East Meets West on Mobile Storytelling Platforms

Digital literatures in the UK and China

Sophie Rochester, CEO of The Literary Platform, explores digital literatures in the UK and China.

In 2012, I read an article in The Atlantic stating that in China, ‘25 Million People Use Only Their Cell Phones to Read Books’.

In the UK around that time, much focus from publishers and developers was on how book content might transfer to Apple’s iPad, demonstrated by projects such as ‘The Waste Land’ from Faber / Touch Press (2011), ‘London: A City Through Time’ from Pan Macmillan / ‘Heuristic and Frankenstein’ from Profile Books / Inkle Studios (2013).

The early and much lauded experiments around mobile storytelling, such as the iPhone app for Nick Cave’s ‘Bunny Munro’ (Enhanced Editions, 2009) failed to scale more widely, and by 2011, Evan Schnittman, then Bloomsbury's MD of sales and marketing, pronounced at the London Book Fair that enhanced content for narrative-based ebooks was dead, illustrating his point with a dramatic gravestone slide featuring the words "Enhanced E-books and Apps: 2009 to 2011".

At the same time, much focus in the West was also on the ebook market which was growing rapidly in the UK, and had US technology giants Apple and Amazon jostling for position.

These two conflicting narratives - the death of enhanced ebooks on one side, and the rise is ‘standard’ ebooks on the other, made the situation in the West somewhat complex. Alternately, the East had seen a steady rise of the mobile reading phenomenon. What accounted for these differences?

'Local platforms will one day be able to compete with foreign ones.' - Octavio Kulescz

Viewing the international ebook market as an international race, however, didn’t take into account the cultural nuances, socio-economic contexts and the ways in which publishing industries in different countries respond quite differently to digital technology. As Octavio Kulescz explains in his report, Digital Publishing in Developing Countries (2011):

“Given the enormous population, and above all the accelerated economic growth observed in many countries of the South, it is hard to believe that the developing world isn’t making its own contribution to the electronic age. In addition to the countless IT service providers in India and hardware manufacturers in China that support the Western platforms from behind the scenes, there are original and innovative digital publishing projects being carried out at this very moment in the South — local platforms that will one day be able to compete with foreign ones. In fact, some of these ventures are so dynamic that instead of debating who will be the future Apple of China or the Amazon of South Africa, perhaps we will soon be asking ourselves who will be the ‘Shanda’ of the US or the ’m4Lit’ of the UK.”

The West had always watched China’s mobile reading phenomenon with interest. Particularly, the Chinese readers who now read self-published serialised stories on mobile devices through platforms such as Tencent, and before that, literature platforms such as Qidian and Cloudary.

These Chinese readers were paying for stories in new and interesting ways: for additional excerpts of their favourite stories, they were making micro-payments through their phones.

When we first began researching for our China report in 2012, Understanding China’s Complex Publishing Landscape, the concept of micro-payments through your mobile seemed quite alien, but the creep of Apple Pay, bitcoin and small in-app purchases, are examples of our shift toward a comparable micro-payment / digital economy.

Our research critically explored the vaunted vast market potential in China for British cultural content, investigating how Chinese social networks and new business models for digital publishing might enable British writers to experiment with how they engage Chinese audiences. Distinctions in the way in which different genres perform in China, were prominent.

“Specific genres such as Fantasy and Science Fiction are dominant on China’s online literature platforms, and there continues to be a gulf in the kind of foreign literature being bought by traditional Chinese publishers (such as prize-winning literary titles) and the genre fiction by amateur writers surfacing on online literature platforms. For British writers of full-length novels, or short story collections outside of the popular Chinese online literature genres, the traditional processes via bridging agencies still appear to be the most likely route to market.”

'Innovation around mobile storytelling is not dead yet.'

The success stories of China’s online literary platforms were often previously unpublished writing and specific genres that were not readily published by traditional Chinese publishers.

This trend is replicated in the West on Wattpad, with genres such as teen fiction, fan fiction and paranormal enjoying huge popularity. 

Fast forward to 2017 and it seems that Schnittman might well be eating his words about the death of the enhanced ebooks, and that innovation around mobile storytelling is not dead yet.

Wattpad, possibly the West’s most successful mobile storytelling app, boasts a community of over 45 million readers and writers.

Last month Radish, a Los Angeles-based mobile fiction startup announced that it had raised $3m in seed financing. Led by CEO Seung-Yoon “SY” Lee, Radish has launched a short-form serialised fiction platform with over 700 authors spanning romance, fantasy, YA, paranormal, mystery and sci-fi content.

Radish now enables readers to test out a book by reading several free installments and then making a micro-payment to get early access to each chapter thereafter, very much mirroring the Chinese model not only in payment mechanism but also in the genres being published.

Oolipo, based in Berlin, is also trying to reach smartphone users with ‘serialised, media-driven storytelling’ and are exploring how stories might be told in the digital space. Its team believes that technology and storytelling are inextricably linked and that it’s the emergence of smartphones that provides the potential to enhance and expand storytelling in different ways.

At London Book Fair this year, I’ll be chairing the East Meets West on Mobile Storytelling Platforms panel event. We’ll be hearing from Alicia Liu, Managing Director of Singing Grass Communications; Founder & Director of Teseo, Octavio Kulesz; CEO & co-founder of Radish Fiction, Suengyoon Lee and oolipo’s Digital Marketing Manager, James Pullin.

As Alicia Liu, from Singing Grass observes:

“Historically the Chinese language form has always had the ‘fragmented reading’ nature – to use a very limited number of words to express philosophical thoughts, which are very easy to fit within a mobile screen.  Today, Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu, China’s three digital powerhouses, have brought a mobile revolution to the nation, from mobile reading, social media sharing to micro-payment. The unique combination of the literary tradition and technology makes mobile storytelling destined to grow in China, and it looks like only the beginning.”

At our forthcoming seminar, we hope to get to the heart of whether readers in the East and the West respond in similar or distinct ways when it comes to the consumption of mobile stories and consider how mobile storytelling fits into their respective traditional publishing ecosystems.

 Event Details

East Meets West on Mobile Storytelling Platforms

Cross Media Collection, London Book Fair

Thursday 16 March 2017, 10:00 - 11:00am 

 About Sophie

Sophie Rochester is the founder of The Literary Platform, a London-based consultancy that has been working on projects at the crossover of publishing and technology since 2009. She is the author of ‘The Publishing Landscape in China: New and Emerging Opportunities for British Writers’ and has spoken at UNESCO Paris, TOC New York, London, Milan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing about the shifts in publishing as a result of digital technology.