Books

Wang Shuo sells out and returns to print

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It looked like Wang Shuo had said goodbye to print media. In interviews with Southern Weekly and San Lian Life Week last month, Wang declared that any future projects would be released online under a pay-per-click or subscription model. "I don't need to publish printed books," he said. The general reaction to this was that Wang had no idea what he was getting in to.

So the news today that Wang has signed a 3.65 million-yuan deal to print his new book with a traditional publisher should not come as much of a surprise. Beijing Daily Messenger spoke to Lu Jinbo, head of Bertelsmann's Rongshuxia agency, which acquired Wang's new novel:

Lu Jinbo told the reporter, "Half a year ago I was talking to Wang Shuo. This is a philosophical novel, packed with information. Its contents are obscure, including religion and philosophy. If you read this book you would never imagine that it is by Wang Shuo. I think it is a peculiar book. But if you take the time, you'll be able to understand it."

He did not tell the reporter precisely how much Wang Shuo was paid - he said that this would be announced to the media after he discussed it with Wang - but: "This time Wang was given an unreasonably high price - not just for China, but even in the US this price would be out of line, since we calculated it in US dollars."

The "unreasonably high price," according to Shanghai Youth Daily, is US$3 per character (including punctuation), for a total of 3.65 million RMB, or substantially more than the 2.8 million that Han Han received for his forthcoming novel. This is "unreasonable" because, Lu explains:

"...In the future we will sell tons of copies, and perhaps we won't lose money, but it is 'unreasonable' primarily from an investor's perspective." However, he also said, "We've published many mass-market books in the past, like GirlneYa, Han Han, and Annie Baobei, which generated more than a bit of money. For this piece by Wang Shuo, we'll publish it as a 'strange thing' that will become part of history."

So was all the talk of online publishing just a bunch of hype keep Wang in the public eye? Perhaps, but it's also possible that the pay-per-click idea wasn't all that well thought-out in the first place. Lu Jinbo says that Wang jumped at the deal: "he thought for three seconds and then immediately agreed." No apology for the turnaround, either - when he let slip in an interview with Tencent yesterday that his new book will be released in a month, he Wang warned "Don't anybody use my words against me."

An interview with The Beijing News published on 30 January included this exchange:

Wang: The 2 million characters are several years of my life. One novel is complete, and another stopped at 160,000 characters. Also a few scripts. They won't all go up at once. I originally planned to toss a couple years' worth up onto a blog, but now I've changed my thinking. I've decided to take turns writing and chatting. I won't put everything up at once. Stick it up a couple thousand characters at a time. Naturally it will all be coordinated.
TBN: When the time comes, will your new works use a pay-per-click reading format?
Wang: We could have a membership system, annual or monthly fees, or if you're just passing by, then pay-per-click. If you can't be bothered to pay, then I guess there'll be lots of people who'll copy it to other places; go there and read if you want, but it has nothing to do with us....this is the way of the future. If I don't do it it'll be this way sooner or later; I just want to be first, is all.

Judging from complaints aired in interviews over the past few weeks (up to and including comments in his Tencent interview yesterday complaining about agents who stiffed him), Wang seems to have two major issues with traditional print publishing as it is practiced in China: compensation and control. The new deal appears to solve both concerns:

Money

To San Lian, Wang Shuo quoted a standard publishing rate of 10 yuan per character, a figure that observers like Wang Xiaofeng called unreasonably low. He compared it to a predicted daily traffic reaching 100,000 visitors at 0.1 yuan apiece, for a total of 10,000 yuan in income per day, a figure that observers called unreasonably high.

That model would have given him 3.65 million yuan per year. Remarkably, this is precisely the total value of his deal with Lu Jinbo.

Wang Shuo was one of China's first authors to demand royalty payments from publishers rather than a flat manuscript fee. He told TBN last week:

I offended them with the copyrights; none of the publishers wanted to give them to me. They said I was ungrateful, that they had trained me, that I only loved money. At my most popular, People's Literature Publishing House and Writers' Publishing House printed my books by the hundreds of thousands, and there were around 800,000 bootleg copies. I ask for some money - what of it? They didn't give me the royalties I deserved, but they gave them to foreign authors. GAPP sent down a notice. At that time publishers did not sign contracts. I said, if you don't hand over royalties, I'll call you pirates and you'll have to stop printing immediately. Later, each press paid a sum of a few tens of thousands of yuan. At the time I felt that crew was despicable - are you running a non-profit? Today this is all old stuff; back then I sank to being the greediest of writers.

