Books

Lu Jinbo: Marketing the Wang Shuo brand

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Larry Lu Jinbo (路金波) is the publishing phenom behind recent best-sellers by Wang Shuo and Han Han, and is the architect of GirlneYa's YA fiction industry.

In an interview published in YWeekend last week, Lu revealed how he signed these big-name authors, and what his company does to recoup the multi-million advances it pays out. In particular, he counters rumors that the (relatively) poor sales of Wang Shuo's new fiction collection My Millennium resulted in losses for the publisher:

Simply selling books is too one-sided; as content-providers, we first find content, and then we proceed with value-added services - selling A/V and comic-strip adaptation rights, selling content to other media, or using the books to carry ads....we made hundreds of thousands of yuan, even up to one million, before his collection was even published.

Lu Jinbo is all about marketing the authors as brands, but he says he's not too concerned about content. Danwei recently posted an interview that the Mirror evening news did with another agent, Daniel Dan Fei, who talked how he markets trends.

Lu Jinbo: "Selling" Wang Shuo and Han Han

Interview by Yan Xueling / YW

When Lu Jinbo speaks, he's not as animated as his writing. To any question, he maintains the same tone and speed, and when he feels something is inappropriate, he will carefully correct it. This reporter's impression was of Lu Jinbo the careful, meticulous businessman rather than the reckless online outlaw Li Xunhuan of years past. Many years ago, when he was the online writer Li Xunhuan, he dared to openly take Yu Qiuyu to task in an article.

He says that he was never a fanatic, that he's always been rational. Although he hits out in all directions, he is very principled. In buying books, for example, he has never changed his mind because someone else has declared a price. "Writing is describing what you cannot bring about in your life. It's always the opposite of reality. Hideously ugly people write very beautiful protagonists, and lonely people write things that are bustling with activity."

YWeekend: Some in the media have said that Wang Shuo's book has not sold well, that it hasn't yet reached 100,000 copies and many booksellers are asking to return it.
Lu Jinbo: Wang Shuo's new book has been out for two months and has sold 300,000 copies. Wang Shuo's readers are mostly middle-aged intellectuals, but book-buyers are primarily at the two ends - kids at the one end, and retired workers at the other. People in the middle don't like to read.

YW: Some did the calculations for you - you have to sell 700,000 copies to avoid a loss on the 3.65 million paid to Wang Shuo.
Lu: Truthfully speaking, we're not short! Saying that we have to sell 700,000 copies to be in the black is just their arithmetic. Our commercial model does not rely solely on books to make money. Simply selling books is too one-sided; as content-providers, we first find content, and then we proceed with value-added services - selling A/V and comic-strip adaptation rights, selling content to other media, or using the books to carry ads.

YW: Using Wang Shuo's book for ads is one kind of value-added service?
Lu: When we heard Wang Shuo wanted to publish a book, the ad clients we contacted were very interested. We talked to at least ten before deciding on three. The ads were printed on the back of bookmarks - printed very attractively. And the products advertised were related to books - for example, if you've gotten tired from reading, you can use eye-drops; or, just like Wang Shuo's Animal Ferocity, you can use Kingsoft to kill computer viruses.

Yesterday I calculated it out - selling My Millennium, we made hundreds of thousands of yuan, even up to one million, before his collection was even published. At the moment there's no way to figure out a precise amount. And ad companies can use Wang Shuo in their ads, so why can't we? My company and I need this sort of exposure to let people know that we are a powerful enterprise. The eyeball economy can be transformed into an actual economy, so our total profit from all sources might be in the millions.

YW: Many people say that Wang Shuo's book has not sold well because it was written so impenetrably. Did you read the book before you published it? Did you understand it?
Lu: Not really. Acutally, at the time I just looked at a few headings, but mainly listened to him talk. When I contacted him to publish the book, my goals were clear: one was to have Wang Shuo publish a book, and another was to have him publish a book unlike any in the past.

Actually, I don't have to read the book. What I liked was his brand. Wang Shuo is an author among authors. Both he and Yu Hua are icons; his position cannot be entirely determined by the market value. He has a high brand value - for example, only Wang Shuo's books can sell advertisements, and only Wang Shuo can cause such a stir when publishing a book. This is very beneficial to our company's publicity.

