Update #2: Authors: Know the story of @Fiberead if you’re interested in the Chinese Market #selfpub #selfpublishing #indiepub

 

On October 5, 2015, I published an article on the rise and increasing popularity of Fiberead as an option for English-language authors interested in translating, publishing and promoting their titles as digital books in China. Then, on October 20, 2016, I published an update, reporting on some of the issues my fellow authors, translators and publishers have raised about Fiberead.

This article is a new update. It is my English translation of a Chinese-language article titled “Can one really operate a book publishing business via the Internet and “crowd-sourcing” model?” written by Xie Ruohan (Xie being the surname) and published by Beijing-based Q Daily on May 6, 2017.

Transparency: I could have quoted bits and pieces of this article to cover the major issues it mentioned. However, as Fiberead is a direct competitor to my own Chinese digital and print book publishing business, it is likely that my prejudice would lead me to only select those parts of the article that present Fiberead in a negative way. Hence below is a translation of the full text of the article. Apart from Fiberead’s logo, all other images are sourced from the Internet with due credits and my gratitude.

Also Note: Because this article was originally written for Chinese readers, in my English translation I have inserted notes whenever necessary to facilitate comprehension by Western readers. Kindly keep in mind that whenever “this year” is used, it refers to 2017 when the original article was published.

Can one really operate a book publishing business via the Internet and “crowd-sourcing” model?

By Xie Ruohan, Q Daily, May 6, 2017 (originally published HERE)

Fiberead has indeed enhanced the speed in which foreign titles are [translated and] published [digitally and/or in print in China]. Now its business model encounters a bottleneck in terms of quality.

Screen-shot of Amazon.cn’s Kindle Store search results using keyword “Fiberead”

Crowded in an Innovation Space on the second floor of the Bingo Cafe Building in Beijing’s Zhongguancun District are hundreds of workstations. Working within a space of less than 20 square metres are Fiberead founder Jiang Zhaowei and her three colleagues, their business being an online platform that publishes foreign literature using crowd-sourced Chinese translation.

A search for “Firberead” in Amazon.cn’s Kindle store will lead you to 405 Chinese ebooks. [Translator’s Note: This number had increased to 649 as of July 11, 2018.]

In order of their popularity, the top five titles are thriller Fifth Avenue [by Christopher Smith, Chinese ebook published in February 2017], parenting manuel How to Raise a Good Kid [by Starbuck O’Dwyer, November 2016], espionage fiction The Kramski Case (Tales of MI7 #1) [by J.J. Ward, February 2017], political novel Evil Town [by John David Bethel, April 2016], and suspense fiction Sugar and Spice [by Saffina Desforges, October 2014]. All of [these 405] are foreign titles, with the majority of the bestselling ones belonging in genres such as suspense or horror fiction, gender relations, or office and workplace. Many are by foreign bestselling authors. Each Chinese ebook is priced from 0.99 to 10 Chinese Yuan [approximately 0.15 to 1.50 U.S. Dollars]. All of them have been translated and published by Fiberead.

According to Jiang, since the establishment of Fiberead’s online platform in 2014, it has published more than 400 foreign titles as Chinese ebooks, which are sold through channels such as Amazon.cn, Duokan.com, and Douban.com. The platform has also acquired Chinese rights to more than 1,000 other foreign titles, which are currently being translated. While a total of six foreign titles have been produced as Chinese print books, Fiberead plans to publish another 100 by the year’s end.

Translating and publishing more than 100 titles each year, Fiberead’s capacity is similar to that of a small publisher. While this is far from the CITIC Press Corporation’s capacity to publish more than 1,000 foreign and Chinese titles each year, it is still an achievement by a team of only four.

The only problem is, the quality of Fiberead’s Chinese ebooks varies dramatically.

Screen-shot of Google search result for “quality”

Fiberead speeds up introduction of foreign titles by removing the middleman

“Each year, less than 1% of titles published in the British and American markets are introduced to China by traditional publishers, and in a really low speed.” Wanting to enhance the speed in which foreign titles are introduced to the Chinese Market, Jiang established Fiberead three years ago.

Compared to traditional publishing, these foreign titles are introduced in a unique process, as all of their translation from English to Chinese is done by crowd-sourced translators. Generally speaking, it takes an average of four to six months for a foreign title to get translated and published by Fiberead as a Chinese ebook. This is much faster than what traditional publishers can do.

