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10 Keywords: South Korea's publishing industry in 2017 at a glance






Candlelight Revolution


The book Candlelight Revolution with the subtitle "Winter of 2016, Spring of 2017 - History Written by Light" is a collection of 484 photographs categorized into 45 themes that captures seven key events that led to the impeachment of now-former South Korean president Park Geun-hye in May this year. It is a striking but touching panorama of images bringing together the wishes of the 17 million people who asked, "Is this a country?" while holding candlelight vigils to bring down Park’s administration.


Park, accused of graft and improper usage of power, was impeached by the candlelight revolution launched by the people and incumbent President Moon Jae-in was subsequently elected in May. It was a historical step forward, the first such event in 30 years since the declaration of democracy from a military government in 1987. While the administration was in the process of becoming replaced by the candlelight vigils, books dealing with South Korea's legal and economic systems received the spotlight like What is a Country, Again Now, the Constitution and Why We Should Be Angry. The Destiny of Moon Jae-in was also a popular read.


According to annual data from the country's biggest bookstore chain, Kyobo Book Centre, the market for the politics and society section which includes Candlelight Revolution, literature, employment and test preparation books grew, whereas demand sloped for self-help books (linguistics, travel) and study companion books.


Bankruptcy of publishing wholesalers


As soon as the year began, a substantially large publishing wholesaler, Songin Books, filed for bankruptcy. Eventually, online shopping mall and bookstore operator Interpark agreed to acquire the company. However, despite this fact, the some-2,000 publishers and 1,000 regional bookstores that used to do business with Songin Books were forced to cope with the financial aftermath that followed. In South Korea, books are largely sold on consignment and publishers who never saw the profits from their book sales took a hit.


Songin used to have a high rate of providing books to libraries and schools and its downfall was mostly due to unethical practices and irrational management. The companies that conducted business with the firm were further burdened by its premodern bill transactions. Of course, after Songin went down its competitors benefited by default.


In South Korea's publishing distribution system, publishers do business directly amongst themselves per requests from large-scale online and offline bookstores, while with regional, small bookstores they carry out deals via wholesalers. Even today, the role of the wholesaler for small bookstores is quite important. However, after Songin's bankruptcy, the country saw an increase in direct transactions between publishers and bookstores to reduce their reliance on wholesalers. More attempts are being made to create new sale structures between small publishers and small bookstores to overcome the current limits of the distribution system.




The most-sold book this year in South Korea was Ji-young Kim Born in '82. It tells the story of a woman in her 30s whose career was cut short and received much attention from young Korean women around that age as it addressed the difficulties of living as a woman in South Korean society.


South Korea on the outside may portray a society where men and women look equal, but inequality still prevails and is reflected in issues like wage gaps. There were several incidents that made the news where hate or discrimination towards women was clearly portrayed. Due to this issue surfacing in South Korean society, more books on gender equality told from the woman's viewpoint have been published in South Korea and sought out more.


Currently the leading book in feminism is Men Explain Things to Me by feminist writer Rebecca Solnit, an environment and human rights activist. This book spurred the wide use of the word 'mansplain(man+explain)' which refers to men explaining things to women in a condescending or patronizing way. The writer has pointed out U.S. President Donald Trump as one example of a person who mansplains, which makes perfect sense. Solnit's latest publication The Mother of All Questions has also gained much attention in South Korea.


One point of observation in this current feminist book trend is that essays that deal with discrimination against women in real life have risen in popularity. Min Suh, a South Korean professor known for his work on parasites, wrote a book called Hate Towards Women, What Did They Do? which spurred anger amongst women haters. An activist group called Womenlink also published collections of essays called Living as a Feminist Despite All Rudeness and Butting In and Today Again I Vow To Have No Children. The latter has a rather provocative subtitle called: “Why Don't I Have Children? Not Having Children is an expression of My Motherhood.”


Women nowadays experience gender inequality after they become employed or married after feeling little or none while they grow up. This does not mean women conform to this inequality like women in the past may have used to. The boom in feminist books reflects growing thoughts on gender equality. If there is one problem, it is that men do not read these books.




The Fourth Industrial Revolution


After Moon Jae-in became president in May, his office installed the Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Faced with a hyper-connected society with artificial intelligence and Internet of Things, the committee reflects the government's efforts to prepare preemptively for changes in future society.


Klaus Schwab's The Fourth Industrial Revolution became a bestseller in the economics and management category after being deemed a must-read. There were many other books that addressed the fourth industrial revolution. A simple search on the Internet for the fourth industrial revolution turns up about 400 books. Currently, talk of the next industrial revolution has truly fired up in South Korea and it is difficult to find this kind of passion on the subject elsewhere. It is a reflection of South Koreans' need for survival and future vision rather than their usual tendency to sway towards one subject.


Online and Offline


According to online shopping data from Statistics Korea, online book sales in the third quarter rose 9 percent from a year earlier to 1.933 trillion won. This showed sales at online bookstores jumped, in comparison to the ongoing lull in business at offline bookstores. In recent years, large scale bookstores have been expanding their businesses offline by setting up new stores in newly built shopping malls, but sales have remained unchanged. Offline book sales suffered this year as well, whereas online book sales continued to show growth from last year.


Growing Used Book Market


One exception in the publishing industry has been the used-book market, which alone has seen sharp growth. The surge of online bookstores aforementioned has contributed considerably to this growth as online bookstores tend to generate many used books through their used book buyback marketing campaigns. Also, online trading websites directly sell used books or have open market platforms where they take 10 percent of the sales as commission. They also open large offline used bookstores throughout the nation. The biggest company that sells used books, Aladin has more than 40 locations nationwide in South Korea that are large and well organized.


