Evolving with the times
Physical book stores look to be experiencing a revival in recent times as business owners begin to turn such establishments into vibrant cultural and artistic spaces
While the shuttering of various well-known book stores in Shanghai over the past few years seem to be a sign of the industry’s impending demise, the recently concluded Shanghai Book Fair showed that books and reading are still very much alive.
The largest annual celebration of books, readers and authors in the city, the Aug 17 to 23 Shanghai Book Fair drew an unprecedented number of visitors this year and showcased some 150,000 new titles.
The highlight of the event, however, were the beautifully designed pavilions by various book stores in the country that looked to be a resounding retort to the sentiment that brick-and-mortar book stores no longer have a place in today’s highly digitized world.
The State-owned Xinhua Bookstore had in recent years closed several of its branches in upscale Shanghai locations such as Huaihai Road and Nanjing Road. The Jifeng Book Store on Shaanxi Road South faced the same fate too, and these closures painted a bleak picture for the book industry in general.
But book store owners have seemingly bounced back by ensuring that their shops are more than just a physical space containing books for sale.
Xiaofeng Book Shop from Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, designed its pavilion to look like a traditional Chinese school, with windows and screens made of bamboo and wood. The store specializes in art books and one artist, Feng Zikai (18981975), has become a focal point for the store with prints of his paintings and related merchandize such as bags and umbrellas up for sale. This concept has been a hit with consumers and the book store has reportedly achieved financial success because of it.
Administrators and book store managers who gathered at a forum during the Shanghai Book Fair to discuss the development of brick and mortar book stores in the city all agreed that the way forward was to evolve.
“Today’s brick and mortar bookstores are a new business that combine the reading experience with related industries, and these stores are also becoming cultural landmarks, reflecting a city’s character and depth,” said Peng Weiguo, deputy director of the city administration for news and publication.
“These new book stores are no longer just book vendors, but complex cultural venues which emphasize on experience and human interaction. These are things that online bookstores cannot provide.”
One example of such an establishment is the Gogol Bookstore in Harbin in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province. Besides just selling books, Gogol — it is a brand under Xinhua Bookstore — has also taken on the role of a studio theater by turning classical literary pieces into scripts for concerts and dance theater productions. Gogol even has that though people today are reading digital books more than ever, they are generally unwilling to pay for digital content. Furthermore, fragmented reading, defined as reading for no more than 30 minutes, has become more common.
Han Weidong, director of Shanghai Translation Publishing House, said that this unwillingness to pay for content could be due to the fact that much of the information found on the Internet is free, and because consumers often don’t understand that a published book has to go through professional publishers and editors in order to ensure its quality.
“We used to price our new digital releases as high as the print versions and readers were infuriated. Some of them even verbally abused me on my personal social media account,” recalled the team leader of the digital books department at Shanghai Translation Publishing House, which has since adjusted its pricing.
Alongside with CITIC Press and other private publishers, Shanghai Translation Publishing House recently signed a partnership with Ximalaya FM, one of the largest online audio sharing platforms in China, to produce audio books.
Yu Jianjun, founder and president of Ximalaya FM, said that the company decided to partner with book publishers as it wanted to diversify and upgrade the quality of its digital content. Dubbing Ximalaya FM as a combination of Apple’s Podcast, Amazon’s Audio Book and other technologies, Yu believes that 2016 will be “the year of audio publishing” in China.
The largest publishing company in the world, Penguin Random House, was one of the first to collaborate with Ximalaya FM. Yu said that more than 6,000 of the brand’s audio books will be available on the platform by 2017.
He added that Ximalaya FM will be aiming to cope with the expectations of Chinese consumers by selling these audio books at prices that are considerably lower than their products in the more mature Western markets.
For example, Penguin Random House’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics audio book is being sold for just 18 yuan ($3) on Ximalaya FM, about half the price of the print book. The book, which is narrated by celebrity actor Huang Lei, was downloaded 56,000 times within a week, surpassing the number of print editions sold.
Jo Lusby, head of Penguin Random House in China, said that quality content will always triumph at the end of the day, regardless of the medium.
“We are not competing for people’s money. As a publisher, we are competing for their time,” said Lusby.
In June, Ximalaya FM launched its first paid program which was created by TV show host Ma Dong. Titled Hao Hao Shuo Hua, the program launched its first episode on Ximalaya FM on June 6, and had in a mere 10 days achieved sales of 10 million yuan. Yu said that this success is an encouraging sign for the publishing industry.
People's love for reading is evidently still alive, judging from the record crowd figures of this year's Shanghai Book Fair.
Though many readers today consume content via digital mediums, they are still unwillingly to pay for online content.