A visit to the Gwanghwamun branch of Kyobo, Korea’s largest bookstore chain, provides many clues to the country’s present book market. Tables of test preparation books and shelves of English-language learning titles attest to the importance and relentless pursuit of academic excellence in the society. And although the English section is heavily represented by Agatha Christie and J.R.R. Tolkien classics, popular crime/thriller titles—usually displayed prominently in much of the Western world—are relegated to a small display. High-end stationery and gift items, on the other hand, can be found at every corner imaginable. Queues on the late (and cold) Sunday morning are mostly of customers buying educational materials, comics and gifts.

Currently, the education segment accounts for 65% of the Korean book market, and general/trade titles and children’s books make up the rest. The popularity of after-school tutoring centers, or cram schools, has often been cited as one of the main reasons behind the segment’s growth. (In 2013, over 38,000 cram/private schools throughout the country took in 19 trillion won in revenue and the figures are growing.) Korea is also among the countries with the highest number of students enrolled in tertiary education.

Young Koreans, says chief researcher Won-keun Baek of the Korean Publishing Research Institute, “do read but rarely for leisure. Parents get their children to read a lot of books, but the focus is on education and passing the very tough local university entrance exam. On the average, Korean parents spend around $10 per month on school reference books.” (Monthly household spending on books averages $19.)

Recent statistics reveal that only 71% of Koreans aged 18 and above read a book a year, leading government organizations to try all means to get people reading again. “There are 20 Korean cities designated as ‘Reading City,’ where small libraries carry out year-long programs to attract people to visit and borrow books. Private organizations such as BookStart has also been active in getting parents to start teaching their toddlers to read, and the book-bag campaign has proven to be successful. But the low birthrate, which translates into a decreasing number of new readers, is directly affecting children’s book publishers. Unfortunately, there is little we can do about the birthrate,” adds Baek.

In total, there are about 42,000 registered publishing companies in Korea but only about 10% are active. “Many of these are two- or one-person operations,” explains Baek, pointing out that “it is easy to register as a publishing entity in Korea and even authors can set up a company easily.” The sheer number shows the focus on publishing as a major cultural activity. This is further evidenced by the creation of Paju Bookcity, where a whole suburb is dedicated to publishing and book-related functions, served by more than 10,000 workers.

In 2013, Korean publishers released 43,146 titles (totaling 86,513,472 copies), up 8.5% over 2012. Translations accounted for 21.55%, down 9% from the previous year. “About 66% of translated titles come from Japan and the U.S., with the rest from the U.K., France and Germany. Publishers used to rush to translate children’s books, but they have become much more selective now, preferring known and bestselling authors that will guarantee sales. They also use famous professors or translators so as to boost the books’ popularity further.”

After educational books, literature is the second biggest segment, followed by children’s books, social sciences and comics (or manhwa). “I fully expect Korean literature to grow in the coming year, buoyed by recent hits such as Kyungsook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, Sunmi Hwang’s The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly and Youngha Kim’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself.”

Shin’s 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize marks the highest achievement for Korean literature in the global market. The push to promote Korean authors and literature has always come from the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea; see page 22 of the Digital Publishing in Korea 2014 special report). LTI Korea’s recent collaboration with Dalkey Archive Press to publish 25 contemporary Korean literature titles is a significant milestone. Then there are established and influential publishers such as Changbi and Munhakdongne that have been promoting the best works at home and abroad. Rights agencies such as EYAgency and KL Management are also aggressively pursuing overseas markets for Korean authors. (See accompanying online article Dealing with Rights, which features literary agencies KL Management and EYA.)

English-language titles have become popular with Korean ELT publishers since they began selling these books to non-English-speaking countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia. “The neighboring region has imported quite a lot of titles, not just ELT-related but also those on health, beauty and cooking,” says Baek, adding that Korean edu-comics and picture books have been popular exports in the past two decades.

Turning to e-books, Baek quotes a recent study which found that 15% of Korean readers read e-books and only 1% read solely e-books. “E-book readership remains low. The present Korean e-book market, valued at 190.6 billion won [$178 million], accounts for only 4.65% of the overall Korean book market of 4.1 trillion won, or $3.8 billion.”

There are no big online bookstores like Amazon yet, says Baek. “We have a handful of local online companies such as Interpark, Yes24, and Aladdin, and they account for 30.4% of total book sales in Korea. They offer discounts and hold promotions to sell their titles. This hurts brick-and-mortar bookstores, and nearly 70% of them have closed down in the past 20 years. The biggest chains around are Kyobo, Bandi & Luni’s, and Youngpoong, which have established their online presence.”

Book pricing practices and discounts have created a major dilemma, and Baek reveals “there have been cases of bookstores and publishers selling to themselves in order to create bestsellers and inflate revenue figures. Meanwhile, online retailers are cutting prices and doling out cinema tickets or even restaurant vouchers to increase sales. So the two hot topics in the market now concern the lowest book consumption in recent memory and the proposal for fixed pricing.”