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Trend-spotting in online fiction

Daniel Dan, architect of bestsellers.

In mass-market fiction this year, grave-robbing stories and palace romances are still hot, while fantasy and wuxia fiction are in decline. So says Daniel Dan Fei, the editor behind popular titles like Stories from the Ming Dynasty (明朝那些事), Notes on Grave-robbing (盗墓笔记), and most recently, Palace Harem (后宫).

Stories from the Ming Dynasty found an audience in the intersection of popular history with the current enthusiasm for things Ming, while Notes on Grave-Robbing and Palace Harem belong to two genres currently white-hot: tomb raider stories and palace romances.

Many of the titles that Dan has shepherded to market originated online. This is nothing new; what is notable is the controversy that several of these books have generated.

In March, the online version of Stories from the Ming Dynasty was the focus of accusations of click-fraud: the book was promoted as a "million-hits-a-month" forum post, which some online detectives decided was an inflated number (story at ESWN).

When an unfinished online novel is acquired by a publisher, the author might stop updating at the publisher's request (given how widely things are copied on the Chinese web, taking down the original is usually not an option). Readers typically do not do much more than grumble, but earlier this year, one group of fans took action - they launched a boycott of Palace Harem following the print publication of the first volume in February. In their opinion, author Liulianzi was reveling in her fame while ignoring the people who made her famous in the first place. Some fans were particularly incensed that she never gave a firm date for the release of the concluding volumes, resulting in fans compulsively refreshing her web-page and giving her clicks that she didn't deserve.

The publisher, Xiron, apologized to readers while simultaneously blaming rampant piracy for their decision to keep the story's conclusion off the Internet.

In the following interview (translated from the Mirror), Dan Fei acknowledges the positive effect that such a vocal opposition can have on sales. He also discusses the process of creating a bestseller, and offered his predictions of this year's hottest book trends.

Book designer favors newcomers

Manuscript's success or failure determined in an instant
An interview with Dan Fei by Qin Yuchun / Mirror

Mirror: What's your usual standard for choosing novels? Will you look at how they do online?
Dan Fei: I basically don't care about whether or not they are popular online, and I don't care about click numbers. I only care about my first impression. The authors are all clear about my predilections in selecting novels. In an instant I can decide whether a novel will live or die. If it has become popular in a small area, I'll perhaps pay more attention to it, for example, among white collars or students. I place emphasis on effective responses from netizens - quality responses.

Palace Harem

Mirror: Why are most of the people you sign newcomers?
Dan: This is an idea of mine. I don't want to do mature authors primarily because in the media, in the marketplace, and among readers, the image of older authors is already decided, so there isn't much room to do anything. Taking a step back, even if the media and other channels are forced to pay attention, readers won't buy in. If an older author's previous book sold 20,000 copies, I might be able to sell 30,000, but 40,000 would be hard. If he's put out a number of books, all of which only sold 20,000 copies, then it'd be even harder for me to make a best-seller. People's patience is limited, so you've got to submit to that.

Mirror: So is there more space for working with online writers?
Dan: Yes, like a blank sheet of paper, I can do whatever I want. I can design a track and work along it, and there's a greater possibility of success.

Mirror: How much risk is there in promoting someone new?
Dan: There's no big risk. In risk, new writers are the same as old ones. There's risk along with opportunity - for example, a book that was obtained at high cost after boisterous bidding might bring difficulties but also holds out the potential for big profits. Publishers have experience in minimizing risks. In addition, mature authors won't necessarily demand a lot for their copyrights; many new and old authors alike elect to sell off all of their rights at once for a lump sum.

Mirror: What's the lowest that that sum might be?
Dan: As low as free. Individual authors have been willing to have me do their books without compensation, but I generally do not accept in those situations. I typically act according to my own judgment in determining how much to offer a writer; if I think the market is good, I'll offer high royalties; under opposite conditions I'll offer lower royalties or just buy the rights for one lump-sum.

Mirror: Were the high click numbers for Stories from the Ming Dynasty any of your doing?
Dan: No. Actually, Stories from the Ming Dynasty did not have high traffic compared to some other books. There are lots of things with higher traffic than Stories from the Ming Dynasty, and it wasn't even the highest on Tianya. There was one book, which it would be inadvisable to name, that had over 100,000,000 clicks on a particular website, and later it sold just 10,000 or 20,000 copies. There is no inevitable connection between clicks and sales. It was certainly not the click rate that allowed Dangnian Mingyue's book to sell well; the author wrote a measured book, not neat and dogmatic. This "common people's" mentality attracted lots of readers who were also "common people'."

Mirror: The 100,000,000 clicks number is certainly fraudulent, right?
Dan: Whether or not it is fraudulent is up to what the network engineering experts say.

Mirror: Recently, there was a collective boycott among netizens of Liulianzi's Palace Harem. What's your take?
Dan: There were some newspapers that said Dan Fei was angry, but this is obviously not my attitude. I don't get angry. Objectively speaking, in these circumstances, the fans' boycott created an anti-hype effect that actually had a positive effect on sales. When a book is singled out for criticism by many people, it attracts more attention. Like when it's been revealed that some authors have plagiarized, this becomes a great focal point in the media and readers won't stop buying books simply for this reason. From another perspective, Chinese people have a tendency to sympathize with the underdog, so Liulianzi's hard-core fans will support her even more. The spontaneous boycott has had an effect that is obviously far greater than any artificial work, because the former is more authentic and real. So the rebound effect is also more pronounced.

