K-dramas to K-pop have placed South Korea at the center of the media universe. Are K-books about to join them?

From Squid Game to Parasite, BTS to BLACKPINK, Korean popular culture has ascended to the summit of global attention in what's been termed the Korean wave, or hallyu. But Korean books, especially novels by women authors, are also finding enthusiastic readers far beyond native audiences.

Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, a fictionalized memoir with factual footnotes, ignited a feminist groundswell in South Korea and has sold over 1 million copies worldwide since its publication in 2016. Kim Young-ha’s darkly comic short story collection, Diary of a Murderer, received the 2020 German Independent Publishers Literary Award and German Mystery Literary Award in the international category.

Most prominently, The Vegetarian by Han Kang received the 2016 Man Booker International Prize and has been translated into two dozen languages.

“Korean authors like Han Kang and Suzy Lee, who received the BolognaRagazzi award for her children’s book, Summer, have sparked an increased interest in Korean literature and illustrations,” noted Beatrice Lin, founder of MatchWHALE, an online rights database of published books that is set to add many more Korean titles to libraries and bookstores around the world. She spoke with me recently for CCC’s Velocity of Content podcast.

From 2017 to 2021, according to Lin, rights sales for Korean literature published overseas rose an average 10% year-over-year. She added that the annual number of Korean works translated and published overseas is expected to climb soon from 200 titles to more than 300.

MatchWHALE's offerings will include publishing rights to novels and nonfiction books as well as audiobooks and digital content, such as ebooks and webtoons.

“Apart from bestsellers, Korea produces a variety of high-quality literature, nonfiction, and illustrated books for adults and children every year,” Lin said. “So we thought we need very powerful tools that can introduce these wonderful books more effectively to overseas readers and publishers, specifically by recommending books that align with their interests.”

According to Lin, rights managers, agents, and literary scouts, can access MatchWHALE’s matchmaking and management service matches to connect directly with Korean rightsholders online 24/7. MatchWHALE enables this “matchmaking” with so-called “book DNA” metadata that allows users to intuitively identify books of interest, even when written originally in Korean.

MatchWHALE will also act as a distributor for Korean-language digital content. Korean publishers often face challenges to place books into overseas markets, Lin said.

“At MatchWHALE, we support the ONIX standard, which is virtually the global standard for distribution, although it hasn’t yet been widely adopted in South Korea’s publishing market. We also employ the international subject codes, such as Thema and BISAC, to distribute Korean books in bulk to bookstores, and digital libraries overseas.”

Korean government subsidies have long played an important role in supporting film production in Korea. Likewise, government has taken a similar role for publishing.

KPIPA, the Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea, carries out a variety of projects that support publishers in Korea and new services, like MatchWHALE, to promote and foster Korean publishing culture domestically and also spread it overseas,” Lin said. At the London Book Fair, KPIPA will exhibit at stand 2D48.

Christopher Kenneally is host of Velocity of Content, CCC’s podcast series.