Author：Verbena C. W，Elaine Yang
Back in 2003, Lkong.net, China’s most popular online book portal at the time, had insufficient server resources to provide for the overflow of traffic it was experiencing. However, to change over to new servers, it would need to spend a rather costly sum of money. In order to save on expenses, the company was forced to choose to transform along a different route. They bought out the copyrights to a bunch of the most popular online original works and bought the print version copyrights of online novels as a one-off, paying authors a fixed amount of royalties. They marched into the paper book publishing market, and at the same time this meant that they were abandoning free online serial novels. But Chinese online readers at the time had grown used to reading things for free; when those works were serialized, the book fans that had said “I’ll definitely buy the books you put out” rapidly disappeared because the serials were interrupted. This resulted in very few actual books to be published by Lkong.net. After that, the paper versions of online books continued to experience dismal sales, and because the online sales plans of booksellers such as Lkong.net basically came to nothing, this brought about the abrupt rise of a new batch of websites. As a result, Chinese online literature entered a “bronze age” in which readers where charged directly to read online books.
ReadWriteWeb was the leader in online paid reading. When it was established, it just happened to coincide with the apex of SMS alliance popularity; for a time it earned a hefty income by charging for mobile sms messages. However, because the builders of the website rose to success too rapidly, from the very start they put charges into effect for each book as a whole and did not provide free chapters to attract readers. It had a weak foundation, and some text messaging partners included unauthorized charges for smsing, and this phenomenon caused many readers to flee. Most importantly, the website was overly exploitative of authors. One author who signed with them said, “When publishing a work with ReadWriteWeb, the site pays the author royalties based on the number of visits by registered users (not counting the repeated click-through rate from the same users). If only one member looks at your book, no matter how many times or how many chapters, it’s always RMB 0.06 per person.” These low prices, compared to the minimum of $0.99 that Amazon Kindle charges per book, undoubtedly struck a death-blow to enthusiasm from authors. ReadWriteWeb was finally left forgotten in a corner. But at about that time, another website, ” Magic Sword Book Alliance (Hjsm.tom.com),” began to stand out.
Magic Sword Book Alliance (Hjsm.tom.com) was originally a loose alliance that consisted of four like-minded book portals. From its establishment in 2001, they gradually discovered the weaknesses of Lkong.net and ran about in search of stable server space until they found stability in January 2002. As it happened, that was when readers and authors were fleeing Lkong.net due to instabilities in its connection speed. A large number of authors and readers ran over to the more stable Magic Sword (Hjsm.tom.com). In March of 2004, Magic Sword’s world Alexa ranking reached the top 300. It became China’s top web portal for original works of fiction and established itself as the new ruler among online bookstores, and formally began to explore the commercialization of original book sites. At variance with ReadWriteWeb, Magic Sword adopted a pay-to-read style whereby authors who had signed with them received fees based on click-through rates of subsequent chapters after having published a considerable number of chapters for free. Because of this, they were able to maintain long-term income earnings once they had a stable flow of internet traffic. Magic Sword quickly founded a golden age for fantasy and martial arts novels, and in less than two years there were more than 20,000 original works authors using the site including more than 30,000 works, and its pages were visited 1.2 to 1.5 million times per day and had more than 500,000 registered users.
“Zhu Xian” (Jade Dynasty),written by Xiao Ding, was Magic Sword’s most popular novel, and was the first masterpiece to successfully and organically combine fantasy with martial arts in Chinese online literature. Later in 2006 it was published in Mainland China and Taiwan and was adapted into an online game by the same name. To this day it is much sought-after by readers and online gamers alike.
Another author who shares the limelight with Xiao Ding on Magic Sword is the female writer Bu Feiyan. Her series of novels called “Chivalrous Inn” is about a few martial arts masters who arrive at an inn after their arduous journeys, and after a life-and-death struggle occurs between them, they later fall into the evil plots of a common enemy. Finally, they gradually extricate themselves from their many suspenseful predicaments to end up on top. While Bu Feiyan’s writing differs from the meticulous description of male authors, this causes her audience — the majority of whom are female and highly-educated youths — to admire her even more. Furthermore, she is also the long-term spokesperson for such Chinese online martial arts games as “Sword Heroes’ Fate.”
In conclusion: Compared to the casual contract-signing and deliberate lengthening of literary works in order to make more profits despite the result being shoddy goods, the reason the for-pay works of the bronze age led by the Magic Sword Book Alliance were able to earn an income was even more to do with the superior quality of the works themselves and their attractiveness to readers. They were quite convincing to readers, causing them to not disparage one bit to fish out their wallets to pay for the novels that they love.