The Vulnerability of Production Focused on Paper Books
The advancement of science has brought development to media, including in variety. Also, as an IT powerhouse, Korea provides easier access to all sorts of content, enabling people across all age groups to enjoy visual fun and entertainment through visual content rather than books. The significant drop in public interest in paper books – the analog – can be easily seen in the statistics of the yearly decrease in the reading population.
Reading population and the number of books read per person (2011~2021)
* Source: Statistics Korea (11.17.2021), Social Survey Results in 2021
As you can start a book-publishing business with a relatively small financial basis, the entry barrier is not that high. If you are interested, you can take your first foot in the industry without much difficulty. However, it is at the same time the reality that most of the publishers, excluding some of the major ones, are small in size. The number of publishing companies registered by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism was 67,203 as of late 2020, which annually increased by 6.55% over the past 10 years on average. Of course, not all these publishing companies publish new books, but the number of producers working with these many publishing firms is relatively small in comparison, which is even decreasing each year.
Number of publishers (2011~2020)
(Unit: number, %)
* Source: Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea (KPIPA)(2021), KPIPA Trend in the Publishing Industry (second half of 2020)
The cultural industry called publishing can be defined as an act of printing out certain works such as writings or pictures. In other words, publishing is a process of commercializing planned content using pictures and letters through a medium of “books.” As such, book production is turning intangible content into tangible books. There is no other country than Korea that puts so much effort into making books. From editing, including font size, space between letters and lines, left and right margins, sentences, and context, to devising a creative book design and making this processed content to be published as planned as possible would be the entire process of publishing a book.
As printing, postprocessing, and binding – works carried out in the last stage of book production – are an important part of complementing the edits and design done earlier and completing the book as intended, one can never let loose until the very last moment of publishing.
In Korea, most of this production process is outsourced. However, the input of facilities and human resources is critical in the manufacturing industry. The birth of a book requires a lot of equipment and much human effort. Therefore, accurate communication in each process is needed for a book to be published as intended. First of all, empathy, communication, and understanding among the editors, designers, marketers, and producers are required within the publishing companies. Then, the book’s planned publishing schedule and details, including specifications about editing, postprocessing, and bookbinding, should be accurately delivered to the outsourced companies for efficient and effective production.
Only accurate communication in each process would lead to efficient production of books.
Then, what factors support an effective and efficient production, and what are those that hinder it?
First, the most basic thing is to prevent accidents from happening. Even though it might be trivial, if it causes rework, it will cost extra time and money. That is why communication between processes as well as workers should be as accurate and prompt as possible. Moreover, it is never enough to emphasize how important the professionalism of people in charge of each process is. As selecting the type of paper, printing, postprocessing, and binding are essential processes when producing paper books, securing professionals in each field becomes the competitiveness and asset of producers.
Qualified and skilled professionals guarantee high quality and work as the last resort that prevents any potential accident from happening. However, the problem is that those experts are aging; recruitment and cultivation of younger talents are yet taking place. Publishing is in a very close relationship with the printing, coating/postprocessing, and bookbinding industries. Yet, the new influx of talent in those manufacturing fields is largely lacking compared to the market size. What’s more, while the industry has been struggling with the rising average age of the existing professionals, the COVID-19 pandemic has added fuel to the fire, which led to their departure to other industries. Today, there are publishing companies that close their business due to not only the difficulty regarding lesser work but also the fall in productivity and sales profit driven by the loss of workforce.
Second, while the publishing companies pursue to cut the production cost through the economy of scale, the size of book production has decreased comparatively due to the fall of the reading population, as mentioned earlier. Also, the industrial change to small quantity batch production has made it hard to realize the economy of scale. Plus, the dampened world economy caused by the pandemic and the war between Russia and Ukraine has increased raw material and labor costs, pushing up the cost of book production at the same time.
The publishing companies might think that these dire situations would get better if they raised the price of books. However, there are limitations to this strategy as competition has become fiercer and the reading population is decreasing. It might contract the publishing market evermore, creating a vicious cycle entangled with other relevant industries. Companies’ pursuit of profits and development are important indeed, but at a moment like this, they shall prioritize solidarity and connections. As the worsened market situation will crunch capital flow, eventually pushing the firms to the edge, it is necessary to make efforts to facilitate the market and let the capital flow.
Third, the improvement of quality and productivity is also important. Paper books are made through facilities such as the printer, coating machine, and bookbinding machine. The consistency in quality and improvement of productivity largely depends on how seamlessly the machines operate. Frequent breakdowns and aging are causes of quality deterioration which also pose a significant influence on the safety of workers. Therefore, each manufacturer strives to prevent these issues in advance by replacing aged facilities or reinforcing them, complementing the shortage of professional labor and boosting productivity.
Books look almost the same across the world. The materialistic limitations of paper books have brought limitations to the facilities as well. Each facility may operate differently, but the fundamentals are about the same. This is why paper books tend to put more effort into design and postprocessing – they seek differentiation from other books. However, the more complex the manufacturing process is, the greater time and cost it causes. So, it is important to carry out various tech R&Ds regarding facilities so that high-quality production becomes possible through the simplest production process.
It is necessary to recruit professionals and complement aged facilities
for an effective and efficient production.
There are more problems and weaknesses regarding paper book production than those mentioned in this article. This article touched on some of the representative cases that all publishing companies in Korea making paper books in the publishing and cultural industries are experiencing today. These weaknesses would be something that all the publishing companies across the world are struggling with. Individual efforts of each producer may not be enough as such a situation is in close ties with generational and social issues.
Now, I put my pen down with the hope that this article provides you a chance to have a moment to think about solidarity and coexistence with the producers.
Written by Park Sang-Hyun (Manufacturing Manager at Gimm-Young Publishers, Inc., and a lecturer at the Hankyoreh Publishing Academy)
Park Sang-Hyun (Manufacturing Manager at Gimm-Young Publishers, Inc., and a lecturer at the Hankyoreh Publishing Academy)