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What the “Steady Seller Phenomenon” Means for the Book Market

On books that have reached their 100th print




The implication of books that hit the 100th print


Kim Dong-Sik’s The Grey Man (Yoda Books) recently celebrated its 100th printing in the Korean book market. While the writer’s dramatic leap from a foundry worker to a best-selling writer has been spotlighted, what is perhaps most important is the internal narrative of the short stories contained within. This collection of 24 short stories was selected from the hundreds of short stories he posted to the horror forum of an online community, “Today’s Humor.” It is indeed a kaleidoscope of life’s short stories, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking. Readers have responded so enthusiastically to the short story collection, which went into its 100th printing in 2017 - 7 years after it was first published, and there are many factors behind this. The factor include the dramatic life of the writer, the fact that he is more of a newcomer than an established writer, and the fact that the publisher is not a recognized and well-known publishing house. And most of all, the details of psychological description, the clarity of conveying experiences, and the attitude of not letting go of positivity and hope while including social criticism, achieved in each short story, may have greatly appealed to readers living in a “fatigued society.” Also, the placement of several short works alongside each other, in stark contrast to full-length novels, would have been very much in tune with the reading habits of today’s readers. So, this is something to celebrate and support.
These so-called bestsellers usually appear in the book market as a combination of the cultural desires of the public and the value-added desires of capital. Once the buzz is out that a book is good for such and such, publishers and other distributors do their best to increase sales through intensified marketing. Then, the book itself continues to sustain a ripple effect of expanded reproduction. At this point, the paradox is established: bestsellers aren’t written; they are created. In any case, the phenomenon of a book becoming a bestseller is an important psychological indicator of a society, as well as a commodity indicator. Obviously, every bestseller is heavily influenced by rapid social changes. For example, Kim Jung-Hyeon’s full-length novel Father (Golden Fish) impressed many people with its portrayal of the bitterness and pain of fathers in the second half of 1996, when the voluntary resignation trend was in full swing. However, when the Asian Financial Crisis hit in 1997, society started to shift rapidly into an atmosphere where even voluntary resignation was a good thing, and the sales of the book dropped than before. In other words, the circumstances and influences of the times are a powerful backdrop for even the bestsellers.


The Grey Man


The Grey Man and Father



Needless to say, not all bestsellers are “best books.” A bestseller created by advertisements and commercialism will only be the best in a quantitative sense, not the best in a qualitative sense, with critical approval. However, if a book is loved and sold steadily for a long period of time, then it will turn into a steady seller and join the club of classics. I hope that Kim Dong- Sik’s The Grey Man will remain so for a long time.


The consumers and enjoyers of books


For Koreans who are used to statistics indicating that the percentage of the population reading books is always lagging behind its neighbors in Japan and other developed countries in the West, these records are quite refreshing and surprising. Eun Hee-Kyoung’s A Bird’s Gift (Munhakdongne, 1996), Gu Byeong-Mo’s The Wizard Bakery (Changbi Publishers, 2009), and Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 (Minumsa, 2016) are among the fiction books that have celebrated their 100th printing, and behind this phenomenon is a deep-seated desire of readers to experience moments of comfort and healing through narratives.


* K-Book Trends Vol. 52 – Go to the interview of writer Eun Hee-Kyoung


For instance, A Bird’s Gift resonated with readers for its characteristics as a feminist and coming-of-age novel in which the young protagonist’s view of the world and the people around her leads to criticism of patriarchal society. As for The Wizard Bakery, a coming-of-age fantasy novel told from the perspective of a boy, it features a fast-paced plot and a variety of highlights. In particular, its shocking ending is received as something fresh, breaking the limits of young adult fiction - walking on a completely different path than other young adult fiction is the secret to its longevity. Meanwhile, Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 is a feminist novel that addresses the issues of discrimination and inequality faced by women in Korean society through the life of the protagonist, a woman on a career break. It is a work from a feminist perspective that illustrates the often bitter life of Korean women through the story of the protagonist, born in 1982, as she goes through the stages of employment, marriage, and child-rearing. It can be said that the book caused a great social reverberation at the time when feminist discourse hit Korean society. As such, the three novels written by female writers were able to achieve the feat of 100th printing by gaining universal sympathy in Korean society.
In the case of poetry collections, it was recently confirmed that Gi Hyung-Do’s Black Leaf in My Mouth (Moonji Publishing, 1989) has already reached its 94th printing. It is expected to hit the record of reaching the first 100th printing soon. This collection of poems was published the following year after Gi Hyung-Do’s passing. Since Kim Hyeon, who wrote the foreword, summarized the world as a world of “daunting negativity,” this collection has been deeply imprinted as a mournful song of an era for those who have lived through a poor time of youth. The public’s grief and cheers were superimposed on the poems, which were written with a critical consciousness of the reality of the time and an honest projection of the poet’s own inner life. Gi Hyung-Do also demonstrated that poetry exists as a social phenomenon as well as an independent entity; in other words, it traces social contradictions while using humanism colored by a painful sensitivity as a foundation, thus serving as a condensed chronicle of the experiences of those who lived through impoverished childhood and youth.


