For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.
When in the Chronicle of Wasted Time
On May 4th, when many of us were celebrating the Star Wars day, either virtually or geared up with COVID-proof stormtrooper helmet, to honor unity and resilience, a galaxy not so far away, 8.1 million writers affiliated with Yuewen Group (阅文集团, aka China Literature Ltd.) collectively, and simultaneously, put down their keyboard-lightsabers and went offline. They refused to submit updates or make changes to their ebook series that currently housed on the Yuewen platforms.
Witnessing an unprecedented writers’ strike in modern China, fans and analysts aptly named this day, The May 5th No-Updates Day (note the date difference), as if it were a long-awaited strike-back, from the largely unrecognized and underpaid web writer communities.
Ignited by the exit of Yuewen’s founder Wu Wenhui and a total takeover of Tencent leadership team in late April, this virtual strike centers around two major changes that Yuewen/Tencent has been pivoting over the past years: 1, a free-reading mode, and 2, a series of “overlord” clauses (霸王条款) embedded in the generic writer’s agreement.
From David to Goliath
Originally seeded in 2002, it took less than a decade for Yuewen to evolve from the cradle of first-generation web writers, to an epic franchise incubator; feeding powerful catalysts to many of the most loved web series we see today on major Chinese-language streaming platforms, including, Joy of Life (Tencent/iQiyi), Ever Night (Tencent), Candle in the Tomb (Tencent/iQiyi/Youku) and The King’s Avatar (Tencent), etc.
Not just domestic writers, international favorites such as J.K. Rowling, Keigo Higashino, and of course, Lucasfilm authorized Star Wars derivative works, also found home within the Yuewen empire. It is safe to say, no single publisher, platform or production house could deny, or challenge, Yuewen’s fountainhead position on the top of the food chain in China’s media and entertainment industry.
A pressing question lies at the heart of this dream-making giant’s awakening story: are the Yuewen leaders treating their writers right?
Subscription v. Free-Reading
Yuewen’s journey started from Wu Wenhui’s bold subscription-based monetization plan, which essentially revolutionized the digital publishing and reading norms in China. Under the original pay model, a writer acquires guaranteed payout based on his or her labor input, measured by word count (~ 10RMB per 1,000 words and a 600 RMB bonus for 30-day consecutive updates).
S/he participates in profit-sharing once the series picks up and forms a solid fanbase. Usually, there is a 50/50 split with the platform, depending on the size of subscriptions and engagement. If things go really well, s/he gets a complete buyout for a single work, but with a much higher rate than the labor-based rate.
From there, for a true breakout author, vested sequels, cross-medium dividends (republishing onto sister platforms or apps), and tailored IP development options with marketers, animation/film/tv/gaming studios and e-commerce merchandising partners are all on the table.
However, this norm has been questioned since 2018, when mobile-based newcomers RiceReader (米读), TomatoBooks (番茄小说) and SevenCats (七猫) started to gain traction with an ‘ads supported, free-reading’ business model. Under this model, an aspiring, yet unknown writer can collect ~ 1RMB for every 10,000 clicks/reads.
It is still an attractive option for those folks, provided that their bite-sized books grow fast and mass "likes" on one of the high-traffic free apps. More often, they face much slower and swirlier monetization routes within the already saturated Yuewen circles.
Long believing that a free price is the most expensive price, Tencent’s new leadership came to enable the ‘free-reading’ button. To existing Yuewen writers, this means only betrayal, as they would have no visibility into ads revenue, they face more competition to attract new subs, and they have no control over the works they’ve already assigned to the platform. According to some leaked agreements, writers also lose the veto power over free-reading, thus feeding their older completed works onto Tencent’s new apps for free, as “clickbaits”.
The “Overlord” Clauses
We all know that in the intergalactic IP universes, grand or small, there is no expression without the ideas, no work without the authors, and therefore no property without the intellectuals.
Many established web writers are okay with newcomers taking up the white space with temporary free offerings; however, they are very upset with the slew of unfair overlord clauses that are forced upon them by the platform, which are designed to take over the writer’s work once and for all.
Some writers broke their silence and sent screenshots of several questionable clauses to me. These included:
- Author unconditionally transfers all copyrights/assets to Yuewen; Yuewen manages the IP assets without Author’s consent or approval; and Author receives no distributions.
- In case of IP infringement or dispute, Author must fully assist Yuewen. Author will bear all costs and Yuewen will receive all compensation.
- If Yuewen elects to promote Author’s work with a free-reading option, it shall not be considered as infringement and Author must assent.
- Upon signing this agreement, Author must provide a complete outline, estimated word-count and schedule.
- Failure to complete the work by deadline is construed as a breach of this agreement, and Yuewen holds the right to cease compensation, terminate the contract and seek restitution.
- Yuewen acquires full rights (economic and moral rights) to Author's work plus 50 years after Author’s death.
- Yuewen can operate Author’s social media accounts for promotional purposes without cost.
- This agreement does not form an employee-employer relationship. Author and Yuewen collaborate to create the underlying work, which is not a work-for-hire; Yuewen, as the principal, may seek other agents to complete the work at will.
With great power sometimes comes great abuse. Those crude, if not blatantly unconscionable terms, effectively take away the writers’ bargaining chips, even if his or her work may potentially become a hit.
Moreover, due to the uniqueness of online publishing, sophisticated writers fully understand that their works’ visibility, reach, and development largely hinges on Yuewen’s powerful algorithmic and editorial evaluation system.