First, foreign authors register and upload their titles to Fiberead’s platform. Then Fiberead puts out a call on its front page for voluntary translators. Whichever title is able to attract enough translators is prioritised for translation.

Jiang started announcing call-outs in those web forums often frequented by translators, such as Douban.com, and was able to gather an initial group of 300 translators certified through Fiberead’s internal assessment procedures. These translators get to translate, proofread and format foreign titles as Chinese ebooks in accordance with various processes managed by Fiberead. The back-end of Fiberead’s platform provides tools to facilitate direct communications among translators, members of each translation team, and authors. Finally, Fiberead promotes all translated and edited titles as Chinese ebooks through channels such as Duokan.com, Amazon.cn and Douban.com. Proceeds from the sales of each Chinese book are equally divided between Fiberead, the author, and the translators.

Fiberead enhances publishing efficiency by removing the middleman. Indeed, for traditional publishers to introduce foreign literature to China, they have to go through the whole process of choosing specific titles, locating the agents representing these titles (because it is often that authors do not own the rights and are not involved in rights management), and bidding for the Chinese rights (because multiple Chinese publishers could be competing for the same foreign titles).

In comparison, Fiberead acquires the Chinese rights to foreign titles by helping authors publish these titles as Chinese ebooks for free. As soon as authors have uploaded their titles to Fiberead’s platform, they are considered as having agreed to hand over to Fiberead their Chinese rights to these titles. [Translator’s Note: The “Chinese rights” here are exclusive and cover both digital and print editions in both Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese.] This allows Fiberead to skip the whole complex process in which publishers in two different countries have to search for agents representing those foreign titles in which they are interested and then to negotiate the specific terms for acquiring the Chinese rights to these titles. In the past, the negotiating process alone could take as long as one year to complete.

With efficiency enhanced, it becomes difficult to ensure the quality of Chinese ebooks

Jiang takes much pride in Fiberead’s publishing efficiency. “Foreign authors get to publish their titles as Chinese ebooks for free, while translation enthusiasts get to work on those subjects in which they are truly interested.” Apart from enhanced efficiency, Jiang thinks this publishing model can benefit foreign authors and Chinese translators in other ways.

In her view, instead of acting as “gatekeeper”, Fiberead provides translators, and then readers, with opportunities to filter titles [for the Chinese Market], therefore cutting away the role of “editors” who are in charge of checking the quality of book titles produced by traditional publishers.

“Some authors could remain unknown until they are finally able to achieve fame. An example is Ghost Blows Out the Light in its early years. [Translator’s Note: This is a Chinese fantasy novel series first published online in March 2006. More details can be found here.] So it remains my view that we cannot leave it to merely one or two people, or those experts in their own fields, to decide whether a title should be published. Instead, it should be the market that decides it.”

In this process, there is no initial investment for foreign authors to worry about. Nor do they need to pay for the Chinese translation. As long as their Chinese ebooks can sell, they will receive part of the proceeds from the sales. As for Fiberead, publishing a foreign title as Chinese ebook not only involves nearly zero marginal cost, but is also likely to bring in part of the proceeds from its sales. The lower that Fiberead sets its publishing threshold, the more Chinese rights to foreign titles it can acquire for free, and the more opportunities for those foreign authors “with no publishing channels” to publish their titles as Chinese ebooks.

However, as a consequence, readers pay a higher price for selecting Fiberead’s Chinese ebooks.

Those foreign titles uploaded to Fiberead’s platform only have to meet one criterion – that their digital editions can be uploaded to Amazon.com. This is a very low threshold, as Amazon.com’s only criterion is for ebooks to “meet the formatting requirements” in order to be successfully uploaded.

Having got rid of the middle links such as editors and negotiation of Chinese rights, not only do foreign titles get to be published as Chinese ebooks much faster, but Chinese translators and foreign authors also receive opportunities to be tested [by the Chinese Market]. Nevertheless, for those who have to pay for this publishing model, i.e. the readers – they now need to spend more time filtering all sorts of data – data that in the past were already carefully filtered by professional editors. This has nothing to do with personal literary tastes, as even the most amateur of writers could upload their titles [to Amazon.com’s and Fiberead’s platforms] in accordance with the aforementioned criterion.