A Bird’s Gift;

The Wizard Bakery;

Kim Jiyoung Born 1982;

Black Leaf in My Mouth

A Bird’s Gift; The Wizard Bakery; Kim Jiyoung Born 1982; Black Leaf in My Mouth



While bestsellers are often dismissed by critics while appealing to readers, these titles are examples that have endured through different eras, being read by readers and critics alike. Here, readers represent an unspecified number of people who enjoy and consume fiction and poetry books, fulfilling their desires as modern individuals. More recently, their role and function as cultural consumers have been increasingly emphasized. They are not driven by a uniform mechanism, often moving as autonomous units, and when a trend or center is formed, they are quick to join it. They are also vulnerable to the reproduction of dominant ideologies through the language of capitalism, such as advertising. The phenomenon of “100th print” is created by the readers as active agents who are indeterminate, who cannot be founded on a single ideology or value standard, and who are trapped in routine but also have the desire to escape from it.


To the “well-written works” of our time


To date, works that have become long-term bestsellers in the Korean book market have been limited to those with classic status, such as Choi In-Hoon’s The Square (Moonji Publishing) and Cho Se-Hee’s A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball (Iseonggwahim). In general, “classics” refer to works that have withstood the weathering of time and still shock and impress us today. Many of the works we read meaningfully a long time ago have survived as such classics, continuing to provide us with the “old new.” However, nowadays, it is possible to say that the potential readership in our society is still robust enough that even works written by contemporary writers can achieve this record in a relatively short time. In that regard, the status and qualifications of “classics” will have to be adjusted. Classics are now renewed, replaced, and expanded upon at a rapid pace. In that sense, titles that have reached the monumental threshold of 100th printings can be understood as contemporary classics.


The Square/The Cloud Dream of the Nine

A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball

The Square/The Cloud Dream of the Nine and A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball



The works that have become bestsellers through the consistent support of their readers share a common goal of de-ideology and de-classification. They also aim at diversifying communication and leveling aesthetics, which is where conformity becomes problematic. Although, of course, it also offers a productive perspective in that it provides an imagination of deviation from the solemnity imposed by the dominant ideology. While it often encompasses love triangles, rags-to-riches stories, heroism, violence, obscenity, parody, nostalgia, horror, sentimentalism, and so on, it can also have a healing or cathartic effect through the maximization of pleasure.
The alertness to books that sell well comes from a classical dignity that associates literary quality with seriousness. However, literature, which has been significantly dethroned by the products of capitalist visual aesthetics, including cinema, is now called upon for discursive expansion. As such, we should reserve the devaluing attitude of rushing to label a book as “in a class of its own” when it sells well. Literary and popular are no longer opposing categories. Literary titles, a product of an era, serve a positive function in terms of recharging people’s lives. That is why works that make it to the bestseller lists are both valuable in that they release a blockage in our minds and also dangerous in that they can create another blockage. However, in an age where electronic culture has become the dominant mode of communication, we cannot continue to place literature at the center of the liberal arts and the classics at its core, because all around us, movements of “de-canonization” are already making their presence felt, with varying degrees of success.
Yet, there is a saying that “When the flood comes, drinkable water becomes precious.” With the recent flood of sensory-oriented books, it’s not easy for people to find “drinkable water.” As we are constantly confronted with books that endlessly reproduce the intimacy of an image and push it into a broader public through advertising that encourages mass consumption, we must remain discerning enough to recognize a “well-written work” rather than a “well-marketed commodity.”



Written by Yoo Sung-Ho (Literary critic, professor at Hanyang University)



Yoo Sung-Ho (Literary critic, professor at Hanyang University)

#100th print#Steady Seller#Classic#Bestseller
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