BEIJING • The Journey Of Flower is a novel that has never been sold in bookstores. It was first published on a literature website in 2009, but the martial arts fantasy is now one of China's most successful brands.
Since the rights to the novel were sold about four years ago, the tale - about a god and goddess fated to kill each other and who fall in love in the afterlife - has been spun off into a franchise that includes a video game, a coming movie and a hit television series that has become the first drama in China to pass 20 billion views online.
The journey of that novel, from obscurity to mainstream cultural status, resembles one that many Internet-only creations are now taking here as a voracious appetite for intellectual property has sent producers foraging on the Web.
IP - intellectual property, or original copyrighted material that can be bought and adapted for other formats - is one of the hottest buzzwords in China.
As the country's fast-growing film, TV and video game industries vie for audiences, entertainment firms in search of quality home- grown content are snapping up IPs.
To find good ones, executives turn to the usual sources: books, existing films and comics. But increasingly, they are mining a once- secluded corner of the Internet that has become a billion-dollar business: a flourishing online literary world that bypasses ink and paper to grab readers by their smartphones, with subjects such as tomb raiding, science fiction and romance.
"Online literature in China is full of good story lines and IPs," said Jiang Chenzhou, 30, author of The Journey Of Flower, who is better known to online readers by her Web name, Fresh Guoguo. "On the Internet, you have space for creativity. There is more room for expression, fewer restrictions and less pressure.
"When I finished the novel in 2009, the market for content was just starting to heat up. Two years later, producers began reaching out, asking what I thought about adapting the story. Now everyone is talking about IPs."
To entertainment executives, online-literature websites, some with libraries of hundreds of thousands of titles, offer a trove of market-tested characters and plots incubated in a relatively censor-free environment.
"The whole entertainment industry is still fairly conservative," said Chen Ming, head of products at Shanda Games and a former editor at Qidian, one of the largest online- literature sites. "Creating your own original fantasy content is not a sure bet. But the market has shown that adapting popular IPs from online literature can make a lot of money."
Mr Ma Zhongjun, chief executive of Ciwen Media, which produced last year's TV adaptation of The Journey Of Flower, summed up the business logic: "You are spending money to buy safety. Americans are the best at this. That's why they keep making sequels."
Two of the highest-grossing films in China in the past year were based on popular online novels about raiding tombs. One of them, Mojin: The Lost Legend, based on Tian Xia Ba Chang's Ghost Blows Out The Light, earned US$250 million (S$347 million) after its release in December, making it the fifth-highest-grossing movie in China, according to the Ent Group, which monitors box-office sales.
About 297 million people - 43 per cent of China's Internet user base - read Web literature last year, making it among the top 10 reasons that Chinese went to the Internet, according to a government report.
That popularity has partly been a response to China's traditionally staid publishing industry, which is straitjacketed by pre-publication censorship and strict regulations on the distribution of the book identifiers known as International Standard Book Numbers, or ISBNs.
Websites in China, by contrast, offer a freewheeling space where writers can publish the kind of genre fiction that is not only comparatively rare in the book business, but has also been subject to little interference from editors, let alone censors.
Creating this content is often an interactive process that involves readers. Writers can see readers' comments and sometimes respond to them.
"Online literature is really the people's literature," Mr Ma said. "There are very few commercial elements involved in the writing process, so this body of literature tends to be pure."
The growing focus in China on selling intellectual property to entertainment companies is a shift away from the online-literature industry's previous business model. Big companies such as Shanda Cloudary once focused on promoting amateur writers by negotiating book deals with print publishers and collecting subscription fees from readers.
In a fortunate coincidence, the growth in income from intellectual property sales has helped offset revenue lost through piracy.
Writers have also profited. Jiang estimates she has earned US$1.5 million from the sale of various rights to The Journey Of Flower. Last year, Zhang Wei, 35, also known as Tang Jia San Shao, earned US$16.8 million, making him the wealthiest Web writer in China, according to the newspaper China Daily.
He said most of his income now comes from selling his properties to various media and from sales of print copies of his fantasy-themed online novels.
His ultimate goal is to create a franchise like Walt Disney. "Disney has a lot of characters whose popularity is reinforced through movies and cartoons. I am looking for a partner company which can take all my IPs and replicate this model."