South Korea's publishing market based on category
The biggest characteristic of South Korea's publishing industry is that the portion of books on education and learning for young children to students of all ages is very large. South Korea's college-attendance rate is roughly 70 percent, which is one of the highest among OECD countries. According to a 2016 survey by the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education & Training (KRIVET), 47 percent of respondents said they went to college for a better job, 25 percent said they attended to learn more and 14 percent said they went to college because graduating from university would result in better treatment in society. South Korea has a dense population compared to the geographical territory it has and combined with Korean parents wanting to educate their children for their future stability, the situation has created a society where nearly all the people have received higher education. At the epitome of this situation lies one of the world's best private education systems (online/offline cram school classes outside of regular schools) aimed solely at getting children into the top colleges. According to a survey released in 2018 by South Korea's education ministry and Statistics Korea on private spending on education for underage school students, South Koreans spent roughly 20 trillion won on private education in the course of a year. The survey also showed 5.3 percent of South Koreans' household spending was on education, a significantly higher portion than countries like the United States (2.2 percent) and Germany (0.9 percent).
In a 2018 survey by the culture, sports and tourism ministry released in 2019 on the content industry, the book and publication industry in South Korea as of 2017 was valued at a total of 3.9985 trillion won. Of that, textbooks and educational material accounted for 2.8287 trillion won, and other books accounted for 1.698 trillion won. Hence, 70 percent of the country's entire publishing industry was tied to demand for learning material, textbooks and workbooks for all students from toddlers to high school students. The value of the publishing market reflects purchasers' demand for published content from all areas of society, and the high portion that educational material accounts for in South Korea's publishing industry is becoming a core element influencing the country's publishing industry structure, publishing management, publishing distribution, bookstore sales and the country's reading ecosystem on a whole.
The second characteristic of South Korea's publishing market is that book sets are popular. Book sets for children aimed at education or learning in addition to literature book sets for students and adults lead this category. Book sets usually have anywhere from 50 to 100 books under a unifying topic or subject. One of the representative book sets available in South Korea for adolescents and adults would be Minumsa's with over 300 books. Book sets are usually sold either directly through publishers, at online bookstores, door-to-door salespeople who allow customers to pay in installments or stores specializing in children's book sets. The market for these book sets is estimated to have a value around 500 billion won. Book set publishing began developing in the 1950s starting with literature content. It later expanded to books for children and comics for learning. As these products have many books, their prices can be daunting. This price pressure can be alleviated through discount sales marketing, but since the fixed book price policy was enforced in South Korea from 2014, discounts have become limited, and book set retail prices were even changed to accommodate the new policy. Also, as the birth rate in South Korea declines and the regular book market grows, the book set market has been shrinking. To overcome these hardships, book set publishers attempted to sell large numbers of these sets via TV home shopping channels, providing slashed prices. Recently, these book sets have been appearing in secondhand markets, where profits have nothing to do with the actual publishers.
Readers tend to prefer poetry and essays written by South Korean writers while popular books tend to stay on bestseller lists for extended periods once they make it to bestseller status.
Next, when looking at the market for regular books, individual volumes account for 800 billion won, academic and specialized books account for 200 billion won while children's books (except for book sets) account for 140 billion won. Among regular books, literature publications take up the highest share, and non-Korean writers tend to be the most popular out of all the bestselling books in South Korea. Readers tend to prefer poetry and essays written by South Korean writers while popular books tend to stay on bestseller lists for extended periods once they make it to bestseller status. In book categories outside literature, the influence of popular writers is quite significant and recently, 'media sellers' that have been introduced on TV, social media and Youtube by either celebrities or other famous people, have been swaying bestseller trends.
At Kyobo Book Centre, the country's biggest bookstore chain on both the Internet and offline, literature sales accounted for 14.8 percent of its total sales, while books for practical use accounted for 11.2 percent. Meanwhile, liberal arts, science and social science books each took up 11.1 percent of total sales while science and technology books accounted for 10.7 percent. Children's books made up 10.4 percent of total sales, educational books for underage students 9.9 percent, books for foreign languages 6.4 percent, books for employment and job-related tests 5.9 percent, arts 3.5 percent and religion 2.8 percent. Here, the portion of educational books for underage students was relatively modest because at bigger bookstores, sales tend to be equally proportioned between categories. As for mid-to-small sized bookstores, sales for books on education tend to be much higher than other books.
