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Douban’s New Publishing Platform (from: Paper Republic)

Source: Paper Republic

On May 7th, Douban became the newest Chinese web company to launch a retail platform for ebooks. After more than a year of work on the technical backend, the Douban Read platform is now live, selling both full-length ebooks and shorter “works”.

First impression: the store has been made with the same attention to design and usability that sets Douban apart from the majority of Chinese social media sites. It’s attractive, and intuitive.

Immediate second impression: there’s hardly anything on there! At present, content is divided into two types: Works and Books. “Books” are regular book-length publications, and there are only three: two Stieg Larssons, and a novel by the currently-hot 30-something Shanghai author Lu Nei .

“Works” make up the majority of the content (though there are still only a couple hundred): these are defined as shorter standalone pieces, short-stories, novellas and essays, which can be tailored to the exact desires of the author. Most are priced at 1.99 RMB, though longer works sell for as much as 8 RMB. Books, by contrast, are priced at 9 or 10 RMB. Prices are set by Douban, and authors receive 65-70% of net receipts.

The company is shaping its store content carefully – it doesn’t expect to be able to compete with major retailers like Dangdang, and so is starting out with an internal focus: most of the works are written by Douban users (Douban licenses copyright from them directly), and purchased by Douban users. Digital rights for books are bought from publishing houses, when necessary, but Douban does not expect to cultivate large-scale copyright trade with publishers. At this early stage, marketing is confined to in-site advertisements, and a heavy emphasis is being placed on effective metadata tagging, and a sophisticated recommendations system for Douban users. Douban expects “Works” to be the major focus of its future publishing operations, including innovative ways for authors and readers to interact within the site itself.

This isn’t to say that the store is small potatoes. Douban.com is one of the most influential social networking sites in the country, with a total of 110 million users, and there are currently 300,000 users of the Douban reading app. Interaction is centered around cultural products – books, music, and film – and the site’s extensive database of such products has made it one of the most influential sites in China for young culturally-conscious consumers.

As a result, Douban users are perceived as having a certain “personality”: young, hip, perhaps a touch elitist. This is also visible in the other content providers Douban has partnered with, including Zhang Yueran’s youth literature magazine Li, and the experimental fiction website Heilan (some background here ).

The store provides content in four formats. Three are meant for online viewing using Douban’s reading app: on a web browser, on iOS devices, and on Android. The fourth, the only downloadable format, is a mobi file for use on the Kindle line. All four versions have some form of DRM: users cannot copy text or pictures from the online texts, and the mobi download carries a digital watermark that can be used to trace possible piracy. Douban has noted in the press that the iPad version of its reading app is currently most popular with readers.

On that subject, Douban keeps in close contact with China’s more egregious providers of pirated content, including Baidu and Sina.com. Somewhat ironically, though these platforms are notorious for hosting vast quantities of copyrighted material, they are also highly responsive to requests to remove that material.

With regard to government regulations on the digital publishing industry, Douban finds itself in the same general limbo as the rest of the country. Like most digital content providers, it has applied for and received an Internet Publishing Permit (互联网出版 许可证, Hulianwang Chuban Xukezheng) from GAPP. Though these permits are required for digital publishing, they carry with them very few specific restrictions or permissions: it’s more likely that they will form the basis of some future regulatory system.

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