The majority of Chinese ebooks have low sales, generating little values

Chen Haibin is one of Fiberead’s senior translators.

Within two years, Chen served as a major translator for dozens of English-language titles. In early 2015, she was the core translator of The Road Back: A Journey of Grace and Grit, whose author being Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Vitez [Chinese ebook published in July 2015]. “Before I started the Chinese translation, this book was already translated once, but that translation was so poor that it could not be used.” As a result, Jiang personally contacted Chen, hoping the latter could adjust/work on the Chinese translation of this title.

Throughout the one and half years following its release as a Chinese ebook, The Road Back sold less than 5,000 copies in all channels combined. According to Chen, even with such a small sales figure, The Road Back is one of very few bestselling Chinese ebooks out of all the foreign titles she has translated.

Fiberead does have “explosive titles” that have sold more than 100,000 copies, such as Chatter: Small Talk, Charisma, and How to Talk to Anyone [by Patrick King, Chinese ebook published in August 2015] and the aforementioned Sugar and Spice. Indeed, when Sugar and Spice as a Chinese ebook was released on Amazon.cn back in 2014, it reached #1 on Amazon Kindle’s bestselling list. Considering the Chinese ebook had absolutely no marketing/promotion, it was quite an achievement.

Still, generally speaking – out of more than 100 foreign titles translated and published as Chinese ebooks, only a few are able to make good sales. There is no visible pattern, either [in terms of what sells and what does not]. Instead, the common outcome is this: The majority of Chinese ebooks that Fiberead published throughout the past three years have sold between dozens and hundreds of copies. Without marketing/promotion, and with foreign authors having neither fame nor outstanding writing qualities, it remains difficult to boost the sales of their Chinese ebooks.

Meanwhile, these foreign titles are faced with another challenge – quality of Chinese translation.

Fiberead uses the crowd-sourcing model in its Chinese translation of foreign titles. Having registered with Fiberead, translation enthusiasts select one out of all the new titles announced by the platform. They then perform a “test translation” of an allocated chapter, and it is up to an “editor” like Chen to pick two to four enthusiasts with better results than others to participate in that title’s translation project. The same “editor” is in charge of managing translation progress and negotiating schedules and workloads among the team members, and it takes an average of four to nine months to complete the Chinese translation of a foreign title. Fiberead has even designed a “publishing procedure for dummies” for translators to complete the process of formatting the resulting Chinese ebook. It then goes straight to publishing and sales.

“Editors” as such are not Fiberead’s employees. Like Chen, the majority of them are experienced voluntary translators sourced from various web forums.

Chen has encountered quite a few unreliable collaborators. “It is often that translators abandon their work halfway through a project, or their Chinese translation have poor qualities.” Based on Fiberead’s principle of sharing proceeds from the Chinese ebook sales, Chen as the core translator of the 150,000-word The Road back received approximately 1,100 Chinese Yuan (approximately 164.84 U.S. Dollars). Based on the 5,000 or so copies of the Chinese ebook sold, the author and Fiberead also received similar amounts of money.

In Chen’s view, this is similar to any other online community launched by enthusiasts, where the earning remains low, the organisation is loose, and there is a high turnover rate of translators. “The majority of translators are not professionally trained. All they have to rely on is enthusiasm, just like those working in fansub groups.” [Translator’s Note: More details about fansub can be found here.]

This could lead to a cycle: The majority of Chinese ebooks have low sales; as a result, translators receive very little profits as a share of proceeds from the sales, which cannot sustain those translators with higher standards. Those foreign authors with fame and outstanding writing qualities may also have concerns [about the potential lack of sales]. Furthermore, Fiberead may choose not to select those foreign authors who are eager to enter the Chinese Market but whose books have been neglected by traditional publishers and hence lack filtering by “editors”.

Finally, the majority of Fiberead’s Chinese ebooks have a sales figure of less than 1,000 copies. Hence they have very little impact on readers and the books market.

“The Road Back” as Chinese ebook (left, source: Amazon.cn) and English print book (right, source: Amazon.com).

With little profits from ebook market, she ended up choosing to publish “explosive titles” as print books [Translator’s Note: The author really did use the pronoun “she” here.]

