While Chinese authors of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were earning meagre salaries and buying sugar and oil with ration tickets, Chinese authors today are raking in royalties by selling millions of books to an audience of teenagers and twentysomethings. The disparity is illustrated by a list that ranks authors by their royalties. Wu Huaiyao, a Chinese literary scene observer, has issued it for the past three years. This year, the 25-year-old literary superstar Guo Jingming topped the list.
Guo started writing in high school, supposedly to relax during study breaks. His first novel, City of Fantasy, a coming of age story that melds fantasy and traditional Chinese martial arts fiction, sold more than a million copies, as did his following six books. Wu's list estimates Guo's 2008 income at Dh7million, which is approximately 600 times the average annual income in China. Although the top 25 authors' combined incomes dropped from last year, that of the top 10 authors increased.
According to An Boshun, the chief editor of the Beijing branch of Changjiang Press, which publishes Guo's books, his stories are popular because they deal with things that people understand. "They're like Hollywood movies. They have very simple, pure and idealistic values." The authors ranking second, third and fourth on the list all write books geared towards children or young adults. Han Han, a high-school dropout who published his first book, The Third Way, in 2000, when he was 17, started the trend of bestselling young adult fiction. A critique of the education system couched as an adolescent love story, the book sold more than a million copies and established Han as an iconoclastic voice of his generation.
Han, a successful race car driver, is also known for driving down Beijing's Avenue of Eternal Peace late at night, cruising past Tiananmen Square at speeds of over 160 kilometres per hour. He ranked No 18 on this year's list, partially because of his blog, Two Cold, which has received more than 220 million hits. Guo is the businessman to Han's rebel. He runs and edits a literary magazine called Top Novel, which has a distribution of 600,000, and is at work on a new magazine, called Top Comics. He is not coy about encouraging readers to buy his books. Inside a special edition of Top Novel, Guo wrote, "Does your wallet feel deflated? However, 18.8 RMB (Dh10) is only a one off price. The next ones will be cheaper."
In one blog entry, Guo exhorted his fans to rush to the bookstore and buy his latest book. "No need to show politeness to the people next to you, hop over their corpses, hack a trail of blood! In the face of 29.8 RMB (Dh16) everyone is equal!" Such provocations, as well as Guo's doll-faced expression, which adorns most of his publications, have helped drive sales. "Books are still a commercial product. They have a price, and if there is a need in the market someone will provide it," he says.
Wu spent three months surveying more than 100 publishers from around the country to gauge author incomes. TV and film adaptation royalties are not included. Wu also called on 10 literary critics to draw up a separate list of 25 influential authors. There's no overlap between the rich list and influential list this year, although the 2006 bestseller list contains seven names from this year's influential list.
In the three months after the Olympics, Wu interviewed more than 100 people working in the publishing industry throughout the country to determine author incomes and identify general trends during a year when the cost of paper skyrocketed. In response to this gulf between literature and popular fiction, An criticised China's literati - novelists like Mo Yan, Su Tong and Yu Hua - for being out of touch with the present.
"They spend their time stuck in a room writing books that exaggerate the violence and greed of the Cultural Revolution, of the past," says An. "In these people's books the only beauty you see is a perverse beauty." He smiles avuncularly. "While Guo Jingming and the younger generation may not have the same grounding in literature, they write about the present and their writing reflects reality." Stella Chou, the managing director of Harper Collins China Business Development, concurs. "Han Han and Guo Jingming are popular because they speak the language of the youth. They are creating stories that speak to their culture, to their everyday life. If you look at it from a literary point of view, are they any good? No, they're not."
Hou Qingbo, the vice editor-in-chief of the magazine Contemporary Literature, which is put out by People's Literature Publishing House, compares the change between the output of the younger generation and the older generation to a dynastic shift. "In the Tang Dynasty people wrote poems, and in the Song Dynasty that followed, they wrote prose," Hou says. "The authors A Lai, Chen Zhongshi and magazines like us hold tight to the Tang Poems, but we're living in the past. Guo Jingming and Han Han are the future."
