Author：Verbena C. W，Elaine Yang
Since the beginning of the “Bronze Age” of Chinese online literature in 2003, the commercial trend on every major book portal has gradually come to lean toward the VIP pay-to-read system. At a time when the largest and most archetypal book portal of this era, Magic Sword Book Alliance (Hjsm.tom.com), began to cautiously sign electronic rights contracts on books submitted by authors, another book portal, Qidian.com (originally the Chinese Magic Fantasy Union), started up a VIP program that kept original works confidential to all but its members, leading directly to a public discussion on the topic.
Qidian.com was established in May, 2002. In the beginning it existed as an assembly of like-minded fantasy literature fans. To a great extent it owes its rapid rise to fame among online readers to a science fiction novel called “Little Soldiers.” Tang Long, the protagonist of the novel, is the son of a rich family. After he graduates from high school he joins the army, where he is put in a private infantry training camp in which he is the only cadet. After enduring an intensely grueling training program, Tang Long qualifies to become a regular soldier. He quickly rises to the rank of captain on an auto-cannon gunship, after which he joins in a great interstellar war. The author, Xuan Yu, signed a contract with Qidian.com, and “Little Soldiers” became part of their VIP pay-to-read program; by agreeing to Qidian.com’s “First Rights Novels System,” he guaranteed that Qidian.com would have first world electronic rights on any new novel he put out for the duration of the contract, and that he would not publish his novels in whole or in part on any other websites for pay. More and more readers flooded to join Qidian.com so that they could read the next book in the “Little Soldiers” series, causing a huge increase in sales for Qidian.com from July to August of 2003. It quickly rose in the Chinese website rankings from below the 5000 mark to the top 1500.
In order to compete with Qidian.com, Magic Sword also began to revise their system by introducing a first rights program of their own, but this had the opposite effect on their sales. Because a considerable number of readers expressed dissatisfaction, as well as the fact that technical problems caused many readers to be unable to register for the new program, Magic Sword was forced to drop it and return to its old discussion forums to admit to its readers that the experiment had failed.
Afterwards, Magic Sword announced that that were relatively erotic and violent in nature would be prohibited from being uploaded, whereupon a group of popular authors, who used the name “Blood Red” to represent themselves, switched over to Qidian.com. Qidian.com began an all out journey toward commercialization that was oriented toward readers’ preferences. The protagonist of “Little Soldiers” gained an even bigger audience, and with much hard work combined with some luck, it climbed the ladder in the “upgrade” system, and a large number of similar fantasy novels were released.
However, the road to Qidian.com’s commercial success was not without bumps and potholes. Before long, several highly popular authors suddenly moved their works to other websites because they had received higher royalty offers. This had a huge impact on Qidian.com’s VIP program’s sales. Qidian.com had no other choice but to announce that in order to grow an audience that could help them meet their authors’ demands of 0.02 RMB per thousand characters in royalties, VIP novels would be free to read for full members during the first month after their release. No one would have thought that this desperate measure would later develop into the industry standard for Chinese online book portals. And just when Qidian.com’s VIP program had begun to falter, a fantasy author whose penname is “Wandering Toad” came to the rescue. His novel, “The Flying Roc” (Tian Peng Zongheng), tells the tale of how millions of living things of the world practice asceticism until they turn into demons, and of the fierce struggles that ensue. This was the start to a very hot-selling series, bringing a large number of new readers to Qidian.com. Afterwards Wandering Toad put out even more Eastern-style fantasy novels, one after another, and although none of them was ever published as a traditional paper book, they became insanely popular as e-books on the web. Coupled with his prolific penmanship, putting out a new chapter practically every day, this made him become one of Qidian.com’s “platinum authors” who had sold more than a million books by the end of the year.
In October of 2004, Shanghai Shanda Networking Co., Ltd acquired Qidian.com. With its very strong financial backing, Qidian.com grew on all fronts, quickly leaving China’s other online book portals far behind. Furthermore, at the same time that Qidian.com was winning over more and more readers from other book portals, a group of older book portals including Magic Sword fell into gradual decline, and the “Iron Age” of Chinese online literature came sorrowfully to an end.
In summary: During the Iron Age, Chinese online novels were predominantly sold by way of VIP pay-to-read programs. At the same time this guaranteed that authors could make an income by signing exclusive agreements with certain web portals, laying the groundwork for later full-time authors to grow. But because of the relatively high turn-over rate of online novel series, it became harder and harder to ensure quality in the works that were published; this was a potentially major and chronic problem for the entire e-book industry.