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E-book Platforms and the Meaning of “Original Content”

The value of new methods and strategies






According to the 2019 National Reading Survey, 52.1% of Korean adults were reading paper books. Adding e-books and audiobooks only pulled up the rate to 55.7%. The rate is falling with every survey. The reason for the fall in adults’ reading rate is a change of pattern in consuming content. People that enjoy other content than books reached 29.1%. Smartphones killed books.
Yet, there are still readers. More and more readers are reading books with their mobile devices. Major online bookstores such as Yes 24, Kyobo Bookstore, and Aladdin have more than 10 million members each. Even e-book companies RIDI Books and Millie have millions of subscribers. There are many readers who enjoy reading genre literature through web-novel platforms such as Naver Webnovel, KakaoStory, Munpia, and Joara. In short, the missing number of paper book readers, or even more of them, could be found on other platforms. Even though the characteristics of contents vary, people never stopped reading.





Logos of KakaoStory, Munpia, and Joara


Readers on mobile platforms seem like “platform pilgrims.” They cross platforms looking for contents that grasp their heart. They scan through each and every platform and “worship” content. Platforms that ceaselessly provide attractive content that wins the heart of readers earn loyalty, and on such platforms, writers wish to release their new works. This virtuous cycle of contents and platforms is like a utopia of publication in the digital era.


Even though the characteristics of contents vary, people never stopped reading.


While it is difficult for a platform to gather subscribers, it is even more challenging to hold them tight. After the success of the “subscription model” adopted by Amazon Prime and Netflix, global content platforms vigorously chose to adopt the strategy where subscribers pay in advance and consume content for a fixed period of time. However, in this “subscription economy,” it is even harder to make them stay.
Few subscribers would welcome a bunch of, say tens of thousands of outdated contents to be uploaded for them. They might be busy adding books they wanted to read for a couple of months to their e-bookshelf. But they soon realize the fact. Stuffing paper books in their bookshelves gives them satisfaction and respect from friends, but for e-books, thousands of e-books added to the account does not change a thing, nor are there people recognizing it. Unlike paper books, e-contents do not have value if the reader does not read them. They are not seen from outside as well.
In short, the critical thing for e-books is quality, not quantity. Original contents that cannot be found in other platforms would be adding a flower to the beauty of silk. This is why all the content platforms are jumping into the competition of securing exclusive content such as a new release of a famous writer with a significant amount of investment.
Since the fixed book price scheme was enacted in 2014, the competitiveness of online bookstores changed from price to service. Along with ideas to raise convenience such as same-day delivery, they widely adopted “original content strategy” where they developed “re-covered editions” of bestsellers or steady-sellers to satisfy readers. Some limited editions that raised the worth of owning by adding a charming design to contents of which the value is already verified drew enthusiasm from readers. Some even re-entered the list of bestsellers, and the strategy did pay off in sales as well.


<To Kill Alice>

To Kill Alice


It was around 2018 when the original content strategy in e-books began to draw attention in the publishing industry. After RIDI Books obtained exclusive sales rights for the e-book version of To Kill Alice (Sigongsa) written by Kobayashi Yasumi, it saw an exponential increase in sales by carrying out aggressive marketing through Facebook. Taking this as the cornerstone – the book became an e-book bestseller – the paper book version of To Kill Alice also hit the top list and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. From the publisher’s perspective, the hypothesis that e-books may be a tool for discovering paper books was proved; the publishing industry began to try out aggressive marketing in this field, while bookstores as well realized the value of original contents and began to put more investment into the field.
After mid-2018, the war of “Original Contents” broke out among online platforms. One journalist described the atmosphere as “the European soccer teams fiercely competing to recruit players during the FA season.” In short, platforms such as Naver, Kakao, and RIDI Books were paying “transfer fees” to bring no.1 writers in Korea, including Rhyu Si-Min, Jung Jae-Seung, Jang Kang-Myeong, and Park Min-Kyu.


<Killer 101>

<Pleasant Reading>

<It is okay to let it overflow>

Killer 101, Pleasant Reading, It is okay to let it overflow


First, Kakao Page exclusively published History of History (Dolbegae) by Rhyu Si-Min, Killer 101 (Yoda) by Kim Dong-Sik, and Twelve Steps (Across) by Jung Jae-Seung drawing 290 thousand, 270 thousand, and 58 thousand subscribers each. At the end of 2018, it exclusively released Pleasant Reading (Munhakdongne) a week before the publication of the paper book. Golden Hour (Munhakdongne) by Lee Guk-Jong and It is okay to let it overflow (Arte) by Baek Young-Ok followed suit. In short, “e-book first strategy” in which platforms first publish e-books that are less competitive to draw public attention has gained full steam. From the publisher’s viewpoint, this strategy can help the book go viral among readers and raise additional profit by splitting income channels.


