evolution and development in the commercial sphere has become a busy topic of industry discussion in recent years, as our China Bestsellers readers know: At many points, titles—both new and reissued in new editions—are being boosted on the market by consumers using short videos to signal their enthusiasm.

So rapidly has the short-video mode taken hold and grown in China that in 2023, that short-video e-commerce channels showed an increase of 70.1 percent year-over-year in China, arriving as what appears to be the second most effective driving force for the growth of the overall retail market, OpenBook’s staffers say. While in some Western markets, publishing players say they can see a waning of the “TikTok effect” on market agility for a book, many influencers in China are keeping authors in the public eye, an example being Nobel laureate Mo Yan and his friend Yu Hua last September.

The first driver of book-market growth in China, however, remained in 2023 the vast e-commerce platforms of Asia, holding onto an aggregate 41.46 percent of growth, followed by short video.

And OpenBook’s analysts say they’re seeing the market shares of other channels decline: If not a major digital retailer or short-form video purveyor, then other channels are likely in decline in terms of their market-driving capacity.

Quickly, then:

  • E-commerce platforms held onto 41.46 of the market-drive share
  • Short-video channels drove 26.6 percent
  • Physical stores were at 11.93 percent
Content Sector Dynamics: Four Growth Areas

Among categories of literature, children’s books experienced the largest drop in growth in 2023. And, as our OpenBook associates point out, the growth of the overall book retail market can be seen as all but inseparable from the growth of various categories.

‘I and the Temple Earth’

In children’s publishing, the most successful books in 2023 were those that could address “pain points” for young readers in their academic studies.

Children’s books form the largest part of the Chinese market, commanding a share of around 27.21 percent. And yet children’s books, in terms of the growth of their category, took the biggest fall in 2023. From the perspective of different channels, the proportion of children’s book promotion in short-video e-commerce dropped the most, along with study aids, making it possible that the short-video model simply doesn’t have as much clout in this sector as other content.

Study aids and literature had a proportion of more than 10 percent, and academic culture and economics and management held some 4 to 10 percent.

As far as sales channels go, the proportion of study aids, literature, academic culture, economics and management in short video e-commerce channels have increased year-on-year.

In 2023, 13 categories and subcategories showed positive growth. These subcategories are classified by the researchers as:

  • Content related to physical health, medicine, and life stood as the first category of growth—frequently driven by readers’ increased attention to traditional Chinese medical practices following the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The second category of highest growth momentum comprised books about knowledge and skill-improvement, this group including self-help, economics, and management.
  • ‘Last Quarter of the Moon’

    The third category was related to hot topics as well as to film and television, and live broadcast recommendations. Here, the type of books that come into play include “women’s literature”; some titles promoted by television series; literature such as Chi Zijian’s The Last Quarter of the Moon (People’s Literature Publishing House), which has been propelled by streaming video; and Shi Tiesheng’s I and the Temple of Earth (also from People’s Literature Publishing House), the latter driven by Yuhua traffic.

  • And the fourth category of growth in 2024 was study aids for students, again promoted by short-video e-commerce channels, for curricular material as well as recreational reads.

Our next installment of our China Bestsellers series will appear in coming days, focused on February of this year.

More China bestseller reports from Publishing Perspectives are here, more on the Chinese book publishing market is here, and more from us on Asia and its publishing markets 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.