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Updated: 2011-09-16 08:40

By Andrew Moody (China Daily)

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Fears of piracy and absence of clear regulation hindering growth of digital publishing industry

China's migrant workers reading ghost stories on their mobile phones in the darkness of night in their dormitories might not seem agents of a publishing revolution.

But they could have more effect on the printing industry than the development of the printing press by Gutenberg in the 15th century.

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Some 200 million people in the country now read literature and other books online across China, often on mobile phones, according to the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), the government body which oversees the publishing industry in the country.

Revenues of the digital publishing industry in China rose to 105.2 billion yuan ($16.5 billion) in 2010, an increase of 32 percent on the 79.9 billion yuan in 2009. Digital now represents 8.2 percent of total publishing revenue of 1.27 trillion yuan.

All this might seem a great opportunity for publishers, albeit at the expense of traditional books.

However, many of the migrant workers, students and others reading whatever interests them are not paying anything for the privilege.

A large proportion of them read self-published serial novels, which produces no revenue at all for traditional publishers.

They are also reading versions of New York Times best-seller list titles, which have been copied online by individuals who pay no heed to copyright laws.

Stella Chou, Greater China managing director of Harper Collins, based in Beijing, says that many consumers are not prepared to pay for material online.

"Consumers don't want to pay anything for content. Anything you put on the Internet one day, the next second it is everywhere. Piracy is the key issue," she says.

"It would be unrealistic to think it could be stopped completely but until we are confident in the trend and direction of the way things are going, it might not be viable to sell digital books in China yet."

Digital copyright theft has become a major headache for the Chinese government.

Liu Binjie, minister of GAPP, speaking at the 18th Beijing International Book Fair earlier this month, said piracy was holding back the development of digital publishing in China.

"If copyright is not protected and widespread piracy becomes prevalent, digital publishing cannot exist long and an entire creative culture will be affected," he said.

"We must accelerate the construction of relevant laws and regulations in order to ensure a good environment of digital publishing."

His view was echoed by Tan Yue, president of China Publishing Group Corporation, the leading China publisher.

"Property rights are the crux of popular digital publishing. I think we should promulgate more relevant policies, laws and regulations to safeguard the legitimate interests of publishing enterprises, which should put a high premium on this right," he said.

Scarlet He is at the forefront of making the digital world a safe environment for publishers. She is general manager of Founder Apabi Technology, which has worked closely with the government as well as leading international publishers including Penguin and Harper Collins.

The company launched a cloud digital platform at the end of June on which publishers can place their digitized content.

"Copyright theft is a very big barrier to the development of the industry and it will still take time to protect against pirates," she says.

"We can't stop it. It is not within our power to do that. What we can do, however, is to work with publishers over the long term to build secure systems to make it very difficult for those just wanting to copy content."

Despite booming and lucrative digital sales for Harper Collins in established markets in North America and Europe, Chou says she is having to play a waiting game in China.

"The market is a little bit messy. It has not stabilized. We are prepared to wait a bit before we do anything," she says.

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Wang Changying, director of Foreign Language Press 

Wang Changying, director of Foreign Language Press, a leading publisher of books on history and the arts which promotes China across the world, is confident enough to digitize more of her company's content. At present only 3 percent of its catalogue is available online.

"This is a very important issue for us. We are trying to put out more content for the digital market," she says. "The major barrier is that it is difficult finding the right channel to do this."

The very character of digital reading in China is different to that in the West, according to most industry analysts.

The typical Chinese digital reader does not read books on an Amazon Kindle or an iPad or on one of the Chinese digital devices such as Hanvon but on a mobile phone, often reading long novels that way.

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