But piracy is not an issue, now, and neither are publishers' accounting shenanigans. According to Lu Jinbo, the 3.65 million paid for Wang's new book is a straight manuscript fee, not tied to sales.

Authorial Control

From the Southern Weekly interview:

I have no need to publish a print version. Let an editor examine it? It's enough for the government to examine it; should I let you examine me, and let you wholesalers have a piece? The streets are full of bootlegs....Publishing houses are the same as news agencies; more than 20,000 characters were excised from Could Be Beautiful (看上去很美). The line editor said, your characters are non-standard; there's a correct way of using correct Chinese characters, and you're not in accordance with the correct way. The many new words in there - you've corrected them all so that I don't recognize them. 'Completely disoriented' (找不差北) became 'doesn't know where north is' (不知道北在哪里). I'm not evading oversight, just this sort of vacuous oversight.

When a copy editor doesn't understand he goes and changes your words. You've coined a phrase and he changes it into a word everyone knows. Like "林林总总" - a major editor at People's Literature Publishing House said that he'd never heard that word - you have to change it. I think that old editor has passed away....when editors make changes to a writer's manuscript, they're doing work for someone else's benefit, and it's an inconvenience for them. Today there are computers at work; any sentence of mine that violates national laws you can delete, and that's enough. An extra person means extra trouble.

However, even online Wang would not necessarily have complete control over his language. In the recent Flower Village serialization of his 1986 novella Half is Flame, Half is Seawater (一半是火焰一半是海水), the 37th installment begins with the following line:

我沿着幽暗潮湿的山***往回走,在一个衰老的老太婆的摊上买了把骨柄短刀,坐在一株古老的银杏树下的青石上分开了刃。

It's been censored by automatic language filters. The print version has 我沿着幽暗潮湿的山阴道往回走, "I went back along the dank, gloomy mountain path," but the characters 阴道 (vagina) ran afoul of the censors.

Lu Jinbo told Shanghai Youth Daily that Wang stipulated that not a single character be changed in his new novel, so he'll get complete authorial control in a nicely-produced package.

So Wang Shuo gets to publish exactly what he wants for exactly the amount of money he desires. Will readers who have been waiting six years for a new Wang Shuo novel end up getting what they want in the form of an unedited, philosophical, "peculiar book" that doesn't resemble a Wang Shuo novel?

Before the deal came out, this week's China Reading Weekly performed a comprehensive analysis of Wang's Flower Village publishing platform, and came up with a number of suggested changes that ought to be made before a novel can be successfully published exclusively online.

Ok. To sum up, here's what Wang Shuo needs to do:

1. He needs to leave that none-too-beautiful, infantile, ugly, disorderly "Flower Village" that can't even solve basic technical issues, and move into a "www.WangShuo.cn" mansion (a more flexible choice would be if he could give up a bit of freedom, then he could seek out a portal, provide free reading, and collect advertising income based on hit rates. Or he could set up a shop on Taobao, taking advantage of its payment system, but this would him to be equipped with several hundred bargaining tools, and reply to a hundred thousand email messages with that day's work sent in the attachment).

2. He must divorce his own commercial operations from the non-profit Flower Village sales of dresses charity to avoid causing unnecessary suspicion and trouble for them.

3. He needs to drop the one-mao-per-click, micro-profit business model and exchange it for an advanced collected-payment method, such as membership, monthly subscription, all-access card, or something else.

4. He needs good editing and layout. If there are 2 million characters worth of writing to deal with, then there is an even greater need for a professional editing team. They will probably need to be taken from a publishing house.

5. If the works will be printed and bound into books rather than printing out a packet of A4 copy-paper for the readers to lug off, then he'll probably first need to work out whether to apply for a book registration number, to avoid having the book confiscated as fake.

Basically, Wang would have to set up his own publishing house. Not much of a choice when 3.65 million is right there for the taking.

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