Craving a Hot TV Show in China? Start Scouring the Web
BEIJING — “The Journey of Flower” is a novel that has never been sold in bookstores. It was first published on a literature website in 2009, but its story, a martial arts fantasy, is now one of China’s most successful brands.
Since the rights to the novel were sold about four years ago, the tale — about a god and goddess fated to kill each other and who fall in love in the afterlife — has been spun off into a franchise that includes a video game, a coming movie and a hit television series that has become the first drama in China to pass 20 billion views online.
The journey of that novel, from obscurity to mainstream cultural status, resembles one that many internet-only creations are now taking here as a voracious appetite for intellectual property has sent producers foraging on the web.
“IP” — intellectual property, or original copyrighted material that can be bought and adapted for other formats — is one of the hottest buzzwords in China. As the country’s fast-growing film, television and video game industries vie for audiences, entertainment companies in search of quality homegrown content are snapping up IPs left and right.
To find good ones, executives turn to the usual sources: books, existing films and comics. But increasingly, they are mining a once-secluded corner of the internet that has become a booming billion-dollar business: a flourishing online literary world that bypasses ink and paper entirely to grab readers by their smartphones, with subjects like tomb raiding, science fiction, fantasy, romance and martial arts.
“Online literature in China is full of good story lines and IPs,” said Jiang Chenzhou, 30, the author of “The Journey of Flower,” who is better known to online readers by her web name, Fresh Guoguo. “On the internet, you have space for creativity. There is more room for expression, fewer restrictions and less pressure.
“When I finished the novel in 2009, the market for content was just starting to heat up. Two years later, producers began reaching out, asking what I thought about adapting the story. Now everyone is talking about IPs.”
To entertainment executives, online-literature websites, some with libraries of hundreds of thousands of titles, offer a trove of market-tested characters and plots incubated in a relatively censor-free environment.
“The whole entertainment industry is still fairly conservative,” said Chen Ming, head of products at Shanda Games and a former editor at Qidian, one of the largest online-literature sites. “Creating your own original fantasy content is not a sure bet. But the market has already shown that adapting popular IPs from online literature can make a lot of money.”
Ma Zhongjun, chief executive of Ciwen Media, which produced last year’s television adaptation of “The Journey of Flower,” summed up the business logic: “You are spending money to buy safety. Americans are the best at this. That’s why they keep making sequels.”
Two of the highest-grossing films in China in the past year were based on popular online novels about raiding tombs. One of them, “Mojin: The Lost Legend,” based on Tian Xia Ba Chang’s “Ghost Blows Out the Light,” earned $250 million after its release in December 2015, making it the fifth-highest-grossing movie ever in China, according to the Ent Group, which monitors box-office sales.
Some 297 million people — 43 percent of China’s internet user base — read web literature last year, making it among the top 10 reasons that Chinese went to the internet last year, according to a government report.
That popularity has been partly a response to China’s traditionally staid publishing industry, which is straitjacketed by prepublication censorship and strict regulations on the distribution of the book identifiers known as International Standard Book Numbers, or ISBNs.
这种受欢迎程度有一部分是对历来比较古板的中国出版业做出的反应，后者受到出版前的审查制度和名为国际标准书号（Standard Book Numbers，简称ISBN）的书号分发制度的严格限制。
Websites in China, by contrast, offer a freewheeling space where writers can publish the kind of genre fiction that is not only comparatively rare in the book business but also has been subject to little interference from editors.
Creating this content is often an interactive process that involves readers. Writers can see their comments and sometimes respond to them.
“Online literature is really the people’s literature,” Mr. Ma said. “There are very few commercial elements involved in the writing process, so this body of literature tends to be very pure.”
The growing focus in China on selling intellectual property to entertainment companies is a shift away from the online-literature industry’s previous business model. Big companies like Shanda Cloudary (which merged last year with Tencent Literature to become the dominant market player, Yuewen Group) once focused on promoting amateur writers by negotiating book deals with print publishers and collecting subscription fees from readers.
In a fortunate coincidence, the growth in income from intellectual property sales has helped offset revenue lost through piracy, which remains a significant problem for China’s web-publishing platforms.
Writers have also profited. Ms. Jiang estimates she has earned $1.5 million from the sale of various rights to “The Journey of Flower.” Last year, Zhang Wei, also known as Tang Jia San Shao, earned $16.8 million, making him the wealthiest web writer in China, according to the newspaper China Daily.
Mr. Zhang said most of his income now comes from selling his properties to various media and from sales of print copies of his fantasy-themed online novels. Mr. Zhang, 35, who by his own count has written more than 160 books, said that one of his properties sold for $3 million.
Though he has already earned a fortune, Mr. Zhang said his ultimate goal was to create a franchise like the Walt Disney Company.
“Disney has a lot of characters whose popularity is reinforced through movies and cartoons,” he said, after offering that he had published something online every day for the past 12 years. “I am looking for a partner company who can take all of my IPs and replicate this model.”
Of course, not every popular online novel translates into a popular adaptation. And censorship remains a concern. Over the years, the government has sought greater regulations on online literature, calling on publishing platforms to increase monitoring.
Still, online literature remains a more lenient environment, something that dawned on Ms. Jiang a she talked with potential production partners about adapting “The Journey of Flower.”
“At first, a lot of companies were reluctant to take on the story,” she said, “because they said it wouldn’t pass the censorship process.
“But when I write characters, I create evil people who are actually good and good people who are actually bad, because I believe humanity is complicated. But that complexity is not suitable for television.”