Announcing a new product requires going to TV stations with ads, and you might have to spend several million. Wang Shuo's book was a major event in Chinese culture this year. The eyeball economy - using this, we made 1.8 million in ad fees. This is normal.

YW: How did you think to contact Wang Shuo about putting out a book?
Lu: Wang Shuo is relatively close to an author friend of mine, Sun Ganlu. In March, 2006, I heard from him that Wang Shuo was writing.

I originally had been looking around to see who had what. I have a "30-person list," most of whom are among the top 40 authors on the best-sellers list, and I have informants to help me inquire about what those people are up to. Wang Shuo has always been in the scope of my hunt.

YW: Was it hard to get Wang Shuo to publish a book?
Lu: Yes. As soon as I learned he had a manuscript I immediately gave him a call. At first, he was not too interested in putting out a book, he said he didn't like commotion. At that time he enjoyed peace and quiet.

I said to him, I'll come pay my respects as one of the younger generation. He said, then come. Actually, we met in January 2000. The Rongshuxia website held the award ceremony for its first Online Literature Competition in Shanghai, and we were both judges. At that time, he had taken a liking to online literature and had started a web company. He may look "cruelty" toward the media, but underneath he is bashful, and he was very friendly to the young members of the BBS. He felt that we were naive, but that we were on the right track.

After that meeting, he was always aware of me and felt that I was a social mover among that group of young people online, that I could ----. I once wrote an article lambasting Yu Qiuyu, "Yu Qiuyu's online face-changing creates BBS chaos," and it was he who told Yu Hua that I had written it.

YW: Then how did you get to him?
Lu: He wasn't too willing to see people back then, but he said I could go, so of course I went immediately the next day. The first time I saw him he did not assent; he was just writing from time to time without thinking much of it. During that time I went more than ten times.

The third visit he opened up and said that what he was writing was a world outlook and there were some things that he had not yet thought through clearly. When he had thought them through, he would give me the book. That was May, 2006.

When I heard that he had begun to take this seriously, and was willing to give me the book, I no longer went to disturb him - I let him write in peace. By the time of the World Cup in June, he said that he would finish writing in August. But by July, he once again had complete writer's block and took a break for a number of months, so the project was shelved again. When I saw there was no activity, I started visiting him again frequently to look in on him. I didn't talk of the book when I went. The time is up to you, I'll just listen to you talk about the cosmos and religion. But Master Wang is smart - I was always visiting him, and he was embarrassed that he wasn't finished writing. (laughs.) He didn't feel like writing again until October.

YW: There are rumors that you hooked him through astronomical royalties and that you personally took a trunk of cash to his doorstep.
Lu: How is that possible? Turning over royalties is done through a company account. (laughs.) Wang Shuo was very concerned about this.

Seven parts money, three parts feeling. I paid him an advance, but I won't say how much that was.

YW: When you say Han Han's books sell well, how well is that?
Lu: Under normal circumstances they can sell 600,000 or 700,000 copies.

In 2005, I signed Han Han and then Annie Baobei. Han Han's An Ideal City and Annie Baobei's Padma sold 700,000 and 600,000 copies, respectively, and they each made 3 or 4 million.

When I signed Han Han I made a bet. We originally had an Internet company whose main operation was the Internet with a side business in publishing. Later, publishing did so well that we sold off the website Rongshuxia and used the income from that sale together with the money earned from publishing to spend 2 million yuan each to acquire Han Han and Annie Baobei's new books.

At that time many people in the industry disagreed. They estimated that Han Han's and Annie Baobei's books would sell 300,000 or 400,000 copies, but I felt that this underestimated their market value. In the end, it came out to roughly my estimate of 600,000 or 700,000 copies.

YW: How did you sign Han Han?
Lu: Before we talked cooperation, I spent one month researching him and Annie Baobei. Han Han's previous books were done with black covers and had the image of rebellious youth. I wanted to change him into a critic and a philosopher, the image of a good kid. We did his book as a nice soft-cover and changed it from all black to pure white. And we planned to have him issue a music album. This enriched and matured him so that he was no longer just a one-note, troubled youth.

The day I gave him a call, he came to our offices at midnight to sign the contract. Actually, there was a company that offered Han Han higher royalties, but he still chose us. Han Han is straightforward and looks to people rather than money. Later, when we cooperated on his essay collection Altar and his novel Day of Honor, we practically didn't need a contract.

