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Piracy, Bribery, Profit? Amazon Releases Kindle Into Complex Chinese Book Market

Will the availability of the Kindle be enough to convince Chinese readers to actually pay for the ebooks they download? That’s the hope as Amazon starts selling its Kindle Paperwhite and Kindle HD Fire in a nation of rampant piracy.

Stemming copyright violations would require quite a change in mindset. Consider a 2012 survey of nearly 19,000 Chinese readers, as reported in the People’s Daily Online:

The survey, carried out by the  Chinese Academy of Press and Publication, also showed that 40.1 percent of respondents who have read e-books before would be willing to pay for the books, down 1.7 percent year on year.

So, six out of 10 ebook readers in China would not even be theoretically willing to spend money on the titles they download.

Amazon is hoping to discourage piracy by keeping prices low, selling most ebooks at the equivalent of $1.63. But it will also have to convince consumers to choose the Kindle over cheaper Chinese e-readers, as Bloomberg reports:

Amazon, a brand known for bargains in most of the places it operates, finds itself in a more premium position with its Kindle products in China. The Paperwhite costs 849 yuan. E-Commerce China Dangdang, one of Amazon’s Chinese competitors, began selling its own e-reader there a year ago. The price: 599 yuan.

Amazon’s move comes on the heels of a scandal highlighting China’s pervasive problems with copyright, the arrest of Lou Li, the founder of that country’s largest online literature site, Qidian. Press accounts differ as to the nature of his alleged misdeeds–reports have him arrested for either selling copyrighted material that belonged to Qidian’s parent company or accepting bribes in a copyright negotiation.

Regardless, it’s a black mark on an endeavor that proved authors (a handful anyway) really could make a living selling their work in China. Qidian lets readers download a work for free at first, then begins charging a small fee if the material gains an audience. The Economic Observer explains:

This system has, against nearly everyone’s expectations, made millionaires out of authors. At the end of 2012, a “rich list” for Chinese literature was unveiled. 31-year-old Zhang Wei (张威), who goes by the pen-name Tangjia Sanshao (唐家三少), was listed as the richest man in China’s online literature world with 33 million yuan in total income over the preceding five years.

But there’s a catch, a big one. To earn “VIP status” and begin charging for their work, authors must relinquish their copyright to Qidian. Lou Li and other Qidian executives had recently left the company and were reportedly working on establishing a competing site with better terms for authors. His arrest casts uncertainty over those plans.

Whether or not the Kindle catches fire in China, plenty of obstacles stand in the way of authors being fairly compensated for the work enjoyed by readers there.