Mirror: What differences are there between promoting the grave-robbing stories and palace romances?
Dan: The appeal of the grave-robbing genre is different from the palace genre. Grave-robbing stories primarily attract male readers; male readers typically have relatively rational purchasing habits. For this reason, grave-robbing writing must be solid with detail that is highly-realistic, and packaging ought to be rough. "Rough" doesn't mean crude; it's an original way of satisfying the emotional demands and consumer mentality of the "rugged man."

Palace stories depict the eternal story of Cinderella meeting her Prince Charming; they fulfill the dreams of female readers. Women today have new demands for their Prince Charming; first, he must be powerful and distinguished, and an emperor or a prince definitely can satisfy this end. Then he must have enough money, so much that it can't all be spent. A member of the royal household can be as romantic as he pleases without a thought for the cost of that romance. So this type of book needs fine packaging and detailed design. The cover must strive to use language to move female readers, to resonate with their experiences and emotions. Female readers should buy in after seeing the cover; it will tick the impulsive purchasing habits of the female reader.

The Matrimony, novelization of the Leon Lai/Fan Bingbing/Rene Liu film

Mirror: Out of the books you've done, which one are you most satisfied with?
Dan: It's hard to say. Stories from the Ming Dynasty sold just 60,000 or 70,000 copies, and I don't think it's all that successful. Palace Harem has around 300,000 copies, but that's not really successful either.

Maybe Tina's Wronged Ghost Road (冤鬼路) and Piece of Candy's The Matrimony (心中有鬼) rate as successful, because thrillers and horror stories are harder to do. Tina's was her first book, and Piece of Candy's earlier books weren't really noticed. After I promoted them, they immediately doubled in value. Even so, I can't say that I've peaked. That Bloom (盛开), as a new-concept reader, can sell more than 100,000 might be a small success.

Mirror: Why do publishing people all like to write poetry? Or, why do poets like the publishing world? What's the relationship between the two?
Dan: I wrote poetry before I did publishing. From my youth I've enjoyed writing: poetry, fiction, essays, criticism - I wrote them all. Those publishers born in the 1960s, like Zhang Xiaobo and Wan Xia, are all poets, but this strange situation is just a coincidence.

Mirror: You first jumped from Bertelsmann to Xiron (磨铁文化), and now you're jumping from Xiron to ComicFans (漫友文化). What are your reasons for these moves?
Dan: I left Bertelsmann for a very simple reason: I wasn't satisfied being an editor; I wanted to be an editor-in-chief. Fortunately a group of publishers gave me an opportunity and invited me to be editor-in-chief; among them was Xiron. My ideas were in line with Xiron's at the time - this was my largest motivation. In addition, at Bertelsmann I was working on foreign books with very few original works. I felt that I got all I could out of the experience with foreign books, so I turned my sights to the market for original works.

I am leaving Xiron because through the efforts of myself and my colleagues, it has developed into a mature company so that I can leave with a clear mind. Coming to ComicFans is like heading toward a golden industry. For me, ComicFans has unlimited potential under the sustained, long-term gradual growth of the book industry. I hope that I can become a creature who dwells equally in the realms of books, periodicals, and comics.

Mirror: What would you like to say to all those online writers who want to become famous?
Dan: First, it's not easy to become famous. Second, there are many things in life more important than fame. Third, you must study and work hard. Writing can be a hobby you do in your spare time. Once you've become famous and made money, it's not too late to start doing it full-time.

Mirror: The book market is so hot these days; is it because of hype, or are there really that many readers?
Dan: "Hot" is mostly just inflammation. The book-reading public is basically a constant, and publishers and books must share pieces of the pie. When an individual book gets a larger piece, the majority will get smaller pieces. Within that, there are differences in attitude and "abilities." On the hype front, there are a few harmful strategies that are running rampant - like the many publishers who are still fixated on inflated circulation numbers or even click-rates and the price of deals. This strategy can be intimidating.

Mirror: Will grass-roots literature and vernacular histories be the next big trends?
Dan: I won't make any predictions about "big trends." I can't say that vernacular history is a trend, but grass-roots, plebian attitude is definitely a trend. What I hope to see are more writers digging down and cultivating a pose into a way of thinking - a true, sincere state of mind. Regardless whether it is grass-roots and plebian or "patrician" and "bourgeois," a good state of mind will produce excellent, profitable writing. It's like acting - an actor so deeply immersed that he "tricks" himself will most definitely craft a good performance.

Mirror: You've said that last year was the Grave-robbing Year. Is this year the Palace Harem Year?
Dan: You can only say that a book or group of books has brought about a media tide; to categorically state that last year was such-and-such a year, or this year is such-and-such a year is superficial. You can call last year the Grave-robbing Year and this year the Palace Harem Year because certain books sold like crazy and were on everyone's lips. Actually, last year was also the Vernacular Year, and this year is also the Grave-robbing Year.

Mirror: What subject matter will be popular next? Do you have any predictions?
Dan: I really can't predict. In my view, readers and writers, or maybe the marketplace, are qualified to predict trends. If you really want a forced prediction, then I think moving love stories will still be a popular trend among women's books, and solid mixes of fact and fiction will be popular among men's books.

For the time being, cross-genre romances are still a relatively large category. In addition, alternate history and grave-robbing will still be hot for a while. It's hard to find superior horror books. To date, Cai Jun and Guigunu are in the first wave, while Nalan, Tina, Piece of Candy, and Zhou Dedong are in the second wave. Who will join the first and second waves? I'm still looking.

Solid reading material for men and the humanities and social sciences may occasionally break out of the pack. Motivational, computer, and business books are still very profitable. But fantasy and martial arts are in decline.

Links and Sources

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