The top 5 percent best-selling books in China contributed to more than 60 percent of total sales in 2012, according to a recent market analysis by Openbook, a Beijing-based company that tracks the domestic publishing industry.
Last year, more than 370,000 books were published, almost twice as many as the US, but readers, writers and critics complained there was a lot of quantity, but little quality, especially in literature.
"Somebody told me that more than 6,000 novels were published in a year," says Lei Da, a famous literature critic based in Beijing. "I'm not sure where he got that number and whether the real number would be so high, but within the critics' circle, only about a dozen were memorable. And only a handful became popular and critically acclaimed at the same time. So you can see the imbalance here." Best-selling books last year include semi-autobiographies from TV hosts and film stars, romances that were adapted into blockbuster films and young adult novels about love and coming of age by celebrity writers. The classic "Fortress Besieged" by famous literary scholar Qian Zhongshu (1910-98) and the world classic "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez also made the list.
The first three quarters looked much less exciting than that of 2011, when many topical books like "Steve Jobs" and "Harry Potter" were imported and met with great enthusiasm in China, making the book market a hot topic. Lacking heavyweight works, the translated books didn't perform as well as in 2011, but a few books, both fiction and non-fiction, still attracted attention from Chinese readers.
In 2012, the market didn't heat up until October, when well-established writer Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in Literature. "Mo mania" swept the nation and among many phenomena, his books, all republished after the announcement, quickly returned to the best-selling list. In the fourth quarter, 12 of his books were among the top 15 best-sellers, with his latest novel "Frog" (2011) at the top. Readers largely ignored "Frog" when it was first published in 2011 even though it won the prestigious Mao Dun Literary Prize.
According to Openbook, Mo's Nobel win pushed up sales of all novels by nearly 1 percent from the year before, although the influence on other books in the domestic market is difficult to ascertain. Internationally, it increased interest in translating contemporary Chinese novels. A lack of good translators has made this difficult while Western readers have generally been more interested in books about China rather than novels by Chinese authors.
According to publishing journal China Publishing Today, Chinese publishers bought the copyrights to 15 foreign books for every one Chinese book they sold the copyright for in 2003. That ratio closed to 2:1 in 2011 although the bulk of copyrights sold was to other Asian countries. The rates with the UK and USA were 10:1 and 18:1, respectively.Yao Minji
Selected great contemporary Chinese novels in English
1. Three Sisters
Translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin
Bi Feiyu is known for his understanding and sophisticated portrayal of female characters. Some of his best-known books feature female protagonists. "Three Sister" won the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize.
It consists of three novellas following three of the seven Wang sisters. It follows the sisters as they struggle to change their destinies after their father is sacked as village official.
Bi's most recent novel "Massage" about blind masseurs will soon be available in English.
2. The Wandering Earth
Translated by Holger Nahm
Many Western readers don't know science fiction is a big genre in Chinese literature simply because they were never translated.
Liu is commonly considered one of the most important and prolific Chinese science fiction novelists. His "Three Body" trilogy sold 400,000 copies and is often referred to by Chinese sci-fi fans as the "bible" of Chinese science fiction. An overseas publication deal has been reached and the English translation is expected to be published this year.
"The Wandering Earth" is an early novella and is available in English for the Kindle.
Selected best-selling translated works
3. Getting More: How You Can Negotiate to Succeed in Work and Life
This book is another example of how books related to famous American universities and becoming successful are popular in China. The Chinese translation of the book is called "The Most Popular Negotiation Course from Wharton Business School."
4. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It
This self-help book is written by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford who specializes in mind-body relationship. The translation was published only a few months after it was released in the US, which is unusual for a non-fiction foreign book. It was promoted in China as Stanford University's most popular psychology course and a book that can help one with self-control and success.
The strategy has attracted many readers and books written by professors from famous American universities are popular here.
5. Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Gabriel Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" was translated and published in China a few times without the proper copyrights. Many now well-established Chinese writers recall being thrilled and inspired when they read the book for the first time. These same writers consider Marquez a great influence in their early creations.
In 2011, the copyright was obtained and a new translation was published. It quickly became a best-seller. "Love in the Time of Cholera", written by Marquez after he won the Nobel Prize, also had various unauthorized Chinese copies until this was published last year.