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Reading the Room

Through livestreamed book releases, collectible limited-editions and rebranding, publishers are creating demand for once unpopular titles – and shaping the future of the Industry

By Wang Yan , Ni Wei Updated Dec.1

Pan Xuewen joined the livestream at 8pm sharp. The Social Science Academic Press (SSAP) was releasing a new book, The 24 Solar Terms and Ritual and Music Culture, on June 7 and Pan was eager to get a copy.  

Intricately designed with orange edged pages, the limited-edition run of around 800 copies sold out within seconds. Pan got one, telling NewsChina that editions like these are so popular that he usually comes up empty-handed.  

Between March and July, Pan bought over 30 special editions from SSAP. “I spend over 1,000 yuan (US$148) a month on these books,” Pan told NewsChina. “For the few I miss when they’re released, I have to buy them at a premium from a dealer.” 
Among the tens of thousands on SSAP’s livestream channel are dealers waiting to snatch up copies to resell for a profit. According to Pan, online booksellers post listings as soon as the livestream ends, with much higher prices.  

Publishers are releasing more special editions with artistic designs, such as stenciled patterns and colorfully edged pages. Pan bought his first Jiaguwen book in April 2020. 

Meaning “oracle bones,” SSAP first branded Jiaguwen in 2013, focusing on translated academic books aimed at the general public. It was an instant hit among collectors. 
Over the past decade, similar brands emerged covering history and the social sciences, such as SSAP’s Thorn Bird series, Hanqingtang from Post Wave Publishing, and Haowangjiao from Zhejiang People’s Publishing House. Some collectors told NewsChina they just purchase special editions and never read them. 

Design Matters 
Editors at SSAP started focusing on collectibles since livestreamed book releases first took off in 2020. Dong Ran, design director at SSAP, settled on gold gilt pages for their Chinese translation of Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. SSAP sold 400 copies within the first minute.  

Beyond gilt pages and decorative stenciling, Dong Ran believes a book’s design must reflect its content. The Chinese translation of Keith Lowe’s The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us, was released in two versions: “Fear” had black page edges while “Freedom” had silver ones.  

Dong Fengyun, founder of the Jiaguwen brand, told NewsChina that special editions aimed to attract collectors and online traffic. “When we noticed many readers liked the designs, we made releasing special editions a long-term marketing strategy,” Dong said. SSAP now launches a special edition every Thursday, available only on its livestreaming channel. They often sell out within minutes.  

Another purpose is to explore diverse formats for special editions. While custom designs such as handcrafted lambskin covers and hand-drawn illustrations are common for limited editions in other countries, they are rare in China. Most limited-edition books on the market are still mass-produced. “I think limited edition books are in a transitional phase,” Thorn Bird founder Duan Qigang told NewsChina.  

The first that involved Chinese translations for world literature came from Shanghai Translation Publishing House in 2013, and had gold foiled pages. Since 2020, limited editions for history and Western literature became the industry norm. While collectors make up a reliable market, it is limited.  

Special edition books normally run under 1,000, while Jiaguwen prints a maximum 3,000 for popular titles. Some collectors pay 10 times the original price on the secondary market. “Initially, many saw their potential as collectibles and prices grew significantly,” Dong Ran said, adding that prices cooled as more special editions hit the market. “As collectibles, these products will likely go up in value as time passes,” Dong said.  

From the start, Jiaguwen adopted a very bold design style with saturated colors when brick-and-mortar bookstores were still very important sales channels.  

However, they saw mixed reviews. Jiaguwen chose a bright, ornate yellow cover for its Chinese translation of German author Axel Honneth’s philosophical work The Right for Freedom. While some called the design inappropriate considering its solemn content, the market said otherwise. 

The Chinese version of Leonardo Da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind by British writer Charles Nicholl, published by Hanqingtang in 2021

About Content 
Ling Xiao, an environmental engineer in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, has collected around 2,000 books, 170 of which are from Jiaguwen, his favorite series. He also collected some 30-40 titles, with each from Hanqingtang and Thorn Bird, and some 20 from Imaginist, a cultural brand founded in 2010. 
“I like to read history in story form,” Ling told NewsChina. “I’m not that interested in theory, and Jiaguwen’s narrative style caters to my taste. Also, the covers look good, so overall design is a very important factor.”  