In contrast, amateur writers, desperate for attention and recognition, would accept any terms just to land a spot in Yuewen's backyard. Also, because most of them are still in or freshly out of college, in order to get a quick payout, they have little or no patience to read through the labyrinthine contracts.
“I feel like I sold my soul,” an anonymous writer sarcastically noted in an online forum.
Against the backdrop of the platform’s power moves, we see the three kingdoms: Tencent, iQiyi, Youku; waging IP wars against each other over the bestselling tomb raider series “Candle in the Tomb”, where the author, Zhang Muye, ended up paying 1.1 Million RMB for infringing on his own title in iQiyi's "Candle in the Tomb" installment. All because, allegedly, he drunkenly sold all his "Tomb" rights to Yuewen for only 100,000 RMB at a dinner table back in 2007.
Sadly, Zhang wasn't the only author who sold his work cheap. Popular period/palace female writer Lan Yunshu received only 180,000 RMB cut in a 450,000 RMB deal, when Yuewen sold the film and TV rights for her work “The Moon of Tang Dynasty”’, in an eight-year contract to a mysterious third party. The same mysterious party then happily sold those rights to Youku for 13 Million RMB.
Lan joked that there was a lot of passion and joy when she started to pen “The Moon” series on Yuewen because she was struggling with her Ph.D. dissertation. But she had no idea that her novels would be priced almost 30 times higher at the studios’ desk.
Epitomized Gods or Ghostwriters
On August 23, 2019, a 39-year-old platinum-god-level writer, Absolute/Liu Jiajun, was found dead by himself in his Shanghai apartment. He is believed to have died ten days prior, from a presumed Karoshi (过劳死, overwork deaths caused by heart attack or stroke).
At the time, he was writing a lighthearted sci-fi series for Yuewen, “The King of Deadline”, It is an eerie comedy about a web writer’s exhaustion to death and subsequent rebirth through time-traveling; an accurate omen for Absolute’s own lonely death, if not a tragic swan song filled with real agony.
Currently, there are more than eight million signed writers writing for Yuewen. According to Yuewen’s ranking board (封神榜), only 428 writers are considered “godly” (bagging minimum of 2 Million RMB in annual income). The majority of wizard-level writers make an average of 150,000 RMB a year. However, low-level commoner writers struggle to make more than a couple of thousand Yuans on their often early canceled and half-finished books.
Almost all writers operate under pen names, behind the comfortable veil of Internet anonymity while keeping their day jobs. The professional writers, fearing retaliation, usually negotiate with help from attorneys or agents; and they are more reluctant to step out and burn bridges with Yuewen. If those forerunners were able to customize their agreements with Yuewen, they would have to keep the terms under wraps, due to NDAs, NCCs, or some form of lock-in agreement.
Ironically, we only get to learn the writers’ legal names when they are involved in high-stake IP infringement lawsuits, such as Zhang Muye in the “Candle in the Tomb” cases or when they were overworked to death, as in the story of Absolute/Liu Jiajun.
The Long Goodbye?
The days after the "May 5th, 2020 No-Updates Day", Yuewen’s new leadership team came to the spotlight, promising the public to host peace talks with selected writers, limit the scope of the free-read tests and add more author-friendly terms, emphasizing on piracy instead of remuneration. An exodus of god-level writers is unlikely. The demigods and/or human-level writers will have to enjoy the ride.
As China slowly swims to reach the climax of its modern Renaissance, the new generations are warming up to reimagine their own versions of Chinese dreams and mythologies. Without heightened legislative scrutiny and top-down platform responsibilities, for those kids, this silent strike may be more symbolic than pragmatic.
Lacking real teeth and strength, those young writers have no guild support, financial or legal resources, or alternative platforms to stand up for their own worth (compared with the 2007/8 WGA strike in Hollywood). They are stripped of the core of their work (outline, characters, plotline and world designs) and they are constantly reminded that they are just Yuewen’s “ghostwriters” - easily replaceable under Yuewen’s draconian contracts and overarching selection machines (algo+human editors).
Bright-line rules and regulatory framework that balance all parties’ interests are certainly welcome here in the context of the copyright law reform at the 2020 Two-Sessions/Lianghui (两会). Interestingly, for more than a decade, we see a dormant Antitrust Law sealed in the central government’s gadget cabinet, never wielded against any Internet companies for harmful oligopoly practices.
Without a caring work culture or real wellness benefits, even when the writers succeed in gaining fame and fortune, they may still face a sudden solemn death buried by endless deadlines and push backs, leaving only a faded dream of an alternative and better universe, appealing enough for unassuming successors to inherit and continue the stories, for another 50 years.
In the tragic death of Absolute, there will be no more updates, at least for his fans who stuck in this universe.
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1 USD = 7.1 RMB as of May 18, 2020
1. On The Copyright Law Amendments draft at 2020 Lianghui:
As Prof. Mark Cohen timely noted on his China IPR blog, public comments for this draft are due on June 13, 2020. https://chinaipr.com/2020/05/05/draft-copyright-law-up-for-public-comment/ (English); http://www.ncac.gov.cn/chinacopyright/contents/11973/416082.html (Chinese).
2. On Antitrust - a more subtle antitrust intervention centered on Tencent Music resulted in WCM’s final partnership with NetEase, Tencent’s long-standing rival. https://m.us.sina.com/gb/finance/sinacn/2020-05-12/detail-ifzwcwmw0915550.shtml (May 12, 2020).
3. A Quick Win - on June 3rd, Yuewen pushed out a clearly tiered and multifaceted contract menu to please the public amid the growing accusations around the silent strike. The author's moral rights are safe, the free-reading option is optional, but the wellness benefits are still vague and elusive.