Time, money drawing more readers to digital devices

Wang Siyuan's longtime reading habit was shaken up when China gained access to the Internet 20 years ago.

"As an English major in college, I found a lot more to read from the Internet in the late 1990s, though I prefer to read on paper," Wang said.

Now the 39-year-old Wang works as a financial consultant during the day, but at night he has another life as a Web writer.

His latest martial arts fantasy novel, A Fox Goddess, received more than 49,000 hits online in just two months. His avid online followers are always waiting for the best installment ever, Wang said.

"I need to borrow ideas from loads of stories, so I often indulge myself in a bookstore on weekends. But for other limited periods of time, I have to read on the Internet and on portable devices," Wang said.

Wang is among the growing number of Chinese who are doing most of their reading on screens, a trend that has been driven by a lack of time for reading and the rising cost of printed books.

According to a newly released report by China's 11th National Reading Survey, 50 percent of readers chose to read online or on devices in 2013. The number is almost double that of 2008. More than 50 percent of readers said a lack of time was the most prominent factor that led them to go digital, the survey said.

"The quick pace of modern life has deprived people of reading paperback books according to the study. People have to read in fragmented time," said Guo Meng, a psychology professor with Beijing's Capital Normal University.

For thousands of commuters in Beijing, reading on tablets just fills the blanks on the subway.

"I've got to 'steal' time to read on my Kindle on the train," said Zhao Jing, a woman in her 20s who spends at least an hour on the train on her way to the office.

"In the digital era, people don't value reading as much as before. We tend to choose shortcuts to acquire knowledge instead of traditional reading," Zhao said.

According to the 11th National Reading Survey, Chinese people above the age of 18 read just 4.77 books on average per year, with 50 percent blaming a lack of time due to work for the low number.

Zhao said the softness of the paper and the smell of the printing ink create a pleasurable experience not possible with digital reading.

"But I can't take the biography of Steve Jobs with me; it's too heavy," Zhao added.

For Cui Yuan, a migrant worker, the unbearable heaviness does not lie in the size and weight of the paper, but the soaring price.

The average price for a new book hit 52 yuan ($8.32) in 2012, according to the national reading market report by the Beijing Openbook Information and Technology Company.

"I would have to stay hungry to buy a book as my monthly budget is only 500 yuan," said Cui, who has begun to download "free" copies of books online and read them on his 300-yuan cellphone.

Unlike Cui, Wang Siyuan purchased his Kindle in the United States and buys digital books online at almost the same price as paperbacks.

Though Wang disapproves of illegal downloading, he sympathizes with Cui's dilemma.

"When it comes to the cost of reading, fewer people will bother going to a bookstore anymore," Wang said.

Fan Xi'an, president of Sanlian Taofen Bookstore, wishes more people would go back to brick-and-mortar bookstores. STB became Beijing's first 24-hour book shop in early April, thanks to a government plan to subsidize 56 bookstores around China.

To encourage more Chinese to read and buy printed books, the Chinese government earlier this year eliminated the value-added tax at bookstores and dedicated 90 million yuan in funding to support operations like STB.

"The 24-hour opening hours are needed so people from all walks of life can find some time for quiet reading after a hectic day," Fan said.

Wang Siyuan was one of the first readers to enjoy night reading at STB.

"Digital reading and traditional reading are supplementary. I can't imagine scanning my Kindle all day long without a moment of enjoyment. Nor can I wait to find an answer from a book when a click of the mouse will do the job," Wang said.