A seasoned rights agency knows the answers to the following questions: What kind of title will sell and what will become silverfish fodder in the warehouse? Which genre will work and which will not even warrant a second thought? Are readers getting tired of a specific author, and will they warm up to a different author with a familiar storyline?
In Korea, such a seasoned agency is EYA (Eric Yang Agency), and president Sue Yang has plenty of insights into what works and what does not. “Those age 20 to 30 years are not reading much as their interests are in mostly non-book entertainment. The main pool of readers is the 30- to 50-year-olds, and they are keeping up with their reading habit. Above 50, people’s main concern is to plan for retirement. They are not good at games or computers, and reading is the most popular hobby around. It makes sense for us at EYA to focus on titles suitable for the older generation since this group is growing while the birthrate continues to drop.”
Self-help/self-improvement and business titles, which have always been popular with Koreans, are slowing down. Selective titles by famous foreign authors do work in this saturated market. “Last year, fiction was stronger with big authors such as Haruki Murakami and Khaled Hosseini. It was more successful than self-help but not much more. The print runs are smaller than before,” adds Yang, whose team’s successfully bids for the autobiographies of Alex Ferguson and David Beckham are timely for the upcoming Brazil World Cup.
Titles reflecting the lifestyle of Koreans, such as those on interior design for small spaces and illustrated books on hobbies, are doing well. “Readers are willing to pay more for unique illustrated titles. For instance, we brought in Alain de Botton’s Art as Therapy, and the translated title became a top 10 bestseller after its launch. The success was possible because the market of illustrated books has been growing. What we learn from this is that Korean readers have become much more diverse in their choice.” This trend in the nonfiction segment is expected to continue well into 2014.
The EYA team has been selling rights to Asian countries such as Vietnam, China, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan in the past nine years. “Korean edu-comics have always been popular, and the wide-ranging topics, from fiction to nonfiction, help to satisfy the preferences and tastes of different markets. The China market was jump-started through Korean edu-comics,” adds Yang, who has a team of 3 people in Beijing. “We are looking into introducing more Korean authors to regions outside of Asia in the near future. There are enough high-quality works for export with more Korean publishers willing to offer both digital and print rights to their overseas counterparts.” The Korean wave is not going to stop at K-pop, K-drama and kimchee for sure. The stage is now set for more rights export, with a much broader selection than the traditionally successful genres such as edu-comics and picture books. “Korea’s turn as the market focus at the coming London Book Fair will do a world of good for our authors, culture and literature.”
But selling, or even just introducing, foreign authors to English-speaking market is often an uphill battle. Making it even harder is the fact that the U.S. and U.K. have an abundance of literary stars of their own along with a large pool of self-published authors waiting to be discovered. As usual, there are always exceptions.
And no one knows better than Joseph Lee, president of Seoul-based literary agency KL Management. “Identifying good books suitable for overseas audiences as well as the best publishers for the translations increases the chances of success,” says Lee, who makes it a point to read every day, especially works by Korean authors, in order to familiarize himself with different writers, themes and trends. “When I read a book, I review its export potential. I look for unique writing styles and universal appeal. The story should retain a distinct Korean flavor that would not be difficult for someone without an understanding of Korean culture or history to understand. It should also be written in a way that would arouse the reader’s interest in Korean works, or Korean politics and history.”
Once Lee sets his mind on a specific title, the next step is to meet with the author or the original publisher, or both at the same time. “We sit down together to explore the best way to promote or sell the title outside of Korea.” Working with U.S.-based agent Barbara J. Zitwer (a “translation auditor,” who in turn collaborates with subagents in various countries), Lee and his team then prepare the English synopsis and sample translation, which are usually not available from the publisher.
To-date, Lee has sold works by eight Korean authors, including Youngha Kim’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, Kyungsook Shin’s Please Look After Mom (2011 New York Times Bestseller and 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize winner), Sunmi Hwang’s The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, Jungmyung Lee’s The Investigation (to be launched by Pan Macmillan at the end of March), Jiyoung Gong’s Our Happy Time (Short Books; February 2014) and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (Granta Books; early 2015). New York-based Other Press will publish Shin’s new work, I’ll Be Right There, on June 03.
“In order for Korean authors to compete internationally, we need to look for the best titles available and let readers decide whether they are good or not. That is the only way for Korean authors to make it outside,” adds Lee, who wants to introduce a handful of Korean works to the international market and build a loyal fan base. “If PSY, K-pop and K-drama can become popular far beyond Korea, then it is not impossible for Korean literature to achieve the same success.” Lee, who was with Imprima Korea for 16 years before establishing his own agency in 2011, is also as enthusiastic about other Asian writers. “I have shown titles from Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand to Western publishers. While my focus is on Korean works, I feel that it is my duty to also promote works from other parts of Asia, which are not getting their due recognition in the global market.”