The core of a subscription model that opens the purse of readers is attractive content.


RIDI Books began exclusive publication of Nora(Jjokpress) by Jang Kang-Myeong as it opened “RIDI Select”, an e-book subscription service. At the same time, considering that the majority of the subscribers are office workers, it provided the Korean edition of Harvard Business Review by signing an exclusive contract. RIDI Book’s tryouts did not end to secure original content. At the end of 2018, RIDI Books obtained the publication rights of the e-book edition of Fear (Deep Inside) written by Bob Woodward, which was a hot bestseller in the US. Without the help of a publisher, it translated and published the book, which was a bold decision to shock the publishing industry. “RIDI Article” is also a topic of the day, which began to be serviced in 2019. It translates the articles of globally famous journals such as New York Times, Financial Times, and Economist, while also regularly publishing columns of popular writers including Kim Kyeo-Ul, Hong Chun-Ok, and Lee Da-Hye, steadily catching readers’ eyes.




Logos of RIDI Books and Millie


The competition for original content is getting fiercer with Millie, a new e-book platform, jumping into the market in late 2018 with aggressive marketing. Millie raised reader awareness by using famous actors such as Lee Byung-Hun for advertisements and secured a large number of subscribers in a short period of time. As mentioned above, the core of a subscription model that opens the purse of readers is attractive content. It is therefore natural for Millie to step up efforts to securing original contents.
Millie’s content strategy was decisive. In early 2019, Millie exclusively released Do You Know Bomnal Appa? by writer Cho Nam-Joo of the million-seller Kim Ji Young, Born in 1982 (Minumsa); following this, stories of popular writers such as Jung Yong-Jun and Kim Cho-Yeop were serialized every week which were then published as a paper-book story collection titled City Fiction. With the publication of this collection, Millie shook the publishing industry by starting a mixed service of on and offline platforms – Millie began “Millie’s Original Paper Book Regular Subscription” service where the subscriber can use an unlimited number of e-books as before, and they can also receive a limited paper book edition of popular writers that are not sold in bookstores. It was a dramatic attempt that connects paper book readers to e-books while also making e-book readers experience reading paper books as well.
Millie’s efforts were bolder this year. What it did was unprecedented in Korean publishing history. The new full-length novel Farewell by a famous bestselling writer Kim Young-Ha was exclusively published as a paper book through this service without the typical process of publishing an online series. New paper books of million-sellers including Kim Hoon and Gong Ji-Young are coming up soon.


<Nora (Jjokpress)>

<Kim Ji Young, Born in 1982 (Minumsa)>

Nora, Kim Ji Young, Born in 1982


This phenomenon has brought about an intense debate surrounding whether it is an “expansion” or a “distortion” of the market. If we look at statistics, it is a clear fact that subscribers of e-books and paper book readers do not quite overlap. Most of the e-book readers tend to give up reading if there is no suitable content they can access with their device. Considering such a situation, providing attractive paper book contents to e-book readers is an “expansion” of the reading experience. However, this is strongly opposed as well. The size of the total paper book market is fixed. As Millie began to sell books first through its platform, the possibility is high that the same book sold in bookstores, later on, may decrease in sales. In other words, readers who wish to read original content may flock to a specific bookstore that has secured capital with investment. It is just like Amazon Prime or Netflix, where they only get to gather subscribers and fail to increase the number.


Providing attractive paper book contents to e-book readers is an “expansion” of the reading experience.


As the experiment surrounding original contents is yet new in the publishing industry, it is hard to statistically define right or wrong. Even though the sales of books could actually lead to some results in the future, as it is greatly determined by the content of the book, unlike daily necessities, nobody yet knows the truth.
Therefore, what we can evaluate now is the value of these new strategies and methods. While the reading rate and the number of readers are dropping, we would only end up losing more readers if we stick to the existing plans. We should try to look at the value of new strategies that try to attract more readers and secure a new area of publication in the process. This is why we cannot just object to online platforms trying to develop original contents, secure readership, and promote a reading habit. More than 70% of e-book readers are aged between their 20s and 40s. They are more used to consuming digital content than reading books. It is highly inspirational that they wish to experience reading books through e-books as much as paper books. On the other hand, it also seems okay to experience paper books through e-books. After all, reading is not about the content or method, but about habits.



Written by Jang Eunsu (President of Editing Cultures Institute)


Jang Eunsu (President of Editing Cultures Institute)

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