Miércoles 5 de Septiembre de 2007, Ip nº 206

The Chinese Novel Finds New Life Online
Por Aventurina King

Zhang Muye is a thirty-something office worker who shows up to his Chinese investment company on time. Yet to millions of Chinese fans, he is the author of Ghost Blows Out the Light, an internet novel viewed more than 6 million times online. It has sold 600,000 copies in print.

"It's only when I am at work that I can write; when I'm at home, I can't," says Zhang. His novel, which narrates the travails of a gravedigger plagued by ghosts, has been acclaimed across China for its creativity, if not for its critical value. Zhang began writing Ghost to relax and kill time during slow mornings at his office. "I don't think of it as literature," Zhang says. "For me it's just a game."

It's a particularly lucrative game. Zhang is far from unique in China, where writing and reading novels online has become the hobby of an estimated 10 million youth. Yet unlike the music world, where MP3s are threatening to kill off CDs, online novels in China are helping physical books fly off the shelves. Print versions of popular online works sell by the millions and publishers, as well as authors, are cashing in.

"Novel," the top search term on China's biggest search engine, Baidu, yields thousands of Chinese literature websites. More than 100,000 amateurs shirk mundane duties to publish their tales of fantasy and love in installments on these platforms. A handful of anonymous web authors have seen their pageviews soar into the upper seven digits. When that happens, print publishers come knocking.

And it's not just print. Companies from almost every entertainment field, including films and video games, are joining forces, heralding the next generation of Chinese entertainment empires. The creative content of one internet novel can be sold to various national entertainment companies up to five times. A film version of Ghost Blows Out the Light is in pre-production and many popular internet novels have spawned TV series and online games.

"The multi-dimensional utilization of copyright in China has just begun," says Kong Yi, the CEO of Magic Sword, a literary website whose hit series, Killing Immortals, has sold over a million copies. Yi and a few friends first hoisted Magic Sword onto the web in 2001 as a literary hobby, using a few shaky borrowed servers. By 2002, it was ranked in the top 100 websites worldwide on Alexa.com. The borrowed servers threatened to keel over under the weight of the traffic.

In 2003, Magic Sword became a commercial endeavor. It raised $10,000 from investors, got new servers and finally became its creators' day job. Then the leading Chinese portal Tom.com bought Magic Sword, making Yi a millionaire. Magic Sword now has its own halogen-lit offices in a sprawling forest of glassed buildings just outside Beijing.

Magic Sword is now losing a few thousand dollars every year. Confident of future success, Kong Yi compensates for this loss with the money from the acquisition by Tom.com, supplemented by income from ads, fees paid by readers and a string of copyright sales. (As with other Chinese literature sites, anyone can publish stories and most of the content is free, but there is a fee to read the most popular novels.)

Yi's ambitions don't stop there. "I would like to make the company into an entertainment corporation, one that would include a publishing, movie production and video game company," with internet novels at its nucleus, Kong Yi says.

  17/08/2007. Wired Magazine.