In China, 25 Million People Use Only Their Cell Phones to Read Books

Mobile reading may revive entire genres of literature, such as mid-length novels and poems, which have fallen out of favor.


On vacation in China earlier this month, I stopped by Shanghai's seven-story downtown "Book City," bustling with activity on a weekday afternoon that, as a publisher, I found exceptionally gratifying. Perusing the ground floor front tables I saw stacks of copies in Chinese reflecting the multiple interests Chinese readers have in American themes. Days after the U.S. elections, books about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were featured. I noted a translation of George W. Bush's presidential memoir, Decision Points, and Henry Kissinger's recent bestseller, On China. Whether any of these were "adapted" (i.e., censored) for the Chinese audience, I can't say, but they were certainly prominently available. Basketball biographies are clearly big sellers, including Linsanity, about Jeremy Lin, last season's Taiwanese-American star for the New York Knicks. And a book by Harvard medical school professors, Positive Psychology, was billed as "cracking the secret of happiness."

Among the fiction books, Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling's adult novel, Casual Vacancy, is evidently so recognizable that the Chinese version carries its name in English and has the same jacket as the American edition.

A week's visit to Beijing and Shanghai hardly represent a methodical survey of the subject, but Chinese publishing at a glance seems to lend itself, as so much else in the country does, to superlatives. In an interview with the English-language Hong Kong based monthly, China Economic Review, Gabrielle Coyne, CEO of Penguin Group's Asia-Pacific division, said that its business in English-language books and partnerships with Chinese publishers grew by 120 percent last year. Overall, according to the magazine, China now has the world's largest output of books, a statistic that seems entirely feasible, given China's population of 1.4 billion and its surging, well-educated middle class.

While the scale of traditional print publishing is vast, the evolution of electronic reading apparently reflects what has been happening in the United States in key respects. In her interview, Coyne focused on the complex development of the digital market "so that people can read where they want to read -- be it tablet or mobile phone or any e-reader device." Piracy in China has always been rampant, despite official promises to expand copyright protection, and the problem is still an obstacle to licensing digital rights. "We talk very openly with [General Administration for Press and Publication] and the minister about our concerns," Ms. Coyne said. "When we first started the monitoring process about 18 months ago, the figures were pretty staggering ... but digital piracy is not growing here and there's a real understanding that the consumer is prepared to pay. ... I don't think [piracy] will ever be completely eliminated from markets such as China. But it's heartening that the government understands the importance of it."

I was especially interested in the prevalence of smartphones and reading devices, and the numbers of these are reported to be enormous. According to a Chinese firm called Analysys International, China has more than 400 million mobile Internet users, which would make it the largest smartphone market in the world. While discussions have been underway about release of the Kindle, it is not available yet. (Amazon's distribution of printed books is very large, with 13 warehouses around the country using couriers to deliver books as fast as the day they are ordered online). Apple tablets are available from the company's stores (which are packed) as well as from one of the country's leading telecommunications providers. There are also locally produced e-readers. Reading on mobile phones is said to be particularly widespread.

Clifford Coonan, the Irish Times correspondent in Beijing, in a thorough takeout reported that "almost half of Chinese adults read books in different forms and about 25 percent of readers -- some 220 million people read electronic media. Of these, almost 120 million people use their mobile phone to read. And almost 25 million people only use their cellphones to read books." Coonan quotes Zhang Yiwu, a respected literature professor at Peking University, who said "the appearance of mobile phone literature may revive the declining mid-sized novel and poem in China." Coonan notes that the concept came from Japan, but for Chinese readers it has the advantage of avoiding censorship, which remains a factor in traditional book formats. "Tens of thousands of writers publish their works for free online," he writes, "to be downloaded by readers on to their phones."

On my last visit to China, in 2009, I wrote enthusiastically about the variety of Chinese and international titles I found in the capital's biggest bookstore, with an emphasis on books by and about leading business figures, mainly Americans. Significantly, I made no mention of electronic reading, because at the time it must have seemed to be so much less of a factor in China, or the United States for that matter. But in late 2012, the digital age has fully arrived in China, and that momentum clearly includes books. I hope those big city bookstores go on drawing crowds, but I came away from this short trip awed by the prospect of hundreds of millions of Chinese readers with access to an increasing range of online global literature and information.