We met in 2002. That winter, I looked him up to acquire some very small adaptation rights - an author wanted the rights to turn one of his scenes into a comic. We met in a pet store near Beijing's Olympic stadium. He went there to give his dog a check-up. Later, he took me for a ride, and we talked in his car. We came to an agreement in seconds, and I gave him 5000 yuan, which he didn't even count. I had him sign a rights contract, and he didn't look at all carefully before signing it as he drove.

Later he went back to Shanghai and we were in frequent contact. I'm seven years older than him; we have many similar interests and we often play ball together.

YW: So what was it that you used to sign Annie Baobei?
Lu: Annie Baobei is an old friend of mine. In 1998, Annie Baobei's first writings had come out online, and they were really amazing. But she is very reserved, and usually it's the guys who seek her out. We met through a mutual friend; I even wrote stories to try to please her, with myself as the male lead and her as the female lead. Jokey stuff.

Han Han may value relationships, but Annie Baobei is a particularly principled individual. Regardless of how much remuneration you offer her, the details of the contract, or plans for the future, it all needs to be worked out very clearly. She asked: How many copies will this book sell? I said, 600,000. She was very surprised. Books with previous agents had printed 300,000 copies. She didn't think her books could sell 600,000. But actually, Padma has sold 588,000 copies since April of last year. We have a three-year contract, and by that time we'll definitely have surpassed that number. When I talked to Annie Baobei, I told her that I wanted to do a hardback book; her previous books had all been paperback. I said that I wanted her more stylish, more international, more high-end. When promoting the book, I had her maintain an air of mystery - for example, I didn't have her go to small cities to do book signings. Her style and petty bourgeoisie positioning and packaging required distance to be successful. Guo Jingming is different - his readership skews young, so he needs to go to signings, since he relies on immediacy to succeed.

YW: Has your judgment ever been off?
Lu: Yes. Last May, when Yi Zhongtian's Savoring the Three Kingdoms was auctioned off at Beijing's Media Center, I sent someone along. At that time, I had told them to offer 1.2 million, or at most 1.5. Ultimately, Shanghai Literature and Arts Publishing House bought it for 1.8 million. Looking at it now, the two volumes of Savoring the Three Kingdoms have sold roughly 2 million copies; I think the author has made at least 4 million yuan.

Later I often said internally that we shouldn't have any regrets, because this was because our knowledge base was insufficient. We only knew literary books and did not understand the humanities. We had no way to judge.

YW: Have you ever experienced a particularly cruel loss?
Lu: Yes. Muzi Mei was our most tragic loss. At the end of 2003, she had a bit of popularity online, and she also wrote magazine columns. I thought that her sexy track had a big market.

It was easy to talk cooperation with her; she didn't have high demands. But the book hadn't even come out when it was banned. A whole pile of books were destroyed without being offered for sale, and losses topped a million. This was a bitter lesson. So afterward we had to pay attention to spreading the main theme.

YW: You've signed books by Wang Shuo, Han Han, Annie Baobei, and Yu Hua. Why do these sell so well?
Lu: First there's foresight. The authors I've signed are all key players on the literary stage, so they have a market. From 1997 to 2002 I wrote online under the name "Li Xunhuan"; Annie Baobei, Ning Caishen, and I were called the "Three Chariots" of online literature. I know what everyone likes to read, and I have people who can get in contact with popular authors.

I have never fought a battle I was unprepared for. Before I talk cooperation with author, I spend several months researching him.

Another important thing is that I am unlike other publishers in that they pay authors after they publish their books, so basically they start out owing money to authors. Here, I'm exactly the opposite. I first give a sum to the authors I partner with. Everything is paid in advance.

YW: What are the unique aspects of these authors who sell well?
Lu: Overall, Wang Shuo is a concept stock, GirlneYa is a large-cap stock, Han Han and Annie Baobei are both blue-chips. "Concept stock" means that Wang Shuo has an awesome brand, "blue chip" means that they've had good performance all along. GirlneYa is a "large-cap stock", meaning that she's large-scale. Last year she put out 14 books. While she's doesn't ride atop the bestseller list like Han Han and Annie Baobei, each book makes it into the top 30.

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