Guo Jingming not only sells more books than any other Chinese writer, he is a prominent businessman and a youthful celebrity figure. Mei Jia reports in Beijing.
China’s best-selling writer Guo Jingming is slim and suavely dressed in a creamy Western-style morning coat and a cute, white bow tie.
We meet in the conference room of Changjiang Literature and Art Publishing House’s Beijing Center, where he’s deputy chief editor (rumored to be chief editor soon) and Guo is unfailingly polite but not shy about praising himself.
We have been talking for an hour when an assistant says our time is up. Guo, however, immediately takes control, showing who’s boss, and answers questions for another 20 minutes. The 29-year-old has four personal assistants, which gives another indication of how busy and organized he is.
He’s produced six novels and two collections of essays since his 2003 debut City of Fantasy. Tiny Times 3.0, his latest creation, sold 1.4 million copies in two months after being published in December.
“I’m running a business that saves dying bookstores, and is reviving the whole publishing industry,” says Guo, who’s happy to talk about his success.
On Wednesday, Forbes China announced that Guo was included in its list of the top 30 Chinese entrepreneurs under 30.
“In 2011, 25 out of the top 30 Chinese best-sellers for the year, in the fiction category, were by our writers,” Guo says of his company. “And the books we published in 2011 brought in 300 million yuan ($47.6 million).”
He’s a controversial author, partly because he’s so young when most lauded Chinese authors are old. He has also been accused of plagiarism, and has what has been described as an effeminate image.
A New York Times story in 2008 called him “image-obsessed” but Guo responds, “It’s not me who’s picky, but the photographers”.
Guo seems at home in his own skin, but says at one time he felt he needed to prove he was more than just a pretty face and deserved to be taken seriously.
“At a low point in my career, people said I was just a writer with big sales figures, money and a pretty face, and I was upset.
“Then it came to me that the sales figures proved that people wanted to read what I had to say and this gave me confidence and allowed me to move on.”
“I grew out of criticism and suspicion,” he adds.
He may be slim, but he shoulders a vast and growing empire.
Sixty employees directly depend on him, and another 80 writers and 20 comic creators are contracted to work for him. He says he’s proud of building a production line that creates celebrity writers like him, then explains that he’s working in a so-called “sunset industry”.
“I could have had opportunities in other fields, like real estate, but I know what I want and I’m good at it,” he says. “If no one ever read another book in the country, it would be really pathetic.”
He believes he and his team have been filling a demand that was previously unmet, for teen books.
“It’s good that the older generation of authors write about the famine, the ‘cultural revolution’ (1966-76),” Guo says. “But readers born in the 1980s and 1990s see no connection to their lives there. They want to read about their lives.”
Literary critic Chen Xiaoming, at Peking University, says the “Guo Jingming phenomenon” should be seen in the context of social transformation.
“His works reflect youth mentality in an expanding consumer society that constantly craves freshness,” Chen says. “They focus on individuality and the connections between friends, and use a language that is elegant and fashionable.”
Born to a middle-class family in Zigong, Sichuan province, Guo began his writing career with two first-prize works in the New Concept writing contest, when he was still a high school student.
The competition transported Guo to Shanghai for the first time, a bustling and prosperous metropolis where he could “easily find a lot more books to read than in my hometown”.
He was caught up by the abundance of the city and decided to settle “with nothing and no one to help me except for the limited fame I gained through the writing contest”. He now lives in one of Shanghai’s most luxurious apartment complexes.
The city has also become the backdrop of many of his tales, including the Tiny Times series. His debut novel City of Fantasy sold more than 840,000 copies and aged 20 the success sent shock waves through the literary world.
This success was muted to some extent, however, by claims of plagiarism.
“I felt upset but soon realized that selling well was where my strength lay,” he says. “I don’t like to be misunderstood, so I decided to prove those people wrong, even if it took five years or 10 years of consistent writing.”
He then became involved in the entertainment business, writing lyrics and doing crossover work with people like director Chen Kaige and singer Han Hong.
Even so, he kept writing and in 2008 launched the first book of his Tiny Times series, which said goodbye to his school-themed writings and dealt with more adult themes. In 2010, he launched Critical, the first of eight science fiction flavored volumes centering on a world of four lands.
He says he works to 4 am every night and has not had a vacation for five years, except for his annual three-day Spring Festival break when he returns to Sichuan.
He says he pays attention to details and constantly revises his stories, adding that over the years his control of language has become more refined.
“I used to write in a wordy, dreamlike style that suited the romance of youthful feelings, but Tiny Times is plain and concise.”
He says he now spends a third of his time traveling and reads Su Tong, Mo Yan and Yan Geling, fashion magazines and financial books, while on the move.
“I’m a little disappointed that I don’t devote all my time to writing,” Guo says. “But I can’t ignore my company and employees.”