Two decades of profitable Chinese book agents

Female Boss by Xue Mili

Last fall, Danwei took a look at the book packaging industry in China, particularly for fiction for teenage girls.

Writing in last week's Southern Weekly, former book publisher An Min discusses the changes that have befallen book agents since the mid-1980s. He pays special attention to the "Xue Mili" series of novels: packaged, pseudonymous pulp churned out at breakneck speed that swept the country beginning in 1987. The GirlneYa phenomenon, it appears, is nothing new.

Vicissitudes of book agents

by An Min / SW

In the late 1980s, China's private book agents began to appear. The famous CEO of the Chongqing Lifan Group, Yin Mingshan, was the earliest book agent in Chongqing, but later he turned to making money in motorcycles.

At that time I was in Wuhan. I had just begun working and I enjoyed writing. After 1993, the book agents around me began to get more numerous.

The writers' seminar at Wuhan University is no longer in operation. A few young authors who attended the seminar, as well as some poets from Sichuan and Shiyan, joined hands to make a living by writing books.

At the time, the Wusheng Road Culture Market in Wuhan had a large national influence, bringing together a large group of book agents from Hubei and Hunan. There was one person from Henan among the book agent with whom I interacted. He and his two brothers were owners of a store on Wusheng Road; the three of them had no more than a middle-school education. Another old book agent from Wuhan who couldn't read more than a few characters had originally been the owner of a bookstall near Liuduqiao; after selling for a while he moved up to become a wholesaler on Wusheng Road, and then he transitioned to book production. Without much education, these book agents made early fortunes relying on their own drive, the sellers' market, and the fact that no booksellers around them had much education.

After the group of young authors ascended the stage, they began to write under the pseudonym "Xue Mili" and produced a series of novels for book agents. All of the "Xue Mili" books that hit the market in those years came out of their hands.*

At the time, there were two types of writers. One sort had good topics and good drafts, and who had a long-term writing relationship with one or two agents. This type of writer was not usually responsible for editing, proofreading, or typesetting. The other type wrote on subjects they or their agent selected, and the writer would be responsible for editing, proofreading, and typesetting in addition to the writing itself.

The group of young authors primarily worked as the first type of writer. A friend in Wuhan wanted to imitate their working methods, so he connected with a book agent to provide manuscripts. His writing couldn't maintain the necessary speed, so it fell to me.

The two of us, together with two friends from Sichuan and Shiyan, rented a room near Yuemaqiao and got two office desks as our workplace (it was a bit like the studios that became popular later). The room was on the second floor, only one street away from the red Wuchang Uprising building.

The book agent set the topics and deadlines for us, and sometimes he even provided reference materials. We quickly got to writing or editing, and then found a place for typesetting. After it was edited and proofread and the cover was designed, the time came to make the exchange and hand over our carbon copies.

But before long, those other two friends wanted to break up, perhaps because they had no money for rent. So our temporary work partnership was declared finished. Counting it up, the two of us had written a good number of manuscripts, and I personally made 30,000 yuan in manuscript fees. We still kept in touch with our friends who were writing Xue Mili novels.

That group began to experiment with producing their own books in 1994. A couple of them put out books through me (I had gone to work for a publisher at the time) — Golden Boy Andy Lau, Pure Maiden Lin Qingxia. The production was stingy and the photos were blurry — nothing to recommend them. I said they wouldn't sell well, but they didn't listen, and in the end lost money.

Another year passed, and they all became book agents. Two of them, along with the friend who had helped me with the writing work back then, urged me to join them as a book agent. I said I'd think about it, and then I didn't get back to them.

In the end, they all got rich quick. The one who did best among them made 10 million in the following year. In February 1997, I saw him at a book purchasing convention at Hongshan Hotel, but he no longer had eyes for anyone. Someone asked him how much he made the previous year, and he answered lightly, "About ten million," and then didn't pay him any more attention. The one who did the worst among them only produced two books of jokes, and that brought him more than 500,000. He said that his fingers had gone weak from counting the cash.

Indeed, books were good business that year. Usually, you'd first pick a topic yourself, write a manuscript, and then after making up two fake books, you'd attend a secondary channel purchasing convention. Book agents from across the country would go to hotels and make orders after seeing samples. Money would be handed over, and then you'd take the cash you received at the convention and return home to print and distribute.

In actuality, this group of people had long been the sort of book agents who had an education. After this new group of college graduate and masters' graduated book agents entered the market, the first round of the elimination competition began. The young authors quickly found their feet in the marketplace, and then expanded into Beijing and Chengdu. Today, the best among them moves 400 or 500 million a year, according to list price. They're all swimming in money, and practically every day is indulgence and debauchery.

But the market changed after that. In the mid- to late-90s, the book market experienced a glut, and it became a buyers' market. Lots of agents had a miserable time picking titles and had a hard time escaping a fate of being dumped out.

A local book agent in Wuhan did a talk-show-like book that originally sold quite well, but later titles in the series didn't match that performance. So he had to get out. Another agent that had done a book called The Mystery of the Crystal Skull made several million off that one book, but then he couldn't find any suitable titles and had to leave the market.

Another kind of agent left the market after causing trouble. There was an agent who had graduated with a master's degree from Beijing Normal University and had done a "Trans-century Collection," a series that came out at the lowest point for original contemporary fiction. Before the publication of that series, original domestic fiction had been mired in the doldrums for several years, yet that agent and editor were uniquely perceptive. Boldly, they boldly in that Collection, dragging up with them the entire market for original domestic fiction. The outlook of such an agent can only be described as "unique." But after they made their money, they pirated a popular novel, and were locked up for several years. And once down, they could not get back up — after they got out they continued to make books, but nothing they did worked, and eventually they dropped out of the game.*

Much later, market changes gave rise to a third and fourth group of book agents. In the late 90s, a group of outstanding teachers entered the textbook market as agents, and they've now become the greatest book agents in the country. After 2000, a group of economists became agents in the market for business administration books and quickly rose to prominence.

Right now, of those agents who did Xue Mili novels in the early days, some have become successes, and others have turned to other areas of investment. One of them opened a huge hotpot restaurant in Chengdu, and business is really good.


  1. The name Xue Mili (雪米莉) appeared as the author of a series of potboilers beginning in 1987. The publisher claimed the author was a woman from Hong Kong; the books were largely set there and had women as their main characters. The conceit was unraveled in 1989 and was condemned by the mainstream publishing world. The two primary authors were Tian Yanning and Tan Li; Tian later disclosed the details behind the project in the book Confession: Exposing the truth behind Xue Mili (坦白--雪米莉真相揭秘) . There's a brief description of the affair in this paper by Yunshan Ye (from Google cache).
  2. The publisher was Chen Huiping (陈辉平) of Changjiang Literature and Arts Press, and the agent was Peng Xianglin (彭想林). According to a forum post that An Min made in 2004, the two were detained after pirating Jia Pingwa's Abandoned Capital.
  3. Chapter 6 of Shuyu Kong's Consuming Literature: Best Sellers and the Commercialization of Literary Production in Contemporary China (Stanford UP, 2005) contains a thorough discussion of the Xue Mili phenomenon and other contemporary publishing events.
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