In the late 1990s when Dong Fengyun was in college, the most popular social science authors in China were philosophers and theorists such as Max Weber, Michel Foucault and Friedrich Hayek. When Chinese-American historian Huang Renyu’s book 1587, A Year Of No Significance was released in China in 1982, Dong was surprised by its accessible style. The book, which covers the history of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), remains a popular title. Later, works from sinologists such as Jonathan Spence and Philip Alden Kuhn made waves among readers of popular history.  

While studying in France in the 2000s, Dong Fengyu read many history books, including Roger Crowley’s Empires of the Sea, City of Fortune, and Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453. After returning to China, he joined SSAP as an editor. Dong proposed releasing narrative history books and set up Jiaguwen. The brand published its first book, Imperial Rome by the National Geographic Society, in 2013, followed by translations of Roger Crowley, all to outstanding success.  

Dong’s target genre for Jiaguwen is a balance between academic writing and popular literature, which he said did not exist in China in the early 2010s.  

Since the expansion of college enrollment in the 1990s, demand has increased for higher quality books. “Some highly academic history books sold very well. So, we thought well-researched books written in a more accessible style would find wide readerships,” Duan Qigang, founder of Thorn Bird, told NewsChina.  

Following Jiaguwen, brands like Hanqingtang covering the humanities and social sciences gained market traction. So far, the brand has around 120 Chinese translations of foreign titles, including Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert, The Art of Being Governed by Michael Szonyi and The Armada by Garrett Mattingly. SSAP set up Thorn Bird to release translations of German history books, while Zhejiang People’s Publishing House established its series Haowangjiao focused on world history.  

“The market we sought to create emerged, the community materialized, and it was a good thing,” said Dong Fengyun. 

A display of special-edition books from Jiaguwen

Common Interests 
“The social science titles chosen for promotion need proper marketing to succeed. If we limit these academic books to academia, they will never connect with the greater market,” said Zhou Zhou, an experienced book designer based in Beijing told NewsChina. “It takes more than choosing topics for publication. It takes the right packaging and marketing.”  

Dong Fengyun said Jiaguwen’s demographic mainly lives in cities earning higher incomes in fields including academia, law, finance, media and government. The brand is aiming to fill the gap between academic publications and literature.  

Over the past decade, Jiaguwen has influenced authors. The popularity of history books coincided with that of non-fiction and micro-historiography, which has promoted popular historical writing in China. In particular, a group of young scholars are using traditional academic research to write for a greater public.  

“In my opinion, real historians are not opposed to accessible writing. All they need to do is hone their writing skills to cater to general readers. Younger scholars may be more aware how to do it,” said Zhang Peng, managing editor of Hanqingtang, adding that decades of China’s rigid academic system has stifled the creativity of scholars.  

The connection between publishers and readers has grown from a one-way relationship to two-way interaction. Some publishers are soliciting reader opinions in creative decisions.  

“Considering the fast development of society and new technologies, traditional book printing cannot rely on a stable market, so the industry needs to integrate other products such as online training courses, audio products and multimedia into traditional book printing,” Zhou Zhou said.  

“I believe that knowledge dissemination and reading habits will change dramatically in the future,” Zhou Zhou added.  

Pan Xuewen said he is a bit fed up with the plethora of special editions on the market. The initial feelings of excitement he had toward adding to his collection have cooled. He is more selective in his purchases, only choosing topics that interest him.  

“It’s natural for general readers to be attracted to a book’s content rather than its design, no matter how fancy it might be,” said Yu Yue, a woman working in media in Beijing. “I believe the book market remains segmented, with different readers favoring different topics. A few months ago I bought a set of books on Tibetan history from Post Wave, and that is purely because I’m interested in Tibetology. I don’t think there’s a gigantic market for niche topics like this.”  

Dong Ran also told NewsChina that new breakthroughs are on the industry’s horizon, but they will take further innovation. “It’s quite difficult to change the book as a format,” he said.