As its earnings from Chinese ebooks remains “too low”, Fiberead has now shifted its focus to publishing print books.

“Chinese ebooks may have good sales, but they are priced low, with the proceeds from sales to be divided among our platform, the author, and the translators. Hence the profit margin is very small.” Having published Chinese ebooks for more than two years, Jiang and her team started studying the process of publishing print books. It took them a full year to map out the whole publishing procedure.

From more than 400 published Chinese ebooks, Fiberead picked several best performing titles in terms of their sales figures and rankings on various platforms. These were then published as Chinese print books and sold on Dangdang.com since the beginning of this year, including the aforementioned Chatter and The Road Back, as well as suspense fiction An Eye for Murder [by Libby Fischer Hellmann, Chinese ebook published in September 2016].

“Chatter” as Chinese ebook (left, source: Amazon.cn) and English print book (right, source: Amazon.com).

In print publishing, Fiberead adopts a unique approach, choosing POD (print on demand) for its foreign titles. Based on the actual number of purchases each title receives in the market, between dozens and hundreds of copies are printed each month, to minimise the costs of storing them.

“[In traditional publishing:] Initially you spend a lot of money to acquire the Chinese rights. As you will not receive any profit without selling at least 100,000 print books, you are expected to produce at least that many copies. So it is meaningless if you begin with merely 500 copies. At the start you hand over more than 100,000 Chinese Yuan [approximately 15,002 U.S. Dollars] to the printer as down payment. Then you make another payment to store the books printed. These all count as your initial investment.”

Fiberead avoided this approach. Instead, for each title, Jiang pays an “assessment fee” to its collaborative publisher to receive an ISBN for the print book. [Translator’s Note: In China, the government’s General Administration of Press and Publication allocates a certain number of ISBNs to each of the country’s more than 560 publishers. As these ISBNs cannot be sold for profit, nor can anybody in China produce any publication for profit without a government-issued ISBN, many publishers request a small “administrative fee” when they hand over ISBNs to collaborative and/or independent publishers.] Other monies required for producing the print book, such as author advance payment, cost of translation, and expenses in editing, formatting and proofreading – for Fiberead, these are either non-existent or already taken care of by translators and the author.

“The initial investment of approximately 100,000 Chinese Yuan[approximately 15,002 U.S. Dollars] can now be reduced to approximately 10,000 to 15,000 Chinese Yuan [approximately 1,500.25 to 2,250.38 U.S. Dollars].” Jiang has done her calculation. However, as there is now initial investment involved, though not much, it leads to bigger pressure in selling print books when compared to ebooks.

In addition, the two characteristics of which Fiberead is most proud – “efficiency” and “removing the need for editors” – do not contribute to its competitiveness in the print book market. For readers, their motivations to purchase a print book may include the author’s fame, the book’s quality, recommendations/blurbs on its cover and dust jacket, and its cover design – none of these can be achieved without “traditional editors”.

According to data provided by Fiberead, in the first three months of 2017 following its shift to selling print books, it had sold approximately 200,000 Chinese Yuan worth of print copies [approximately 30,005 U.S. Dollars]. The best performing title, Chatter, sold 5,000 print copies in a period of two months. Jiang plans to publish 100 other foreign titles as Chinese print books by the end of this year. Based on the number of titles alone, “this brings Fiberead up to the capacity of a medium-sized publisher”.

Nevertheless, based on the statistics that only one out of every 100 Chinese ebooks published by Fiberead can make good sales, very few out of its Chinese print books are expected to have the potential to become the next Chatter.

This seems to highlight an inner conflict in Fiberead as a business – Internet and the crowd-sourcing model make it more efficient than traditional publishers, yet the lack of “editorial thinking” causes the products on its platform to lose their competitive edge.

Theoretically speaking, part of Fiberead’s problem can be solved by increasing the number of titles on its platform. However, ultimately, books are different from those information products such as “today’s headlines” in the IT category. Those who want to read, whether it is for pleasure or self-improvement, already have relatively high threshold values in mind. After all, it is books that they want to read!

[Translator’s Final Note: I consulted Meghan Riley’s blog post “My experience as an author with Fiberead” during my research for the above English translation.]

 

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