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

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By ZHANG KUN in Shanghai

zhangkun@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.

PHO­TOS BY GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

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.

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