For the first time, this year’s fourth annual Technology & Innovation Summit was held completely online. Following the Summit, AmCham China spoke with one of the Summit’s keynote speakers, Yan Han, Founder and Chairman of Cheers Publishing about the evolution of the Chinese publishing industry, digital transformation, and keeping up with ever-changing consumer habits.
You’ve worked in the Chinese publishing industry since 1996. Can you share a bit about your career path?
I’ve been working in the publishing industry for over 25 years. I started working in the China office of Simon & Schuster in 1996, the largest publishing company in the world at that time, and saw how the industry was developing around the globe. I saw first-hand the most advanced practices, and that inspired me to want to do it myself.
After that I worked at HZ Company, a joint venture with China Machine Press. I was leading a newly formed team doing content creation which enabled me to accumulate a lot of experience in publishing in the Chinese market. By 2003, we were first place in domestic financial and economic books.
In 2005, a few of my friends and I decided to do something that would work to bring the most advanced ideas and concepts to Chinese readers. We established Cheers Publishing. Time does fly. Over the 16 years since then, Cheers Publishing has made some great achievements, to name a few, we’ve published 1500 books, won five Wenjin Awards (China’s national-level comprehensive book award) and many other publication awards in China market. However, the thing I am most proud of is Cheers Master. Founded in 2007, the Cheers Master event has invited over 50 of the world’s top thinkers, including Michael Gazzaniga, Martin Seligman, Philip Zimbardo, Daniel Kahneman, Alex Pentland, Douglas R. Hofstadter, Albert-László Barabási, Nicholas A. Christakis, Brian Arthur and Peter Diamandis. We have showcased more than 100 interdisciplinary cutting-edge keynote speeches and thought dialogues. Our goal is to connect Chinese readers with these world-class masters and introduce cutting-edge research achievements from around the world.
There are definitely some regrets along the way of starting my own business. However, I’m looking forward to continue to down this road.
What pushed you to decide to establish your own publishing house?
I wanted to do something that could bring advanced ideas and concepts to Chinese readers, including my venture partners. At Cheers, we try to often remind ourselves that there are so many publishing brands and publishing houses. If we do what others are doing, it will have much less impact.
The slogan of Cheers Publishing is “dialogue with the greatest minds and evolve with the smartest people”. Bearing that in mind, we aim to constantly explore the known and unknown boundaries of knowledge fields, so as to better expand everyone’s knowledge widely as much as possible. This has always been the intention behind establishing my own publishing house.
I believe that the publishing industry in particular, is in need of the spirit of research and craftsmanship. We must uphold the spirit of long-term exploration. In the future, we will keep exploring and continue to provide the best content to our readers.
The Chinese book industry is the second largest in the world, after the US. How are the two markets similar and different, especially in regards to consumer habits and preferences?
The biggest similarity between the two markets is that both countries have large markets with rich demands from readers. This has led to an extensive category of books, some successful and some not so. We have had to test and experience the practices that the Western publishing industry has taken, and we can skip some of it, which makes us to have latecomer advantage.
The largest difference is that the US market is more mature and people’s reading habits are more stable. Chinese society has, in just a few decades, developed from an agricultural society, to an industrial society, to an information society, and now even an “after-the-information” society. Today is the era information overload. As the pace of people’s life and work is getting faster and faster, there is a trend towards lightweight reading and people looking for more short-flat-fast content.
This requires content providers, whether publishing companies or new forms of content producing companies, to understand readers’ interests in order to stand out in the market.
In addition, another not as positive point in common between the two markets is that we are seeing the reading range of different groups becoming much more “stratified” and “ringed”. This is creating different groups using progressively different discourse systems and even, becoming unable to understand each other viewpoints and perspectives. If this growing tendency continues, it could lead to social issues. Publishing practitioners need to pay attention to this important issue.
Yan Han delivering a keynote speech at AmCham China’s 2021 Technology and Innovation Summit.
Do you have a favorite book you have published thus far?
Cheers Publishing has published so many titles, it’s hard to choose one favorite. Some of my personal favorites have been bestsellers, including Influence and The Checklist Manifesto. Others that might not be as well known, but have gained a following over the years, like The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Big Data are also two of my favorites. All of our books feel as if they are my own children, they all present value that should deserves to acknowledged and understood.
We are always working to implement new ideas. So really, the answer to which is my favorite book, should be the next one.
What have been the most impactful developments in the Chinese publishing industry over the past 20 years?
Over the past 20 years, there has been a lot of discussion about whether publishing will become a sunset industry under the background of rapid technology development. I don’t agree with that. In my opinion, the size of the industry continues to expand, and the product form is constantly innovating.
Things like games, social media, movies, and short videos are taking up more and more of our time. However, the demand for reading is always there, and I do not see it declining . Reading does not only mean to read a book. As long as there are words, or even the information, auditory information or visual image information input and output, exchange that helps a person produce learning experience and enable a person to think, I consider all of that under the umbrella of “reading”. In fact, a very important task for us to complete in reading is to study and think. How can we make our learning and thinking more expansive? It’s something outside of simply reading a book.
The Chinese publishing industry is learning to use technology to make content more accessible to users. One example is that almost all publishing organizations have set up their own social media accounts on Weibo, WeChat, and other channels to communicate more directly with readers and users. Publishers are identifying the right content to fit the market’s appetite. Many are taking advantage of various online streaming media platforms, including audio platforms such as Ximalaya, video platforms such as Bilibili, short videos such as Douyin and WeChat video, and live streaming platforms. More and more we are seeing APPs coming out in the market, like our own “Cheers Reading APP”. Our APP aims to expand the content market of paying for knowledge online in order to provide higher quality service to users with higher needs.
I believe that there will be innovations like this in many different forms, but what remains unchanged is the original intention to better provide knowledge services to users.
With the rise of digital media, reading habits are constantly changing. How do you keep up with changing consumer habits? What are your predictions for the future of the Chinese publishing industry?
Cheers Publishing believes that content should catch the pulse of social development and facilitate taking the next steps forward. The most important quality for content products is to meet the needs of current social development.
What are the most remarkable trends now? It’s digital. I often ask our team, what if one day you don’t need paper books, or even, if books were free? In this case, what would we need to do to satisfy the needs of users in the future?
Therefore, in 2014, around 10 years after the establishment of Cheers Publishing, we re-positioned our company in order to grow to be the best content provider and facilitated a comprehensive digitization. We set up a new team “Cheers Reading” focused on this mission, and launched the “Cheers Reading APP”.
Over the years of the development, starting from publishing paper books, we now also produce and provide comprehensive product forms, including e-books, audio books, and interpretation and intensive reading services. We are transforming from simply providing content to “knowledge services”. We aim to not only providing static knowledge, but also provide dynamic extension services for users. In the future we hope to go even further, for example with tailor-made services.
On the future development direction of the publishing industry in China, I believe we should focus on creating knowledge products that are more user-friendly. We should not only produce books with systemic and logic complete, more importantly, we need to develop a variety of ways for the books that are not challenging to be read, for the readers who will not feel difficult to read, as well as not afraid of exploring uncharted and unfamiliar knowledge fields. We need to help our readers truly, completely absorb and digest the knowledge, so that they can understand, remember, then use the knowledge in the book.
In other words, we need to go from being a provider of knowledge, to a service provider of knowledge, from helping authors sell books, to helping readers select valuable content. I think this is a more advanced service and the way forward for the publishing industry.