According to data collected by KPIPA, the number of paper books published in 2018 reached a record high of 81,890. This number has been growing steadily over the past five years, starting from 67,062 in 2014, 70,091 in 2015, 75,727 in 2016 and 80,130 in 2017. When divided by category, books published in 2018 were comprised of 7,298 children's books (2,739 books for young children; 4,559 books for children) and 22,617 books on education (3,944 books for elementary school students; 6,092 books for middle to high school students; 1,923 foreign language studies books; 10,658 employment/tests/certificate books). There were 14,637 literature books (7,573 novels; 7,064 poetry and essay books), 11,677 books on liberal arts (1,621 philosophy/psychology books; 1,903 history, culture books; 4,936 books on religion and 3,217 books on other subjects) and 3,835 books on arts and popular culture. Also, there were 9,434 books on social science (5,505 books on politics and society; 3,929 books on economics and management), 7,282 books on science and technology (971 natural science books; 4,813 books on technology and engineering; 1,498 books on computer/information communications) and 5,110 books for practical use (1,490 self-development books; 544 books for home life; 1,130 books on cooking and hobbies; 1,067 books on health/sports/leisure; 879 books on travel). The percentages the categories accounted for in all published books in 2018 are as follows: education 27.6 percent, literature 17.9 percent, liberal arts sciences 14.3 percent, social sciences 11.5 percent, science and technology 8.9 percent, children's books 8.9 percent, practical books 6.2 percent and arts/popular culture 4.7 percent. These proportions have shown little change over the past five years.
This data set from KPIPA also showed 69.8 percent of publishers that published books in 2018 (8,058 total) released less than five books that year. Publishers that released 6 to 10 books accounted for 12.0 percent, publishers with 11 to 30 books in 2018 took up 12.2 percent while publishers that published more than 31 books in the same period accounted for 6.0 percent (583). This shows small or one-person publishers currently constitute a huge portion of South Korea's single-volume publishing market. A small number of large publishers usually dominates most countries' publishing markets. In South Korea, this data reflects the diversity of publishing activities in the country. However, while there is no domination of the market, there is also a downside in that there is limited momentum for new growth backed by the equity of large publishers and a general slowness in reacting to market changes due to a lack in leadership by these big companies.
This shows small or one-person publishers currently constitute a huge portion of South Korea's single-volume publishing market.
The e-book market in South Korea is valued at around 340 billion won. Most e-books sold in South Korea are either e-book versions of books that already exist in paper format or web novels in digital form. The webtoon market is led by portal operators or specialized platform companies rather than traditional publishers. Recently more service users pay for subscription services to have unlimited access to e-books for less than 10,000 won per month.
The current status of imported and exported printed books (according to trade statistics from Korea Customs Service) shows in 2018, $138.61 million worth of regular books for adults were imported, surpassing the $101.65 million worth that was exported. Meanwhile, $26.16 million worth of children's books was imported in comparison to $2.30 million worth that was exported that year. In regular book exports, Korean books were included in addition to English learning books for non-English speaking readers. Children's English learning workbooks and English fairy tale books made up the bulk of imported books.
Copyright imports and exports data show South Korea annual imports about 10,000 copyrights for books that are later translated and published in Korea while copyrights for around 1,500 Korean books are exported - far less than imports. Copyrights are usually imported from countries including the United States, Japan and three European countries (the United Kingdom, Germany and France), and books of diverse categories are dealt with. South Korean copyrights are exported to Northeast Asian countries that are geographically nearby, like China Taiwan and Japan in addition to Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam. Children's learning comics and practical use books for adults are usually exported to these countries. The competitiveness of South Korea's learning comics has been well proven in markets outside the country.
From the next issue, this section will look at the status of each category within South Korea's publishing market. By category, this section will offer information on the market size, special characteristics, key publishers, main writers, publishing trends, popular books and other related issues.
Written by Won-Keun Baek (Books & Society Research Institute, President)