In the 1980s publishing climate, literature was king and people were hungry for the classics, says Mai Jia, the author of the novel Intrigue and winner of the prestigious Mao Dun Prize. He ranks No 17 on this year's list, with an annual income of 1.8 million RMB (Dh966,000). "The 1980s, especially the first few years, were a spiritual awakening," he says. "Literature used to be a focal point." "In the 1980s, works of French philosophy sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Can you imagine that today?" says Peng Lun, a senior editor at Shanghai 99, a distribution firm that publishes translations of authors like Philip Roth, John Updike, Agatha Christie and Dan Brown. "In 1981, the respected professor Ray Huang wrote a bestselling history of Emperor Wanli, 1587: A Year of No Significance. Today, popular history books are written by storytellers."
After Mao Zedong died in 1976, government controls over publishing loosened. Publishers' output grew more diverse and, as they starting earning money, they could afford to pay more to authors who earned them more profit. "In the early 1980s there was little difference between the salaries of authors and labourers. No one had any money," says Wang Ruiqing, a senior editor at People's Literature Publishing House who oversaw the introduction of the Harry Potter series to China. "Back then, the government invested in publishing and it didn't matter if the books succeeded."
"Before the early 1980s, we only cared about publishing books and didn't worry about distribution," says He Qizhi, a former vice editor-in chief of People's Literature Publishing House. As income levels have rapidly increased over the past 20 years, Chinese people spend more on books, and publishers sell a wider variety of titles to appeal to a growing market. "Readers are spoilt for choice now," says Wang.
Commercialisation and liberalisation have gone hand in hand. "Writers have a greater freedom now than anytime in the past 50 or 60 years," says Zhang Wei, the author of the highly regarded novel The Ancient Ship, which Harper Collins published in English this year. Zhang advocates a cautious approach towards modernisation. "Money has a crude strength, and the tide of commercialisation can drown out literature."
Still, it's a positive trend. "During the Mao era, the voice of the party drowned out the voice in our heads," Zhang says. A result of the market shift of the past 30 years has been an increase in "half-public, half-private companies", says Jo Lusby, the general manager of Penguin China. These entities focus more on marketing and distribution than the more cumbersome state run bureaucracies. "They are driving the market," Lusby says. Guo's publisher, Changjiang Press, which also published the 2004 runaway bestseller Wolf Totem, is one of these companies.
"We have a larger share of the market than People's Literature Publishing House," says An, Changjiang Beijing's chief editor. "They have more than 200 staff, while we have about 30." He believes that progress is unavoidable. "Today, young writers will still shout the slogans at school but they do not believe. We're all very clear on where the country is heading: on a path to be more market orientated, more capitalist, and more democratic. The only people who don't get this are a few intellectuals, like Zhang Wei, and some annoying foreigners who don't understand that we're already quite capitalist."
Wang Gang, whose novel English will be published in America by Penguin this year, says, "I don't write to make money. I own eight apartments in Beijing. Whenever I need some money, I sell one of them and live off that for a few years. "You have these other authors, like Wang Anyi, who work for the Writers' Association (a state-owned body that employs writers). The Communist Party pays for their housing, their food, their livelihood. Do you really think they can tell the truth?
Wang pauses for a moment. "My apartments, my car, my clothes, I earned myself. Each word we write is our own," he says of people like himself, Wang Gang and Guo Jingming. "Writing is not a good way to make money," Mai says. "Guo Jingming makes 13 million RMB a year, but I have a few friends who make a few hundred million RMB a year. In the past 30 years, the easiest thing to do is to make money."
Still, with an approximately nine per cent growth rate over the past 20 years, and a similar rate projected for the future, publishing is a strong industry. "I'm glad there is a rich list," says Lusby. "It means that authors are actually earning money. I love that China's highest paid author gets driven around Shanghai in a Bentley. I'm not a snob but I think that means it's a healthy publishing environment."