Today, I see Korean books on so many global publishers’ lists and their popularity continues to grow. But when I sold my first Korean book in 2005, little did I know that this was the beginning of new era for global literature and Korean literature. Before then, no one ever heard about Korean books. Most English-language publishers had no Korean books on their lists. Now, everyone does! How could anyone ever predict the phenomenon called Hallyu and Korea’s cultural soft power, and how it would change and dominate the world? Literary websites, social media, critics, and booksellers see fine sales for a wide variety of books. For some examples, see the article “22 Must-Read Korean Novels in English” by Willow Heath on the website Books and Bao.
Then there came the film Parasite, and the television phenomena Squid Game and Pachinko, based, of course, on the book by Min Jee Lee. Together, their success shed more light on Korean literature and helped K-authors. Now Netflix has invested millions in Korea and seemingly every Hollywood producer is in partnership with a Korean film company.
While there have been many literary success stories, that jumbo-size, mainstream, big-money novel from Korea has remained elusive. Yes, there has been BTS’s Behind the Story, but the band’s global celebrity and fanbase is responsible for its success, not necessarily its literary merit.
My Moby Dick
My agency’s directive is to find new authors, many never published before. And, so after nearly 15 years of working with established Korean authors, I needed to expand and grow. I was excited to bring the western style of agenting to Korean writers, who could benefit from firsthand face-to-face relationships with their editors. And I was also after my Moby Dick! So far, the Korean novels published in English have become modest bestsellers or sell fine for small companies. But, as of yet, there has been no Korean J.K. Rowling or John Grisham or Gillian Flynn in terms of sales and hype. I was determined to find that biggest jewel in that diamond mine.
That’s when I met Sue Park. She shared my vision and joined me in a new Korean adventure. I was energized and re-invigorated by her youthful exuberance and unflappable persistence. And so we launched a new literary agency, the Charm Agency, which is based in Korea and seeks out and represents unpublished, new Korean writers. Sue’s brilliant, insightful, and deep knowledge of Korean literature along with her understanding of western publishing business makes her a maverick in the Korean publishing business. I think the future of Korean literature lies in the hands of Korean young, independent-minded authors, and author-centric literary agents and new publishers. Young professionals like Sue Park.
Young new wave
The young new wave of Korean publishing people is changing the industry for the better. They are entrepreneurial, globally minded, free-thinking, and make decisions for themselves. And they are learning how to patiently and meticulously grow, build, and plan careers for authors, so they can have a success akin to that of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo! The franchising of authors is minutes away for Korean writers.
Charm Agency’s first sale was the rights for A Twist of Fate by Se-ah Chang, a feminist thriller, acquired by Jenny Chen for world English rights on behalf of Bantam Ballantine Dell. Could this be the Korean Moby Dick I had been looking for? Maybe. Memory Care, a speculative crossover about memory manipulation by Bora Jin, is another title I have high hopes for and is on offer at Frankfurt. And Charm Agency is building and growing a list of never-before known Korean writers we think have the potential to have breakout, blockbuster careers.
Sue and I talk to many young Korean publishers, editors, writers, and translators and encourage them to do their own thing! We hope the seed we planted will sprout many other Korean-based author-centric literary agencies and help empower Korean writers and new publishers to recognize their worth. I recall a conversation I had with a young Korean agent who had been working for a famous big agency and I was trying to convince him about the significant power he held in his hands. He cried, “Barbara, we are only a shrimp between two whales!” (the whales being China and Japan). I shouted back, “You don’t understand, Korea is a WHALE now!”
Barbara J. Zitwer is the owner of the Barbara J. Zitwer Agency in New York City and co-founder of the Charm Agency in Seoul.