Li Zhao was having a rough day. As the young, bearded man staggered home, he worried about the scolding he would receive from his mother-in-law. As he considered this in the middle of an empty street, a blue bolt of light streaked down from the sky, knocking Li to the ground. When he sat up again, with torched hair and a burnt face, he realised he was blessed with superhuman abilities. The 50-second trailer from TikTok owner ByteDance is one of many videos online that promote stories with supernatural or mythical elements, often with wacky plots and flimsy special effects. The low production quality is by design because the trailers are not for upcoming films or television shows: these are for advertising web novels on ByteDance’s Tomato Novel platform. Li’s story was advertised on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, where ByteDance seeks to leverage its prowess in viral videos to help promote its foray into China’s rapidly growing web novel market. The industry is currently dominated by China Literature , which is majority-owned by internet giant Tencent Holdings. Tomato Novel chief editor Xie Sipeng said in September that the short trailers work because they make the story’s conflict clear to viewers. Many follow a similar pattern: a downtrodden protagonist has a turn of fate and is revealed to possess extraordinary abilities. After encountering the blue lightning, for example, Li arrived home only to be ridiculed by his mother-in-law for being unworthy of her daughter. Li decided he had enough and announced that he was leaving the family. But once a TV broadcast revealed Li to be a 24-year-old billionaire, his mother-in-law kneeled in front of him, apologised and asked him to return. ByteDance takes stake in e-book operator amid content war with Tencent Unlike China Literature’s multiple web novel platforms, which require a payment for every chapter, readers interested in the book Shishang Zui Qiang Nuxu , which translates to “Strongest son-in-law in history”, can read it for free on Tomato Novel. The catch is that users will be interrupted by full-page or pop-up advertisements between pages. “Chinese business models are in a constant state of evolution, so it is possible that ByteDance’s sticky algorithm will be the first to crack this ad-supported model in a way that their competitors have not yet,” said Jo Lusby, co-founder and CEO of Pixie B, a Hong Kong-based consultancy focused on China’s creative sector. “Their ability to serve up fresh and surprising content is a very appealing idea,” he added. “But readers are resistant to being interrupted by advertisements and want to spend their time on the highest quality authors, and that could prove to be an even stronger pull than the addictive ByteDance algorithm.” Tomato Novel readers can also pay 18 yuan (US$2.73) per month for an ad-free experience. But ByteDance is betting on free content and its recommendation algorithm, the same formula that has driven the success of its other products like TikTok and the news app Jinri Toutiao . Can AI help China’s web novels find more English readers? While ByteDance has churned out apps for gaming, online education and office work in recent years, its most well-known apps still rely on algorithmic recommendations. Bringing this approach to web novels puts ByteDance at odds with China Literature, which pioneered the paid chapter-by-chapter business model. Web novels have been a democratising force in Chinese literature, allowing anyone to write and publish serialised novels online. The stories can span hundreds of chapters, and paid platforms charge for each chapter as they are released or up front for a whole book. There are now more than 17 million people publishing novels on the internet, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. And as of June this year, more than half of China’s internet population – about 467 million people – were reading online literature, according to the state-run China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC). Popular works come in many different genres. Works of fantasy, science fiction, urban romance, and history have loyal followings. Many Chinese web novels have also gained followers overseas, especially those in the martial arts genres wuxia and xianxia . To compete with China Literature, free platforms like Tomato Novel have sought to leverage video platforms like Douyin and Kuaishou to attract more readers. Trailers like the one for “Strongest son-in-law in history” are widely shared across video and social media platforms. One compilation video of web novel trailers racked up 22 million views on the video streaming site Bilibili. Viewers commented that they find the ads irresistibly quirky and funny, albeit cringeworthy. Since launching in April 2019, Tomato Novel has become China’s leading free web novel platform. A year after the launch, Toutiao CEO Zhu Wenjia said at a web novel conference that Tomato Novel had 10 million daily active users. A ByteDance spokeswoman said the company is not making more recent figures public, but a report from Chinese business news outlet LatePost said the platform had 28 million daily active users as of October. Still, many web novel readers remain sceptical of the freemium model. “Chinese web novel and online video platforms took almost 10 years to make readers and viewers get used to paying for content, and now a group of people are driving backwards,” one user said on the Q&A site Zhihu . Some people have argued on social media that the model incentivises poor-quality work written to generate clicks, or that good writers might not be compensated as well as on paid platforms. “By paying its authors royalties, China Literature has access to the top talent and the greatest range of quality content,” Pixie B’s Lusby said. “Receiving a share of ad revenues is unlikely to be a desirable situation for the majority of writers because even the most popular long-form stories will not accumulate the same level of clicks or views as a short video from an influencer talking about handbags or an amusing video.” Why the secret AI sauce behind TikTok is such a vital ingredient Tomato Novel said that its authors can earn ample revenue because of ByteDance’s powerful recommendation algorithm. Similar to other popular ByteDance apps, Tomato Novel relies on targeted recommendations, so each user sees stories unique to their interests. “ByteDance is a company that believes in recommendation systems, and Tomato’s [recommendation] lists make users more willing to click, stay and read, exactly through personalised recommendations,” Tomato Novel’s Xie said during a talk at Peking University on October 20. “ByteDance’s advertising system is also meticulous and advanced. Free reading itself also relied on deploying ads to acquire early users.” At a web novel conference in September, Xie said that one author made 600,000 yuan in July. But those kinds of numbers may be the exception, not the rule. Tomato Novel had 60,000 writers in September, with about 10,000 of them signed to a contract with the platform. Only 367 writers had a monthly income of more than 10,000 yuan. But ByteDance is not putting all its eggs in one basket. The company has invested in various online literature companies, including Beijing Dingtian Culture Entertainment and Mymind Culture, both of which operate multiple web novel platforms. In November, ByteDance also invested 1.1 billion yuan in Shanghai-listed iReader, one of China’s largest online reading platforms. And unlike Tomato Novel, iReader charges for its content.