Book market seeks new plot

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Psychology, history and comics were the topics that drove China's literature sales in 2021.

Annual reports and lists by different platforms show that psychology, comics about history, and works of literature were the most popular book categories among Chinese readers in 2021, reflecting the major concerns and topics in society.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese book market has been experiencing challenges, as sales in 2020 dropped for the first time since 2015 and sales in 2021, although greater compared with the previous year, did not reach the level before the pandemic, according to a report by Beijing OpenBook, a consulting company specializing in the book business.

Sales of online books had been growing by more than 20 percent annually over the previous 10 years before 2020 as online platforms and online shoppers grew. However, as the customer base stabilized, online book sales grew by only 1 percent in 2021 year-on-year.

Physical bookstores are still facing serious challenges posed by the pandemic since most activities went online and visitors declined. Book sales in bookshops in 2021 grew by a little over 4 percent, driven largely by books related to the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, but still dropped by more than 31 percent compared with 2019, according to Beijing OpenBook.

Since 2018, sales of literature kept dropping until 2021 when it grew by 4.6 percent year-on-year. What is prominent is that among the top 100 best-selling fiction works published in 2021, 63 were online literary works, Beijing OpenBook's statistics show.

The most popular genres of online literature in China include fantasy, romance, martial arts and science fiction. Among the 63 online literary works on the top 100 best-selling list of books published in 2021, most were targeted at women readers, and 22 titles from Tangjia Sanshao's Douluo Dalu (Soul Land) series, first run on, were among the best-sellers.

Shen Yu, a former book editor based in Shanghai, who has observed the industry for more than 10 years, says more people read online literature, which is usually entertaining but lacks in depth and artistic merit, because amid the pandemic people need to find comfort in entertaining texts, in which protagonists usually conquer difficulties and achieve success in either romantic relationships or professional fields.

Despite the fast growth of online literature, the leading seats on the best-selling list are still taken by classic books, with The Three-Body Problem trilogy books occupying the first three places. Among the 100 best-selling fictional works, 12 were published in 2021, mainly new works by established writers, the new editions of classic books and online youth fiction. Yu Hua's novel Wencheng (The Lost City) sold more than 1 million copies in three months since it was published in March 2021, making 10th place on the top 100 best-selling list.

"In general, compared with cold hard facts in nonfiction, fiction might be able to give readers more comfort," Shen says.

Among the 100 best-selling nonfiction works, in addition to British writer Robert De Board's Counseling for Toads: A Psychological Adventure that topped the list, there were 19 other psychological or self-help books. Ten books about family education, and 10 books on economics and finance also entered the list.

"In 2020 and 2021, people felt more pressure due to the pandemic. That is why psychological books received more attention. Compared with books that instruct people on how to be successful, books that tell people how to adjust themselves psychologically were more popular, such as Danshari by Japanese writer Yamashita Hiteko," says an analyst from Beijing OpenBook.

Additionally, comic books on history were also popular, with 12 titles of the Half-an-Hour book series and eight titles of If History Is a Group of Cats series entering the top 100 bestselling nonfiction list.

"Comic books have become popular in recent years, first about history and gradually touching fields such as ancient poems, medicine, and science and technology," the analyst from Beijing OpenBook says.

"This kind of book is easy to follow, catering to people's fragmented reading habits, so it sells well," the analyst says.

As one of the results of the advancement of information technology and media, it seems like that people's ability to read and understand long and complicated texts has declined, Shen says.

"We must see such comic books as only being used to popularize basic knowledge rather than elaborate on profound content. Readers usually read them to relax rather than study, so in function they cannot replace normal books on the same topics," the analyst says.

Besides the best-selling lists, a lot of platforms released their lists of "good books" that highlighted major social concerns of 2021.

At its annual reading ceremony in mid-January, the Book Review Weekly of Beijing News released a list of 12 books published in China in 2021 that were "most worth reading". Targeted at the middle-income group, the weekly's list, covering 10 fields, including literature, art, history, social sciences, economy, children, education, and lifestyle, came out after rounds of discussions among 12 experts and scholars in related fields.

Among the 12 books, there are Irish writer Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha, Manifeste Incertain by French writer Frederic Pajak, Shaping the World by British writers Antony Gormley and Martin Gayford, The Cheese and the Worms by Italian writer Carlo Ginzburg, and Sanbu (Take a Walk) by Chinese illustrator Dawu.

The Second Shift by US writers Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung reflects the general concern in Chinese society regarding the low birthrate and parenting.

In the last two years, the pandemic has largely restricted the physical space for people's activities and cut off connections with nature. Ouyang Ting's Beifang Youkeshu (There Is a Tree in the North) entered the list because it illustrates how people can find nature in their surroundings. The book contains the writer's observations of Beijing's natural environment and her phenological notes on parks, plants, birds, rains, clouds and wind, presenting a vibrant picture of creatures in the city throughout the four seasons of a year.

"Every spring is different. We must keep our curiosity to ask more questions, which will bring us to farther places," she said at the ceremony.

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