Writers used to have to approach publishers in the hope of having their work read by the public. Now they can simply post their offerings online and find an instant audience of millions. Liu Xiangrui reports.
After breaking up with her boyfriend in 2009, Bao Jingjing, then 22, started "making up" a love story simply to distract herself from her heartbreak. Her story progressed quickly, so she decided to post it online as a serial.
The story of a young girl dealing with the pang of a broken heart soon attracted many readers with its simple, humorous style.
When Bao started to write less as she reunited with her boyfriend, she was contacted by her readers who urged her to continue, as they were eager to find out what happened next.
Bao finished writing the story in three months. It became so popular online that she was soon contacted by a publisher who turned it into a best-seller.
To cap it all off, Bao's novel was later picked up by film director Teng Huatao and adapted into a movie in 2012. With an investment of only 9 million ($1.45 million), the movie Love Is Not Blind took in 350 million yuan.
Bao's story is only one of many Internet novels that have landed deals for films, TV shows and physical books.
Unlike traditional writers who toil away on their books for years in the hope of gaining recognition, many young writers like Bao have cultivated readers rapidly online and often find overnight success in the real world.
Bao admits that the success was unexpected.
"I just enjoy writing and the Internet is a good platform, because there are people who want to listen. What I was writing was nothing unusual," Bao says.
She worked as a copywriter for one month before quitting.
"I thought I would have to rely on my parents for the rest of my life," says Bao, who still remembers how surprised her parents were when she proudly gave them her copyright earnings.
Online literature forums are platforms for grassroots writers to realize their dreams, says another post-1980 writer who writes under the pseudonym Binglansha.
Binglansha was doing an ordinary office job when she started reading online novels. Back then, most online novels were free, she recalls.
Since her first attempt in 2008, Binglansha has authored a series of historical romance novels. Her awarding-winning work Beauty's Plan has been published and is set to be adapted into a TV series.
As literature websites began charging readers, popular writers like Binglansha started to receive considerable contribution fees, which are determined by how many hits they get on the website. Selling copyrights brings in additional revenue.
Binglansha says she now receives enough money to support her family and focus on writing.
Besides economic benefits, interacting with her readers on the forum is also exciting.
"It's something online writers do every day. It makes me feel so good to see so many readers enjoy my story and get immersed in the plots," says Binglansha, who often has heated discussions with her readers.
Writing can be a difficult and boring process. However, the support from readers gives her passion, says Liu Chenfeng, another young writer.
"They make me feel that I am not writing alone," Liu says.
Liu used to work in IT in Shanghai. She has posted over 5 million words on Hongxiu.com, one of the major literature websites.
Liu says it's hard to predict whether a novel will be popular.
"Sometimes I am very confident that people would love my story. However, it is really not something under my control," Liu says. "Gradually I became less concerned about popularity and focused more on quality."
She's working on a few modern love stories, and has plans to try some fantasies and historical novels, both genres favored by online writers.
In the past five years, Zhang Wei has racked up 177 million yuan ($28.53 million) by just moving his fingertips.
For two consecutive years since 2012, he has topped the list of wealthiest Chinese Internet novelists, with an income of 33 million yuan in 2012.
The 33-year-old Beijing native, better known as Tangjiasanshao online, was the only online writer to be listed on the 2014 Forbes "Chinese Celebrity List".
Zhang presumably has the biggest number of Chinese readers among all authors, but he admits that making a living as an author was beyond his dreams.
After graduation with a degree in law, Zhang had worked in several different jobs, including an IT position. He was laid off by his last employer before he "accidentally" tried online writing and eventually created a whole new world for himself.
Zhang had been reading online novels for six years when he started writing his own.
The first work was immature, Zhang admits. Yet it brought in a small income and for the first time Zhang realized it's possible to make money writing novels.
In fact, he spent eight years leading a life which is typical for most online writers. It has been an essential part of his life to sit before the computer, busy typing and posting. The readers pay cents for every thousand words, sometimes offering "tips". It's how such writers earn money.
It took him six months to finish his second novel, a fantasy of 1.5 million words. The 2004 novel brought in 4,000 yuan, but made him well-known as an online writer.
Zhang says when he was writing the book, Wild God, he was so motivated by the flow of inspiration that he would write over 10 hours a day. The imagined characters kept talking to him in his head, and he sometimes had to take up to four showers to cool down and fall asleep, he recalls.
Now he has delivered 12 novels - more than 30 million words - on different themes. His works are read by hundreds of millions.
Zhang thinks his works, mainly fantasies, are interesting to young people and are suitable for making cartoons.
More than 10 million printed copies of his books and an equal number of cartoons based on them are sold each year. Besides the three existing cartoon books developed from his works, six others are being made.
Zhang's famously high productivity is also his secret to wealth. In his best year, he wrote 4 million words.
Over the years, he has followed a strict writing schedule and never fails his readers in updating the stories online.
He usually begins with a concept and develops the structure months before the writing. He skillfully paces the story according to his own understanding of readers' habits.
Zhang says his sensitiveness and curiosity have helped him find inspiration in daily life.
"A word or sentence that might well be neglected by others might spark a story in me," he says. Books and movies are other sources of inspiration.
Zhang admits that he is one of the few writers at the top of the pyramid while most online writers remain uncelebrated. However, he argues that his success can be achieved by others, as long as "they write hard enough".
The industry is still growing at a dazzling speed, and more online writers can find a bright future as the Internet continues to shape people's reading habits, he says.