The Chinese book market in 2021

With the situation of physical bookstores in 2021 being described as “bleak”, online book sales in China have also stabilized, according to a study by Beijing OpenBook.

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

By Porter Anderson, Editor | @Porter_Anderson

A tiger, not yet by the tail

OWith best wishes to our readers celebrating the Lunar New Year today (February 1), we have a look at the Chinese book market for 2021.

These are provided by our associates at Beijing OpenBook, who also support us with our monthly series of bestsellers in China. OpenBook reports that its research now encompasses more than 80% of China’s retail book market. Its sample of bookstores includes at least 18,000 points of sale of more than 5 million titles for a valuation of at least 12.24 billion dollars. The translation of the company presentation was provided to us by Jiang Boylan, the company of James Bryant.

It is, as you may know, a year of the tiger. Like a play by Ada Tseng and Ahn Do in Los Angeles Times says, “Are we going to have a passionate and tumultuous year?” While tradition holds that a year of the tiger can be explosive, some Chinese zodiac connoisseurs suggest that this year’s “water tiger” could signify less aggressive energies on the hoof. An already depleted world can surely hope for a watery attenuation of potential.

And we can quickly share the highlights of OpenBook’s observations with you, as we were able to do a similar report on the Italian Publishers Association’s 2021 Italian Market Assessment (Association Italiana Editori, AIE) on Monday, January 31.

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

And the OpenBook 2021 report makes it clear that, like so many book publishing markets around the world, China has yet to eliminate the deleterious effects of contagion on business.

Status of physical bookstores in China: “Dark”

Image: Beijing OpenBook and Jiang Boylan

The country’s 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 markedly”, according to the OpenBook follow-up.

The discussion offered to Publication prospects tells us: “The situation for physical bookstores is grim, with a year-on-year decline of 31.09%” compared to 2019 levels. The position of online retail seems to have only shown a very small improvement in 2021, a sales gain of 1% compared to the performance of the previous year.

Image: Beijing OpenBook and Jiang Boylan

This is all on top of 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, research shows us that the number of new titles entering the market in 2021 and their variety were comparable to previous years, with some 2.23 million unique ISBNs in play, including 193,000 new ones last year.

Fiction Leader: Online Literature

As the chart above shows, the growing retail market share of digital sales had grown since 2012 in a remarkably steady stair-step pattern until 2021, when the comparative halt in sales growth online bookstores has become pretty obvious: a large portion of online bookstore sales, 79%, seems to have held up almost perfectly even in 2020 and 2021.

It is in the fiction market that the Chinese book industry has found its greatest energy in 2021, according to OpenBook, returning from what was in 2020 a low of -15.0% below production levels. in 2018. (In 2019, a -4.0 -percentage drop had already been recorded, so the 2020 drop was effectively an additional 11 percentage points in the wrong direction.)

An increase is detected in the number of titles sold over 100,000 units. In 2021, three titles exceeded one million units sold, while in 2020 only one title had done so. In 2021, 151 books sold between 100,000 and 500,000 copies, while the previous year, 2020, only 113 titles achieved this.

Image: Beijing OpenBook and Jiang Boylan

The biggest advantage here, however, is that nearly 40% of top-selling fiction is found in books from online literature. This, as our readers know, is a long-standing popular feature of many Asian reading cultures. Typically produced as soap operas on major platforms, online literature is probably best known in the West for Wattpad’s user-generated content model. In many cases, of course, the appeal of creating a book from a long-running, well-followed digital series is that there is a built-in audience in place for publishing the book.

In addition, OpenBook’s research indicates that non-Chinese work content from online literature in other cultures (Korea, for example, has a strong tradition in this area) was very popular in the Chinese market in 2021.

Children’s books: slowing growth rate

Image: Beijing OpenBook and Jiang Boylan

OpenBook sees the children’s book sector growing just 1% in 2021 compared to 2020, after a steep drop from 2019 levels.

New in 2021, children’s science books have overtaken children’s literature to become the strongest subcategory in content for young readers.

We want to provide you with the next slide because many players in the international publishing industry see China as a key market in which to sell children’s content rights. The detail of this graph can therefore be useful to obtain a more detailed overview of the thematic sub-categories which seem to have been more or less robust in 2021.

Image: Beijing OpenBook and Jiang Boylan

Interestingly, picture books took a slight hit, but the biggest setbacks affected “young enlightenment” content and self-help materials for kids (self-help is traditionally quite strong in China’s adult best-selling charts).

You’ll also see the rise in science literature for children that OpenBook has reported, as well as a strong increase in cartoons of 16.3%. In a country where many citizens are eager to learn English, it’s unclear what’s behind the 19.4% decline in English content for children.

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

And unsurprisingly, youth-focused social media formats that capitalize on short videos seem to be used more for children’s book content than books from other industries. Young audiences are the target in many social media contexts, of course, which makes 2021 China’s trend for short video content aimed at young people quite logical.

Image: Beijing OpenBook and Jiang Boylan

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

To learn more about the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and its impact on international book publishing, click here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident member of Trends Research & Advisory, and was named International Business Journalist of the Year at the London Book Fair’s International Excellence Awards. He is editor of Publishing Perspectives. He was previously associate editor of The FutureBook at The Bookseller in London. Anderson was a senior producer and anchor for, CNN International and CNN USA for more than a decade. As an art critic (National Critics Institute), he has collaborated 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 is now owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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