These 'company-form' used bookstores that started developing rapidly around 2010 have built up the secondhand book industry through standardized manuals and active marketing campaigns - a step away from what smaller used bookstores being operated by individuals were doing. Publishers and offline bookstore operators for which sales of new books are important say the growth in the used book market has been wreaking havoc in the order of the publishing market. One private research report recently said these large used bookstore chains have taken away more than 7 percent of sales from publishers and bookstores.


However, those who are searching for affordable but clean books like students or housewives looking for children's books increasingly prefer secondhand books. If they are looking for books they will dispose of after a while instead of keeping it, there is no reason for them to turn down affordable used books. One solution to this change in the market could be a boost in the role of public libraries, but the controversy around the used book market is seen persisting in the near future.




Publishing platforms


This year, new platform businesses emerged in South Korea's publishing industry. Under circumstances where there are not many publishers seeing profits from e-books, it will be key to observe whether new profitable business models surface.


Communication Books received the spotlight last year with its book streaming service, offering 2,400 e-books for 99 won per book. This year the publisher offered a series where 100 famous South Korean actors and actresses recorded 100 audio books. The service was called 100 Actors Read Our Literature. Audio book publishing does not have its own market in South Korea yet, so this attempt at bringing together actors and renowned literary works was enough to stir up chatter.


Publisher Changbi launched a poetry-focused mobile application called 'Siyoil' with the goal to create a poetry centered environment in today's digital age. Minumsa has its online novel platform 'BritG' whereas Wisdom House began a webtoon and web novel platform service called Justoon. Publishers previously did not have much of a presence as popular webtoons or web novels in South Korea were usually provided through portal operators like Naver or paid-for websites that specialize in webtoons and web novels and directly collaborate with authors. Market observers have said this increase in new content platforms has been meaningful in itself due to this fact.


Siyoil has been popular since it was launched. True to its nature as a publisher that has published poetry for a long time, Changbi provided some 30,000 poems by about 220 poets on its application. The poets include critically acclaimed poets that have shaped South Korean literary history and more recently debuted poets as well. Users are asked to pay 3,900 won a month, which is affordable. The limitations of paper-bound content like poetry are clear in an age when we are inundated by digital devices like smartphones which are practically extensions of ourselves. Once poetry dons a digital cloak, it immediately soars in additional value and expandability. The publisher's goal long term is to create an open platform for poets on the application and also feature poem collections from other publishers. Hopes are high poems will be read more in everyday life with the launch of South Korea's first publisher-driven poem platform.


The Age of Curation


South Korea is seeing a new era of specialized bookstores. This year, the country saw around three new bookstores a week established by one-person entrepreneurs. At this year's Seoul international book fair themed 'The Age of Bookstores', 20 of these unique bookstores were invited and had their own booth, which saw much success. Curation was a big issue among those working with bookstores, libraries and other related locations. There were more book curation lectures this year, and a book curator certificate was created. The importance of curation has increased as it helps readers find better books at a time when reading rates are falling and the book market on a whole is sluggish.


This year the day of bookstores, November 11, was marked with large events to celebrate its first anniversary following the designation of the date last year. The declaration read at the main event addressed curation roles should be strengthened. At Seoul City's second annual convention for bookstores this year, there was also much focus on book curation. Those involved have said it is becoming clear tailored businesses and services catering to readers are growing more important.


Communities and Books


For publishers or bookstores to maintain sustainable businesses, they are required to create a focal point within the regional community, or the community of interests and personal taste. This year, there were many examples of cooperation between regional administrative entities, publishers, bookstores and libraries.


From three years ago, regional bookstores started providing books to regional libraries directly in a more active way. This year, a book rental service was launched where readers can 'borrow' books from bookstores and they would be later sent to libraries. Gyeonggi Province which surrounds Seoul is South Korea's only provincial government that has linked up with its regional council to embark on new endeavors. This year for the first time in the country, Gyeonggi Province established a bookstore and publishing support center to begin various projects to help regional publishers and bookstores. The provincial government is also mulling over issuing regional bookstore gift certificates that can only be used in Gyeonggi Province.


In Suncheon City, a project was launched where residents in their twenties can buy books at half their price if they buy them at bookstores in the city. The rest of the cost is shared by Suncheon. On Jeju Island, regional officials are currently working towards creating an unprecedented regional publishing support ordinance. The revival of some cities and regions in South Korea is being discussed. Books are a commercial medium but at the same time it is an asset of the public which is subject to public interest, so administrative support is possible.


Change and Innovation


The new leadership of one of South Korea's representative publishing groups, Korean Publishers Association, began their term this February, vowing innovation. It was the first time for someone from the Korea Publisher Society, a core group for publishers who mainly create single-volume books, to become chairman of this association. Hopes are high both associations will be able to come together for the first time in over a decade to resolve some of the hurdles the industry faces. Many are hoping this collaboration will be new hope for South Korea's publishing industry where change, transformation and innovation are needed. The more a society faces crisis, the more it needs cooperation and leadership most. 'Change and innovation' are the main issues in book-related environments like publishers, bookstores and libraries where people today work to make crises into opportunities.



Written by Won-keun Baek (President, Books & Society Research Institute)


Won-keun Baek (President, Books & Society Research Institute)

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