Zhang's opinion is echoed by a number of longtime professionals in the book industry, who, since the early days of the industry's market-driven reform,
have kept close watch of the public's changing preference in books. Some of them point out that in addition to turning away from books, Chinese people have
also abandoned more serious and intellectually enriching stories in favor of easy reads. "In the last decade, best-sellers in China have less intellectual
content and have become increasingly practical," said He Xiongfei, a well-known publisher of popular books since the early 1990s. Best sellers in China
today, He says, consist mainly of "child-rearing manuals, cookbooks, health and fitness guides, test-preparation books, thrillers, and romance novels."
Such genres are also popular in the West, but in China, they have pushed more intellectual enriching books into a tight market space that is shrinking
by the day. In the 1990s, over 1,500 independent bookstores sprung up in major Chinese cities, selling books about politics and social sciences that rode
the public's intense post-Tiananmen Square interest in such topics. But today, just one of the major independent bookstores -- All Sages Bookstore, run by
Tiananmen veteran Liu Suli -- remains open in Beijing. "When people talk about the rise of China's middle class, they measure it in terms of their income,"
said Liu in an interview with Urumqi Evening News in May. "Some of them buy books, but this is just for the purpose of killing time or for test
preparation. They are looking for things they think are useful to them. They are not reading."
He Xiongfei, the publisher, attributes the public's indifference towards serious books to their preoccupation with materialistic goals, as well as the
shifting political environment, which he says is choking off Chinese society's space for free-flowing intellectual discourse. "In the decade after the
Tiananmen movement, Chinese intellectuals were basically silent. Then, in late 1990s, there was a small renaissance of intellectual debate," He recalled.
During that time, he established his reputation in the publishing industry by introducing books by Yu Jie, Qin Hui and Qian Liqun -- all prominent social
critics -- to Chinese readers. But then, the atmosphere changed again. "It would be impossible to get Yu published in today's China, not even under a pseudonym,"
he said. "As such books are getting harder to publish, fewer people are reading them." Yu, a dissident writer, was banned from publishing
inside China after briefly seeing his works flourish domestically in the late 1990s. He has since been detained, tortured, and put under house arrest for
his criticism toward the Chinese leadership, and eventually chose to seek exile in the United States last year.
Partly as a result of the government's draconian censorship rules, and partly because of the public's changing taste in books, Chinese people have flocked
to the Web for more light-hearted fare. According to a 2012 report from the China Internet Network Information
Center, almost 200 million Chinese read online literature, although the term lacks a clear definition. A survey by the Chinese research firm iResearch
shows that the ten most popular Chinese literature websites receive a total of 12.2 million visitors on an average day. These websites run the gamut of
genres, from romance and horror to science fiction and fantasy, and reader interest helps carve them into more specific niches, like military fantasy novels, "officialdom" literature, and stories about time travel. Some websites require readers to pay a small fee, usually less than 5 RMB (80 cents), to access the
most popular serialized novels.