Rich-list rankings blur the reality for many of China's authors

Rankings create false impression many writers are being paid big royalties, but they're distorted by celebrities' earnings

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 December, 2013, 4:14am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 December, 2013, 6:31am

Every year, a ranking of the best-paid authors on the mainland is seized upon by the media and other social observers as misleading and wrong-headed, even as they endlessly parse and compare the names and numbers.

But the Writers Rich List, compiled by the reporter Wu Huaiyao and published by West China City News, is useful as it focuses attention, if only briefly, on the state of Chinese literature in a society that increasingly devalues the profession.

Online writer Jiang Nan came in first this year, earning just over 25 million yuan (HK$31 million) in royalties. Nobel laureate Mo Yan was a close second, taking in 24 million yuan. Children's author Zheng Yuanjie was third, at 18 million yuan.

In all, 60 people were on this year's list, spanning novelists, online writers, television anchors and even film directors - a collection too diverse in the eyes of some.

The People's Daily said a more appropriate name for the ranking would be "Best Sellers List", given the inclusion of celebrities such as television anchor Meng Fei and film director Feng Xiaogang , whose books have sold well but distort the picture of "leading authors" the endeavour is meant to convey. "It's more a wind vane of the book market … the ranking shows that readers … [are] getting younger, and their interests are getting vulgar," the state newspaper said.

Although the list reflected the direction of the publishing market, it should focus more on writers and literature itself, and eschew "non-literary factors".

The Zhenjiang Daily said the list created a false impression the era of "typing characters to make wealth" has arrived on the mainland. "A renaissance of various literary styles is presented to the public. Even Feng Xiaogang earned royalties in excess of 1 million yuan. No one would doubt writing can lead to good money," it said.

While the 340 million yuan appeared like a lot, it did not change the fact the public was reading little and Chinese writers were, on the whole, underpaid, it said.

It pointed to an instance of one online writer who died from overwork in a rented apartment in July. He wrote as many as 5,000 characters a day, earning a maximum of 20 yuan for every 1,000 characters.

There were more than 1.6 million such writers working for Cloudary, a major online publishing platform, it said.

The News Times called the list an "odd egg" created by an excessive attention to wealth. "It's a party of publishers and authors of best sellers, entertaining themselves in the name of literature," it said.

Many on the list were not technically writers, it said, and putting people who earned a few million yuan on a "rich list" was silly. It quoted writer Su Tong as saying readers would not choose a writer's work because of how much they earned, and most authors would never become rich. Compared to other professionals, they would fall into a "disadvantaged group".

The Hebei.com.cn news portal agreed a writer should not be measured by income. It doubted whether such rankings contributed to the healthy development of literature, or encouraged quality work. "From this list, we see more of the readers following the crowd, instead of making rational choices," it said. "Only when a society has rational readers will there be real classic work."

The rednet.cn news portal said the list should be called "the guessing list of authors' annual copyright royalties". The ranking ignored the literary, ideological, and sociological value of writers and their works, it said.

When Mo Yan was announced as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, the biggest news on the mainland was the 7.5 million yuan in prize money would not even buy him a decent flat in Beijing, the portal said. "Such descriptions have distorted society's understanding of writers," it warned.