Rich writer, poor writer

There seem to be two types of writers in China: the rich and the poor the ones whose works are “IP-able” and whose are not. The acronym “IP” in such contexts differs from its conventional meaning as in “Intellectual Property”: rather, it is the abbreviation of “IP movie/TV”, i.e. the films and television plays that result from adaptations of popular copyright works including animation, novels, games or songs, etc. Mostly, before being brought to the big screen, the “IP-able” works have armed with the huge reader fan base, and therefore are highly likely to become hits. 

"In me the tiger sniffs the rose."
The pure-literary writers whose income is relatively unstable or stably-low are the frequenters of the “un-IP-able” club. Although it goes without saying that private agreements made between the publishers and the individual writers may differ, as a reference, Article 5(1) of the Measures for Paying Remuneration for the Use of Written Works stipulates that the mandatory standard is “¥80 - 300/1, 000 words” for original works (¥1 ≈ €0.13), which is much lower than the situation in the Western countries (e.g. a reference here). Moreover, the threshold of the remuneration tax has long remained unchanged at the very low level (approx. ¥800) since 1980. As is known that creative writing often is hard work and requires a lot of painstaking efforts, unfortunately, in China a large portion of pure literary writers have been suffering from disproportionate returns. As reported by, the ordinary writers in China have fallen in the group of low-income. 

In addition, current Chinese laws are often being criticized to be lenient toward the rampant infringement of copyright, in particular with regard to the low damages. The commensurate amount of compensation is available, of which the calculation could be made based on the actual loss suffered by the right holder, or on the unlawful profits that the infringer has made when the actual losses are difficult to calculate, or, in other situations, the court could make the decision with a maximum compensation of ¥500, 000 (€64, 542, Art 49 of the Copyright Law of China). Due to the difficulties and complexities of demonstrating the actual losses or the unlawful profits, the statutory damages ruled by courts, i.e. < ¥500, 000, constitutes 78.54% of the copyright infringement cases (source here). 

The cases standing out with high damages, e.g. the ¥3 million compensation in the “Immortality (永生)” case, are quite few. More often we see the mere ¥8, 000 remedy paid for the original article which had consumed Mr. Fenyang Guo the original author 10-year’s delving into the historical materials; we see the little compensation of ¥200, 000 paid to the author of the book In and Out of the Circle (圈里圈外) whilst the infringer had sold 1.9 million copies and took the first place on the national bestseller ranking in China in 2004. 

On the other hand, the writers in the “IP-able club” are leading a much comfortable life by successfully combining their works with movie or TV adaptations. The trend of a career-switching from pure literary writing into screenwriting, or jumping between the two, hence emerges in response to the old saying “following the money”: the script of one episode of a TV series normally contains 10,000 words, of which the average remuneration can range between ¥10, 000 and ¥200, 000, and the popular screenwriters can easily earn ¥300,000 per episode (source here); whereas the equivalent length of a literary work normally is worth ¥800 - 3000. 

Accordingly, much of the change is happening, inter alia, the spring up of the “Internet literature force” as once discussed by Prof. Michel Hockx. Emerged in 1998, the Chinese Internet literature has now upgraded from dispersion to concentration, and has gradually formed its matured industrial chain. It features close connections with the large group of Chinese netizens, and therefore is much likely to generate “IP-able works”. 

A few months ago, “the village of the Chinese Internet writer” was established in Hangzhou (known as the headquarter of the e-commerce giant Alibaba) and attracted a growing number of writers to join. The “village head” is Mr. Wei Zhang (known as 唐家三少) the legend who had topped the “Internet Writer Ranking” consecutively from 2013 to 2017 and keeps the record of the highest annual royalties of ¥120 million, i.e. nearing ¥330, 000 per day. 

2015 is called “the first year of the ‘IP era’” in China (again, please note that the “IP” here differs from the conventional definition). Up to today, “IP” in the Chinese context has become a super prevalent investment attraction. In 2015, the accumulative playback of “Hua qian Gu (花千骨)” was 7 billion; Within 24 hours, the first two episodes of “Mi yue zhuan (芈月传)” managed to attract 700 million hits online – both are “IP (adapted) TV series”; In 2017, 14 movies out of the Top 20 with the most box office revenues were “IP (adapted) movie”; 9 TVs out of the Top 20 were “IP (adapted) TV” (source here). The willingness of taking a share of the huge pie seems to be quite understandable, no wonder more and more writers joined pursuing the entrancing “IP”. 

Meanwhile, there seems to be a chain of contempt in the world of writing believing pure literature is superior to scriptwriting: In 2008, Mr. Wolfgang Kubin criticized such “trend of vocational switching” in China and emphasized that “A script is not literature, as it casts too much restrictions in the course of creating. A writer loses his/her basic dignity when starts to write a script.” He is certainly not alone on that point of view, e.g. Ms. Geling Yan, the well-known writer whose works often being adapted into movies/TV series, also shared her experience that “Engaged in long-term screenwriting is harmful to the novel writing. Because unlike in screenwriting where each part of the plot carries a specific purpose to promote the development of the story… the creation of a novel normally is slower-paced and full of tension” – this all makes sense, at least at some point. 

Besides, the “poor literary writer” phenomenon might in fact already be a common issue. According to the report published by the Arts of Council England, “Now, however, the lot of the literary writer is tending back towards its historical norm – they are becoming unable to support themselves through literary writing alone.” 

It may seem natural to throw a conclusion here calling for stronger protection towards the pure literary writers. Yet many screenwriters, if not the most, have their own trouble as well, e.g. the socially inferior status, the lack of bargaining position, and the arrears of pay. Worse still, they do not have a Guild as powerful as for instance Writers Guild of America that could represent them. Therefore, the reality is that under the circumstances of the low-cost rampant plagiarism, the disproportionate compensation and the lack of up-to-date regulations, any types of writers in China could be vulnerable by chance, and they all should receive the corresponding protection of the law. 

Ultimately, the genre of literature, the particular setups and pauses, the relevance to the social focus, etc., may all play as a factor to a successful work that makes a lot of money, yet not necessarily. The huge monetary gain may better be seen as a surprising reward afterwards which may or may not happen at all, rather than as a motivation in the first place before action – at the end of the day, writers like Mr. Cixin Liu will still be writing the masterpiece like “The three-body problem (三体)”, regardless of doing a humble work in a grid station and having no idea about the upcoming Hugo Award whatsoever.


Photo courtesies: 1st: Qi-cheng; 2nd: CFP.
Rich writer, poor writer Rich writer, poor writer Reviewed by Tian Lu on Thursday, April 12, 2018 Rating: 5


THE US anon said...

If I may play the role of a writing critic, this piece of writing suffers from a rambling style with a hefty infusion of presupposed ideals and rampant assumptions that strain to tell a tale told much more simply:

Popular items can earn more money.
Writing for popularity has always earned the enmity of writing snobs.
Nothing is new here - move along now.

Ex-examiner said...

Until a couple of decades ago, a similar situation existed in the UK in that the BBC insisted on only paying one-off fees to freelance writers that included transfer of all copyrights, with no option for repeat broadcast fees for the authors. Following representations, the Government made the BBC change its practice, so that nowadays freelance authors generally retain copyright and are entitled to repeat fees.

Tian Lu said...

@THE US anon: "A text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination." -- Thanks for the comments, I enjoy reading it.

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