World Book Day: Innovations digitize reading habits in the new age

Readers at Taohuayuan Branch of Songpo Library in Shaoyang City, central China’s Hunan Province. /CFP

Readers at Taohuayuan Branch of Songpo Library in Shaoyang City, central China’s Hunan Province. /CFP

Fueled by advancements in technology and promotion by e-commerce giants, a surge in digital reading in China made it a preferred format for many readers, according to a national reading report released on this year’s World Book and Copyright Day (April 23), which falls on Tuesday.

In China’s Outline of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development and Vision 2035, it is noted that the country will further promote nationwide reading to build a nation of avid readers.

The 2023 national reading survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication shows Chinese adults per capita read on average 4.75 physical books in 2023, slightly lower than that of 4.78 in 2022.

China’s adult citizens read a per-capita average of 3.4 digital books in 2023, higher than that of 3.33 in 2022. Meanwhile, 78.3 percent of Chinese adults read digitally either online or via apps on smart mobile devices in 2023, up 0.5 percentage points from the 77.8 percent in 2022.

According to a report released by the China Audio-video and Digital Publishing Association in late 2023, the total revenue of China’s online novel industry reached 31.78 billion yuan (about $4.47 billion) in 2022, up 18.94 percent year on year, with its overseas revenue accounting for 4.06 billion yuan during that period, an increase of 39.87 percent year on year.

Chinese online literary works have been translated into more than 20 languages, covering over 40 countries and regions in Southeast Asia, North America, Europe and Africa, the report said.

Tech-driven digital transformation

“As more and more content is obtained digitally, ‘digital publishing’ represents the process of publishing content to digital media in a wider sense,” said Luo Zhenyu, founder of the online learning app iGet, adding that digital “content” represents all information that can be digitized, not only text but also design, content distribution platforms and technologies used in the publishing process.

Chinese e-commerce giant has developed a comprehensive digital reading “eco-system,” including its reading app, electronic reading gadgets and audio e-books. The company has also issued a list of classified reading groups based on customers’ online purchase behaviors. Reading groups contain titles such as elite moms, gourmets, queens, elderly youth, photographers and sophisticated uncles.

The electronic reading system at a local library in Huzhou City, east China’s Zhejiang Province, April 23, 2024. /CFP

The electronic reading system at a local library in Huzhou City, east China’s Zhejiang Province, April 23, 2024. /CFP

“Digital media can promote sales based on analysis of audience behaviors and interests,” said Shen Hao, a researcher with the State Key Laboratory of Media Convergence and Communication and professor of the School of Journalism of the Communication University of China.

Shen said that, unlike publishers of physical books, digital media uses big data technology to manage customers’ registration, log-in, reading, content sharing and commenting. All of the data records can be tracked and analyzed. Shen added that blockchain technology will soon be applied in the digital content publishing industry. He also noted that many jobs in traditional publishing organizations, such as copyright management and content production processes, will be replaced by AI technology, which helps check fraud and reduce intermediary links.

Nowadays, classic books are more accessible to the public thanks to modern technology. The National Library of China released the Yongle Canon HD Images Database last year, enabling the public to study the great ancient encyclopedia “Yongle Dadian,” which was commissioned by the Chinese Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle in 1403.

Based on high-definition images, the database adopts both GIS and three-dimensional restoration techniques to vividly display the binding and layout of the encyclopedia. By using digital technology, ancient classics like this are better preserved for study and reading by the public and experts alike.

With all the aforementioned efforts, China is now taking great strides in cultivating a love of reading across the country.

A bookstore in Shenzhen City, south China’s Guangdong Province, April 23, 2024. /CFP

A bookstore in Shenzhen City, south China’s Guangdong Province, April 23, 2024. /CFP

Reading bridges China and world

Moreover, online novels with distinctive Chinese features, characterized by imaginative story plots and a strong sense of immersion, have emerged as important ways for cross-cultural communication.

On Douyin, China’s most popular video-sharing platform, a program dedicated to exploring essential science books has gained millions of views and attracted nearly 90,000 loyal viewers in just two years. Every week, esteemed scientists and scholars are invited to appear on the program to share their insights on science books ranging from Euclid’s “Elements” to Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.”

Program planner Wu Guosheng said that his only goals were to ignite public interest in science and foster the participation of both scientists and the public. “We do not encourage people to engage with classic science books for academic purposes, but rather to make the experience of reading about science captivating, enlightening and rewarding,” said Wu, who is also dean of the Department of the History of Science at Tsinghua University. He and his team have promoted nearly 100 classic science books on social media since 2022.

The popularity of science literature is also being boosted by China’s rapid sci-tech development. Recent advancements in biomedicine, aerospace, astronomy, artificial intelligence and information technology have sparked waves of public enthusiasm for science and injected new vitality into the publication and marketing of science books, said Xu Guoqiang, deputy editor-in-chief of the World Publishing Company.

Bangladeshi writer Yazia has read more than 40 web novels with traditional Chinese elements. “Reading makes me better understand the romanticism and heroism in Chinese history and mythological stories, and brings me spiritual strength,” she said.

The growing presence of Chinese online literature in overseas markets offers a new worldwide lens into understanding China, said Xiao Jinghong, a researcher at the online literature center of the China Writers Association. “Today’s world is more eager than ever to have a true, multi-dimensional and panoramic view of China,” Xiao said.

Through web novels, overseas readers could learn more about Chinese cultural elements and core values such as diligence, harmony and cooperation, as well as realize the different cultural origins and ways of thinking between China and the West, she added.

(With input from Xinhua)