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KL Management's Export Success Case for Novel Almond

 

2019.06.10

 

Joseph Lee, president of KL Management, has been known for his wide-reaching efforts over the years to export South Korean books and spread Korean literature around the world. Some even call him the 'global evangelist for Korean literature'. We recently met with Lee who led export projects for the novel Almond (Changbi Publishers), which was successfully exported to 12 countries and translated into 13 languages. The following details the story behind his efforts, the current status of South Korean book exports and why Almond came to be so successful outside South Korea.

 

Q. We've heard Korean author Sohn Won-pyung's Almond, which won the 10th Changbi Youth Literature Award in 2017, was exported to 12 countries and translated into 13 languages. It's probably safe to say it is unusual for a relatively new author to have her novel exported to more than 10 countries just two years after her debut. We're certain KL Management was key in making all this happen within two months. How did KL Management come to be exporting Sohn's Almond?

 

Just after we'd received content material regarding the book, we were contemplating  how to introduce it outside South Korea. Around that time, our U.S, partner agent Barbara J. Zitwer happened to stop by Seoul in December last year for an event, and she showed great interest in the book after we told her about it. Shortly after we managed to arrange a meeting between Barbara, the author and the translator to show how much interest Barbara had in the book and to share opinions on what kind of strategy would be used to sell Sohn's book overseas. At the same time, we were in close discussions with Changbi Publishers, which published Almond in South Korea to bring about swift cooperation from all sides. I think because everyone acted so quickly on their feet and we had a mutual understanding from all related parties we were able to move in a favorable direction.

 

Almond(Sohn Won-pyung), Please Look After Mom (Shin Kyung-sook), I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (Kim Young-ha)

 

Q. Sohn's Almond was a bestseller at home, selling over 270,000 copies. However, not all bestsellers in South Korea become successes outside the country. What do you think were the reasons behind Almond's success away from home?

 

Almond is a novel that sparks curiosity from readers continuously through the coming-of-age story of a boy who is the main character. Other characters that appear in the book are incredibly intriguing on their own, and I felt these things all contributed to the novel's popularity overseas. I think the publishers in other countries saw it too. The book speaks to several people on how we as people are growing more indifferent to how other people feel as we live in a 'non-empathetic society'. The plot of the story draws readers in by showing how characters communicate and build relationships with other people while they, as people, develop internally. This too, most likely appealed to foreign publishers.

 

 

The stories must also have universality to
draw understanding from readers outside South Korea
who do not share the same culture nor language as Korean readers.

 

 

Q. KL Management is well known for exporting South Korean books overseas. Some of the work you've exported include Kim Young-ha's I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (Munhakdongne) and Shin Kyung-sook's Please Look After Mom (Changbi). What do you think are the selling points when it comes to the competitiveness of Korean books, including Almond?

 

I don't think that the competitiveness that's required for a book to sell well globally is unique to Korean books. If it's a literary piece that you're trying to sell to global readers, it has to be artistically polished. As you saw in Almond, the characters in the book must have their own uniqueness. The stories must also have universality to draw understanding from readers outside South Korea who do not share the same culture nor language as Korean readers. However, when you consider the fact that readers outside South Korea look for Korean books to learn more about the country and its culture, one factor I prefer books retain is the multi-faceted uniqueness only Korean culture has.

 

Q. There have been quite a few Korean books exported outside the country by KL Management and most of these were works of literature. Could you tell us if there are other books you've exported that people don't know about? If there were any special behind-the-scenes stories or unexpected successes you ran into along the way, please tell us.

 

One that comes to mind would be Prof. Kim Rando's Youth, It's Painful (Sam&Parkers). This book was exported to various countries like the Netherlands, Italy, Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, China and Taiwan. I personally oversaw the process for the book's export into Western countries and Southeast Asian countries, and it was quite the export success case for a book that wasn't a novel or poetry. Especially in Thailand, more than 30 editions of the book were published, and it actually sparked a boom there for South Korean self-help books. It's difficult to detail more books that were exported overseas because there have been so many. Just to list the genres, there have been books for very young children, comic books, books on linguistics, history, liberal arts, philosophy, health, practical uses and specialized academic studies.

 

Q. I guess you can't stress enough how many Korean books you've exported. Were there any that gave you a gut feeling that it would be an instant hit?

 

To exaggerate a little, most of the books I deal with give me that kind of feeling before I start working with them. But I don't think this is just me - most literary agents like myself probably think the same way. Some good examples would be Shin Kyung-sook's Please Look After Mom, Hwang Sun-mi's The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly (Sagyejul) and Han Kang's The Vegetarian (Changbi). There are many more. In the case of Please Look After Mom, I knew inside it would be a success when I came across the book's content even before it was published. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly was very well written and the story really resonated with readers, so it gave me a good feeling from the beginning. The Vegetarian had a unique main character and strong, distinct style so I kept telling myself it would do well eventually even if it took a bit longer.

 

 

In South Korea, there are so many good books
in a variety of different genres in addition to regular literature.
There are good books besides the ones on the bestseller list
which everyone can see, especially publishers outside South Korea.

 

 

Q. During your work to export Korean books, you must meet with so many people involved in overseas publishing. Is there any advice you would give foreign publishers who wish to import Korean books?

 

In South Korea, there are so many good books in a variety of different genres in addition to regular literature. There are good books besides the ones on the bestseller list which everyone can see, especially publishers outside South Korea. I'm aware that KPIPA plans to open a space online to recommend Korean books by genre, and I believe this space would be good to keep an eye on.

 

The Only Child (Seo Mi-ae), The Plotters (Kim Un-su), Marilyn and Me (Lee Ji-min)

 

Q. What kind of Korean books are waiting to be published elsewhere? We're also curious to learn about your future plans and business direction.

 

There are books that we've just started introducing outside South Korea and others that haven't even gotten to that stage yet. There are other books we're working on besides Sohn Won-pyung's Almond, Seo Mi-ae's The Only Child (Elixir) and Lee Ji-min's Marilyn and Me (That Book Co). Especially since last year, we've been exporting film rights for television and film to English speaking countries. These would include Shin's Please Look After Mom and Kim Un-su's The Plotters (Munhakdongne). There is one other that we just concluded a big deal for, but you're going to have to wait for that information. We plan to expand our business territory to include exporting translation rights as well as film rights for television and movie adaptations.

 

 

I think if the readers of K-Book Trendsvisit South Korea once in a while
to experience the culture here, their understanding of Korean books
and interest in them will increase exponentially.

 

 

Q. Is there one last message you'd like to tell readers of K-Book Trends?

 

Like I said earlier, there are many excellent books and interesting books in South Korea that haven't been able to receive the spotlight yet. I think if the readers of K-Book Trends visit South Korea once in a while to experience the culture here, their understanding of Korean books and interest in them will increase exponentially. Then naturally, I believe more good Korean books will pique their interest. If you can't physically visit, that's fine too. You can find information on the books online. Lastly, I'd like to offer a word of gratitude for all the foreign publishers outside South Korea who have taken an interest in Korean books and hope that you all will continue enjoying Korean books in the future.

 

 


Arranged by Choi Ha-Yeong

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